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Sunday, June 29, 2008

Smithsonian Class III: Islam: Mecca

They keep getting better. The lectures, the art presented.

Last Wednesday evening for 90 minutes Dr. Maria Massi-Dakake of the Department of Religious Studies at George Mason University described the history and practices of Muslims in Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia to a spellbound class, one of five presentations delivered by different professors in the Smithsonian Associates’ series, “Sacred Cities, Spiritual Journeys.”

Dr. Massi-Dakake said only Muslims may enter Mecca and Medina, the No. 1 and 2 holiest cities of Islam, and restrictions on entry into them have become far more restrictive since September 11.

A once-in a-lifetime pilgrimage to Mecca (“Hajj”) is one of five duties (or “pillars”) required of Islamic members. (The pilgrimage may be excused if one cannot pay for the journey and is in debt, which Islam reproves, or if a person is old and lacks energy, in which case, a child, who has already satisfied the Mecca pilgrimage for herself or himself, may travel for the parent after the parent’s death.)

According to the Qur'an, Abraham built the “Ka’bah” shrine (meaning “cube” in Arabic) with stones from around Mecca. Islamic tradition says the Ka'bah goes back to Adam and Eve, Dr. Massi-Dakake said.

The Ka'bah is the most sacred place in Islam, which lies in the heart of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. The Ka’bah is built in an almost rectangular shape and has been rebuilt several times.

When Muslims pray throughout the world five times daily, they turn in the direction of the Ka’bah of Mecca.

Inside the Ka'bah is the “black stone” which, according to tradition, God gave to Abraham when the Ka'bah was built. It is revered by Muslims who, when entering the Ka'bah, try to touch or kiss the stone like Muhammad did. Some believe it is part of a meteorite. Professor Dakake showed the class a 14th century illustration of the “black stone” which can be found at Wikipedia.com.

Mohammad was a follower of monotheism and established the true Islamic society in Medina. When he conquered Mecca in 630 A.D., he drove out paganism, including the idols at the Ka'bah. Mohammad is buried in Medina.

Between 1880 and the 1950 Mecca did not experience much change, however, during the 1930s the Saudis began major building improvements to the mosque surrounding the Ka'bah, and for the last 50 years vast expansion has occurred.

Before the 1940s probably 10,000 Muslims traveled to Mecca annually for the Hajj, but now, about two million Muslims make the journey every year, and many sleep in “tent cities” in the area. With so many visitors, it is not unusual for Muslims to die of the heat, and some are trampled to death.

Many countries have quotas of Muslims who travel to Mecca on special visas.

Mecca is more often associated with Abraham and his progeny since he founded it, Professor Massi-Dakake said. It is considered a “city of God.”

Islam does not have a “real purgatory." The word "Islam" means “submission” (to God) in Arabic, and is the newest of the major religions.

Muslims believe Jesus was a prophet but not the son of God nor do Muslims believe that he died on the cross.

The class members had lots of questions and interrupted Professor Massi-Dakake throughout her lecture, but she did not seem to mind. Responding to a question she recommended the following books for further study:
The Heart of Islam by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Islam: The Straight Path by John Esbosito, and Islam and The Muslim Community by Frederick Denny.

The two final classes remaining are: Buddhism: Bodh Gaya, India and Christianity.
(Thanks to Wikipedia for some clarification.)

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