Mending Scattered Hearts: The Companions' Graves and the Interwar Movement for Islamic Unity

By John M. Willis
Submitted to Session P3196 (Understanding Cities, 2012 Annual Meeting
India; Saudi Arabia;
19th-21st Centuries;
The Indian scholar and Khilafat activist Abul Kalam Azad wrote between the two world wars that in the modern period, after humanity had been brought into greater contact through new means of mobility and communication, the world remained divided. It was only the holy city of Mecca whose purpose was to “mend together humanity’s scattered hearts and dejected souls.” His understanding of the space of Mecca and the hijaz as a sacrosanct space which, like the moth around a flame, drew all to its center spoke at the same time to inter-war anxieties related to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire-Caliphate and the desire to seek out new forms of trans-regional association rooted in God’s transcendence and the imminent possibility of enacting his vision of a unified community of believers on earth. For Azad, and many other South Asian scholars, the holy cities, then, stood metonymically for the collective potentialities of the entire umma as opposed to the limited horizons of European empire and the nation form. Yet, Mecca’s role in the inter-war debate was all the more powerful because the meaning of its sacred topography was heavily contested within the global community of Muslims as a site of pilgrimage and a locus of multiple reverences.

In this paper, I use the Saudi conquest of Mecca and Medina in 1924-25 and the destruction of the tombs of the Prophet’s companions in the Mu‘alla and Baqi‘ cemeteries as a moment of rupture at which competing understandings of the holy cities’ place in the community were laid bare. In particular, I look at the ways in which the destruction of the tombs provoked the ire and support of a diverse group of South Asian scholars and activists representing various reformist trends in Islam (eg. The Khilafat Movement, the Ahl-e Hadith, the Barelvis), who saw in the Saudi conquest both the auspicious beginnings of Muslim unity on the normative model of the Prophet and the rise of a new force of moral chaos and dissension. Drawing on Henri Lefebvre’s critical geography and his concept of “absolute space,” I argue that the conflict over the landscape of the holy cities was at the same time a conflict over possible future forms of association rooted in particular spatial-temporal orders that nonetheless were positioned against the normative order of the European state system.

This paper will be based on a number of inter-war publications in Urdu and Arabic.