Imam Jaafar Al Sadeq is reported to have said, “remember and honor us, God forgives those who do”. This expression is deeply rooted in the mind of every practicing Shiite, making them feel personally responsible for mentioning and remembering Ahl al-Bayt (the family of the Prophet Mohammed).
This is not the only expression that motivates Muhammed, a young man in his thirties, to visit some of the holy steps in Iraq, Iran, and Syria. He calls himself a “lover of Ahl al-Bayt”, and describes visiting their shrines with much love and devotion. “There, God is closer”, he says. For Mohammed and many Shiites, these are places to remember the stories of the Imams, and their families. One can feel the Shiite victimhood, and derive motivation to practice their rituals, remembering and honoring Ahl al-Bayt.
But what of the dangers surrounding these locations? Around the shrines of Imam Hussein and Imam Al-Abbas in Iraq, many victims have fallen. Some say that more than ten thousand visitors have been killed there. In Syria as well, around the Sayyida Zaynab shrine, dozens have been killed and some visitors were kidnapped. However, for Mohammed this feeling of danger is in complete harmony with the injustice suffered by Ahl al-Bayt.
Zaynab (38) who just came back from a visit to the shrine of Imam Hussein in Iraq agrees with Mohammed that the shrine is “the most beautiful place on earth”, wishing she could spend her life there. She describes how she feels victimhood, while saying harsh words about Iraqis “who sold the Imam during his revolution” and adds that “they do not deserve to have my Imam buried in their lands”. Al-Abbas for her, is the “hero”. The stories of his suffering, his courage and his sacrifice while he was fighting till his death, motivates Zaynab to fight the injustice surrounding her. She does not object to injustice often in daily life however. Injustice brings her closer to Ahl al-Bayt and hastens the return of the awaited Imam al-Mahdi who will arrive when the world will be full of injustice and suffering.
Some go to Hajj while others are killed in Yemen and Syria
These conversations about holy visits were taking place while the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran over the Hajj was at its peak. Iranians boycotted the Hajj this year describing Saudi Arabia as a “damned tree”, while the kingdom accused Iranians of politicizing the Hajj.
But between Hajj being a religious duty, and visits to holy shrines being simply a religious benefit, the Shiite approach seems to be unclear. Many Shiites seem to be more attached to going to Iran, Iraq, and Syria than going to Mecca in Saudi Arabia.
The young Shiites we met mention many reasons for this. Ghaleb explains that he would not consider Hajj as long as Al Saud control the Black Stone and the rituals in the Medina: “Why would I pay money to Al Saud to go to Hajj? So that they use my money to kill Shiites in Yemen and Syria?” When we pointed that in Islam anyone who is able and can afford to do Hajj must do it, making it wrong not to go to Hajj, he objects and explains that he is not the one responsible for not going.
He adds that Saudi Arabia, and especially after the last year’s incident when many, mostly Iranian pilgrims died, has made it much harder for Shiites to get visas, and especially if they are young. The kingdom gives visas according to a quota and excludes anyone who is close to Hezbollah and Iran. He also reminds us of the incident when former Iranian ambassador Ghadanfar Rokn Abadi was killed, and considers it to be a conspiracy.
Ghaleb speaks about his visit to Sayyida Zaynab which gave him more spiritual satisfaction than any Hajj would ever do. When he was there, he felt powerful especially that at the time battles were raging around the site as “terrorists were trying to suppress the Shiite identity”. Ghaleb prefers not to go on organized group visits which have become a trend, as he cannot handle this religious consumerism.
All inclusive trips
Group visits, or campaigns, have become an important part of Shiite society. The campaign names are many, but all offer practically the same services: visa, plane ticket, hotel, and religious services. The organizer of “Ansar al Aqila campaign”, Haj Mohammed Al Mallah explains the logistic dimension to Raseef22. Every month, he takes more than 80 visitors to Karbala and Najaf in Iraq. Every year in July, he takes them to Iran for the anniversary of Imam Ali Reza, and in spring to celebrate Nowruz, or to celebrate Layali al Qadr. Numbers swell considerably during religious celebrations.
