Four thousand years ago, none.
Yes, 4,000 years ago, the place was not yet populated, nor visited, although the legend said that it was the first site populated by people on the face of the earth, because it was where Adam and his wife, Eve, used to live.
The legend may or may not be true, but it is a historical fact that about 4,000 years ago, Makkah was a barren valley unpopulated by people. If God did not “personally” choose the place, perhaps it will never be populated. Left to mankind own device, they would not have chosen that site to be their homes. The climate was harsh. It had no source of water. Rain only came once in a while. There was hardly any vegetation. The soil was infertile.
Yet, nowadays, it was the site most visited on earth; if not annually, then at least for a few weeks. One week every year, millions of people will throng there for pilgrimage.
One of the rites that the pilgrims cannot miss is the circumambulation (tawaf) of a cube-like structure, the Kaabah.
Four thousand years ago, when Allah asked Abraham (Prophet Ibrahim) to construct the Kaabah, he wondered what it was for. When told that it was for people to visit and perform tawaf, Abraham wondered who would have come to a place like that.
“Your job is to build the Kaabah. Leave the rest to me,” God said.
You see, Abraham was not wholly unjustified for wondering who would have come to a place like that. Makkah was probably one of the most unfriendly places on earth. But God works in a mysterious way. Since its founding, Makkah had never been devoid of visitors, only that nowadays they come in millions.
The legend tells us that Abraham left his second wife, Hagar, and his toddler son, Ishmael, at Makkah at the instigation of his first wife, Sarah, who was jealous of her bondmaid Hagar for giving her husband the son he always wanted, while she herself couldn’t, on account of her infertility.
But that was only a legend. The truth was that it was God who ordered Abraham to send the twain there.
True, Sarah had wanted both Hagar and her son to be out her sight, but that would have sufficed if the two were sent a few miles away from her. That way, she did not have to see the dotting attention given by her husband to her rival and the son. Sarah was not a monster, but a dutiful wife of a great prophet, and would later on become a mother of a great prophet as well. After all, it was her idea in the first place that Abraham took her bondmaid, Hagar, to be his second wife, so that Abraham could have a son he always wanted with her.
Abraham, on his part, was not a heartless man. He understood his first wife predicament. No woman would want to share her husband. In her case, it was worse. Her rival could give her husband a son he always wanted, but she herself could not. That amplified her jealousy if not self pity.
But, for Abraham to leave his second wife and his son a thousand miles away, at a place without people, without source of water and without vegetation, was definitely not his style. He was a loving husband and a doting father, not some kind of monster who would abandon his wife and a son like that.
As the tradition goes, when he left Hagar and his young son at Makkah, with little provision, Hagar shouted, “Why are you abandoning us here?” Abraham did not turn his face, but proceeded with teary eyes.
Hagar continued shouting, twice and three times. Abraham continued walking, crying. At last, Hagar asked: “Did Allah ask you to do it?”
By then, Abraham was able to turn his face, and nodded. His eyes were wet. On her part, Hagar said: “Then He would not have abandoned us.”
The tradition narrates the story without putting emotion to it. If we were to rewrite the event, it would have been heart wrecking. Here was a loving husband and a doting father, leaving his wife and a son whom he had always wanted in a place most unfriendly on the face of the earth. He could see that such abandonment is equal to execution, for without the source of water, without vegetation and without people, the twain would have died in a matter of days.
But that was only one of the tests he had to go through. What came later was more unthinkable.
When Ishmael came of age (baligh), Abraham faced another test. He was given a vision whereby he slaughtered Ishmael, his only son. After the first vision, he did not make the move, not wanting to believe that it was an order from God. After the vision came three times, he knew he had no choice.
One can imagine the kind of predicament he was facing. Here was a man who had all along been preaching the Unity of God without much success in terms of the number of followers. He had been praying to God that he be given an issue who would take over his work. When he finally was given a son, his only son at that time, he was ordered to slaughter him.
Only a few years back he had to abandon them at one of the harshest places on earth. But the situation then was different. Abraham knew God would not abandon them. And the twain did survive the ordeal.
Now the situation appeared to be far worse. Years ago, it was only abandonment. Now he had to do the “killing.” Of course to slaughter has no other meaning than to put his son to death. The feeling must have been terrible, to say the least. How could he explain to Hagar and Ishmael that he had been ordered to carry out the unthinkable?
But because he is Abraham, he proceeded to carry out the order, after explaining to the wife and the son, who had steadfastly accepted the order in forbearance. The rest we know what happened.
Finally, years later, the order came for him to construct the Kaabah, with the help of Ishmael. This time, he could carry out the order with relative ease.
With relative ease we say because the job entailed only hard labor. This back breaking job was easy as compared to having to abandon his beloved wife and son, or to slaughter his only son at that time. At most, he only wondered why on earth people would come to visit a place like that.
As we have earlier mentioned, God works in a mysterious way. Should Abraham come back to Makkah nowadays, he would have been pleasantly surprised. From the most unlikely beginning, the place is now the most visited religious shrine on the face of the earth.
When God decides to do something, the reason is not always apparent in the beginning, as we have seen in Divine Intervention. But for those who have faith like Abraham and many others, God’s mysterious design always works perfectly.