From Kaaba to Mukaab, the "Abrahamic Faith," and Our Virtual Reality

In recent days, a number of events have taken place that warrant attention and deserve consideration. It is often somewhat of a challenge to think about what deserves mention first and what deserves mention second, but I always think in terms of the long-term impact on Muslims worldwide, on the identity struggles within Islam itself, and on the projected courses of Islamic thought, Islamic ideals, and Islamic normativities. What currently deserves prominence, mention, and discussion is something that has been widely reported, widely advertised, and now confirmed by the Saudi government themselves. It is commonly referred to as the Mukaab Project in Saudi Arabia.


Most Muslims are aware that the term Ka'ba, which literally means “cube,” refers to the Islamic Ka'ba, the center of the faith. The word Mukaab, or “the squared,” comes from the same root word. The Mukaab Project, as I am sure many have heard, is part of the Saudi government's vision for the new Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are building a cube that has an eerie resemblance to the actual Ka'ba, except that the Mukaab will have a golden exterior and be 400 meters wide and long. Inside the Mukaab, there will be space for 100,000 residential units, 9,000 hotel rooms, 1.4 million square meters of office space, as well as dozens of entertainment venues. 


Importantly, the Mukaab Project is a virtual reality project. People will step into this closed-off area, isolated from the natural environment, to a concrete mega city. Once they step into this concrete mega city, they will no longer feel that they are in Saudi Arabia, or even in the desert at all. Everything within the Mukaab Project is designed for a totally submersive experience, one in which we imagine ourselves to be living in a future world, a world of flying cars and endless gardens. The technological wizardry is supposed to transport our perceptions, psychology, and even ourselves into a virtual world of endless opportunities for shopping and entertainment, for commodities and consumption.


Alongside the confirmation that Saudi Arabia is, in fact, going ahead with building this grandiose, architectural plan of the Mukaab, this same week, the Emirates launched its long awaited “House of Abraham.” The project will include a synagogue, a church, and a mosque, but these are symbolic structures, because alongside the synagogue, the church, and the mosque is a virtual museum for the so-called “Abrahamic faith.” The mosque is named after the current Shaykh of al-Azhar, Ahmed el-Tayeb. It is known as the Ahmed el-Tayeb Mosque. The synagogue is named after Maimonides, Moses ben Maimon, and in the shared space between the synagogue, the church, and the mosque will be what the Emarati government has described as “spaces that offer people the opportunity to contemplate the unitarian truth of the three religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.”


What is ironic about the House of Abrahamic is that after the Emirati government announced that it would name the mosque after the Shaykh of Al-Azhar, Ahmed el-Tayeb, he gave a well-known speech, just a few months ago, in which he condemned the attempt by an unnamed party to create a new religion, called the “Abrahamic faith,” in which all three religions were to be diluted into a single faith. Notably, this new faith requires the most concessions from Islam. It does not unduly transgress upon the boundaries of Christianity or Judaism, because it does not make demands upon them to recognize the prophecy of Muhammad. In all the displays showcased in the shared space between the mosque, the synagogue, and the church, no references are made to the truth of Muhammad or to what makes the Islamic faith unique. Plenty of references are made, however, that basically demand that Muslims accept the truth of the two other religions. In this very public lecture, the Shaykh of Al-Azhar warned that there are “powerful parties” and “powerful interests” behind the attempt to create this new theology of “tolerance,” because it is tolerant of only particular things. While the Emirati government describes the shared space between the mosque, the church, and the synagogue as an opportunity for people to contemplate the truth of Abraham, no reference is made in this shared space of what Surah Al ‘Imran (Q 3) explicitly says about the Prophet Abraham:


     Abraham was neither a "Jew" nor a "Christian" (Q 3:67)


The Prophet Abraham was not a Jew or a Christian, but was, in fact, a Muslim. We even know that in Surah Al ‘Imran, immediately before saying this, God takes Jews and Christians to task, telling them, in effect, "On what basis do you claim ownership of the Prophet Abraham? He was neither a Christian nor Jew, but clearly a Hanif Muslim” (Q 3:65-66).


