Makkah... the spiritual inspiration and destiny
Since the ancient times when Abraham brought his wife Hajer to raise their son Ismail in Makkah, this holy land has been a meeting place for travellers to engage in an exchange of culture and enjoy the generous hospitality of the local tribes. Around 2000 BCE, Abraham built the Kaaba, the first house of God, with the help of his eldest son Ismail, making Makkah a destination for worshippers seeking mediation with the One God.
With time, Makkah gained its place as a thriving commercial city in Hijaz, western Arabia. Its prominence as an international trading centre surpassed the cities of Petra and Palmyra. The mother of villages, Umm al-Qura, as Makkah is also known, flourished as a civilised settlement where intellectuals, scholars and merchants from different places discussed and debated issues of the day.
In Makkah, Allah began revealing the message of Islam to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) in 610 AD through the Angel Gabriel, and from its folds He spread the light of Islam across the Arabian land to reach within a century faraway lands with its appeal of kindness, mercy, equality, tolerance and justice. Every true believer and follower of Islam feels the duty and responsibility to embody this message.
Before he died in 632, Prophet Muhammad had established the religious principles known as “the five pillars of Islam” to be practiced by every Muslim. They are declaring the oneness of Allah and that Muhammad is his Messenger; praying five times a day; fasting during the month of Ramadan; giving to charity; and making the pilgrimage to Makkah at least once in a lifetime.
This annual pilgrimage, the Hajj, which gathers millions of Muslims from all corners of the world for five days of meditation and prayer, is the biggest congregation of open dialogue and unity.
Muslim civilisation expanded during the past fourteen centuries, becoming one of the greatest world civilisations, benefiting from and building on the diversity of the local cultures and civilisations in the lands it settled in and the people it came into contact with.
Early Muslim philosophy is widely credited with being the vital bridge between classical Greco-Roman civilisation and the Europeans of the Renaissance. What the West considers as the “Dark Ages” were in fact the golden age of civilisation for Muslims and Islam itself, which grew extremely rapidly through Asia to China in its first decades of existence, then spread more slowly to reach Africa, Indonesia, Europe and Russia. It spread not by the sword as some claim but with reason, patience and high moral principles of engagement. The Prophet, as the role model for Muslims, abjured warfare and adopted a non-violent approach. From the beginning he opposed the jahili (ignorance and arrogance) attitude, which fuelled aggression.
As Karen Armstrong states in her book Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time, “If we are to avoid catastrophe, the Muslim and Western worlds must learn not merely to tolerate but to appreciate one another. A good place to start is with the figure of Muhammad [...]”
An initiative for dialogue June 4, 2008 – Makkah
“From the vicinity of the Holy Mosque of Makkah, we begin…” said Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz at the opening of a historic three-day conference held at the Royal Safa Palace in Makkah.
Makkah is the soul of the Muslim world. From it emanates the light guiding all Muslims. For it the heart of every Muslim around the world yearns. From Makkah King Abdullah made his call for dialogue among the followers of religions and descendents of civilisations.
From the land of revelation and the land of the message of peace and coexistence, he took the initiative to move forward in a dialogue with others who also seek a common ground of tolerance despite the differences that exist.
In his statement at the International Islamic Conference for Dialogue he laid forth his principles and vision for dialogue: “We are the voice of justice and human moral values, and we are the voice of rational and just coexistence and dialogue, the voice of wisdom and admonition, and argumentation with the best way possible. As Allah says: ‘Invite (all) to the way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious.’ (16:125)”
He said that Islam’s greatness founded the concepts of dialogue and set its milestones that are reflected in Allah, saying: “Wert thou severe or harsh-hearted, they would have broken away from about thee.” (3:159)
Hence, King Abdullah invited some of the most influential scholars, academics and organisation leaders in the Muslim world to counter challenges of rigidity, ignorance, narrow-mindedness, and to make the world better acquainted with the kind message of Islam without enmity and antagonism. He urged the Muslim world to take steps to counter the forces against human progress.
The conference follows a plea he made earlier in March for dialogue among Muslims, Christians and Jews. He believes that the way to others is through shared values advocated by the divine messages.
The approximately 600 Muslim intellectuals and academics who attended the conference worked out the details and parameters of the interfaith dialogue. Starting with Muslims themselves, the conference urged various groups and schools of thoughts within Islam to close their ranks and achieve unity of the Ummah (nation). It also urged Muslims to attempt to understand other religions and cultures and strive for peaceful coexistence with others.
