Posts Tagged Shiism
Posted by Martin Kramer in on September 11, 2015
This is a screen grab. The original post, with active links, is here.
On Tuesday I posted a video-photo essay on the Iranian-built shine in Raqqa, northern Syria. I explained the political motive behind its construction, and why its capture by anti-regime insurgents had so much symbolic significance. I noted that the shrine was now “likely to be purged of its explicitly Iranian and Shiite references.”
Over the weekend, a video clip has been circulating around the Internet which shows just that. It originated in the television program “With Syria Until Victory,” of the well-known opposition Salafist preacher Sheikh Adnan al-Ar’ur, broadcast on Al-Shada TV last Thursday night. A reporter takes us on a tour through the “liberated” shrine, from minute 1:29:40. The clip is embedded below. (If you don’t see it, click here. Just the report, excerpted from the program, can be watched here.)
The narration is in Arabic, so I’ll quickly summarize. At the entrance, we see graffiti on both sides of the doors, announcing that this is now the Sunna Mosque. We then see the Arabic dedication plaque, where the names of Bashar Asad and Mohammad Khatami are totally effaced (but not that of Hafez Asad). Inside, we see one of the tombs, and are shown a broken bottle of wine, as well as a pile of CDs and tapes, which are described as “pornographic films.” There are books, described as evidence for Shiite proselytizing, and two Shiite banners, proclaiming “Ya Husayn” and “Ya Ali.” There is a classroom for teaching children the Shiite creed. The people of Syria, the narrator reassures us, are stronger than those who would divert them from the true path.
In Sheikh al-Ar’ur’s commentary, from minute 1:32:36, he explains that the wine and pornographic films are evidence that the shrine served as a trap for Sunni youths—an intelligence operation to film them in compromising situations.
The shrine is intact and protected (a uniformed man is glimpsed at the entrance), although there is no mention of which faction is in control. The Iranian media had earlier reported that the shrine was destroyed by Sunni extremists, but this was manifestly false. Fear of possible Sunni destruction of shrines stands ostensibly behind the deployment of foreign Shiite “volunteers” around the Sayyida Zaynab shrine in Damascus, where they are effectively bolstering the Asad regime. (This is the so-called “Abu Fadl al-Abbas Brigade.”)
To judge from the way this latest clip has raced around the Internet and proliferated on Youtube, the symbolism of the Raqqa shrine isn’t lost on Sunnis or Shiites. That suggests that the battle to defend the Damascus shrines is certain to raise the sectarian temperature still further.
(Again, for the full context, consult my video-photo essay.)
Update: Javier Espinosa of the Spanish newspaper El Mundo has now visited the shrine and tweets as below. He assures me he saw the destruction himself.
— Javier Espinosa (@javierespinosa2) April 23, 2013
On March 4, a curious video clip from Syria appeared on the internet. It shows a large, gilt-framed double portrait of Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khameneh’i cast down on a stone floor. A man whose face is never shown steps repeatedly on the portrait, to the crunching sound of broken glass. (If you don’t see the embedded video below, click here.)
Four times in the 90-second segment, the camera pans up to focus on the ornate portal of an impressive building, inscribed with a verse of the Qur’an (13:24): “Peace unto you for that ye persevered in patience! Now how excellent is the final Home!” Someone off-camera mutters the name of Raqqa, a dusty provincial capital situated on the Euphrates about 200 kilometers east of Aleppo. It was seized by Sunni Islamist insurgents during the first week of March, and this clip clearly depicts an episode in the immediate aftermath of the city’s capture. But it doesn’t identify the specific place or explain the act of iconoclasm it depicts.
Had the camera panned up still further, it would have revealed the entire façade, completing part of the puzzle. The upper inscription identifies this site as the shrine of two figures from seventh-century Islamic history. The façade is striking, but just what is the connection of this shrine in Raqqa to Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khameneh’i, and why is their portrait being defaced at its entrance?
I answer that question in a new photo gallery, taking you on a visit to an impoverished far corner of Syria, and to the missing link in the so-called “Shiite crescent.” Go here to join me on the journey. I’ll get you back in time for lunch.
Posted by Martin Kramer in on October 11, 2010
Martin Kramer, “Khomeini’s Messengers in Mecca,” in Martin Kramer, Arab Awakening and Islamic Revival (New Brunswick: Transaction, 1996), pp. 161-87.
This is the last and most detailed version of a series of studies devoted to the subject of Iranian-Saudi and Shiite-Wahhabi conflict in Mecca. Earlier versions: “The Ancient Sunni-Shiite Feud,” The New York Times, August 5, 1987; “Behind the Riot in Mecca,” Policy Focus, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, no. 5, August 1987; “Tragedy in Mecca,” Orbis (Philadelphia), vol. 31, no. 1 (Spring 1988), pp. 231-47; “La Mecque: la controverse du pèlerinage,” Maghreb-Machrek (Paris), no. 122 (Oct.-Nov.-Dec. 1988), pp. 38-52; and “Khomeini’s Messengers: The Disputed Pilgrimage of Islam,” in Religious Radicalism and Politics in the Middle East, eds. E. Sivan and M. Friedman (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990), pp. 174-97.
According to the tradition of Islam, Mecca during the annual Muslim pilgrimage is a city open to all Muslims, in which all forms of strife and bloodshed are forbidden. The peace of Mecca is a concept so rooted in Arabia that it even predates Islam, and was observed by sojourners in Mecca before the Arabian shrine became the center of Muslim faith.
But in 1987, Mecca became a site of unprecedented carnage when demonstrating Iranian pilgrims clashed with Saudi security forces in a bloody confrontation that claimed over four hundred lives. The Saudis and their supporters called the event a premeditated riot: violent Iranian demonstrators crushed themselves to death in a stampede of their own making. The Iranians and their sympathizers called it a premeditated massacre: the Saudis conspired to provoke and shoot Iranian pilgrims. The pilgrimage to Mecca, far from providing a respite from the conflicts that beset Islam, had itself become a point of confrontation between rival visions of Islam. The pilgrimage peace had been shattered by the brickbats and bullets of Muslims.
The disruption of the pilgrimage peace admitted multiple interpretations. It occurred at a moment of escalating tensions in the last phase of the Iranian-Iraqi war, following the American reflagging of Kuwaiti tankers and the introduction of foreign escorts in the Gulf. This foreign intervention, favored by Saudi Arabia and opposed by Iran, created an atmosphere of crisis between the two states. Yet the deterioration of the pilgrimage peace also reflected tensions dating back to Iran’s revolution, an event which kindled a broader rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran over primacy in the Gulf and in Islam. That conflict had its remote origins in the great historical animosity of Wahhabism, the fount of Saudi Islam, to Shi‘ism itself. Nor can the most recent pilgrimage strife be divorced from the history of mistrust between Shi‘ite pilgrims and their Sunni hosts, a history that stretches back as far as the sixteenth century. At a still deeper level, the event echoed Sunni-Shi‘ite animosities that had their origins in the seventh century, at the very dawn of Islam.
