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William Ochsenwald
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

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The Hejaz, the western part of the Arabian Peninsula, witnessed the birth of Islam, contains the holiest shrines in the Islamic faith, and serves as the spiritual center of the world for Muslims everywhere. The Hejaz region includes the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina that were crucial in the early history of Islam. The pilgrimage (ḥajj) to Mecca remains one of the key obligations of Muslims. Because of the centrality of Islam in the history of this region, the relationship between religion and politics has been particularly crucial, both locally and from the perspective of the influence it has exerted on the whole Muslim world.

The Arabic name Ḥejāz (also spelled in English as Hijaz and Hedjaz) means “the barrier” and refers to the chain of mountains that separates the region from the interior of Arabia. While there is little agreement on the precise boundaries of the Hejaz, geographers usually include the coastal plain next to the Red Sea stretching from southern Jordan and the port of Aqaba to Asir, the province of Saudi Arabia just north of Yemen; the inland chain of mountains, including the regions of the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina; and an indeterminate area to the east in the direction of Nejd in central Arabia. The Hejaz thus is largely the same region as the present-day Saudi Arabian provinces of Mecca, Medina, Baha, and Tabūk. Most of the area is extremely dry, difficult to traverse, exceedingly hot in the summer and quite cold in the winter. These circumstances have resulted in adverse and challenging conditions of life for foreign pilgrims as well as the Hejazis—those born in the region. When the pilgrimage falls in summer months, the heat of the Hejaz causes extraordinary hardship for pilgrims.

The Prophet Muḥammad was born in the Hejaz and spent almost all of his life there. It was in the Hejaz that the Qurʿān was received and the early holy history of Mecca was explained, including its connection with the Prophet Ibrāhīm (Abraham). In Medina Muḥammad established the first community of believers and the first Muslim state, and it was there that he died and was buried. The association of the Hejaz with the revelations of God made it such a holy land that Muslims later came to believe that non-Muslims should not reside in or even visit the whole of the region, particularly the Holy Cities.

The first four successors of the Prophet, the “rightly guided” caliphs of Sunnī Islam, ruled the expanding Muslim state from Medina, but the fourth caliph, ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib, the first imam of Shīʿī Islam, moved the capital to Iraq in 656 CE Thereafter, the Hejaz became a political backwater of sorts, although it witnessed the formation of parts of the holy law of Islam and the development of various Muslim customs and institutions. The region was, at least nominally, almost always part of larger political units, such as the Umayyad and ʿAbbāsid empires, rather than being independent. The local rulers of Egypt played a particularly large role in provisioning the Hejaz with grain and other foodstuffs. Troops from Egypt and other points of origin of the annual pilgrimage accompanied the pilgrims to protect them from nomadic plundering. These troops also sought to determine the local rulers of Mecca and Medina, while clashes between rival official pilgrim delegations often led to conflict.

The Hejaz remained so religiously significant that rulers of many later Muslim states provided financial and food subsidies, organized the pilgrimage rites, and attempted to protect the holy cities from tribal and other marauders. In return for such aid, Muslim rulers received increased political and religious legitimacy from their subjects as well as the praise and gratitude of Hejazis and pilgrims.

The Rule of the SharĪfs.

Local power from the late tenth century CE on was usually in the hands of descendants of the Prophet, who used the title sharīf. From the early thirteenth century, Hashemite descendants of Ḥasan, a grandson of the Prophet, ruled Mecca and the Hejaz, first under the protection of the Ayyūbids and Mamlūks of Egypt and, after 1517 CE, under the Ottoman dynasty. These Sunnī sharīfs were protected by Ottoman military garrisons and therefore had to share power with Ottoman governors and judges. The sharīfs nevertheless enjoyed considerable influence in matters of law and order, relations with the nomadic tribes, the division of grain and cash gifts among the inhabitants of the cities, and the management of the pilgrimage rituals.