The scholars stressed the need for dialogue with other religions to give a “correct picture of Islam” and to “reach out to other sects of Islam, which will lead to uniting the nation.” They also called for “solving the problems and disagreements that might take place among Muslims and non-Muslims... and to achieve an understanding among civilisations and human cultures.”
They called for establishing an international centre for interfaith dialogue and to bring together officials from the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths and other religions “to agree on a format for a fruitful world dialogue that would contribute to solving problems faced today by mankind.”
The recommended centre and prize for culture was proposed to be named the King Abdullah International Centre for Cultural Relations and the King Abdullah International Prize for Cultural Dialogue.
They called on all people, irrespective of their race, religion, culture or country, to come together to promote a culture of peace and tolerance.
This proposal for a prize for culture is about to be implemented. It was announced in March of this year that two annual international prizes on heritage and culture worth SR1 million (£183,000) each have been instituted in the name of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah. The King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz International Prize for Culture and the King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz International Prize for Heritage will be distributed during the opening session of the National Festival for Heritage and Culture in Janadriya (in Riyadh) from next year.
A board of trustees, chaired by King Abdullah, will be in charge of the prizes. It will have a secretary-general to supervise administrative and organisational matters. The board would also have a consultative body to draft rules and regulations and set out a mechanism to select winners. The prizes are open to researchers from Saudi Arabia and other parts of the world.
This step is an indication of the seriousness and diligence towards implementing the recommendations of the conference.
The Makkah conference also addressed other issues of concern to the wellbeing of humanity including its stress on the need for people to unite in their efforts against the waste of natural resources and the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction.
In addition, the conference appealed to all people, regardless of their ideology, religion or ethnic background, to propagate noble values that would end the present moral degeneration. It also called for concerted action to eradicate corruption and alleviate poverty.
Launching from the home front – the National Dialogue
King Abdullah has always believed in and favoured dialogue as the best means to achieve harmony and understanding. Establishing the foundations for the culture of dialogue and creating the conditions that would yield mutual respect and acceptance were a priority for him since he was crown prince. In 2003 he launched a series of national dialogue forums that bring together different members of society for a healthy debate on different issues of concern to the people in order to arrive at the right mixture of recommendations for the benefit of all.
In June 2003, the King Abdul Aziz Library in Riyadh witnessed the convening of the first national dialogue meeting, the National Forum for Dialogue. A year later, the centre’s main headquarters was built in the capital.
Realising the importance of national dialogue and the challenges that harm national unity and prosperity on both the domestic and international level, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah – when he was Crown Prince – announced the establishment of the King Abdul Aziz Centre for National Dialogue on a live televised speech on August 3, 2003.
Over the past several years, hundreds of Saudi men and women have engaged in National Dialogue forums, discussing in a free and accommodating setting the different views on extremism and moderation, national unity, women’s rights, issues affecting youths, the relationship with non-Saudis and non-Muslims, the education system in the kingdom, labour laws and conditions, and lastly, the health system issues. Recommendations of each forum have been presented to Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah for further action.
This call for and action on national and international dialogue is not an empty rhetoric or vague concept. The call is sincere and the action is concrete. They stem from the realisation of the dangers of division, bigotry and extremism.
Taking the message international
Determined to move forward on his initiative and vision for world peace, on November 6, 2007, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah held a historic meeting with Pope Benedict XVI and called for dialogue between Muslims, Christians and Jews in order to promote peace, justice and moral values.
The hour-long meeting was said to be a warm and cordial exchange. The official Vatican newspaper described the spirit of the talks as, “Know each other, know each other, know each other. Each one of us has always something to learn from someone else.”
The King and the Pope emphasised the need for interfaith and intercultural dialogue among Christians, Muslims and Jews “for the promotion of peace, justice and spiritual and moral values, especially in support of the family,” the Vatican said. Both sides also emphasised the need for a “just solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This was a key point as it is a major issue of grievance for Muslims and a root cause for contention between Muslims and the West.
King Abdullah and Pope Benedict also stressed that violence and terrorism have no religion or nation. “All countries and peoples should work together to eradicate terrorism,” they added.
This was a significant meeting as King Abdullah is the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques and the first Saudi king to meet with the Pope, who is the leader of the Roman Catholics. Clearly, it was a message that Muslims and Christians should overcome their minor differences and focus on the common values and principles they share in order to close the door on those marginal extremists who take advantage of our ignorance to stoke fear and hatred.
July 16-18, 2008 – Madrid
Following up on the Makkah conference, the Muslim World League organised a conference in Madrid, which attracted over 300 delegates including Muslims, Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs.