Even if it is allowed that the Gulf crisis triggered the violence of 1987, it was understood by Muslims in a larger historical context. Much of that understanding is implicit and unspoken, because it is essentially sectarian. Sectarian bigotry dare not speak its name openly. Like racial and ethnic prejudice in other societies, sectarian prejudice is not professed openly in the Muslim world. “They are now propagandizing and claiming that this incident was a war between Shi‘ites and Sunnis,” charged Ali Khamene’i, then the president of Iran, after the 1987 violence. “This is a lie! Of course there is a war; but a war between the American perception of Islam and true revolutionary Islam.”1 The pilgrimage controversy is not only one between Shi‘ites and Sunnis, but neither is it one between Khomeini’s truth and America’s falsehood. It is a conflict that is simultaneously political and sectarian, that combines a present-day clash of interests with the historic clash of sects in Islam. Some of these sectarian differences touch upon the Muslim pilgrimage itself, and involve conflicting notions of sanctity and asylum. The aim of this essay is to explain the interaction of contemporary politics with the enduring prejudices that Saudis and Iranians still bring to Mecca.2
From Ottomans to Saudis
The pilgrimage ritual itself is not an issue about which Sunnis and Shi‘ites have conducted an elaborate polemic. The bedrock of sectarian conflict has always been the matter of the Imamate—the question of legitimate authority in Islam—which is a matter of theological controversy outside the ritual sphere. Yet over time, theological differences were transformed into political, social, and cultural differences, and these infected both sects with bigoted lore about Shi‘ite pilgrims and Sunni hosts. This was particularly evident after Sunni-Shi‘ite differences took the form of Ottoman-Safavid armed conflict, beginning in the sixteenth century. That was perhaps the most divided century in Islamic history, marked by great wars of religion between Sunnis and Shi‘ites. When the holy cities were under Sunni Ottoman rule, there were years in which the Ottomans denied entry to Shi‘ites coming from Safavid domains. The Safavids reacted by trying to discourage the pilgrimage to Mecca and emphasizing the importance of Shi‘ite shrines in their own domains.3
The Sunni corpus of libel is perhaps more readily documented, if only because it sometimes led to violent acts against Shi‘ite pilgrims. At the root of the Sunni lore is the belief that Shi‘ites feel themselves compelled to pollute the holy premises. Much evidence for Sunni belief in this libel exists both in Islamic textual sources and in European travel literature. This pollution was said to take a particularly repelling form: Burckhardt and Burton, the great nineteenth-century explorers of Arabia, both heard about attacks on Shi‘ite pilgrims, prompted by the suspicion that they had polluted the Great Mosque in Mecca with excrement. According to Burton, “their ill-fame has spread far; at Alexandria they were described to me as a people who defile the Ka‘bah.”4
The Shi‘ite libel was just as farfetched. It held that Sunnis did not respect Mecca as a sanctuary, and that the lives of Shi‘ite pilgrims were forfeit even in these sacred precincts, where the shedding of blood is forbidden. Shi‘ite pilgrims were indeed liable to humiliation at any time; as Burton wrote of Shi‘ites on pilgrimage, “that man is happy who gets over it without a beating, [for] in no part of Al-Hijaz are they for a moment safe from abuse and blows.”5 Yet it would seem that, for the most part, Shi‘ite pilgrims were as secure as other pilgrims, provided they exercised the discretion (taqiyya) permitted them by Shi‘ite doctrine and conformed with the customs of their Sunni hosts. During the Ottoman period, the Iranian pilgrims’ caravan also bought its security through a special tribute, paid both to desert tribes en route and to the guardians of the sanctuaries.6
Since toleration could be had at a price which Shi‘ite pilgrims were prepared to pay, their lives were rarely as threatened as their dignity. The open manner in which Shi‘ites observed Muharram in Jidda epitomized the tolerance of the late Ottoman years. When the Dutch Orientalist Hurgronje witnessed these ceremonies in 1884, he found the Ottoman governor in attendance. Hurgronje reported that the governor “not only drank sherbet but also wept piously.”7 Writing of his pilgrimage in 1885, an Iranian Shi‘ite described the tolerance shown to Shi‘ites generally:
Previously, in Mecca the populace greatly persecuted the Iranian pilgrims who were Shi‘ites, so they had to practice complete dissimulation. These days, because of the weakness of the Ottoman government and the European style civil law which is practiced there, and the strength of the Iranian government, this practice is completely abandoned. There is no harm done to the Iranians. No one would molest them, even if they did not practice dissimulation.8
But sectarian antagonisms were exacerbated following the advent of Saudi rule over Mecca in 1924. The doctrinal divide which separated Ottoman Sunnism from Shi‘ism seemed narrow in comparison to the chasm which separated Saudi Wahhabism and Shi‘ism. Wahhabi doctrine regarded Shi‘ite veneration of the Imams and their tombs as blasphemous idolatry. The Wahhabi iconoclasts had earned lasting notoriety in Shi‘ite eyes when they emerged from the Arabian desert in 1802 and sacked Karbala, the Shi‘ite shrine city in Iraq. They slew several thousand Shi‘ites on that occasion and desecrated the revered tomb of the Imam Husayn, whose martyrdom in the seventh century is the pivotal event in Shi‘ite religious history. Those Shi‘ites who perished became martyrs in the eyes of their coreligionists, sacrificed on the very site of Husayn’s martyrdom.
When a revived Wahhabi movement swept through Arabia during the first quarter of this century, it appeared as hostile as ever to Shi‘ism’s most fundamental assumptions. The leader of the movement, Abd al-Aziz Ibn Sa‘ud, when asked in 1918 about the Shi‘ite shrines in Iraq, could still declare that “I would raise no objection if you demolished the whole lot of them, and I would demolish them myself if I had the chance.”9 He never had that chance, but he did besiege and occupy Medina, and his bombardment of the city produced a general strike in Iran and an uproar throughout the Shi‘ite world. For while the pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca holds the same significance for Sunnis and Shi‘ites, the visitation (ziyara) to nearby Medina is of special significance for Shi‘ites. The cemetery of al-Baqi‘, near the city, is the reputed resting place of the Prophet Muhammad’s daughter Fatima and four of the Twelve Imams. It was the Shi‘ite practice at this cemetery to pray for their intercession with God. 10 The Wahhabis, for whom prayer through these intercessors represented a form of idolatry, had leveled much of this cemetery in 1806, during an earlier occupation of Medina, but its domed tombs had been rebuilt by the end of the century. Now the Saudis, in their purifying zeal, again demolished the domes of al-Baqi‘, a move regarded by Shi‘ites as desecration of their hallowed shrines.
