The hundreds of thousands of Hajj pilgrims are preparing to return home after traveling from around the world to Saudi Arabia for the five-day pilgrimage, one of the five pillars of Islam, a duty for the Muslim believers considering they are fit and able. This represents one of the largest world’s gatherings, meant to bring spiritual purification and closeness to God.
The hajj has started this year on Saturday, 10 September, when pilgrims gathered in the large tents of Mina, in the outskirts of Mecca.
On Sunday, 11 September, one of the most symbolic days of the hajj took place, pilgrims reaching Mount Arafat, where they spend the day in prayers and supplications.
On Monday, 12 September, pilgrims proceeded to Mecca, the focal point of the journey, from where they go back to Mina for another two days of prayers and supplications. The rituals include the symbolic stoning of the jamarat (throwing pebbles at three walls), an emblematic reenactment of Prophet Abraham’s hajj.
On the third day of Hajj each year, Muslims celebrate the Eid al-Adha, one of the most significant Islamic holidays.
Despite a compelling spiritual connotation, this year’s hajj was marked by renewed strains and a blame-game played between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Tensions soared as the Hajj season approached, in remembrance of the last year’s tragedy that claimed many Iranian lives. In addition, Saudi Arabia and its allies cut or limited diplomatic ties with Iran since January 2016, responding to the assault of the Saudi embassy in Tehran, itself a protest to the execution of the Saudi Shiite cleric, Nimr al-Nimr.
With the aim of appeasing the war of words, The Saudi King Salman declared on 13 September that the hajj should be spared from the political implications.[i] He spoke to dignitaries from Muslim countries at a reception for VIP in Mina and called for Muslim unity and brotherhood, repudiating the spread of extremism.
The remarks, coinciding with the Eid al-Adha holiday convey a message to the Islamic Republic of Iran. In fact, all the messages released by various officials of the two countries reveal the existent tensions. The two countries marked a new low in the bilateral relations, after failing to make the arrangements in order that Iranian pilgrims take part in this year’s hajj in Mecca.
The Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, launched a harsh accusation the week before the hajj, claiming that the Saudi authorities committed a crime during the hajj 2015 and failed to properly address the disaster.
In response to this accusation, Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti (highest religious authority), described Iranian leadership as non-Muslims. The Grand Mufti claimed they are sons of “magus”, making reference to the practice of Zoroastrianism, the indigenous religion in Iran of today before the Arab Muslim invasion more than 1300 years ago.[ii]
Saudi authorities normally do not imply Iranians are not Muslims, even though Wahhabism (the state religion in Saudi Arabia) views Shia Muslims as heretics. Moreover, until now Iranians were accepted to the hajj and to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.
Additionally, continuing the heated debate, the Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said the Mufti’s remarks reveal the bigotry of Saudi leaders and alleged that Saudi Arabia is a promoter of terrorism through its Wahhabi networks.
The United States’ State Department spokesperson reported that it is preferable to avoid such rhetoric for averting a further escalation of the conflict.[iii]
Saudi Minister of Islamic Affairs, Sheikh Saleh bin Abdulaziz Al al-Sheikh, affirmed that Saudi Arabia has a divine prerogative over the Islamic sites and that Iran is only targeting to prompt sectarianism as pilgrims convene to Mecca. He further added that other Muslim countries rally with Saudi Arabia that carries out the duties regarding the hajj in full honor.[iv]
Saudi Arabia is the custodian of the holiest sites in Islam, Mecca and Medina and stakes its reputation on organizing the hajj, the peak of spiritual life for any Muslim believer. Last year’s hajj was shadowed by a stampede claiming many lives, including those of many Iranians. The legacy of the event let room for doubts regarding the organization of a successful hajj in 2016, Iran, and Saudi Arabia being unable to come to an agreement regarding the attendance of Iranians.
Illustrating the misfortune of 2015, Saudi Arabia announced that 769 pilgrims were killed in the disaster, the highest death toll registered during hajj since 1990. In contrast to the official declarations that could not offer any evident cause behind the catastrophe, it appears that over 2000 victims were counted, over 400 of them Iranians. Iran put the blame on organizers’ inability to properly organizing the rites.[v] Huge congregations clashed at a crossroads in Mina where pilgrims gathered for performing the rituals. Some sources revealed the number of victims as being 2,432, through the use of photographs from coroners’ offices. [vi]
Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, a conservative Iranian cleric and a Friday prayer leader, has renewed claims over Saudi Arabia’s mismanagement of the Mina stampede in 2015 hajj, during Eid al-Adha prayers.
