A grandiose plan drawn by Saudi Arabian authorities to expand Medina’s famed Masjid an-Nabawi mosque has polarised supporters of the project and others who contend that the plan in its present form assaults Islamic heritage.

The Saudis plan to massively expand the mosque, which has graves of Prophet Mohammad and his companions Abu Bakr and Umar, to accommodate 1.6 million worshippers at one go.

The problem does not arise with the scale of the ambition — building the world’s largest building at a cost of $6 billion. A majority of people agree that places of religious worship in Medina need to expand exponentially to accommodate a rapid increase in number of pilgrims. Currently at 12 million per year, the number, riding on the availability of cheap air travel, is expected to shoot up to 17 million by 2025.

The real controversy arises from the nature of the expansion.

Expansion

Critics point out that Masjid an-Nabawi would expand largely westward, a development that could threaten the existence of three buildings beyond the walls of the existing compound — the two mosques dedicated to Abu Bakr and Umar; and Masjid Ghamama, the iconic structure built on the spot where, it is believed, Prophet Mohammad offered his first prayers for the Id festival. The Saudis have not declared plans either to preserve or relocate these seventh century mosques as yet.

Saudi Arabia’s poor track record on the protection of Islamic heritage structures has further fuelled anxiety about these sites’ future. The Washington-based Gulf Institute estimates that 95 per cent of all 1,000-year-old buildings in Makkah and Medina have been destroyed over the last 20 years.

The Independent reported that in Makkah, the Jabal Omar Complex, housing apartments and hotels, and a recently built clock tower loom over the Masjid al-Haram, the holiest site in Islam.

“To build it, the Saudi authorities destroyed the Ottoman era Ajyad Fortress and the hill it stood on”, says the daily. It added that the Prophet’s birthplace had also been turned into a library.

Analysts point out that Wahabism — an austere interpretation of Islam that is officially backed in Saudi Arabia — feeds into the attack on historical sites and shrines, as these are viewed as conduits for idolatry and polytheism.

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