The war of words between regional religious and political rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia has heated up as more than two million Muslims assembled in the Grand Mosque in Mecca to perform the initial rituals of the annual Hajj pilgrimage.
Iran's president Hassan Rouhani, a moderate mid-level Shia cleric, called on Muslims to unite and punish the Sunni Saudi government for its mismanagement of last year's Hajj when at least 2,411 pilgrims (according to the Associated Press), among them 464 Iranians, were killed in a stampede – and for Saudi involvement in wars in Syria and Yemen.
Rouhani was replying to Saudi Arabia’s chief cleric, Grand Mufti Abdelaziz al-Sheikh, who declared that Shias are “not Muslims [but] children of the Magi [Zeroastrians] and their hostility towards Muslims is an old one”.
This policy line towards Shias, considered along with Sunnis an orthodox Islamic sect, was adopted by the 18th-century cleric Mohamed Ibn Abdul Wahhab, who called for a return to Islam's founding principles and partnered with Muhammad Ibn Saud in the conquest of Arabia.
Al-Sheikh's pronouncement came in response to Iran's Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who said the Saudis had "murdered" last year's victims and urged the Muslim world to challenge Saudi stewardship of not only the Hajj but also of Mecca and Medina, the cities where Islam was born. If his call were accepted, it would nullify the right of the Saudi monarch to assume the title of "Guardian of the Two Holy Sites".
Khamenei wants a commission representing all Muslim sects to take over management of the Hajj and the holy cities, although the Saudis conquered Mecca and Medina nearly a century ago and have spent billions of dollars on pilgrimage infrastructure, earning billions in return from the Hajj.
When the multitude gathers today and tomorrow in the tent city at Mina ahead of the pilgrimage, some 61,000 Iranians will be absent. For the first time in nearly 30 years, Iranians are not participating, after Tehran and Riyadh rowed over terms surrounding the pilgrimage.
The major obstacle was Riyadh’s insistence that Iranians should apply for Hajj visas from the Swiss embassy in Tehran, as the Saudi embassy in Tehran has been closed since an arson attack on it last January by an Iranian mob after the Saudis executed Nimr al-Nimr, a leading Saudi Shia cleric accused of “terrorism”.
The last time Iranians stayed away from the hajj was after the 1987 event, when 400 pilgrims and police died in clashes sparked by Iranian anti-western political protests.
On Sunday, the throng will move to the Plain of Arafat where the faithful will stand in silence at noon to commemorate the “Standing” of the congregation listening to the Prophet Muhammad’s sermon. That night, ahead of the Feast of Sacrifice, the pilgrims will camp at Muzdalifa, located between Arafat and Mina, where each will gather stones to fling over the next three days at three pillars, in a symbolic rejection of temptation.
The traditional small stone pillars surrounded by low white-washed walls have been replaced by a multilevel, circular pedestrian bridge from which pilgrims carry out the stoning of massive pillars. The concrete bridges and their approaches have been the sites of seven deadly crushes between 1994 and 2015, with a total of some 4,000 fatalities.
The causes of the 2015 stampede and the number of victims are disputed, prompting many countries to criticise Riyadh for failing to impose crowd control.
The tussle over the hajj is a bitter religious aspect of Iranian-Saudi rivalry, intensifying the power struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia which began in earnest with the 1979 creation of the Iranian Islamic Republic.
Since then Iran has stirred dissent among Shias in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and elsewhere but failed to extend its influence to a major Arab country until 2003, when the US installed a pro-Iranian Shia regime in Baghdad.
Today Iran backs the Syrian government and Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen while Saudi Arabia seeks the overthrow of the Syrian regime and is waging war on the Houthis.