The demolition created so profound a sentiment in Iran, especially in religious circles, that the Iranian government refused to recognize Ibn Sa‘ud’s rule. Instead, Iran demanded that a general assembly of Muslims be created to regulate the holy cities, while a Shi‘ite conference convened in Lucknow, India, called upon all Muslims to use every possible means to expel Ibn Sa‘ud from the Hijaz.11 Denial of recognition was combined, in 1927, with a decision by Iran to forbid the pilgrimage to its nationals, as an act of protest against the alleged intolerance of the Wahhabis and their destruction of tombs.12
Still, the ban failed to discourage the most determined pilgrims from Iran, who continued to arrive via Iraq and Syria. And in a pragmatic step, Ibn Sa‘ud moved to defuse the extensive Shi‘ite agitation against him by a show of tolerance designed to win official Iranian recognition. Shi‘ite pilgrims from Arab lands met with exemplary treatment during the year in which Iran imposed the ban, and Iran’s ulama soon were demanding the restored right to perform the pilgrimage. In 1928, Iran lifted the pilgrimage ban, and in 1929 Iran and Ibn Sa‘ud’s kingdom concluded a treaty of friendship. Article 3 of the treaty guaranteed that Iran’s pilgrims would enjoy treatment identical to that of pilgrims from other countries, and that they would not be prevented from observing their own religious rites.13
Iran’s pilgrims came to enjoy a measure of toleration which reflected the pragmatism of Ibn Sa‘ud on Shi‘ite matters, an approach which also guided his policy toward his own Shi‘ite minority in the east of his kingdom.14 Ibn Sa‘ud, in both hosting and ruling over Shi‘ites, now asked only that they avoid public enactment of distinctly Shi‘ite rituals. A pattern of tolerance thus seemed to have been established. It was not much tested during the 1930s, when Iran’s own government imposed a virtual ban on the pilgrimage to Mecca, in order to conserve foreign exchange.15 But other Shi‘ites, especially from India, fulfilled the obligation with no difficulty, although they often expressed frustration at their inability to pray at graves and sites which had once been the focus of the Shi‘ite pilgrimage.16
All the more striking, then, was a serious recurrence of the Sunni libel of Shi‘ite defilement. In 1943, a Saudi religious judge ordered an Iranian pilgrim beheaded for allegedly defiling the Great Mosque with excrement supposedly carried into the mosque in his pilgrim’s garment. Ibn Sa‘ud remarked to some Americans that “this was the kind of offense which might be expected of Iranian.” The verdict in local coffee houses held that “the Iranians always act that way.”17 The incident, which infuriated religious opinion in Iran, culminated in an official Iranian protest and a demand for payment of an indemnity. The Iranian press indulged in a campaign of anti-Wahhabi polemic shriller than anything published since Ibn Sa‘ud’s conquest of the Mecca. Once again, tales of Wahhabi barbarism were retold, and the story of the sacking of Karbala was recounted with anguish and embellishment. The government of Iran imposed another pilgrimage ban, which it only lifted in 1948, after the dust of controversy had settled.
The pilgrimage controversy became dormant again following the political rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran during the 1960s, which was the outcome of shared apprehension over Egyptian-sponsored subversion. Theologians on both sides of the divide continued to publish intolerant polemical attacks and legal opinions directed against the rival reading of Islam. Yet the doctrinal disagreement was accompanied by a steady increase in the number of Iranian pilgrims, thanks to the introduction of a direct air service for pilgrims. The number of Iranian pilgrims rose steadily, from 12,000 in 1961 to 57,000 in 1972.
Revolution and Pilgrimage
This influx coincided with the appearance of an introspective and overtly political genre of Iranian writing on the pilgrimage. The radical Iranian publicist Ali Shariati, in his book entitled Hajj, sought deeper meaning in the Meccan pilgrimage in his quest for a solution to contemporary Islam’s broader philosophical and political dilemmas. Shariati urged the pilgrims “to study the dangers and consequences of the superpowers and their agents who have infiltrated Muslim nations. They should resolve to fight against brainwashing, propaganda, disunity, heresy, and false religions.”18
In 1971, several Iranians were arrested in Mecca for distributing a message to Muslim pilgrims from one Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Najaf, the Shi‘ite shrine city in Iraq: “At this sacred pilgrimage gathering, the Muslims must exchange their views concerning the basic problems of Islam and the special problems of each Muslim country. The people of each country should, in effect, present a report concerning their own state to the Muslims of the world, and thus all will come to know what their Muslim brothers are suffering at the hands of imperialism and its agents.” Khomeini then presented his own scathing “report” on Iran, describing it as “a military base for Israel, which means, by extension, for America.”19
After 1971, hardly a year passed during which some Iranians did not distribute a similar message from Khomeini to Muslim pilgrims. The effort usually met with Saudi apathy, for the Saudis did not regard this preaching as directed against themselves. Khomeini worded his annual pilgrimage message in such a way as to appeal to Iranian pilgrims, and to alert other pilgrims to the “shameful, bloody, so-called White Revolution” of the Shah. Such propaganda was liable to complicate Saudi relations with the Shah’s Iran, so Saudi authorities took measures against the more brazen distributors of Khomeini’s messages. But the Saudis did not regard these few troublesome Iranians as a serious threat to their own standing as rulers of Islam’s holiest sanctuaries. Khomeini himself performed the pilgrimage in 1973, without incident.
The truly radical feature of Shi‘ite doctrine as expounded both by Khomeini and Shariati was their abrogation of the Shi‘ite principle of discretion (taqiyya) during the pilgrimage, a discretion which had generally been reciprocated by Saudi tolerance. Khomeini now argued that a crucial obligation of the Muslim pilgrim was to “disavow the polytheists,” in an essentially political rite focused on denunciations of America, Israel, and corrupt Muslim governments. By urging his followers to view the pilgrimage as a political rite, he set Shi‘ites apart from other pilgrims, with serious consequences for the fragile tolerance which the Saudis had shown toward Shi‘ite pilgrims. The new preaching upset the delicate balance that preserved the pilgrimage peace, by urging a line of action that implicitly underlined differences between Shi‘ite pilgrims and Sunni hosts.
Following the Iranian revolution, Iran sought to act on the principles elaborated by Khomeini, by appealing directly to the Muslim pilgrims of other lands through political activity during the pilgrimage.20 The process of politicization was gradual. In 1979, Iran’s pilgrims engaged in only light propagandizing, and in 1980 Iran organized a much reduced pilgrimage, due to the outbreak of war with Iraq. But large demonstrations, resulting in violent clashes with Saudi police, first took place in 1981, when Iranian pilgrims began to chant political slogans in the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina and the Great Mosque in Mecca. Saudi security forces acted against the Iranians in both mosques, and a subsequent clash in the Prophet’s Mosque resulted in the death of an Iranian pilgrim. In 1982, the Iranian pilgrimage took an even more radical turn, when Khomeini appointed Hojjatolislam Musavi-Khoiniha as his pilgrimage representative. Khoiniha was the mentor of the students who had seized the United States Embassy in Tehran. Saudi police clashed with demonstrators whom he addressed in both Medina and Mecca. In Mecca he was arrested, and a speech delivered in Medina after the pilgrimage earned him expulsion as an “instigator.”
This renewed conflict on the ground intensified the polemical debate over the pilgrimage. The debate was not a simple repetition of the old libels, if only because the intellectual climate of contemporary Islam is inhospitable to overt sectarian polemics. For most Muslims, it is no longer considered politic to dwell openly on the differences between Sunni and Shi‘ite Islam. Indeed, merely to cite these differences is regarded by many as part of an imperialist plot to foment division in Islam. The new sectarianism takes a subtler form: Shi‘ites profess their unity of purpose with Sunnis, but then declare that a major expression of Sunnism (in this case, Saudi Wahhabism) is a deviation from ecumenical Islam. Sunnis declare their acceptance of Shi‘ites as Muslims, but then declare that a major expression of Shi‘ism (in this case, Iran’s revolutionary activism) constitutes a deviation from ecumenical Islam.
In this manner, sectarian prejudice is insinuated, even as the unity of Islam is openly professed. This is precisely how the lines of argument in the new pilgrimage polemic insinuated the libels of yesteryear—most perfectly in the brief correspondence between the Saudi King Khalid and Imam Khomeini in October 1981, at a time of violent clashes in Mecca and Medina between Iranian pilgrims and Saudi police.21 Khalid compiled a revealing letter of protest to Khomeini, asking that Khomeini urge his followers to show restraint but strongly hinting that the Great Mosque had been defiled by blasphemous Iranian pilgrims. According to Khalid, Iranian pilgrims in the Great Mosque had performed their ritual circumambulations while chanting “God is great, Khomeini is great,” and “God is one, Khomeini is one.” There was no need for Khalid to elaborate on this charge. It was obvious that the Iranians’ slogans constituted an excessive veneration of their Imam, a form of blasphemous polytheism. All this had aroused the “dissatisfaction and disgust” of other pilgrims, wrote Khalid to Khomeini.
