The Siege of Mecca – a brief book review

Bismillah.

The Siege of Mecca – The Forgotten Uprising in Islam’s Holiest Shrine by Yaroslav Trofimov (Penguin, 2008)

A must-read book for anyone interested in its topics. Based on detailed journalism (the author is a WSJ writer and lists his detailed sources at the end, including classified CIA material obtained via FIRs and interviews with eyewitnesses and participants in the bloody drama), yet written like a novel. Gripping, unputdownable.

Featuring Juhayman al-Utaybi (leader of the rebels, whose father or grandfather had fought in the Battle of Sbala for the puritanical Ikhwan against their former ally King Abdulaziz), Muhammad bin Abdullah al-Qahtani (“The Mahdi”), Sheikhs Ibn Baz and Subayyil (Subeil in the book), the Saudi King Khalid and senior princes, an Arab League Summit, President Carter and Brzezinski, General Zia, Ayatollah Khomeini & others.

The rebels took over the Sacred Mosque (al-Masjid al-Haram) at the beginning of the new Islamic year on 1 Muharram 1400 / 20 November 1979, i.e. 35/34 yrs ago this month/week, depending on which calendar we use. The siege lasted two weeks until Saudi forces recaptured Islam’s holiest site. Hundreds of civilian pilgrims were killed, caught in the crossfire. At least 127 Saudi soldiers were killed, including a bloodbath in the Safa-Marwa gallery where they were ambushed during their initial, failed attempts to defeat the rebels. Dozens of rebels were also killed; 63 of those who were captured were beheaded publicly in 8 Saudi cities. The rebels included a son of the Pakistani hadith scholar, Sheikh Badiuddin Sindhi. A few teenage rebels, who had accompanied their older brothers, were spared execution but served long jail sentences, and are now back in Saudi society. Some of them were sources for Trofimov’s account.

Contrary to widespread rumours, French commandos did not fight in Mecca, but three of them planned from nearby Taif the final operation for the Saudis to recapture the Sacred Mosque.

For those who have been to Mecca, this book will forever change your memory of the place. Some of the details of the slaughter are very painful.

Anti-American feeling, fuelled by rumours that the Mecca outrage was a US-Israeli conspiracy, swept across the Muslim world, with US embassies attacked in Islamabad and Tripoli. Sound familiar?

1979 was a dramatic year: the Iranian Revolution had happened in Feb and there was a Shia uprising in Eastern Saudi at the same time as the Mecca incident, inspired by Juhayman and Khomeini. Some of the Shia spoke of “Mujahid Juhayman,” not knowing that he hated them for sectarian reasons. The USSR invaded Afghanistan at the end of the year (25 December 1979).

Some of the seeds of Al-Qaeda were sown in 1979: the rebels had essentially the same ideology as their counterparts who rose to prominence two decades later on 9/11. In salafi/jihadi circles, Muqbil bin Hadi (the Yemeni hadith scholar, in his book al-Makhraj min al-Fitnah [The Way Out of Strife]) and Bin Ladin accused the Saudis of being more oppressive than the rebels.

Khalid Islambuli, who assassinated President Sadat of Egypt two years later, was inspired by his brother who was with Juhayman in Mecca. Sadat was assassinated on 6 October 1981, which corresponded to 9 Dhul Hijjah 1401, i.e. the Day of ‘Arafah during the Hajj. (Last year, our Hajj group included a British-Egyptian medical doctor who had last performed the Hajj in 1401/1981. He told me that the pilgrims had received the momentous news about Sadat at ‘Arafah and had been split, especially the Egyptian pilgrims, between mourning and rejoicing.)

According to Trofimov, Saudi Arabia was actually liberalising in the early 1970s under King Faisal (with female TV presenters etc) but in return for ulama support for government action against the rebels, they reversed that after 1979.

One minor factual error: Trofimov describes the C-shaped low wall on the opposite side of the Kaaba to the Black Stone, Yemeni Corner and Station of Abraham as the “Rukn.” This is incorrect: the wall is called the “Hateem.” The rebels pledged allegiance to their Mahdi “between the Rukn [Pillar] and Station [of Abraham]” in accordance with a prophecy found in hadiths of dubious authenticity. My father, whose PhD thesis at Birmingham University was on the Sunni concept of the Mahdi, confirmed that the “Rukn” in this (dubious) hadith refers to the Black Stone, so the pledge was done between the Black Stone and the Station of Abraham.

This minor error aside, the book is brilliant.

Rare footage of some of the siege may be found in videos available online.

Usama Hasan, https://unity1.wordpress.com

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