The existing Ottoman-Hashemite order was upset by the relatively brief first Saudi-Wahhābī conquest of the Hejaz in the early nineteenth century, an occupation that was ended by the armies of Meḥmet ʿAlī of Egypt. Restored Ottoman control after 1840 brought about a gradual increase in the power of the central government, as exemplified in the beginning of the construction of the Hejaz Railway in 1900; it reached Medina in 1908. The railway, along with increasing numbers of steamships, resulted in a rapid growth in the number of pilgrims. In 1908 the Ottomans appointed the Hashemite Sharīf Ḥusayn ibn ʿAlī as local leader of Mecca, but Ḥusayn, fearing the loss of his family 's autonomy, led a rebellion in 1916 against the Ottoman Empire. With British assistance Ḥusayn created an independent but short-lived state—the Kingdom of the Hejaz—that came to an end in 1925. Ḥusaynʾs descendants ruled in Iraq from 1920 until the republican revolution of 1958, and in what ultimately became the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan from 1921 onward.

The Saudi-Wahhābī Era.

Ḥusayn 's great rival was ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz ibn ʿAbd al-Raḥmān (known in the West as Ibn Saud), who had already reestablished the Saudi state in Nejd, in central Arabia, before World War I. The armies of ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz conquered the Hejaz in 1924 and 1925, thereby ending the rule of Ḥusayn and his family in their original homeland.

The new Saudi regime moved quickly to establish in the Hejaz the dominance of the rigorous Wahhābī interpretation of Islam. This was accomplished in different ways, including ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz 's appointment of only Wahhābī religious scholars to government positions, the requirement that male Muslims join communal prayer in mosques, the severe limitation of female Muslims ’ public activities, the outlawing of alcohol and tobacco, and the creation of committees to “enforce virtue and forbid vice” to enforce strict guidelines for behavior. The Saudis tried to control religious teaching, ban most Ṣūfī mystical orders, censor the publication of religious books, and oppress Shīʿah. Muslims in many other parts of the world criticized such policies as excessive or misguided. In response, and in light of the Saudi government 's dependence on revenues from the yearly pilgrimage, King ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz managed the ḥajj in a fashion designed to appeal broadly to Muslims, but retained a somewhat modified Wahhābī ideology internally in the Hejaz.

Revenues from the pilgrimage declined during the Great Depression of the 1930s and during World War II, leaving the Saudi state in dire financial straits, but the discovery and exploitation of oil in eastern Saudi Arabia in the late 1930s brought moderate sums of money to the Saudi treasury. It was in the 1950s that dramatic increases in oil production brought about a bonanza of revenue for Saudi Arabia, especially for the royal family and the Nejdi elite it tended to favor. In the 1970s oil revenues again rose dramatically. Using the new revenues, the Saudi royal family spent enormous sums for religious propagation and support. On several occasions the Saudis expanded the holy sites of Mecca and Medina, fostered the pilgrimage, required foreign embassies to relocate from Jiddah in the Hejaz to the national capital of Riyadh, and established Hejaz-based organizations such as the World Muslim League. The Saudi government sought to weld the Hejaz region into a unified Saudi state through such measures as universal public education. New schools used textbooks that presented a Saudi dynastic and Wahhābī religious interpretation of the history of the area. Hejazi Muslims nevertheless retained a distinctive local dialect of Arabic, numerous local social customs, and, in some cases, skepticism toward Wahhābī Islam.

At the beginning of the Muslim lunar year 1400 (November 20, 1979) Saudi and foreign dissidents seized the Meccan sanctuary and called for the overthrow of the regime because of its alleged moral laxity and its readiness to adopt Western-inspired reforms, particularly those supposedly affecting religious and social values. While this uprising was repressed, it called attention to the unhappiness of some Muslims with Saudi rule. To a degree this unhappiness had been inadvertently increased by the Saudi government 's policy of taking in foreign Muslims who fled to the Hejaz to avoid prosecution by secular regimes abroad. One notable example were some Egyptian members of the Muslim Brotherhood who had, in 1961, helped found the Islamic University of Medina, an institution that became for many of its students a kind of training site for opposition groups and radical interpretations of Islamic law.