In fact, Khalid’s letter distorted well-known Iranian revolutionary slogans. Iranian pilgrims had actually chanted “God is great, Khomeini is leader.” The Saudis had confused the Persian word for “leader” (rahbar) with the rhyming Arabic for “great” (akbar). The pilgrims’ Arabic chant declared that “God is one, Khomeini is leader.” Here, the Saudis had confused the Arabic for “one” (wahid) with the rhyming Arabic for “leader” (qa’id). There was a vast difference between the slogans as actually chanted by the Iranians, and the inadvertent or deliberate misrepresentations of Khalid. In the actual slogans, Khomeini is cast as a leader unrivaled in the world, but subordinate to an almighty God. In the slogans as reported by the Saudis, Khomeini is placed on one plane with God, a verbal pollution of Islam’s holiest sanctuary. It was this familiar but disguised charge of Shi‘ite defilement which the Saudis sought to level at Iran’s pilgrims. The accusation gained credibility from the formerly widespread Sunni conviction that the Shi‘ites are bound to pollute the Great Mosque.
In his reply to Khalid, Khomeini evoked the old Shi‘ite libel, charging the Saudis with failing to respect the refuge provided by the Great Mosque. “How is it that the Saudi police attack Muslims with jackboots and weapons, beat them, arrest them, and send them to prisons from inside the holy mosque, a place which according to the teaching of God and the text of the Qur’an, is refuge for all, even deviants?” This was a decidedly Shi‘ite reading of the meaning of the Great Mosque’s sanctity, which owed a great deal to the concept of refuge (bast) which traditionally applied to Shi‘ite shrines in Iran. Such shrines were indeed absolutely inviolable places of refuge, where any kind of malefactor could find asylum.22
Nothing could have been further from the Wahhabi-Saudi concept of the sanctity of the holy places. These were and are regarded as sites so sacred that no deviation at all may be allowed in their precincts. Only from a Shi‘ite perspective did this Saudi concern for preserving the purity of the Great Mosque appear as blind disrespect. In 1979, when an extreme group of Sunni zealots took over the Great Mosque, the Saudis acted in good conscience to clear it of “deviants,” relying upon a fatwa issued by over thirty men of religion who argued that it was permissible to dislodge the defilers even by force of arms. This decision enjoyed wide Muslim support beyond Saudi Arabia, and Khomeini’s presentation of the Great Mosque as a place in which even “deviants” enjoyed absolute immunity could only be regarded as peculiarly Shi‘ite, for it relied upon a Shi‘ite concept of inviolable refuge which knows no parallel in Sunni Islam.
Differing concepts of sanctity also affected that part of the pilgrimage controversy played out in Medina. In 1982, Khomeini’s representative to the pilgrimage chose the cemetery of al-Baqi‘ in Medina as the site for a series of demonstrations combined with visitation prayers. After the Saudi demolition of the shrines in the cemetery in 1926, al-Baqi‘ ceased to serve as a place of organized Shi‘ite visitation. But after Iran’s Islamic revolution, Iranian pilgrims began to recite prayers outside the high wall which the Saudis had built to seal off the cemetery. In 1986, in a concession to Iran’s pilgrims, Saudi authorities allowed them access to the cemetery itself, and Khomeini’s representative to the pilgrimage formally thanked Saudi King Fahd for permitting the return of Shi‘ite pilgrims to the venerated site. This obsessive interest in al-Baqi‘ and other tombs, and the resort to the cemetery as a rallying point for pilgrims in Medina, reflected an especially Shi‘ite notion of Medina’s sanctity, and served to evoke past resentment against the Saudis for having defaced the memory of the Imams.
This heightened Shi‘ite interest in Medina also owed a great deal to changes in the spiritual geography of Shi‘ite Islam. After the outbreak of the war between Iran and Iraq, it was no longer possible for Iranians to visit the Shi‘ite shrine cities in Iraq and the tombs of the Imams in their sacred precincts. For the great mass of Shi‘ites, the pilgrimage to these sites in Iraq had taken precedence over the pilgrimage to Mecca and the visitation to Medina. Their inaccessibility greatly enhanced the significance for Iranian Shi‘ism of the holy cities of Arabia. By 1988, over one million Iranians had made application to Iranian authorities to embark on the pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina.23 As a result, al-Baqi‘ emerged again as a major Shi‘ite center of pilgrimage, and mass prayer services were conducted there after Iran’s revolution, not by the Saudi men of religion who manage the mosques in Mecca and Medina, but by visiting Shi‘ite clerics.
The Pilgrimage Understanding
Such identifiably Shi‘ite themes and methods of protest might have blinded other pilgrims to the political message of liberation which Iran wished to convey during the pilgrimage. The fear that Iran’s message might be dismissed by other Muslims as Shi‘ite dissent was responsible for some of the ecumenical intonations of Khomeini’s pilgrimage representatives and other Shi‘ite clerics. Most notably, Khomeini’s representatives instructed Iran’s pilgrims to pray with all other pilgrims behind the Sunni prayer leaders in the Great Mosque and the Prophet’s Mosque, lest they stand out for their Shi‘ism rather than their political activism. This restraint, matched by a parallel Saudi restraint in dealing with Iran’s pilgrims, left the impression that the pilgrimage controversy had been defused. The climate of confrontation dissipated in 1983; although tensions remained high, only minor incidents marred the pilgrimage peace over the next few years.
By 1986, it seemed that Iran and Saudi Arabia had reached a compromise permitting Iran to conduct a limited measure of political propaganda during the pilgrimage. By the informal terms of the pilgrimage understanding, Khomeini’s pilgrimage representative was permitted to organize two pilgrims’ rallies, the first in Medina and the second in Mecca, in areas removed from the holy mosques in each city. A number of understandings restricted the form and content of these demonstrations. Iran’s pilgrims were not to import or display printed matter and posters of a political nature, and their slogans were to be directed only against the U.S., the Soviet Union, and Israel. Other Muslim governments and the host government were not to be criticized. This understanding allowed Iran’s pilgrims to express their views, but enabled Saudi authorities to confine all demonstrating to two fixed events.
Yet not all of Iran’s zealots accepted these limitations. In 1986, a group of Iranian pilgrims who opposed the strategy of moderation in dealing with Saudi Arabia arrived in the country with a large quantity of high explosives in their suitcases. Their apparent aim was to destroy the pilgrimage understanding reached between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The plot failed: Saudi airport authorities discovered the explosives and arrested over one hundred pilgrims upon their arrival. The episode embarrassed those Iranian leaders who had assured Saudi Arabia that the pilgrimage peace would be preserved, and they dissociated themselves from the plot by their silence while the Saudis detained the pilgrims for weeks. But the plotters did enjoy the support of one of the major factions in Iran, which opposed the pursuit of the any opening toward the Saudis and favored the aggressive export of the revolution. In the pilgrimage plot of 1986, it became clear that the pilgrimage peace was an unstable one, affected by the changing balance in Iran’s internal power struggle.
