Mecca: Seasons of Pilgrimage and Anger

Muslim Pilgrims walk past the site of a crane collapse that killed over a hundred Friday at the Grand Mosque in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2015. Saudi Arabia has in part blamed the construction giant Saudi Binladin Group for the collapse last week of a crane at Mecca that killed more than 100 people and injured over 350 ahead of the hajj. (AP Photo/Mosa'ab Elshamy)

Muslim Pilgrims walk past the site of a crane collapse that killed over a hundred Friday at the Grand Mosque in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2015. Saudi Arabia has in part blamed the construction giant Saudi Binladin Group for the collapse last week of a crane at Mecca that killed more than 100 people and injured over 350 ahead of the hajj. (AP Photo/Mosa’ab Elshamy)

Two years after the end of the Ottoman Empire, in the wake of the First World War and the establishment of the secular Turkish Republic, the Arab region clamored for a revival of the caliphate.

On 3 March 1926, delegates from Muslim countries, including Egypt, accepted an invitation from King Abdel-Aziz Al-Saud to discuss the matter. The gathering was held in Mecca, and Abdel-Aziz immediately announced his desire to be the next caliph. But there were other would-be caliphs.

King Hussein bin Ali of the Hejaz, a rival of Abdel-Aziz, had already made a failed bid for the caliphate. Egypt’s King Fuad I was also eyeing the prestigious position.

On March 25, 1924, the then grand imam of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Mahmoud Al-Gizawi, the president of Egypt’s Supreme Sharia Court, Sheikh Mohamed Al-Maraghi, and the grand mufti, Sheikh Abdel-Rahman Qoraa, among other scholars, signed a document claiming that the Ottoman caliphate had fallen short of Islamic laws and set out the terms and conditions for the creation of a new caliphate.

In 1925, the chairman of the Islamic Council in Palestine, Sheikh Mohamed Amin Al-Husseini, tried to organize a conference in Palestine for similar purposes, as did religious scholars in Delhi in India.

As a result, at the 1926 meeting, Abdel-Aziz wasted no time in presenting the audience with his bid for the caliphate. “When the state of war [in what became Saudi Arabia] and the fate of the country rested in our hands, the people of good judgement in the Hejaz did not wish to wait for the convocation of an Islamic conference as they were unsure who would come to it. Instead, they sent us pledges of allegiance,” Abdel-Aziz said.

“We turned these pledges down with due humility. Then the people of influence and resolve in Najd, who were the main pillars in purging the country and who are the mainstay of security in the country, for it is on their work that all reform depends, expressed the same view,” he told the delegates.

“We then had to accept the pledges of allegiance because we – the family of Al-Saud – are not tyrannical kings or selfish rulers. Instead, we are duty bound to the rulings of the Sharia.”

“You will see with your own eyes and hear with your own ears from those who came before you to this land to perform the pilgrimage how security is well established in the entire land of Hejaz and how, between the two holy shrines, the land is as safe as it has ever been,” he added.

Much of the claim of Abdel-Aziz to the Muslim caliphate emanated from his ability to secure the safety of pilgrims to Mecca, a task that he accepted as a religious duty and a mark of honor, and one that he said qualified him for the highest office in the entire Muslim world – that of caliph.
In the end, none of the other hopefuls were able to prosecute their claims, and the Arabs had to improvise other methods of working together, the later Arab League and other such organizations included.

But Abdel-Aziz, the founder of Saudi Arabia, and his successors continued to take pride in their role as the protectors of the pilgrims, often using the humble title “Servant of the Two Holy Shrines” to assert their central status in the world’s grandest religious ritual, the pilgrimage to Mecca, which is a gathering of worshippers that matches no other and that keeps growing by the year.

As the pilgrims grew in number, the Saudis kept expanding the perimeter of the Kaaba, known as Al-Haram Al-Makki, to accommodate ever more visitors. But managing this grand, and ultimately lucrative, ritual hasn’t always been easy. Violence, accidents and human error have claimed many lives over the years.

Ousting the formidable Hussein bin Ali from power in the Hejaz, Abdel-Aziz assured his listeners in 1926 that, with the power of the sword in one hand and the blessings of the Quran in the other, he would continue to enforce law and order in the land.

“Of money I have nothing… but I have the sword and the Quran,” he said. “The money belongs to the people of the Hejaz, whom I defend and protect,” Abdel-Aziz told visiting dignitaries during the 1933 pilgrimage season.

Two years later, three Yemeni pilgrims attempted to assassinate Abdel-Aziz. He survived the attempt, suggesting that God had wanted him to continue his mission to protect pilgrims against acts of violence. “God in His grace allowed me to survive,” he said. “I ordered the gates of the sanctuary closed and completed the tawaf [ritual walking].”

