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Will Iranian pilgrims forsake Mecca for Karbala?

Iran and Saudi Arabia are expanding the conflict over Islamic religious sites as they continue to exploit religion for their political interests.
Shiite Muslim pilgrims gather in front of the shrine of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, on Arafah day, referring to a prayer performed by Shiites in Saudi Arabia's Arafat plain on the second day of hajj, on September 11, 2016 in the holy city of Karbala, 80 kilometres south of the capital Baghdad. 
Barred from Mecca amid an escalating spat between Tehran and Saudi Arabia, masses of Iranian Shiite faithful have converged on the holy Iraqi city of Karbala for an alternative pilgrimage. The r

Saudi newspapers reported Sept. 15 that Shiites are expected to replace their pilgrimage to Mecca with religious visits to Iraq’s Karbala instead. According Al-Riyadh newspaper, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has issued a fatwa allowing “going on pilgrimage to Karbala and other holy shrines in Iraq instead of Mecca this year.”

The decision came following Khamenei's scathing comments against the Saudi royal family Sept. 7, addressing it as “a damned malicious tree” and urging the formation of a fact-finding committee to probe last year's hajj stampede in which more than 460 Iranians were killed. Khamenei also denounced what he called the kingdom’s poor management of holy places. Last year, Iran and some other Islamic countries called for withdrawing management of the hajj from Saudi Arabia in favor of a joint Islamic management of the pilgrimage affairs.

The news has gone viral in the Arab media and was taken as fact without any checking. However, no such fatwa by Khamenei has yet appeared.

Al-Azhar’s Council of Senior Scholars, which is widely respected in the global Sunni community, commented, “According to Sharia, pilgrimage ought to be performed at a certain time and to a certain destination. Any visit outside this time frame and location that are set in the Sharia is not considered a valid pilgrimage no matter the fatwas issued to this effect.”

The Saudi Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper reported Sept. 10 that 1 million Iranians had flocked to Karbala to perform their pilgrimage instead of visiting Mecca in the time of hajj. However, according to the Iranian consul in Karbala, there were no more than 60,000 Iranian pilgrims there at the time of the Asharq Al-Awsat report. Notably, visiting Karbala on the Day of Arafa (a day before Eid al-Adha), which is a part of the hajj period, is an old religious tradition among Shiites and could be considered unrelated to the pilgrimage issue and the recent Iranian-Saudi dispute.

Nevertheless, it appears that the conflict between the two regional heavyweights has been taken to another level and led to a rivalry between the holy sites of different Islamic sects.

While Saudi Arabia seeks to exclude Iranian Shiites from world Muslim circles, Iran is trying to lower Saudi Arabia's religious status through criticism of the Saudi pilgrimage management and calls to form a joint Islamic authority.

Although both sides are employing logical religious rhetoric to drum up support for their demands, the conflict remains at its base a political one between Iranian and Saudi authorities.

Islamic holy places are clearly being exploited for the political agendas of both parties in the regional competition for political influence over the Islamic world, stretching from Iraq and Syria all the way to Yemen and Bahrain.

The same scenario had played out in previous Islamic eras. Ibn Shihab al-Zuhri (671-741), an Islamic jurist who was close to the Umayyads, issued a fatwa calling for pilgrimage to Jerusalem instead of Mecca, which at the time was under the control of the Ibn al-Zubayr caliphate, the Umayyads’ main rival.

The situation prompted Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik to build the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem for the pilgrimage.

The Qarmatians stole the Black Stone of the Kaaba and hid it for 22 years to prevent their Abbasid rivals from reaping the lucrative hajj proceeds.

Back then, as today, the conflict was not fundamentally a sectarian struggle. Today, Iran and Saudi Arabia are continuing the tradition of exchanging accusations of using the holy pilgrimage to serve their political interests.

Prince Khaled al-Faisal, governor of Mecca and chairman of the Saudi Pilgrimage Committee, attacked the Iranian government Sept. 14, saying it was exploiting the pilgrimage for political ends. “Preventing the politicization of the pilgrimage is essential for the best interests of Muslims," Faisal said. "If we give every party free rein to raise slogans and organize marches, how will people be able to perform pilgrimage?”

He also warned Iranians against carrying out any attack on Saudi Arabia. “If [Iranians] are readying an army to invade us, they should know that we are not to be diminished. We will not allow anyone to declare war on us whenever they wish to and with the help of God Almighty, we will deter every aggressor and defend this holy land and our beloved country,” he said. A video recently went viral on Iranian social media threatening the Saudis that if the kingdom attacks Iran, Iranians will conquer Saudi Arabia and make Mecca their own capital.

In contrast, Iran claims that Saudi Arabia has been exploiting pilgrimage activities to spread and promote its political agenda and its bigoted understanding of Islam through the distribution to pilgrims in Mecca of booklets and pamphlets in different languages that incite against Shiites. Similarly, Iran also accused Saudi Arabia of setting political conditions on Iranian pilgrims, such as banning them from flying on Iranian airlines to enter the kingdom, restricting their religious freedom and slandering them through official religious sermons.

For instance, last year, Sheikh Mohammed Al Mohaisany, a Saudi imam, said during his sermon in the Grand Mosque in Mecca, “We fervently ask you God to help our mujahedeen brethren in Yemen, the Levant and Iraq to defeat the atheist rejectionists [Shiites], the treacherous Jews and the hateful Christians.”

He went on, “Our war against Iran is a war between Shiites and Sunnis, a war of faith and religions. It is a sectarian war par excellence.” Of note, Mohaisany holds several high-level positions in the kingdom. There was also a recent fatwa from the Saudi grand mufti declaring Iranian Shiites infidels.

Ultimately, both parties fail to understand that expanding the conflict sphere and exploiting religion will threaten their own domestic security in the long run. In fact, there is a large Shiite minority in Saudi Arabia that shares the same doctrine as Iranian Shiites, while in Iran there is a large Sunni minority that shares the beliefs of Sunni Saudis.

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