In the space of this shared compound built by the Emirates, no reference is made to this Qur'anic verse. There is no reference to what Jews believe about Jesus or Muhammad. It is well-established that for centuries, Jewish sources have clearly accused Mary of being a fornicator and of having Jesus out of wedlock. There is no belief in the immaculate birth. As to the Prophet Muhammad, there is no mention of the fact that for centuries, Jewish sources have ranged from describing Muhammad as an imposter, a charlatan, and a liar to a demon-possessed, evil human being. There is no mention, in this shared space, of the fact that in Jewish sources Jesus is depicted as a brash, snobbish, and arrogant child born out of wedlock, who defied his pious elders and had an inflated ego that drove him to rebel against the rabbinic authorities; while in Christian sources, Jesus is the son of God. But in both Jewish and Christian sources there is a consensus that Muhammad was nothing but an imposter, a liar, and a charlatan.


This is precisely the point. The Qur'an describes the Prophet Abraham as neither a Jew nor a Christian, but a Muslim, and undercuts the entire “House of Abraham” project from its very roots by telling Jews and Christians, "You have no claim over Abraham, because you have corrupted the essence of monotheism, and what Abraham was about was tawhid.” The UAE strains not to address what Jews say about the Messiah, strains not to address the way that all three religions strongly disagree about the prophecy of the Messiah, and strains not to address what Jews and Christians say about Muhammad. Yet, it invites humanity to contemplate theology and reach some type of overlapping consensus about points of iman, faith, and theology. 


In doing so, however, it completely misses the boat. It is precisely because when it comes to matters of theology about which we cannot agree, we must learn to respect each other's differences. We must learn to respectfully agree to disagree. What is it, then, that we can focus our overlapping consensus on? If we cannot agree about who Jesus, Abraham, or Muhammad was, what is it that we are supposed to come together about as followers of different theological truths? 


We are supposed to come together on exactly the type of things that the Emiratis do not want us to come together on. The UAE wants us to achieve some type of forced and false theological consensus that is premised on denying historical truths, literal texts, and theology. But what we can come together on is the fact that, according to the Secretary General of the United Nations, 2023 is set to be the worst year in human history in terms of famines. Both the Secretary General and UNESCO have warned that 34 countries in the world are currently on the verge of famine. 


God does not expect us to come to some type of miraculous consensus on Abraham, Jesus, or Muhammad. What, then, does God expect us to come together on? It is precisely because we cannot agree on fine points of theology that we must work to address the painful facts and challenges that confront all of humanity. Like the fact that there are 34 countries on the verge of famine in 2023. Like the fact that 2023 is witnessing a record number of refugees and displaced people who are living in extremely precarious and dangerous conditions. We are supposed to come together over the fact that in 2023, there is a record number of human beings who have been trafficked and continue to live in sexual and labor slavery around the world. In 2023, there is a record number of Muslims who have been processed by human traffickers, more than at any other time in recorded history. More Muslim women have been abducted, sexually assaulted, and sold into sexual slavery than any other time in recorded history.


The “House of Abraham” is another exercise in deception and falsehood. The dictator wants to continue living in the realm of despotism and injustice. They want to continue making Dubai and Abu Dhabi the playgrounds of the rich and corrupt. They want to continue making Dubai and Abu Dhabi the world capitals of human trafficking, while poverty eats away at the fabric of countries like Yemen, Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Somalia, and Eritrea. As a result, a record number of Muslim women go to Dubai and to Abu Dhabi to prostitute themselves. What is more often the case is that they are forced into prostitution because they are enticed to go to Dubai or Abu Dhabi by a work contract, only to discover, upon arrival, that there is no work. It is, in reality, prostitution. This is all the while the Emirati government wants the rest of humanity to look the other way as it does what it does. Instead, the Emirati government wants us to focus on the “House of Abraham,” a project built on lies.


Again, I emphasize, it is precisely because we cannot agree on matters of conviction and belief—Who was Jesus? Who was Moses? Who was Abraham? Who was Muhammad?—that we must learn to respect each other's differences, get beyond them, and focus on human goodness, on ihsan, on alleviating and removing pain and harm. Focus on taking care of those who need to be taken care of. Not pretending that Abraham was neither Muslim, Christian, or Jew, but all of them. Not pretending that we can possibly believe the same things about Jesus, or that different beliefs about the status of Muhammad do not really make a difference. No, it makes a great deal of difference that I respect your right to believe in what you believe in, as you respect my right to believe in what I believe in. And it matters a great deal that we get down to the business of morality, ihsan, and goodness on earth.