In 2000, he started organizing tours to Syria but stopped after the last bus explosion close to Sayyida Zaynab. After 2003 he started going to Iraq, but he does not go to Samara, or Kadhimia where it is too dangerous. In 2006 Iran became a new destination. A trip with him costs $750 and is all inclusive. Visitors are accompanied by religious scholars and mourners. While Al Mallah refrains from endangering his customers, other tour organizers don’t have a problem going to dangerous places.
After a number of visitors were kidnapped in Syria, in what later became known as the Azaz hostages, discussions about the purpose of the campaigns that endanger visitors intensified. The reaction was a rise in the numbers of visitors and an increase in the work of tour organizers. This exposed the political dimension of the visits. Playing on the religious affiliation of people is not new in politics, especially for Shiites, as politics and religion have been interlocked since Imam Hussein’s revolution against injustice. Remembering and honoring the Imams is an existential act that was accentuated by the intensifying Shiite-Sunni conflict in the Arab region.
It’s all about politics
The visits to holy shrines have often been banned throughout history, whether under the Umayyads or today under the radical Jihadi groups. This aspect turns the visits into a “declaration of commitment to Shiite faith and a challenge to the other side” according to wrtier Abdallah Zogheib. According to him, the particularity of such visits for Shiites comes from the nature of the doctrine and its components. Shiite Islam is based on a commitment to the family of the Prophet, including the support of one position over the other. He explains that “the Shiites supported Ali Ben Abi Taleb following the division that took place when the Prophet died. And since then there has been a complete connection to Ahl al Bayt (the family of the Prophet) which became a central pillar of Shiite preaching and religious discourse”.
SImply put Iran suspends Hajj, a pillar of Islam, protesting Saudi politics and policy
Shiites replace Hajj by their holy shrines and wish the Black Stone would be moved out of Saudi so Hajj regains its importance
Zogheib considers that “the visits to the shrines of Imams is not a required religious ritual, but one that has a function to create a permanent dynamic within the Shiite doctrine”. All this came in the context of a minority that has suffered constant challenges. The visits become a way to assert devotion to this religious belief instead of others that Shiite religious scholars think ignore the importance of Ahl al-Bayt in the doctrinal and theological production of the Muslim faith. On another level, there is an economic dimension: the difference in cost between Hajj and religious visits can be more than $2000 which adds to the popularity of the cheaper option.
A visit is worth a thousand Hajj
The tendency of Shiites to prefer visits over Hajj is fueled by a number of religious Hadiths some of which even considers the visits to be enough of a religious substitute to Hajj. Imam Baqer is reported to have said that the visit to the shrine of Imam Hussein is a duty for every Muslim who admits that Hussein was an Imam. While the Prophet Mohammed is reported to have said to Ali “whoever builds your graves and takes care of it, is like those who helped Solomon son of David in building Jerusalem, and whoever visits your graves is given the benefits of seventy Hajj” (Al Harr Al Amli, The Gifts of a Nation to the Rules of the Imams, p. 453).
There is a difference in performing the Hajj between what is known as Abrahamic Hajj and non-Abrahamic one. This is evident in the decreasing desire of Shiites to go to Hajj especially with Saudi repression against some rituals. For instance, there is the question of calendars, especially when it comes to defining which day is the Day of Arafah or the Eid which are occasions that often expose discord among Shiite and Saudi religious scholars. But Shiites have “always accepted to follow the kingdom’s calendar in order to avoid any contradictions during the Hajj season, one that is impossible in light of the management and logistical complexities, which is something that Shiites have always felt weakened the Hajj,” according to Abdullah Zogheib.
It is important to point out here that Shiites are barred from performing some rituals such as the visits to the Prophet’s grave and the Baqi’ graves in the Medina. Even before the Saudi era, Shiite were always victims of many forms of abuse during Hajj. Today, with the growing conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and Iran’s decision not to send any pilgrims, a growing Shiite solidarity with the boycott is appearing especially among those who follow the Wilayat al Faqih and the Islamic revolution in Iran. Everyone uses sectarian propaganda to keep their supporters motivated.
In order for Hajj to regain its importance in the minds of Shiites, many wait for a regime change in Saudi Arabia or the end of the sectarian conflict, or the end of Sunni radicalism threatening Shiite existence. Perhaps, Shiites will have to wait for the Black Stone to be transported somewhere outside of Saudi Arabia, where they will be able to visit it freely.