Khatami blamed Saudi Arabia for not acting quickly enough in order to save the pilgrims’ lives, “At the very least the issue is that they were at fault […] delivering water by helicopter or other means could have saved half of the lives.” He continued the allegations with “Rather than addressing the wounded, they put them in containers with the dead, martyring them alive.”[vii] Iran appeared as the loudest voice in the quest for the truth about the disaster, even though the pilgrims belonged to many nationalities. Iran’s parliament speaker, Ali Larijani celebrated the memory of the victims of 2015 hajj during “the first anniversary of the martyrs of Mina”.[viii] Echoing voices of other leaders in Iran, Larijani expressed hope that human rights organizations could investigate and put in place a fact-finding mission for knowing what really happened during the stampede.[ix] Ayatollah Khamenei met with the families of Iranians killed during the fateful hajj and expressed hope for establishing a fact-finding mission, as well.
These incidents of the hajj 2015 scarred the already deteriorating relations between the two aspiring regional hegemons. As a result, for the first time in nearly three decades, the Iranians missed the occasion to attend the 2016 hajj. As a compromise solution, Saudi Arabia decided to launch from Mecca a Persian language programme for the Persian-speaking believers: “The goal of this program is to deliver the message of the hajj-the lasting meaning of Islam – to Persian-language pilgrims around the world,” according to Saudi Minister of Culture and Information Adel bin Zaid al-Toraifi. The programme was planned to broadcast between 10-15 September.
The war of words related to the hajj expresses the deepening rift between the Sunni kingdom and the Shiite Iranian Republic. Their rivalry is played out in the broader Middle East, where they are supporting opposing sides embroiled in conflicts. Despite the religious significance of the hajj, political tensions have sparked once again between the two countries on the occasion.
All in all, Saudi Arabia, which stakes its reputation on organizing the largest Muslim gathering, has tried to make 2016 event more secure, deploying a large number of security forces, surveillance staff and volunteers, using digital technology that could enhance the security level.[x] As a result, this year’s pilgrims had to wear an electronic wristband with medical and personal information. It also incorporated a digital help desk in various languages.
In the Gulf region, elapsed tensions are resurfaced during important events. Meanwhile, in a conciliating manner, Sheik Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani of Qatar called for good neighborly relations between Gulf Arabs and Iran, according to Qatari news agency. Qatar’s emir has advocated for Gulf countries and Iran to settle their disputes through dialogue and negotiations, while he initiated a telephone call with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, on the occasion of Eid-al Adha.[xi] While the hajj conferred the opportunity to revive old disputes, the Qatari emir gave a signal for a reconcilement that could be seized by both parts for the sake of a safer region. The rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia is to be prolonged, without concrete measures for rapprochement and/or constructive dialogue.
[i] The Gulf News, Habibi Toumi, 14 September 2016, King Salman rejects politicization of haj, http://gulfnews.com/news/gulf/saudi-arabia/king-salman-rejects-politicisation-of-haj-1.1896026
[ii] Reuters, Dahlia Nehme, 7 September 2016, Top Saudi cleric says Iran leaders not Muslims as haj row mounts, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-saudi-iran-mufti-idUSKCN11D0HV
[vi] Middle East Eye, Rori Donaghy, 10 September 2016, Saudi Arabia pledges to protect pilgrims as hajj begins,
[vii] Al-Monitor, Arash Karami, 13 September 2016, Saudi Arabia launches Persian-language hajj TV program for Iranians, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/09/iran-saudi-eid-al-adha-tv-channel-human-rights-mina.html#ixzz4KJHH6fup
[x] Middle East Eye, Rori Donaghy, 10 September 2016, Saudi Arabia pledges to protect pilgrims as hajj begins,
[xi] Reuters, 13 September 2016, Amid strains, Qatar urges Iran, Gulf Arabs to be good neighbors, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-gulf-iran-qatar-idUSKCN11J0PH