The heightened political tensions of 1987 surrounding the introduction of U.S. naval forces into the Gulf also threatened the pilgrimage understanding. Saudi authorities were alarmed by a speech made at the beginning of July by Khoiniha, Khomeini’s former pilgrimage representative. Khoiniha had presided over the most turbulent pilgrimage seasons. His replacement as pilgrimage supervisor and his appointment as prosecutor general in 1985 was probably intended to reduce the chances of confrontation in Mecca. But he remained a powerful figure in Iran and a champion of extremists who opposed all limitations on Iran’s pilgrims. His speech was plainly provocative. This year, he declared, “a mere march or demonstration will not suffice.” Iran should not simply “gather a certain number of people who might support the views of the Islamic republic.” Khoiniha demanded that Saudi Arabia allow Khomeini’s pilgrimage representative to enter the Great Mosque in Mecca for one night, and there conduct a referendum among the throngs of pilgrims over the decision of the emir of Kuwait to invite foreign escorts for Kuwaiti tankers. At the same time, Khomeini’s representative would explain Iran’s case in the Gulf war. “All we ask is that the Saudi government not oppose this, nor send its guards to the Great Mosque. Let us see what happens. We will try it for one year.”24
Saudi authorities now had grounds to suspect that some of Iran’s pilgrims might attempt a takeover of the Great Mosque, as a political maneuver to embarrass Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the U.S. Khoiniha’s statement touched a raw nerve, and immediately elicited a warning from an unnamed official source in Saudi Arabia. The source noted that Saudi Arabia supported numerous other occasions for the expression of Muslim opinion on various matters, even during the pilgrimage. But such consultations in the Great Mosque would constitute an innovation in Islam, and “anyone who attempts to innovate in Islam will go to hell.” Saudi Arabia would shoulder its responsibility for safeguarding the Islamic shrines in Mecca and Medina.25
Khoiniha’s statement put the Saudi security apparatus on a high state of alert, and lent more credence to inevitable rumors that the Iranians planned a violent confrontation. But Khoiniha’s demand did not figure in the negotiations between the Saudi ministry of pilgrimage affairs and Khomeini’s official pilgrimage representative, Mehdi Karrubi. As Khomeini’s spokesman, Karrubi asked only that Iran be allowed to conduct its demonstration in Mecca as in past years. An Iranian official even covered the route of the planned demonstration with a Saudi official, and it clearly ended a mile short of the Great Mosque.
But despite this understanding, the Saudi authorities remained deeply suspicious. On the eve of the Mecca demonstration, they pressured Karrubi to cancel the march, lest violence break out. Karrubi refused, and declared that “in the event of disorder and disruption, the responsibility for this will be fully with the Saudi government.”26 Two days before the planned demonstration, the Iranian media published Khomeini’s annual message to the pilgrims. While longer and more high-strung than the messages of recent year s, it did not constitute a major departure from the understanding regarding the pilgrimage itself. Khomeini included the customary plea to pilgrims that they “avoid clashes, insults, and disputes,” and warned against those intent on disruption “who might embark on spontaneous moves.”27
The Understanding Destroyed
The atmosphere in Mecca was charged with tension on 31 July, the day of the planned demonstration. Many units of Saudi security forces were in evidence throughout the city and at the Great Mosque, where the usual Saudi “morality” police were replaced by armed soldiers. For the first time, guards at the gate subjected entering pilgrims to full body searches and forbade pilgrims from carrying anything into the Great Mosque, including sun umbrellas and canteens.28 These measures apparently reflected a Saudi intelligence estimate that an attempted Iranian takeover of the Great Mosque constituted a real possibility.
In the afternoon, the Iranian demonstration began in the usual fashion, with slogans and speeches. The march commenced upon the conclusion of the speeches; as in the past, it was led by chador-clad women and war invalids. At or near the end of the planned route, the march came upon a cordon of Saudi riot police and National Guardsmen who refused to allow the procession to go any further.
This dangerous situation became explosive in the wake of two developments. Apparently, some within the crowd of Iranian pilgrims chose this moment to echo Khoiniha’s provocative demand, and called upon the marchers to continue to the Great Mosque. At the same time (or perhaps even earlier), unidentified persons in an adjacent parking garage began to pelt the Iranian demonstrators with bricks, pieces of concrete, and iron bars. This exacerbated the situation on the confrontation line between the pilgrims and the police, and both sides began to exchange blows, the police using truncheons and electric prods, the demonstrators using sticks, knives, and rocks.
Because Karrubi and the other Iranian officials had not positioned themselves at the head of the march, they had no control over the conduct of Iran’s pilgrims at the crucial point of contact with Saudi police. During the ensuing confrontation, the Saudis backed down temporarily and the crowd surged forward. According to American intelligence sources, the tide was finally turned by reinforcements from the National Guard, who fired tear gas shells into the crowd and then opened fire with pistols and automatic weapons.29 The Saudis later denied firing on the demonstrators or even using tear gas. They claimed that the dispersed demonstrators surged in retreat, trampling one another to death. According to official Saudi figures, 402 people died in the clash, including 275 Iranian pilgrims, 85 Saudi police, and 42 pilgrims from other countries. Iran claimed that 400 Iranian pilgrims died, and that several thousand were injured.
This reconstruction rests upon a selective reading of the contradictory accounts provided by Iranian and Saudi sources.30 As no independent investigation will ever be conducted, important details will remain in doubt. But no evidence has been produced by Saudi Arabia or Iran to establish that the other side acted deliberately or with premeditation in order to provoke violence. The available evidence indicates that a group of undisciplined Iranian pilgrims, acting under the influence of at least one provocative statement by a leading Iranian official, wished to enter the Great Mosque as demonstrators. Saudi security authorities, who had been alerted to this possibility but lacked self-confidence in the face of provocation, employed deadly force to thwart the Iranian crowd.
Saudi television offers the Saudi version.
While the actual events in Mecca remained shrouded by irreconcilable claims, there could be no doubt about the immediate effect of the deaths at Mecca in revalidating hoary prejudices. The accusations which flew in both directions after the incident had few parallels in their intensity. Saudi Arabia’s interior minister, Prince Nayif bin Abd al-Aziz, relied upon Sunni prejudice when he charged that the real objective of the Iranian pilgrims was “to spoil the pilgrimage, because, as is known, the pilgrimage is done only if the Great Mosque is entered.” Iranian “sedition” inside the Great Mosque would have made it impossible for other pilgrims to have carried out the required circumambulations in the Great Mosque. “The pilgrimage would have been spoilt.”31 There is no evidence that the Iranian demonstrators, even those who wished to carry their protest into the Great Mosque, intended to ruin the rite for other pilgrims. But by his charge Nayif sought to associate the Iranian demonstrators with the legendary Shi‘ite “defilers” of the Great Mosque.
Iranian statements pandered to the belief still held by Shi‘ites that the fanatic Saudis were driven by their own misguided beliefs to kill innocent Shi‘ite pilgrims. Khomeini declared that the Saudi rulers, “these vile and ungodly Wahhabis, are like daggers which have always pierced the heart of the Muslims from the back,” and announced that Mecca was in the hands of “a band of heretics.”32 Once more, the Saudis were transformed into what the speaker of the parliament, Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, called “Wahhabi hooligans.” Rafsanjani recalled the nineteenth-century Wahhabi massacres (of Shi‘ites) in Najaf and Karbala, the Wahhabi destruction of Islamic monuments in Medina (venerated by Shi‘ites), and the Wahhabi burning of libraries (containing Shi‘ite works). The Wahhabis “will commit any kind of crime. I ask you to pay more attention to the history of that evil clique so that you can see what kind of creatures they have been in the course of their history.”33 This represented a deliberate attempt to fuel a present crisis with the memory of past sectarian hatreds.