In his opening address, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah told the attendees that the world’s major religions had to turn their backs on extremism and embrace “constructive dialogue”.
“My brothers, we must tell the world differences do not lead to conflict and confrontation...” said King Abdullah. Rather, it is intolerance for differences that cause clashes and discrimination.
The three-day international interfaith conference emphasised the need for promoting dialogue among religions and cultures in order to strengthen world peace and stability.
“Dialogue is one of the most important means for knowing each other,” the final declaration issued by the conference said. The declaration rejected the notion of the so-called “clash of civilisations” and warned against the danger of campaigns seeking to deepen conflicts and destabilise peace and security.
The conference also called for an international agreement to combat terrorism. It identified terrorism as one of the most serious obstacles confronting dialogue and coexistence.
“Terrorism is a universal phenomenon that requires unified international efforts to combat it in a serious, responsible and just way... This demands an international agreement on defining terrorism, addressing its root causes and achieving justice and stability in the world,” said the declaration.
The voice of moderation
The Madrid conference called for enhancing common human values and for their dissemination within societies. “It emphasised the need to promote a culture of tolerance and understanding through dialogue by holding conferences and developing relevant cultural, educational and media programs,” the declaration said.
Governmental and nongovernmental organisations were urged to issue a document stipulating respect for religions and their symbols, prohibition of their denigration and repudiation of those who commit such acts.
The objective is to raise the voice of moderates and subdue the antagonistic extremists who attract attention with their violent acts and loud vulgarities. This is an objective that the communities from the grassroots to government and non-government officials are called on to advocate and support each in their capacity. Key among the institutions is the media, which plays a critical role in spreading information, and therefore has a responsibility to be fair, accurate and respectful of people’s different cultures and faiths.
In order to fulfil the above-mentioned objectives of the conference, the participants agreed to form a working team to study the problems hindering dialogue. “The team will prepare a study that provides visions for the solution of these problems and coordinate with bodies that promote world dialogue,” the conference said.
The five-point methodology for the realisation of the conference’s objectives included cooperation among religious, cultural, educational and media organisations to consolidate ethical values, encourage noble social practices and confront sexual promiscuity, family disintegration and other vices.
It also decided to organise inter-religious and inter-cultural meetings, conduct research and use the Internet and other media for the dissemination of a culture of peace, understanding and coexistence.
The conference urged the UN General Assembly to support its recommendations and called for a special UN session on dialogue.
The conference adopted 10 principles that included unity of humankind and the equality of human beings irrespective of their colours, ethnic backgrounds and cultures; observing peace, honouring agreements and respecting unique traditions of peoples and their right to security, freedom and self-determination as the basis for building good relations among all people; and the need for humans to revert to their Creator in their fight against crime, corruption, drugs, and terrorism, and in preserving the institution of the family and protecting societies from deviant behaviour. It also stressed on preserving the environment and protecting it from pollution and other dangers as a major objective of all religions and cultures.
Ignorance is repeatedly identified as a root cause for misunderstanding and fear of each other thus leading to suspicion and perceived threat. Hence, it can be said the conference addressed this obstacle by advocating two approaches.
First, creating greater awareness of the beliefs and attitudes of other religions to remove any suspicions. The second approach is to build theological bridges between faiths through clerics, professors and devout laymen who are willing to listen to and consider deeply each other’s views with an open mind.
Consequently, plans were made for a series of follow-up meetings around the world, at different levels, which have since then been held and will continue. These meetings embrace not just Islam, Christianity and Judaism but all other world religions, including Hinduism and Buddhism.
November 12, 2008 – UN (New York)
In the implementation of one of the recommendations of the Madrid conference, the United Nations hosted at its headquarters in New York a historic conference on interfaith and intercultural dialogue. In one speech after another, the participants stressed their rejection of using religion to justify the killing of innocents, terrorist acts, violence and coercion that run totally counter to all religions’ commitment to peace, justice and equality.
Representatives of 80 states participated in this conference, including 20 heads of state and government. Among those present was former President of the United States, George W. Bush; former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown; the King of Jordan, Abdullah II; the Emir of the State of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah; the President of Lebanon, General Michel Suleiman; the President of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari; the President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai; and former President of Philippines Gloria Arroyo, in addition to other political leaders and diplomats.
Such a high-level participation is a testimony to the commitment of world leaders to rid humanity of the vile of racism in all its forms. The world leaders were voicing their support and joining their hands with King Abdullah to stand in the face of terrorism. “We will continue what we have commenced, extending our hand to all those advocating peace, justice and tolerance,” said King Abdullah to the gathering.