 

WAITING FOR THE MAHDI

Fast forward to November 20, 1979, one of the sons of Abdel-Aziz, King Khaled of Saudi Arabia, faced another surge of violence in Mecca.

A man by the name of Joheiman Al-Oteibi had brought a few hundred supporters to the city where they attempted what may have been a coup d’état, though this is not how Al-Oteibi described it. Instead, he claimed to be acting out of allegiance to the hidden imam, or mahdi, a man who, according to religious tradition, is sent by God to bring justice to the world.

This tradition goes back to a hadith, or saying, of the Prophet Mohamed to the effect that “God will send to this nation at the beginning of every century someone who will renew religion.”
Leading a group of fighters numbering anywhere between 200 and 600, Al-Oteibi claimed that one of his blood relatives, a man named Mohamed bin Abdallah Al-Qahtani, was the Mahdi. The group barricaded itself into Al-Haram Al-Makki and called on Al-Qahtani to come and accept its pledge of allegiance.

Dozens died in the ensuing clashes and, on January 9, 1980, King Khaled had some of the insurgents executed in public. One of the half-brothers of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, a man named Mahrus bin Laden, was arrested briefly in connection with this mutiny.

But the bin Laden family mostly backed the Saudi government. A company owned by the family was involved in the expansion of Al-Haram Al-Makki at the time, and it offered information to the police that helped apprehend the insurgents.

Al-Oteibi’s insurrection was a wake-up call to the Saudi government, and it reacted by opening the way for hardline jihadists to go to Afghanistan where they could channel their zeal into battles with the invading Soviets. The jihadist movement, of which Al-Qaeda is only a part, was born from this desire to give the extremists a remote place in which to expend their energies.

After the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini claimed in a public statement that the US had planned Al-Oteibi’s insurgency. Mobs then attacked the US embassies in Pakistan and Libya. On July 31, 1987, Iranian pilgrims staged demonstrations against the US policies in Mecca. There were clashes with police and more than 400 people perished, most of them Iranian.

Meanwhile, as the numbers of the pilgrims coming to Mecca grew, Saudi Arabia introduced successive plans to accommodate them. Under King Fahd, another son of Abdel-Aziz, the Saudi government spent about $20 billion on expanding the perimeters of the Kaaba, the holy shrine in the middle of Al-Haram Al-Makki.

By confiscating large swathes of land lying immediately around the older areas, the Saudi authorities were able to expand the total area of the shrine to 356,000 square meters, allowing it to accommodate 773,000 worshippers.

The expansion angered some locals who found it too intrusive, and some of the buildings that were demolished for the expansion were important parts of the city’s religious history. Their concerns were shared by some architects and archaeologists, local as well as foreign, who complained that Mecca’s skyline was being disfigured by modern flyovers and high-rise hotels, with their modernistic lines and glistening glass façades.

 

DOUBLE TRAGEDY

In 2015, tragedy struck Mecca twice. The first was caused by heavy machinery hired to carry out another expansion plan that would bring the total area of Al-Haram Al-Makki to 1.5 million square meters, large enough to accommodate 2.3 million pilgrims. Over the course of the expansion, the Saudi government had confiscated nearly 5,882 properties next to the shrine’s perimeter.

It was at 5:10 P.M on Friday, September 11, that a giant crane teetered and came crashing to the ground in Al-Haram Al-Makki in Mecca, killing 111 worshippers and injuring more than 230. No link has been established between the crash of the 200-meter crane and the anniversary of the Twin Towers attacks in the US in September 2001.

The Iranians, who have no love for Saudi Arabia, immediately lashed out at Riyadh, saying the Saudi government was “not qualified” to organize the pilgrimage and urging the formation of an international body to take charge of Mecca. The Iranian newspaper Kayhan said that Mecca should be run by a Muslim “Council of Custodians”.

Then, a second tragedy took place. A stampede in the Valley of Mina in eastern Mecca left 1,358 dead, including 464 Iranians, 165 Egyptians, 120 Indonesians, 101 Indians and 99 Nigerians, according to Saudi figures. The real death toll may, however, be higher since Egypt has thus far declared 190 of its nationals dead and 45 missing in connection with the incident, a higher figure than that released by the Saudis.

One report said that the convoy of a Saudi prince in the area had triggered the stampede. Eyewitnesses claimed that the tragedy could have been averted had the authorities opened VIP tents located on both sides of the road to relieve the pressure on the main thoroughfare.

Not letting this opportunity pass, Iran’s spiritual leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, again questioned the ability of the Saudis to organize the annual event. During a speech at the UN, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani also demanded an investigation into the causes of the tragedy.

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