The most important leader of radical and violent opposition to the Saudi regime was Osama bin Laden, who was born in 1957 to a wealthy family that had Yemeni roots but Saudi citizenship, and was closely associated with the Hejaz. He received his secondary and university education in Jiddah. However, Osama bin Laden 's organization, al-Qaʿida, and other radical Islamists in Saudi Arabia chiefly drew their recruits from regions outside the Hejaz, especially Nejd and Asir. It was in the Saudi capital of Riyadh and the eastern regions of the kingdom, not the Hejaz, that most attacks against Westerners were launched. On the other hand, measures taken by the regime in the years after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to crack down on Islamic radicals in educational institutions, charitable organizations, and mosque staffs affected all parts of the kingdom, including the Hejaz.

What makes the Hejaz truly important for most Muslims in the contemporary era are two factors—the central duty to make the pilgrimage, and the holiness that imbues the Hejaz with a special nature. Generally speaking, the Saudi administration of the modern pilgrimage in the Hejaz has been relatively successful, though for practical reasons the government has had to place limits on the number of foreign pilgrims admitted, and overcrowding has sometimes led to accidents that resulted in substantial loss of life. Attempts by various foreign states, especially the Islamic Republic of Iran, to use the pilgrimage for political purposes have been thwarted or severely limited. The Islamic nature of the Hejaz has been largely preserved by the regime, since only Muslims are allowed to enter and live in Mecca and Medina. However, in Jiddah non-Muslim foreigners constitute a substantial proportion of the population and proposed economic developments in other Hejazi port cities will likely draw in even larger numbers of non-Muslim and Muslim foreign workers.

The earlier history of Saudi Arabia has continued to affect the present-day situation of the Hejaz. Before 1926 most parts of Saudi Arabia were relatively isolated from the rest of the world, in terms of contact with other Muslims and with non-Muslims. In contrast, the Hejaz, long under lax rule by the central Ottoman state and then independent as the Kingdom of the Hejaz, was relatively cosmopolitan and part of a commercial and especially a religious network that linked together the world of Islam. Under Saudi rule and in a context framed by oil wealth, the Hejaz after World War II has become part of the world economy while retaining its role as the physical center of Muslim prayer and the site of the annual pilgrimage. The region of the Hejaz has thereby maintained and enhanced the religious role established after 656 CE, while remaining part of a larger state, with political power centered outside the region.



  • al-Rasheed, Madawi. A History of Saudi Arabia. Cambridge, 2002. A general history that is the most useful beginning point for readers interested in Saudi Arabia.
  • Commins, David. The Wahhabi Mission and Saudi Arabia. London, 2006. The author 's treatment of the historical interaction of religion and politics is highly useful.
  • De Gaury, Gerald. Rulers of Mecca. London, 1951. While long out of print, this work is still the most useful survey of Meccan political history up to 1925.
  • Ochsenwald, William. “Islam and Loyalty in the Saudi Hijaz, 1926–1939.”Die Welt des Islams47, no. 1 (2007), 7–32. Examines the attempt by the Saudi dynasty to integrate the Hejaz with its other territories.
  • Ochsenwald, William. Religion, Society, and the State in Arabia: the Hijaz under Ottoman Control, 1840–1908. Columbus, Ohio, 1984. The book combines analysis of religion and politics, including discussions of the pilgrimage, health, social structure, education, and commerce.
  • Teitelbaum, Joshua. The Rise and Fall of the Hashimite Kingdom of Arabia. New York, 2001. The most important study of the Hejaz from 1916 to 1925.
  • Yamani, Mai. Cradle of Islam: The Hijaz and the Quest for an Arabian Identity. London, 2004. A detailed treatment of upper-class culture and identity in the modern Hejaz.
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