It was quite noticeable that although the mosque was named after Ahmed el-Tayeb, the Shaykh of Al-Azhar, he did not attend the opening ceremonies. As I said months ago, he warned the world that certain powers in this world want to replace the religion of Islam with the Abrahamic faith. He did not say it, but I will: they want to replace Islam with a new faith that is not troubled by despotism. A faith that is not troubled by the coercion of Muslim women into prostitution. A faith that is not troubled by coexisting with the sheer number of human beings who suffer utter misery all around us in the world. 


The Emirates has announced that in response to the recent earthquake in Turkey and Syria, it was sending nine daily airplanes full of aid. Well, it turns out that Emirati aid was not being sent to U.N. aid organizations or, in fact, to any aid organization. It was being sent directly to the Syrian government, and the Syrian government was selling the aid in its open markets. So, one could go to Damascus and find products marked as “Emirati aid” sold in Syrian markets. The Emiratis were using the occasion of the earthquake as an opportunity to score political points with the Syrian government, and the Syrian government was using the opportunity to make money off Emirati aid, all while people trapped under ruins in the north of Syria continued to die, and those who live in tents in extreme weather conditions continue to suffer.


The Emiratis want us to go to the House of Abraham, look at the nice pictures and quotes, and praise Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, and Abraham all together without identifying any religion as privileged with the truth. We are then to mind our own business and not dare comment in any critical fashion about how the UAE, like the rest of the Muslim and Arab worlds, are not doing what they are supposed to do to help the victims of the earthquake. In other words: “When it comes to real moral issues, mind your own business and leave it to those in power. Instead, just concern yourself with the make-believe world that we offer you.” 

Here is another critical point. The Emirati government wants to construct a world of artificial truth when it comes to history and theology, ignoring the empirical facts of human suffering and focusing our attention on the religious truth that they artificially provide to us. But this is precisely the same paradigm of the Mukaab of Saudi Arabia.


Truth is not people suffering. Truth is not what the Israelis are doing to Palestinians. Truth is not the 50,000+ people who have lost their lives, and the hundreds of thousands more who are unhoused or destitute. Truth is not the thousands upon thousands of women, children, and men enslaved in the Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and the rest of the Gulf. Truth is none of that. Truth is the virtual reality these countries create for us. This is the ultimate Divine complex of the despot. When the despot says, "I am your God" (Q 79:24), what is the ultimate goal of the despot? The despot wants to tell you, "You do not see with your own eyes. You do not hear with your own ears. You do not smell with your own nose, and you do not think with your own brain. I tell you what you see, hear, and think, and your job is to obey.” This is the unmistakable and powerful message from the Ka'ba to the Mukaab. 


The Ka'ba, a very humble structure, was built by the Prophet Abraham and his son Ishmael. It has been honored and preserved throughout the ages. But the Ka'ba is brutally honest. No building around the Ka'ba was allowed to be taller than the Ka'ba. When standing in the space of the Ka'ba, no political authority is supposed to negotiate the space via artificial architectures and artificial constructs. No political authority is supposed to provide a fancy roof with architectural engravings. No political authority is supposed to dazzle us with the glory of this space. For centuries, Islamic law insisted on the plainness of the space of the Ka'ba. Have you ever wondered why there is no calligraphy around the mosque in the Ka'ba? Have you ever wondered why the Ka'ba maintained this humble image throughout the centuries? It is because of a part of your tradition that has been thoroughly erased from your mind. Centuries of scholars have said that it is haram to embellish the appearance of the Ka'ba in any way. That space, between the believer and God, is to be unmediated, unnegotiable, and uncorrupted by a political authority.


The Saudi government is first in unmistakable symbolism. Mohammed bin Salman stood on top of the Ka'ba in an image that I can never forget, as if to say, "I am achieving dominance over the Ka'ba. If this offends you, tough luck. I am supreme and the Ka'ba is under my feet.” As usual, Muslims put their heads in the sand and ignored it. Next came the fancy buildings that eclipsed the Ka'ba. For centuries, there have been those who love to talk about the ijmā’ of this or the ijmā’ of that. How about the ijmā’ of centuries that no building can be constructed in this space taller than the Ka'ba, and that you cannot change the character of Mecca? That you cannot change its basic humility and plainness before God? 


Next came the towering clock, the five-star hotels, and all the razzle and dazzle that eclipsed the Ka'ba and made the Ka'ba architecturally insignificant next to the towering buildings that surround it. 


