Reduced to simplicity in clothing, language and prayer, a pilgrim during the Hajj is there to feel united with millions of other Muslims, in honour of Allah, under the harsh immensity of the Meccan sky.

Nationality, wealth, language, political persuasion, all these things are supposed to melt. The merciless heat and hectic, ever moving crowd of people, rushing back and forth involved in every ritual, is inevitable. Yet, many pilgrims say that overcoming these obstacles is part of the spiritual challenge during the Hajj. Accepting the differences between members of the other sex within Islam in their gestures and prayers is also part of the experience.

The Saudis and the Iranians would both say an “Amen” themselves to all this. Yet their intense rivalry has, once again, been seen as a contradiction of the ideal of religious unity. The latest bitter feud between the two countries can be illustrated by a series of incidents.


First, a large crane battered in a storm collapsed on the ceiling of the Great Mosque of Mecca, killing more than 100 people. Then, there was chaos amongst a vast body of people at Mina, outside Mecca, as two large waves of pilgrims collided. One group had been heading for the ritual of stoning the “devil” and the other was returning from the same site. Some estimates say that 2,300 people died, including over 400 Iranians.

These are the two terrible catastrophes that marked the Hajj one year. Iran blamed Saudi incompetence. Saudi officials blamed the pilgrims. The next day, black flags were raised in Tehran by furious demonstrators.


This incident was nothing compared to what happened a few months later. The Saudi embassy in the Iranian capital was burned down by a raging crowd after the Saudis fulfilled their long-standing threat to execute Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, the most important leader of the Saudi Shiite minority. The Saudis then severed diplomatic ties with Iran.

It was then that the two countries clashed on the two most war stricken battlefields in the Middle East: Syria and Yemen. Military funerals were held for Iranian officers, hailed as heroes, having fought and died in defence of President Assad of Syria. Meanwhile,the silence of the skies over the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, ended when the ominous sounds of Saudi planes screamed over the capital before offloading their deadly payloads of bombs.

These were the worst crises between the two dominant regional powers since the 1980s. And once again, the gap has .widened between them, even as the Hajj was.in preparation.

Iran demanded a written guarantee .from the Saudis concerning the safety of their pilgrims after the horror of the previous year. Negotiations were at a stalemate. The Hajj went ahead, but without the Iranians, who were banned from travelling into the country. Some 60,000 went on the pilgrimage in 2015. It was the first time they had been absent for almost 80 years .


“Cruel,” “Unbelievers,” “Blasphemers,” “Murderers,” and “Satanics” were some of the epithets that Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini directed towards the Saudi royal family in his ferocious accusations. Tehran usually reserves such rhetoric solely for its enemies. More importantly, the Ayatollah called on the Islamic world to review how Mecca and the Hajj are managed. It was a not-so-subtle message that they must be taken out of Saudi control.

This could not happen, but it struck deeply at the pride and privilege of the Saudi king who is the guardian of the two holiest mosques.

The highest spiritual authority in Saudi Arabia inflamed the divide between the Iranians and Saudis in a speech in which he called the Iranians “non – Muslims”. The great mufti Sheikh Abdel Aziz Al Sheikh said:

“We must understand these are not Muslims,” he was quoted as saying. “They are the son of the Magi and their hostility towards Muslims is an old one, especially with the People of the Tradition [Sunnis].” (See the BBC report here)

This is the schism between the Sunni and Shiite Muslims which the Hajj is supposed to transcend!

Thus, instead of travelling to Mecca, during the Hajj, many Iranians chose to travel this year to make their pilgrimage to Karbala, Iraq, one of the most sacred sites of Shiite Islam. Iran denied rumours that Ayatollah Khomeini had issued a fatwa encouraging this as a replacement for the Haj. Meanwhile, the Saudis have launched a television channel broadcasting the Hajj rituals in Persian (Farsi) to show the Iranians what they were missing!

The Saudis may think that they have managed overcome their difficulties with the plethora of new security measures put in place – the Hajj the following year went without major incident. The Saudis will see this as the only answer. They need to display their competence to Iran. But Iran can also state that its criticisms have been the grounds of these improvements.

Ordinary people, as always, will have to bear the consequences of the hostility between the two elitist countries, with some elderly Iranians fearing that they will never have the opportunity to practice the fifth pillar of Islam.

The facts and the fiction

The experience of the unity supposed to be embodied in the Hajj remains a fiction as the main factions of Islam continue to trade insults with each other.

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