What, No Hajj?

Saudi Arabia Has Halted All Flights To/From Iran

Saudi Arabia Has Halted All Flights To/From Iran

It is a mandatory religious duty for all Muslims, at least once in their life, to make a pilgrimage to Mecca. Now that Saudi Arabia and Iran are on the outs, the Saudis have forbidden all flights linking their two countries. This alone has the potential of leading to further nastiness. Admittedly, Iranian pilgrims can still go by boat (and risk being robbed by Somali pirates) or by land (and risk being robbed by bandits).

I cannot help but think that the real reason for all this nastiness is the conflict in Yemen between Shi’a rebels (called the Houthis) and the Saudis and their allies. In the end, the Saudis may think now is the time to rid themselves of the Shi’a menace once and for all.

Now what is this Sunni/Shi’a split all about? According to the BBC:

In early Islamic history, the Shia were a movement – literally “Shiat Ali” or the “Party of Ali”. They claimed that Ali was the rightful successor to the Prophet Muhammad as leader (imam) of the Muslim community following his death in 632.

Ali was assassinated in 661 after a five-year caliphate that was marred by civil war. His sons, Hassan and Hussein, were denied what they thought was their legitimate right of accession to the caliphate.

Hassan is believed to have been poisoned in 680 by Muawiyah, the first caliph of the Sunni Umayyad dynasty, while Hussein was killed on the battlefield by the Umayyads in 681. These events gave rise to the Shia concept of martyrdom and the rituals of grieving.

There are three main branches of Shia Islam today—the Zaidis, Ismailis and Ithna Asharis (Twelvers or Imamis). The Ithna Asharis are the largest group and believe that Muhammad’s religious leadership, spiritual authority and divine guidance were passed on to 12 of his descendants, beginning with Ali, Hassan and Hussein.

The 12th Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, is said to have disappeared from a cave below a mosque in 878. Ithna Asharis believe the so-called “awaited imam” did not die and will return at the end of time to restore justice on earth.

In other words, the roots of the conflict go all the way back 1,400 years and show no signs of slackening.

It’s a sobering thought that we, who cannot even pronounce the name “Muawiyah,” may be affected in some way by this stramash.

The Intimate Enemy

Sunni Anti-Shi’a Propaganda

Sunni Anti-Shi’a Propaganda

In a 1997 lecture entitled “The Origin of Satan in Christian Tradition,” Religious Historian Elaine Pagels writes about how the character of Satan morphed over the centuries from a messenger of God’s to His enemy:

So there are many stories about Satan’s origin; but what struck me about them is this. Diverse as they are, whichever version you choose, they all agree on one thing: that this greatest and most dangerous enemy did not originate (as we might have expected) as an outsider, an alien, or stranger. Satan is no distant enemy: on the contrary, he is an “intimate enemy”—one’s closest relative, older brother, or trusted colleague—the kind of person on whose goodwill and loyalty the well-being of family and society depends, but one who turns unexpectedly hostile, jealous, and dangerous.

So it is not the total outsider whom we hate, but the heretic—one whose belief is close to ours except on some details which to some will seem trivial. Such were the Arians and Nestorians in the early days of the Christian Church. And such are the Sunni and Shi’a over the last 1,400 years.

With the execution of a prominent Shi’a cleric (Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr), Saudi Arabia has earned the undying hatred of Iran. For many centuries, there has been a small Shi’a minority in the Eastern portion of the Arabian peninsula, and the executed sheikh was their religious leader. Shown below is a map illustrating the distribution of the two sects in the Middle East:

Percent Shi’a in the Middle East and North Africa

Percent Shi’a in the Middle East and North Africa

This comes at a bad time for Saudi Arabia, as the sharp decline in the price of oil is about to have dire consequences in the ability of the kingdom to provide benefits for its favored citizens. The price of gas has jumped 50%, water and electricity are going up, and the country’s safety net is in danger.

So what should we do? I think this is a good time to put our hands firmly in our pockets and start whistling until we see who wins, King Kong or the Dinosaur.

The Monolith

Flag of Saudi Arabia

Flag of Saudi Arabia

What with all the turbulence wrought by the so-called Arab Spring, what is the likelihood that Saudi Arabia will be affected? So far, there have been no large-scale demonstrations, though the monarchy has jailed a fairly large number of people of opposite political stripes.

If Saudi Arabia were to follow the example of Syria, it would have the effect of destabilizing anew the whole Muslim world. Why? Because it is the obligation for every able-bodied Muslim to perform the hajj at least once in a lifetime by visiting the sacred sites of Mecca and Medina. The thought of this pilgrimage being curtailed in any way would be enough to cause widespread panic from Morocco to Indonesia, from the Muslim inhabitants of Europe to the Sahel in Africa. Just to see how international this movement is, click on the website of the Saudi Ministry of Hajj.

Islam cannot easily change its doctrines the way that Christianity, both Western and Eastern, could. There is no unified figure or body that decides what Muslims are to believe. Ever since Ataturk abolished the Ottoman caliphate in 1924, Islam has been substantially without a head. Although the religious leaders in Saudi Arabia would like to think they are in charge, that extends mainly to maintaining order during the massive influx of pilgrims (three million in 2011) during the annual  week of the Hajj, which changes from year to year because it is based on the lunar calendar.

I can only conclude that any major changes in Saudi Arabia will be cataclysmic on a global scale. As of 2010, there were an estimated 1.62 billion Muslims, comprising some 23% of earth’s total population. Both the United States and Britain have over 2.5 million adherents each. To see how the Islamic population is distributed across the nations of the earth, click here.

We tend to believe that tomorrow’s crises are basically the same as today’s, except possibly more so. A global Muslim dust-up would be qualitatively different.