Few people are familiar with the event of the hijacking of the Kaaba in November 1979, but you may have heard the odd conversation that a group of Muslims hijacked the Kaaba, sealed the doors and held Muslims hostage for a period of time. This event, which sounds conspiratorial, has been shrouded in mystery and cover-ups, and when it did occur, there was a media blackout. In the book, “The Meccan Rebellion: The Story of Juhayman al-’Utaybi Revisited” Thomas Hegghammer & Stephen Lacroix, investigate through interviews how this event came to pass.
I received my copy a few days before its official release but unfortunately due to circumstances didn’t get around to writing this review until now. This slim book is not concerned with the day-to-day unfolding of that event, but rather the bigger question of how something of this nature could have occurred in Mecca, the heart of Islam and why. Analyzing the history of the religious movement in Saudi Arabia the two authors uncover the tensions that led to such an event. Hegghamer and Lacroix look at the converging of various Islamic currents and scholars, such as the Ahl al-Hadith movement from India, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Sahwa (moderate reformist Islamism), against the backdrop of the Hanbali Wahhabism and Salafism of Saudi Arabia. In doing so they show how these various groups and currents often melded together, or were at odds with one another and yet operated in the shadow of a government that the Islamic establishment has always been in an uneasy alliance with.
Juhayman al-’Utaybi and his group the JSM (al-Jama’a al-Salafiyya al-Muhtasiba) represent a small group of poor religious students, mostly from bedouin backgrounds, that are in the midst of these various religious currents. What makes them different however is that they have focused on the illegitimacy of the corrupt West-appeasing Saudi monarchy, which is at odds with Islamic practice of Qurayshi leadership, an issue that many prominent religious figures had tacitly accepted by forbidding pronouncing takfir (anathemizing) upon the monarchy. “How then can the rise of these revolutionary urges within the radicalized fraction fo the JSM be reconciled with a legal position that that rejects using takfir against the rulers, without which it is illegitimate to oppose them with armed force? The solution was found, if one dares to say so, in a divine intervention.” In the shadow of the Kaaba, Juhayman and his men heralded the arrival of the supposed Imam Mahdi, who conveniently happened to belong to the JSM, and who inconveniently died during the ensuing siege from a grenade blast.
The book follows the development of the JSM, from fraternity to personality cult, how the JSM grew, fractured, dissipated, and how they arrived at unusual religious practices that religious scholars attempted to correct (for example, the JSM believed that iftar could be made at any time provided it was in a room with no outside light shining in). In the end only the most radicalized members were left. It is an invaluable read because it highlights the problematic relationship between Islam and politics, the dynamics of various religious movements, and how these two elements foment frustration when their is fealty to a status quo where Islam is subservient.
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