Following the Mecca tragedy, both Saudi Arabia and Iran conducted large-scale campaigns to influence Muslim opinion abroad. The Saudi government ordered its principal missionary organization, the Muslim World League, to convene an Islamic conference in Mecca in October 1987. More than six hundred supporters and clients of Saudi Arabia from 134 countries attended the conference, which was opened by Saudi King Fahd. As expected, the conference condemned Iran alone for the Mecca violence: Iran’s government—a government “accustomed to terrorism and a thirst for Muslim blood”—“solely bears the responsibility for the outrage in God’s holy mosque.” The conference endorsed the measures taken by the Saudi authorities “to quell the sedition and to contain the fires of wickedness.”34 Iran immediately attacked the conference in Mecca as one more attempt by the Saudis to “buy the religion of Muslims.”35 Saudi Shi‘ite opposition sources charged that the Saudis had spent $470 million on the conference, and that total expenses were liable to reach $700 million. The conference, far from being Islamic, had a narrowly Sunni, Wahhabi, and Saudi orientation, said its Iranian critics; it was a conference of men of religion who served the rulers, not the religion.36
The following month, Iran convened an “International Congress on Safeguarding the Sanctity and Security of the Great Mosque,” under the auspices of the ministry of Islamic guidance and the foreign ministry. Rafsanjani, in addressing the three hundred participants from 36 countries, called for the “liberation” of Mecca and the establishment of an “Islamic International” which would govern Mecca as a free city.37 Ayatollah Husayn Ali Montazeri, at the time Khomeini’s successor-designate, met with the foreign guests and denounced the Saudis as “a bunch of English agents from Najd who have no respect either for the House of God or for the pilgrims who are the guests of God.” Just as Jerusalem would be liberated from the “claws of usurping Israel,” Mecca and Medina would be liberated from the “claws of Al Sa‘ud.”38 A Sunni cleric at the conference apparently took the analogy still further, denouncing the Saudis as Jews. An Iranian conferee clarified the point: Iran did not label the Saudis Jews, but “even if we do not agree that you are Jews, your deeds are worse than those of the Jews. What you did to Muslims in the House of God has never been done to Muslims by the Jews.”39 The insinuation that the Saudis were Jews—the worst possible libel—echoed an old piece of Shi‘ite bigotry that attributed Jewish origins to the Saudi ruling family.40 The Tehran resolutions were repeated by Iranian-inspired seminars on the pilgrimage that subsequently met in Beirut and Lahore. The Saudis also convened supporting conferences elsewhere, most notably in London, where Saudi clients declared support for the use of force in quelling Iranian “sedition.”41
The Three-Year Boycott
After the initial round of conferences, attention shifted to the next pilgrimage. The Saudis were reluctant to impose an outright ban on Iran’s pilgrims, lest they open Saudi Arabia to the charge of denying Muslims the opportunity to fulfill a fundamental obligation of Islam. But the Saudis clearly sought to translate the tragedy into a far-reaching revision of the informal understanding that had come apart in 1987, and that had become a thorn in the side of Saudi security.
First, Saudi officials, citing wider Muslim support for their version of the 1987 tragedy, made it clear that no marches would be allowed again. The demonstrations which Khomeini had attempted to introduce as part of the pilgrimage ritual—and which the Saudis had tolerated—would no longer be allowed.
Second, the Saudis then moved to cut the number of Iran’s pilgrims. Numbering 150,000 per year, they had come to constitute the largest national group. This move won full endorsement from the foreign ministers’ conference of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, meeting in Amman in March 1988. That gathering placed the blame for the tragedy in Mecca squarely on the shoulders of Iran’s pilgrims, and voiced support for Saudi measures to prevent a repetition of the violence. But most important, the conference supported a Saudi proposal to limit the number of pilgrims by establishing national quotas for pilgrims, based upon each country’s population. The ostensible aim was to give Saudi Arabia a three-year interlude to expand and improve facilities in Mecca. But while these facilities did need modernization, the most important effect of the planned quota of one thousand pilgrims per million population would be a drastic cut the number of Iran’s pilgrims, from 150,000 to 45,000. The Saudis, of course, were fully aware of Khomeini’s stand that any reduction in the number of Iran’s pilgrims would result in an Iranian boycott of the pilgrimage.
Finally, to assure such a boycott, Saudi Arabia chose this moment to sever relations with Iran. Saudi Arabia had maintained relations with Iran through the confrontation of October 1987, despite the storming of the Saudi legation by a Tehran crowd and the resulting death of a Saudi diplomat. But in April 1988, Saudi Arabia severed relations, with the clear purpose of making it impossible for Iranian pilgrims to secure pilgrims’ visas.
As expected, the Iranian government, with the sanction of a ruling by Khomeini, responded to the Saudi measures by boycotting the 1988 pilgrimage altogether. As expected, Iran accused the Saudis of preventing Muslims from fulfilling the fundamental obligation of pilgrimage. Any Muslim with the means to perform the pilgrimage was entitled to do so, claimed the Iranians; the Saudi implementation of a quota system demonstrated their incompetence.42 In Khomeini’s message on the first anniversary of the “massacre,” he accused the “centers of Wahhabism” of “sedition and espionage.” At Mecca in 1987, he said, “the sword of blasphemy and division, which had been hidden in the hypocritical cloak of Yazid’s followers and descendants of the Umayyad dynasty, God’s curse be upon them, had to come out again from the same cloak of Abu Sufyan’s heirs to destroy and kill.”43 Whatever his intention, Khomeini’s resort to this historical analogy constituted a sectarian allusion—despite his claim, in the very same message, that it was the U.S. and the Saudis who tried to portray the Mecca events as a sectarian clash. It would be his last word on the pilgrimage: Khomeini died less than a year later.
The boycott continued in 1989, but even in the absence of Iran, Sunni-Shi‘ite tensions ran high. During July, two explosions in Mecca killed one pilgrim and wounded sixteen more. Saudi police speedily arrested over thirty Kuwaiti Shi‘ites, and in September a Saudi executioner beheaded sixteen of them by sword in a public square in Mecca. The leader of the plot claimed to have acted on behalf of Iranians who presented themselves as officials of the Iranian embassy in Kuwait. The Saudis apparently were not persuaded that these Shi‘ites had operated on highest Iranian authority, and did not accuse Tehran of involvement in the blasts. But the broadcasted confessions of the plotters seemed accusation enough.44
In April 1990, one hundred and forty deputies of the Iranian parliament issued an open letter, setting terms for the return of Iran’s pilgrims. The parliamentarians demanded that the Saudis “apologize for their treachery to the meek Iranian pilgrims”; that Saudi Arabia pay blood money to the families of the Iranian pilgrims killed “unlawfully” by Saudi security security forces in 1987; that Saudi Arabia compensate Iranian pilgrims for “assets” seized from their caravans in the aftermath of that tragedy; that Saudi Arabia accept 150,000 Iranian pilgrims; and that these pilgrims be allowed to “disavow the polytheists”—that is, hold demonstrations.45 Saudi Arabia rejected all these demands as so much cheek, and the boycott continued for a third year. During the pilgrimage itself, Ayatollah Ali Khamene’i, who had succeeded Khomeini as Iran’s “leader” the previous summer, issued a message to the world’s Muslims condemning the “despotic and traitorous rulers of the Hijaz” who had closed the door of the House of God on Muslim believers. “God’s shrine is safe for U.S. advisors and oil company owners, but unsafe for selfless Muslims,” Khamene’i lamented.46
An Understanding Renewed?
Contacts toward resolving the pilgrimage controversy nevertheless continued between Iran and Saudi Arabia as 1990 ended. In September, Saudi foreign minister Sa‘ud al-Faysal met Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati in New York to discuss the 1991 pilgrimage. Publicly, Sa‘ud al-Faysal announced that “we are very eager to see the Muslim people of Iran travel to Saudi Arabia this year to perform their pilgrimage rituals.”47 Velayati expressed optimism that “our pilgrims will be able to perform the important religious-political hajj rituals this year.”48 Privately, Sa‘ud al-Faysal reportedly offered to accept a larger number of Iranian pilgrims in 1991. The Saudi minister also proposed that the Iranians hold their rally but in a “fixed” place, without marching through the streets of Mecca. At that fixed point, Khamene’i’s annual message could be read to the pilgrims, just as Khomeini’s message had been read in the past. The Saudis repeated the offer during the GCC meeting in Qatar in December, which Iran attended as an observer. There Saudi Arabia reportedly proposed the figure of 90,000 Iranian pilgrims.
From the autumn of 1990, direct Saudi-Iranian talks took place on the highest diplomatic level, involving five meetings between Sa‘ud al-Faysal and Velayati. Omani mediation helped to produce a written agreement, signed by the two foreign ministers in Muscat in March 1991. The agreement resolved the two outstanding issues that had divided Saudi Arabia and Iran. First, it set the number of Iranian pilgrims at 110,000, a figure later raised to 115,000. This was more than the annual quota of 45,000 which Saudi Arabia had set over a three-year period after 1987, a measure that produced a total Iranian boycott. Yet it was also less than the 150,000 Iranian pilgrims who had arrived annually through 1987. Second, Iran would be permitted to conduct one rally in a fixed place in Mecca, where a message from Khamene’i could be read to assembled pilgrims, as Khomeini’s message had been read in the past. It was also understood that the rallied pilgrims would not criticize Muslim governments, although it was understood that they might chant the usual “Death to America” and “Death to Israel.” The new agreement included an Iranian commitment to prevent any flow of demonstrating pilgrims from the rallying point. On this basis, the two countries renewed diplomatic relations, and the stage was set for the return of Iran’s pilgrims to Mecca in 1991. Preparations for the pilgrimage went smoothly, orchestrated this time by a new pilgrimage representative, Muhammad Muhammadi-Reyshahri, one of Rafsanjani’s own troubleshooters.
There was a complication, which emerged after the pilgrimage of 1991 was underway, involving the choice of a site for Iran’s rally. The Saudis proposed a number of sites, all of them remote from the heart of Mecca and difficult of access. The Saudis clearly wished to place as much distance as possible between the rallied pilgrims and the center of the city. Iran rejected these sites, arguing that their location made it impossible for the rally to draw pilgrims from other countries. At the last minute, Saudi authorities relented and allowed the rally to gather in a square near the headquarters of Iran’s pilgrimage representative, a site already at a good distance from the Great Mosque.
On the eve of the pilgrimage, Rafsanjani and Reyshahri made several statements that set a conciliatory tone for the pilgrimage. And at the last minute, Velayati himself arrived as a pilgrim. During his stay, he had two audiences with King Fahd, and three meetings with his Saudi counterpart, Sa‘ud al-Faysal. “Saudi Arabia’s conduct has been proper,” he announced, “and we hope that in view of good understanding between Iran and Saudi Arabia we will see the pilgrimage rituals performed more splendidly than ever before in coming years.”49 After the pilgrimage, the two countries raised their diplomatic ties to the ambassadorial level. In addition, Saudi Arabia agreed to receive some three thousand Iranians a week over the next seven months, to perform the minor (out-of-season) pilgrimage (umra). There were 300,000 Iranians on the waiting list for this pilgrimage.
In 1992, the pilgrimage also passed uneventfully. Iran’s leadership set the low key of the pilgrimage: Rafsanjani announced that the political aspect of the pilgrimage could not be allowed to have a negative effect on “other dimensions of the pilgrimage,” which were presumably spiritual. In 1991, there had been “no problem,” and Rafsanjani expressed hope that “excesses and extremes” would be avoided this year as well.50 Ahmad Khomeini, son of the late leader of Iran’s revolution, told departing pilgrims in a speech at his father’s mausoleum that “disavowing the polytheists is not tantamount to opposition to the Saudi and similar governments.”51 Once again Rafsanjani’s stalwart, Reyshahri, served as Iran’s pilgrimage supervisor, and he closely followed the conciliatory lead of Iran’s leaders, especially during the annual demonstration in Mecca. Some 3,500 Iranian pilgrims, with yellow ribbons on their arms, guided pilgrims to the demonstration site in front of the Iranian pilgrimage headquarters. Iranian sources put the crowd at 150,000 pilgrims. As agreed, the pilgrims confined their banners and chants to the familiar “Death to America” and “Death to Israel,” making no criticism of the Saudis themselves. The Saudi police and security forces kept a distance of several miles from the demonstration.52 There were no incidents, and Rafsanjani expressed his satisfaction: “Of course, I did not think that it was ideal, but it was a relatively good pilgrimage.”53
An End to Demonstrations?
It seemed that Iran and Saudi Arabia had reached a final understanding on the extent of Iran’s own use of the Meccan platform. The number of Iranian pilgrims, long a bone of contention, remained steady at 115,000, by mutual agreement. Reyshahri, who headed Iran’s pilgrims, once again set a conciliatory tone as the 1993 season approached, reminding Iranians that “it would be the greatest sin if the dignity of Iranian pilgrims were to be cast in disrepute.” He therefore called on Iran’s pilgrims to pray with Sunni brothers in congregational prayer.54 And Saudi-Iranian political relations were generally on the upswing. Velayati visited Saudi Arabia as the pilgrimage got underway, and there was even talk of a visit by King Fahd to Iran and a summit with Rafsanjani. There was no reason to expect any change in Meccan status quo, which provided for one Iranian rally in Mecca.55
On 27 May, the Iranians were to have held their annual rally for the “disavowal of the polytheists.” This was the occasion for the usual chants and banners of “Death to America” and “Death to Israel,” and the delivery of a message to the pilgrims from Iran’s leader, Khamene’i. But much to the consternation of the Iranians, Saudi police threw up roadblocks around the rally site opposite the headquarters of the Iranian pilgrims, and they turned away pilgrims who arrived for the rally. Reyshahri protested that this violated the understanding between the two governments. “It was only due to my recommendation to have revolutionary patience, and also due to the obedience of the pilgrims, that we were able to control their feelings, so as to make sure that no incident occurred.”56 But the Saudis justified their action. They had always opposed such “unruly processions interspersed with cheers and shouting of sensational slogans,” and had warned Reyshahri they would not be tolerated.57 Saudi Arabia reiterated its “categorical rejection of the staging of marches, gatherings, and demonstrations in general.” 58 Shaykh Abd al-Aziz bin Baz, grey eminence of the Saudi religious establishment, made a statement against Iran’s “disavowal of polytheists” march in particular, calling the practice a “groundless heresy” that could have “evil consequences.”59
In a quick shift, Reyshahri rallied Iran’s pilgrims five days later at their caravan camp in Mina to hear Khamene’i’s message, which he also had broadcast in Arabic over loudspeakers.60 According to the Iranians, the Saudis quickly dispatched security forces to the site, but they were caught by surprise and could only encircle the rally. The Saudis claimed they did not notice any such gathering in the Iranian camp. But back in Mecca, the Saudis put up a tight security cordon around the Iranian pilgrimage headquarters once again, preventing pilgrims from entering or leaving. Reyshahri left Saudi Arabia early, to protest the Saudi action.61
The Saudis did not seek a political confrontation with Iran, and immediately after the pilgrimage resumed their conciliatory tone. But they also made it clear that the Iranian demonstration in Mecca, even in an attenuated form, violated their monopoly on the politics of the pilgrimage. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia had moved still closer to the U.S., and also extended support to the American effort to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. The kingdom’s rulers saw even less reason to tolerate demonstrations which featured chants of “Death to America!” and “Death to Israel!” In short, Saudi Arabia sought the first opportunity to restore the pre-Khomeini status quo ante, and finally acted when it was reasonably certain that Iran would not launch a counter-campaign of Islamic vilification. They were right: despite its protest, Iran backed down from confrontation. Even Ali Akbar Nateq-Nuri, the speaker of Iran’s parliament and a vocal critic of the Saudi management of Mecca, chose to play down the incident: “We believe [the Saudi decision] was due to pressure by others from outside, compelling Saudi Arabia to prevent the rally. But this will not give way to a severance in our relations. We should daily improve our ties with regional and neighboring countries, and we should mutually resolve bilateral issues.”62
In 1994, the Saudis took still another step back from the prior understanding, by reducing the numbers of Iran’s pilgrims by half. The Saudis read the situation accurately: Iran, groaning under a mountain of debt and short of foreign exchange, accepted the cut with muted protest. In Mecca itself, the Saudis repeated the maneuver of the previous year. On the eve of the planned Iranian demonstration, battalions of Saudi police surrounded the headquarters of the Iranian pilgrimage mission. Water cannons and armored personnel carriers were deployed around the mission; helicopters flew overhead. Reyshahri again cancelled the rally, opting instead for “ceremonies” at the Iranian pilgrims’ camp in Mina.
