contributor perspectives

In Mecca, Separating Religion and State Isn't So Easy

Anisa Mehdi
Board of Contributors
7 MINS READSep 5, 2017 | 12:22 GMT
Muslim pilgrims pray at the Grand Mosque in the city of Mecca on Aug. 29, 2017.

Muslim pilgrims pray at the Grand Mosque in the city of Mecca on Aug. 29, 2017. Hopeful Qatari pilgrims were blocked from participating in the 2017 hajj.

(KARIM SAHIB/AFP/Getty Images)

This year more than 2.3 million people made the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca required at least once of every Muslim who is financially and physically able to complete it. And this time, there was no catastrophe at the Jamarat Bridge, where the bottlenecks of the ritual "Stoning of the Devil" have been known to facilitate lethal hazards before. Noting the relative safety of the 2017 pilgrimage, the chairman of the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria announced that there were only seven deaths among pilgrims from his nation, and those were attributed to natural illness. He affirmed that, "The mortality recorded this year is the lowest in the last 10-15 years."

Clearly this is good news for the yearly crowds of devout visitors, most of whom are now making their way home from Saudi Arabia following the hajj's conclusion on Sept. 3. They have seen the Kaaba toward which Muslims face during daily prayers, and many have visited Medina, where the first Muslim community was established and where the Prophet Mohammed is buried.

Death cannot be completely averted at the hajj. Sometimes people intentionally participate in it late in life in hopes that they may die on sacred ground. In spite of 25 hospitals, 155 state-of-the-art medical clinics and the only hospital in the world open just one day a year to serve pilgrims praying on the Plain of Arafat on the 10th day of the pilgrimage month, death will walk among the millions who make the journey to Mecca. It's statistically unavoidable.

But this year's triumph was the naturalness of it all. There were no stampedes, as in 2015; no fires, as in 1997; and no cholera epidemics, as in the 1860s and at the turn of the 20th century. There was, however, an unnatural impediment to the pilgrimage: Hopeful Qatari pilgrims, a number within the quota limits Saudi Arabia had set, were blocked from participating in the 2017 trek.

Answering the Call of Abraham

The hajj began in response to God's instruction to Abraham to,

"Proclaim the Pilgrimage to all people. They will come to you on foot and on every kind of swift mount, emerging from every deep mountain pass to attain benefits and celebrate God's name, on specified days, over the livestock He has provided for them — feed yourselves and the poor and unfortunate — so let the pilgrims perform their acts of cleansing, fulfill their vows, and circle around the Ancient House." (Sura 22: 27-29)

The call of Abraham, Ibrahim in Arabic, predates Judaism, Christianity and Islam. But when the legendary ancestor of these monotheisms repeated the proclamation to his followers, pilgrimage meant to come and circumambulate the Kaaba. It did not include Standing at Arafat or the "Stoning of the Devil," which were included later.

Since 630, when the Prophet Mohammed and his followers took control of Mecca from the powerful Quraysh family, the pilgrimage has become a mandate for Muslims. Thanks in part to the interventions of T.E. Lawrence 100 years ago this month and in part to the House of Saud's alliance with the British against the Ottoman Empire in World War I, today's curator of the pilgrimage is the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques — more commonly known as the King of Saudi Arabia.

This year's hajj happened to fall at a time when the king was at odds with Qatar. In the wake of the decision by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to sever ties with Qatar this spring, followed by a blockade and the closure of borders on June 5, cooperation between the kingdom and Qatar has ground to a halt. But on Aug. 17, Riyadh announced it would open the Salwa border crossing to Qatari pilgrims. Saudi King Salman also ordered that Saudi-chartered planes would be sent to ferry Qatari pilgrims from the kingdom's Eastern Province through Jeddah to pilgrimage sites.

Though Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani welcomed the decision, he cautioned that the hajj should not be politicized. He then did just that, requesting that the relaxation of the border be extended to lifting the entire blockade. The situation devolved into a tit for tat between the two countries on Twitter. And rather than completing an ordinary and orderly passage between neighboring nations, Qatari pilgrims languished as the hajj came and went.

Politicizing religious practice is hardly unique to this moment in time. Remember King Henry VIII's break with Rome over the matter of divorce, or the Medici family's ties to the popes of yore. Indeed, the U.S. Constitution's Establishment Clause was an attempt to pre-emptively take the politics out of religion.

Pilgrims, too, have had difficulty making the trip to Mecca in the past because of their political circumstances. For instance, Saudi Arabia has abridged permission for Iranian pilgrims to participate in the hajj before. But criticism of the kingdom's hegemony over the cities of Mecca and Medina and its unilateral control over who may and may not visit them is mounting. As I wrote in December 2015,

"Muslim leaders … have begun to suggest that it might 
be time for the reigning House of Saud to relinquish its absolute control 
over the two cities, which lie within the geographic boundaries of the
 kingdom. The Saudis' claim on Mecca and Medina comes as a result of
 conquest, not election. With protests mounting against Saudi Arabia's administration of the hajj, unsafe conditions for pilgrims on the rise, and challenges to Saudi Arabia's rampant destruction of archaeological sites in the two cities to make way for luxury hotels and high-rise buildings growing increasingly vociferous, pushback against the kingdom's custodial role will likely get stronger as time goes on."

More recently, Al Jazeera quoted Saad Sultan al-Abdullah, the director of international cooperation at Qatar's National Human Rights Committee, as saying, "There should be no mixing between political disputes and Muslims' natural and human right to perform their religious duties." Abdelmajid Mrari, the head of the Middle East and North Africa division at the Brussels-based Alliance for Freedom and Dignity, has castigated Saudi authorities for mishandling the situation as well. He told Al Jazeera, "Mecca is not owned by any government. Mecca is for all Muslims. The Saudi behavior is a clear violation of Islamic values and norms, as well as all international human rights agreements and conventions."

The Health of a Nation and Its Visitors

The desire of the masses who wish to perform the act of courage and piety that the pilgrimage represents shows no sign of waning. So far, there have been no popular protests against Saudi Arabia's monarch, hegemony or monopoly; there has been only an uptick in pilgrims petitioning for visas and a concomitant increase in infrastructure to support the hajj, provided by the Saudi government.

So as millions of Muslims from countries around the world make their way home from a transformative rite of Islamic passage, many will breathe a sigh of relief that it was, after all, a relatively uneventful hajj. Many more will hope that next year's hajj is not marred by geopolitical jockeying. And on the heels of an apparent success for Saudi Arabia's infrastructure, the world will wonder what the kingdom's next offering will be to the visitors flocking to its borders to perform devotions.

At some point in the not-so-distant future, pilgrims may be able to extend their pilgrimage visas and become tourists, walkers and hikers, taking in the scenery and enjoying the hospitality of communities on the Red Sea coast of the Arabian Peninsula. In an attempt to diversify his country's economy beyond petroleum and pilgrimage, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is forging ahead with Riyadh's Vision 2030 plan for reform, a proposal that calls for preserving a "sophisticated heritage" and restoring ancient cultural sites.

To that end, the Saudi government announced last month the development of a resort island on the Red Sea with eased restrictions for travelers with tourist visas. Meanwhile, expeditions to the desert outside Jeddah, known as "hashes," have been popular among expatriates for decades; there may be opportunities to expand those adventures as well. Should the kingdom open cultural heritage sites and new walking trails to the many pilgrims who visit it every year, it will create yet another stream of revenue for Riyadh — and a natural gateway to better health for the nation's visitors and economy alike.

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