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Book reviews / Religion 38 (2008) 195e218 207

doi: 10.1016/j.religion.2007.11.003

Brannon Wheeler, Mecca and Eden: Ritual, Relics, and Territory in Islam. Chicago,
University of Chicago Press, 2006, xiD333 pp., $62 (cloth), ISBN 978 0 226 8803 3,
$25 (paper), ISBN 978 0 226 88804 0.

Mecca and Eden is a short work that makes an interesting and suggestive argument concern-
ing the nature of Islamic ritual, and specifically of the role of sacred space and objects in Islam.
The author begins with a discussion of W. Robertson Smith’s theories of the social origins of
the sacred, drops in on Durkheim, and moves to a whirlwind tour of bear hunting rituals based
on insights of Jonathan Z. Smith. From this array of both ethnographic and theoretical sources
Wheeler notes the ways in which disparate and distant rituals seem to emphasise similar ele-
ments: the contrast between a lost utopia and man’s current, imperfect condition; and following
on that, motifs marking the beginnings of civilisation. He sees these elements in the Islamic
context as well, centred on the sanctuary at Mecca, in which both space and ritual activity
are reminders of a primordial time, a fall from the Garden, and the arrival of civilisation in
the form of Islam. The primordial utopia is irretrievable, and thus the necessity of both religion
(Islam) and an authority Wheeler usually calls ‘the state’, which will maintain that religion.
Although it begins with Robertson Smith and J. Z. Smith, the style and method of Mecca and Eden
is closer to Frazer. Enormous amounts of data from a bewildering variety of sources are brought for-
ward in support of his thesis. The first chapter, ‘Treasures of the Ka’bah’, deals with accounts of ar-
ticles found buried in Mecca, as well as swords and weaponry associated with the establishment and
spread of Islam. Swords belonging to the Prophet Muhammad, to major Muslim figures, to Israel-
ites, and to other Near Eastern royalty are shown as signs not just of political or royal authority, but
of the passing on of that authority as the illustrious weapons are handed down. The discovery of trea-
sure in the Meccan sanctuary has many parallels in Near Eastern and other religious milieus, and in
Wheeler’s view these anecdotes of the recovery of relics indicate the beginnings or foundation of
a new civilisation, and the association of a particular site with those beginnings.
Chapter Two is a modified version of an article that appeared in History of Religions 44 (2004):
89e119. Originally titled ‘Touching the Penis in Islamic Law’, it is now called ‘Utopia and Civ-
ilization in Islamic Rituals’. The point of departure is legal discussion of circumstances requiring
ablutions, and Wheeler makes some interesting points. He claims that there are certain aspects of
human existence that are ritually unclean but unavoidable. Ritual purity, therefore, can only be
a temporary state, a brief escape from our soiled existence, and the rituals (most obviously prayer
and pilgrimage) serve as reminders of the pure and unsullied (but long lost) days of Eden. Similar
cases are made for fasting and almsgiving, and the arguments are thought-provoking.
Chapter Three looks at ‘Relics of the Prophet Muhammad and other relics, taking the spread
of these remains as indication of the spread of civilisation and its requisite religion. Veneration of
these relics indicates a reverence for the physical body of the Prophet while affirming his absence.
Although he was not dismembered, his hair, nail clippings and footprints achieved wide circula-
tion and were often incorporated into the foundations of mosques and other buildings. Wheeler
sees this activity as a consolidation of Islam’s authority throughout its geographical realm.
Parallel to physical remains, the transmission of hadith reports are also seen by Wheeler as rep-
resentative of the religious authority rooted in Mecca (‘The Prophet as text’, p. 77), and notes that
208 Book reviews / Religion 38 (2008) 195e218

the treatment of oral tradition regarding Muhammad was in some respects very similar to that of
his physical remnants. Chapter Four discusses the ‘Tombs of Giant Prophets’ and the legends
(and unusually large graves) of figures from Islamic prophetic history. In these cases the wide-
spread notion of giant ancestors is seen as indicating an earlier phase of human history, before
the need for tools and technology to help us live in the world. Tombs themselves mark the
separation between the now and the primordial then; their size reinforces that distance.
In a short conclusion, Wheeler discusses a number of aspects of the relationship between
society and ritual. One of his most interesting brief remarks is that fundamentalists believe that
this divide between heaven and earth, between the present and the Edenic past so evident from
Muslim ritual, can be breached e an attitude he labels ‘apocalyptic’. He also discusses Mary
Douglas and uses the culture of surfing for some comparisons of ritual.
Wheeler’s theory is intriguing, and merits consideration. Methodologically it is interesting for
two reasons. First, Islamic studies are not alone in the increasingly narrow specialisation among
scholars, and it is refreshing to read someone willing to assay some substantial interpretative
leaps. Second, one continues to hear how the study of Islam is isolated from the study of religion
as a whole; Wheeler provides a wealth of comparative data and treats Islam as one among numer-
ous religious traditions, and susceptible to the same kinds of analysis.
Most of the mountainous evidence Wheeler provides is presented very tersely and with very
little explanation and with no attention to possible geographic, cultural or historical factors.
The synchronic approach suits his goals, but when combined with the mass of material he cites,
it is likely that specialists in any of the fields he touches could find objections to his use of certain
sources. I also would have welcomed greater elaboration of his suggestion that these relics and
rituals reinforce the necessity of the state (or, on occasion, ‘the state and the religious elite’
(p. 133), which are two very different elements).
The text runs to p. 133; there follow 112 pages of notes and a 68-page bibliography. However,
these latter are not as helpful as they might have been. Such a bibliographic feast really requires
some guidance, but Wheeler provides commentary only in the cases least likely to be of interest to
his prospective readers. For example: ‘For a general overview of the connection between bear hunt-
ing and reproduction, see Othenio Abel and Wilhelm Koppers, ‘‘Eiszeitlich Bärendarstellungen und
Bärenkult in paläobiologischer und prähistorisch-ethnologischer Beleuchtung,’’ Palaeobiologica 7
(1939): 7e64’ (pp. 142e3, n. 49); or ‘See the statement of Bear in the film Big Wednesday (Warner
Bros., 1978): ‘‘Nobody surfs forever. One day the big swell will come and wipe away everything
that came before it.’’ This is illustrated at other points in the film.’ (p. 244, n. 29).
Still, the bibliography and notes do refer to a wealth of interesting works, and anyone
interested in relics, sacred space, saints’ shrines and similar topics (or surfing) will certainly find
something worthwhile here, in addition to the stimulating ideas put forth in the text.

Bruce Fudge
Ohio State University (U.S.A.)
E-mail address: