In the Alte Pinakothek in Munich hangs a quartet of paintings by Jan van Kessel the Elder (1626–79) showing the four continents then known to the West. Asia is represented by an elegant female figure with welcoming, outstretched arms suggestive of the riches awaiting Europe. Her turbaned companion stands guard beside her in an exotic baroque landscape replete with putti, birds and butterflies, all of them depicted in exquisite naturalistic detail. A side panel – entitled ‘Mecca’ – shows a much less seductive landscape cluttered with snakes, scorpions and monsters. Before reading Ziauddin Sardar’s entertaining and richly informative book, I had assumed that van Kessel was giving visual expression to typical Christian prejudices against the ‘abominations’ of Islam. Sardar’s text, however, would suggest that the Flemish master might have been elaborating on anecdotal knowledge filtering into Antwerp from the odd Muslim pilgrim who fetched up there or perhaps from one of those mariners captured by corsairs who found himself performing the Hajj alongside his master.
Early in his career Sardar, a prolific Muslim writer who has published widely on the natural and social sciences, as well as on Islam and cultural theory, spent five years in Mecca working on behalf of the Hajj Research Centre, based in Jeddah. This institution, established by the Saudi architect