But then, to drive the point home to an even greater extent, there is now a new Ka'ba, called the Mukaab. A shrine of gold. It will look like a golden cube from the outside. It is quite literally a shrine for virtual reality, consumerism, and consumption. It is everything that delights the senses, everything that will allow you to forget that you are in the arid desert. You will step in that space and be in utter awe—not of God's ability and nature, but of what petrol dollars can do, and of what the Saudi government can accomplish with its money. Your new reality will be defined by the Saudi government.


It will be a shrine for falsehood and lies. MBS said in his vision of the future that he is convinced that Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are the “Europe of tomorrow.” Of course, he does not understand that it is not the nightclubs, the bars, the dance venues, and the rock groups. It is not all the nakedness and promiscuity that makes Europe what Europe is. Europe became Europe because of the culture, the thought, the science, the education, and the invention. What he means when he says that Saudi Arabia will be the “Europe of tomorrow” is that the only model he is aware of is the model of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. We see that the Mukaab in Riyadh and Project NEOM is, indeed, modeled after Dubai and Abu Dhabi. The playgrounds of the rich and filthy. Not the filthy rich, but the rich and filthy.  Playgrounds that have become the mecca of the sex industry, of labor exploitation, and of systematic human rights violations. The mecca that says if you have money and power, you are immune from all moral and ethical standards. 


There is only one problem. This is being accomplished in the homeland of the Prophet. The insanity of the tyrannical government is being born in the land purified by our Prophet. Jabal Uḥud is currently being destroyed to build a medical center. The Ministry of Entertainment in Saudi Arabia, just this week, announced that it will build the first nightclubs in Medina, nightclubs serving "halal alcohol," and still Muslim exist in utter obliviousness. 


Despite it all, if we follow the discourses of the young and upcoming Muslim generation, we will find that it is entirely disconnected from any of these extremely critical, historical challenges confronting Muslims and the future of Islam. If you are intent on letting your reality be constructed for you, then it is your moral obligation to ask, "Who is doing the construction?" The challenges that confront us, as Muslims, are not just the Ka'ba and the Mukaab, the announcement of the new faith and a new religion, the House of Abraham, but there are challenges that are even closer to home. There hardly passes a week without God testing us time and again with the same basic essential question: where is your moral consciousness?


We all know that Israel has announced plans to build 7,000 new residential compounds in the West Bank, annexing more Palestinian land. We know that even the typically apologetic American government that bends over backwards to ignore Israeli offenses and atrocities was forced to acknowledge that it is concerned that Israel is unlawfully completing its annexation of the West Bank. We also know that just this week, in a bizarre operation, Israel murdered 11 Palestinians and injured 100 more. Most of the injured were injured with bullets. They were shot by Israeli soldiers.


In a story that is extremely painful, a Palestinian medic rushed to save the life of a elderly gentleman shot by the Israelis. After the man died, the medic looked at the man's face and realized it was his father, so he then started wailing and saying, "My father is dead." Among those killed and shot by the Israelis were elderly people in their 60s and 70s, and, of course, a whole bunch of young people. Of course, as usual, there are no consequences. For whatever Israel does to Palestinians, no one even bothers with condemnations in the human rights field or in the U.N. anymore. There are no real consequences when it comes to the world of human rights. The human rights council of the U.N. does not say anything. The General Secretary does not bother saying much anymore. Everyone in the world sadly recognizes that, not only Palestinians, but in my view, Muslims collectively, have become the sacrificial exception to the normativities of human rights. 


You can do whatever you want to Muslims. For instance, just this last week, food supplies to Rohingya refugees were cut by one-third. The United Nations said the reason it cut food aid is because there were not enough donations. So, while Saudi Arabia spends billions building a virtual reality Mukaab in the desert, the Rohingya Muslims are left starving to death and growing ever more vulnerable to human traffickers, traders, and organ harvesters, simply because people or countries are not giving. Yet, in the midst of all this, the United States reworks some of its foreign aid law, to much publicity, strengthening the language to say, "The United States shall not sell arms or technology to systematic consistent human rights abuses." There is, however, a legislative exception, and that is that Israel shall not be deemed a human rights abuser. The law should not define facts. The law is supposed to define standards, but the executive and legislative branches have said to Israel, in effect, “Continue stealing lands, continue killing Palestinians. No matter what, we will never consider you a human rights abuser.” 