“Religions through which Almighty God meant to bring happiness to mankind should not be turned into instruments to cause misery,” he said, adding, “The roots of all global crises can be found in human denial of the eternal principle of justice.”
He also emphasised that “terrorism and criminality are the enemies of every religion and every civilisation.”
The King concluded his speech by reciting a verse from the Holy Qur’an: “O people, we created you from a male and female, and rendered you distinct peoples and tribes, that you may recognise one another. The best among you in the sight of God is the most righteous.”
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon praised the King for playing a crucial role in organising the conference. He said a global effort was needed to confront a rising tide of communal strife and religious extremism.
Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the Secretary General of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), the 57-member state organisation representing the Muslim world, stated the organisation’s commitment to interfaith and intercultural dialogue to consolidate the culture of peace worldwide.
The final declaration issued by the UN meeting expressed the nations’ concern over the dangerous incidents related to intolerance, discrimination, racism, hatred and harassment that religious minorities of every faith are confronted with. The declaration affirmed the participants’ adherence to spreading dialogue, understanding and tolerance among human beings, and respecting the various beliefs and cultures without discrimination based on race, sex, language or religion.
The King emphasised in his speech that his interest in dialogue was inspired by the teachings of Islam and its values and because of his concern for the future of humanity. It is not surprising that Islam is his inspiration, considering that Islam by its very meaning and essence is a religion of peace and tolerance. Out of this concern for humanity and commitment to the principles of Islam he launched his journey for world peace from the cradle of Islam, Makkah, the historic symbol of civilised dialogue and tolerance.
A deserved recognition
The efforts of King Abdullah in promoting and advocating interfaith and intercultural dialogue are recognised worldwide and appreciated as being timely and needed to set straight some entrenched negative attitudes and misguided apprehensions towards the other, which are contributing to a mounting wave of hate crimes and bigotry.
In his introduction of a book on ‘Dialogue in the thought of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud’, the Crown Prince and Deputy Premier and Minister of Defence Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz wrote that the King’s great efforts in establishing dialogue channels and spreading its culture at the national level, and his efforts in enhancing contemplation dialogue between the followers of religions, cultures and human civilisations deserve recognition from national and international history. The Prince said that these efforts arise from the thought and express the strategic vision of the King who gave Saudi Arabia all that would elevate it to the level of the advanced countries and societies while preserving its Islamic aspect and civilised character.
The Crown Prince, who is a pillar of support to the King’s dialogue initiative and national progress strategies, added that the message launched by the King from the land of the Two Holy Mosques to the whole world calling for turning a new page in constructive dialogue and mutual respect between the followers of religions and cultures, is the message of all Muslims.
As the centre of Islam and the embodiment of its message of peace and tolerance, Makkah is undergoing massive development projects, which Prince Sultan is also a solid sponsor of, in order to reinforce Makkah’s position in the world as a centre of progress intent on emanating its enlightenment.
Makkah… growing, developing
The ancient tradition of Makkah being a meeting place continues. The Kaaba and the Holy Mosque is the house of God since the time of Abraham where worshippers from across the globe come to find tranquillity and spirituality. Every second of every day people of different races, ethnicities, languages, cultures and backgrounds stand between the hands of God, equal in His sight, performing Umrah. And every year at a known date and time, millions of pilgrims perform the Hajj, where all worldly differences disappear and what remains is the spiritual longing for deliverance. Makkah, with its diversity, where some 100 ethnicities are represented and almost every sect and creed lives in peace, is the quintessential place of peaceful coexistence throughout the centuries.
Building on this tradition Makkah is growing and developing to accommodate more of these peace-seeking worshippers and provide them with not only the spiritual atmosphere but also a distinguished hospitality and comforting service under the banner ‘nurturing the human being and developing the place’.
A progressive vision
The vision set forth under this banner is to make Makkah a model for the development and progress of the human element and the place.
The objective focuses on different aspects of sustainable development – economic, social, knowledge and construction – in a partnership between the public and private sectors. It is an ambitious and visionary objective that aims to raise the standards of services, infrastructure, governance, business and social responsibility.
The strategy for achieving the objective is based on several fundamentals, most important of which is the Kaaba as the launching base, and from there to develop human capacity; to make Makkah a model of inspiration for the kingdom, the Muslim world and the world at large; and to have a parallel and balanced sustainable development of the human element and the place.
The motivation for this inspired vision is to indulge the residents and the guests of Allah in his holy city to the highest standards of service while they are experiencing Makkah and the Hajj.