Meanwhile, a school like George Washington University has done something that is truly confounding. It does not allow its university members, including members in the medical profession, to provide counseling assistance to Palestinians traumatized by Israeli violence. When Israel assaulted Gaza, a Palestinian mental health student who had family in Palestine decided to work to create a hotline to provide counseling to students who were traumatized by the Israeli assault on Gaza. The university forced the student to take the online counseling services down. An organization called Palestine Legal filed a complaint with the Civil Rights Division in the Justice Department, complaining about George Washington's violation of the civil rights of its Palestinian students by consistently refusing to allow mental health counseling to Palestinians affected by Israeli violence. George Washington's defense is most fascinating, for it tells us how people of power think they can construct reality the way they see fit. George Washington University claims the reason they have taken down these efforts to provide counseling is because they do not support “antisemitic acts.” Apparently, when you provide counseling to a Palestinian student attending George Washington University who was traumatized by Israel's apartheid against Palestinians, or traumatized because an Israeli just killed their relative or a friend of theirs, that is “antisemitic.”


Some of you may know that Arkansas was among the states to have passed a law that, without a shadow of doubt, violates the standards of freedom of speech. Arkansas passed a law that said, "If you want to do business with the state government of Arkansas, you must promise not to boycott or in any way honor a boycott of Israel, for whatever reason." Whatever your business is, if you decide that you are offended by Israeli annexation of Palestinian land, by the Israeli apartheid against Palestinians, by the fact that Israelis kill an average of at least one Palestinian a day, and if you decide that you will not do business with Israel, then your punishment is that you cannot do business with the government of Arkansas. In response, the owner of a newspaper in Arkansas said, "I have never boycotted Israel and I have no intention of boycotting Israel. However, this is a violation of my constitutional rights. This is a violation of my freedom of speech.'" These laws have typically been struck down as unconstitutional. Recently, however, a circuit court sitting en banc—en banc meaning not just three members of the circuit court, but all judges of that circuit court—upheld the Arkansas law and said that it is not a violation of freedom of speech. The ACLU took the case, appealed that decision to the Supreme Court, and recently the Supreme Court denied review, meaning it is allowing the ruling of the Appellate Court upholding the constitutionality of that Arkansas law to stand. By denying cert, the Supreme Court is effectively allowing for this precedent to live on.


Think of what kind of psychology teaches you to accept what is wrong. The psychology that allows you to see only the razzle and dazzle of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and to hardly notice the sexually abused, the sexually trafficked, and the forced labor. The psychology that allows you to accept from the Ka'ba to the Mukaab. The psychology that allows you to accept all types of sex workers flooding in from Eastern Europe to the holy land in Saudi Arabia, just as they did in Dubai. For that is the future of NEOM. What do you think NEOM is going to be? What do you think the Mukaab in Riyadh is going to be? It is the same model that we have already witnessed in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. That psychology of incremental disempowerment and increasing apathy, vanity, small mindedness, selfishness, and self-centeredness. The psychology where you live perfectly happy being deluded, caring only for a fancy house and nice comforts, all the while pretending to be a good Muslim.  


If the University did this to Jewish students, there would be uproar to no end. In fact, if they did this to most ethnic groups, there would be uproar to no end. Denying mental health services on the grounds that it is racist and antisemitic is something that could only be done to Muslims. The same for the Arkansas law. It is a clear violation of freedom of speech and constitutional rights, and yet all the right-wing organizations are all too happy to jump on the wagon when it comes to branding Muslims as incapable of understanding freedom of speech. Yet, from Muslims, we hear the silence of graves. Not a peep of  protest. 


When the ACLU appealed the matter to the Supreme Court, it did so as a lone organization, entirely isolated on a lonely, ill-funded path. People would never think that Muslims are among the richest people on the face of the earth if they saw how lonely the path is when the ACLU appeals such a horrible precedent to the Supreme Court. Are there Muslim lawyers? Absolutely. There are many Muslim lawyers out there. But what are they focused on? They are focused on making money and living in their virtual reality homes with their virtual reality electronics, with their make-believe discussions on the internet, with their petty grievances and arguments, while they pretend that the real world does not exist. 


We have all fallen into the trap of the Emirati form of Islam, an Islam that pretends that we can resolve theological differences while we ignore real suffering in the world. But the true Islam came to say the opposite. "Respect each other's differences, and focus on the confronting of suffering in the world."


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