The “disavowal of the polytheists” ceremony in Mecca, having been reduced from a march to a rally, existed no longer. Yet Iranian political figures responded with restraint. Both Khamene’i and Rafsanjani criticized Saudi policy but they employed restrained language. Rafsanjani in particular called for renewed efforts to reach an understanding. “A hajj that means hajj to a Shi‘ite can take place,” said Rafsanjani. There was a need to find a formula “in which both our views and the views of the Saudis are catered for, and through which the Saudis’ concerns will be alleviated.”63 As usual, the Iranian press took a harsher tone, but this did not resonate in public. The Saudi legation in Tehran requested and received police protection at the height of the Saudi “siege” of Iran’s headquarters in Mecca, but at no point did any of Iran’s leaders summon demonstrators into the streets of Tehran.
Iran clearly had lowered its profile over the pilgrimage. Saudi Arabia had acted to reduce the impact of Iran’s pilgrimage, quantitatively and qualitatively; even as Iran protested these measures, it accepted them. In part, this reflected an Iranian desire to normalize relations with Saudi Arabia. But Iran’s retreat from sectarian confrontation may have had an even more profound motive. As the 1990s unfolded, Iran’s regime had become inwardly preoccupied with its own stability and survival. One threat to that stability, formerly dormant, was posed by Iran’s own Sunni minority, who number somewhere between 12 and 18 percent of Iran’s population. In 1994, the Sunni question suddenly burst upon Tehran in a dramatic way.
In January, authorities in the Shi‘ite shrine city of Mashhad demolished a Sunni mosque, ostensibly as part of an urban renewal project. On 1 February, the populace of Zahedan, capital of the predominantly Sunni province of Baluchistan, reacted violently in anti-government riots which left several dead and dozens dead. On 20 June, a ferocious bomb went off inside the packed prayer hall in the mausoleum of Imam Reza in Mashhad during Shi‘ite Ashura observances, killing twenty-six worshippers. Iran accused the Mojahedin-e Khalq, an opposition group, but widespread speculation attributed the bombing to Sunni militants. The sudden appearance of violent Sunni protest within Iran suggested that the sectarian sword cut both ways and that Iran also had sacred shrines of pilgrimage which could become Sunni-Shi‘ite battlegrounds. The most important such shrine, in Mashhad, drew at least eight million pilgrims a year—the so-called “pilgrimage of the poor,” an emotional substitute for the pilgrimage to Mecca.64 Perhaps this realization contributed to Iran’s accommodating posture in Mecca: after the domestic violence of 1994, Iran’s interest lay not in fanning sectarian flames but in quenching them.65
But as the fifteen years since Iran’s revolution have demonstrated, the revival of Islam has been more than a reassertion of Islam against the West. It has incited rival understandings of Islam against one another. The social and political earthquake of Islamism has not only opened the ancient fault line between believers and unbelievers. It has opened the fault line, just as ancient, between the two oldest traditions of Islam. Their holy places now echo with bombs and bullets. Indeed, more Muslim blood has been shed during the past decade in Mecca, Mashhad and Najaf, than in Jerusalem and Hebron. It is the revival of this clash of Islamic civilizations which may prove to be Islamism’s most enduring legacy.
Number of Iranian Pilgrims, 1979-1994
(to the nearest 5,000)
2 This study draws on the detailed narrative of international Islamic politics I have written for the annual Middle East Contemporary Survey (hereafter cited as MECS). For my accounts of the pilgrimage, see MECS 6 (1981-82): 284-88, 301-3; 7 (1982-83): 238, 249-51; 8 (1983-84): 175-77; 9 (1984-85): 161-64; 10 (1986): 149-51; 11 (1987): 172-76; 12 (1988): 177-85; 13 (1989): 182-84; 14 (1990): 189-91 (by Reinhard Schulze); 15 (1991): 191-93; 16 (1992): 216-18; 17 (1993): 116-17.
3 On the doctrinal shift from pilgrimage to visitation, see Said Amir Arjomand, The Shadow of God and the Hidden Imam (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), pp. 168-170. On Iranian pilgrims in Mecca, see Suraiya Faroqhi, Pilgrims and Sultans: The Hajj under the Ottomans, 1517-1683 (London: Tauris, 1994), 134-39.
4 Richard F. Burton, Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to al-Madinah & Meccah (1893; reprint, New York: Dover, 1964), 2: 168, n. 1; John Lewis Burckhardt, Travels in Arabia (1829; reprint, London: Frank Cass, 1968), 168, 251-252.
6 On these taxes, see H. Kazem Zadeh, “Relation d’un pèlerinage à la Mecque,” Revue du monde musulman, no. 19 (1912): 159-60. Discriminatory levies continued to be collected from Shi‘ites until the late 1930s.
10 On the special place of Medina in Shi‘ite Islam, see Dwight M. Donaldson, The Shi‘ite Religion (London: Luzac, 1933), 142-51. On the cemetery’s history, see Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2d ed., s.v. “Baki‘ al-Gharkad” (A.J. Wensinck-[A.S. Bazmee Ansari]). On Shi‘ite worship there in Ottoman times, see Farâhâni, A Shi‘ite Pilgrimage, 267-69.
14 The evolution of this policy is detailed by Jacob Goldberg, “The Shi‘i Minority in Saudi Arabia,” in Shi‘ism and Social Protest, eds. Juan R.I. Cole and Nikki R. Keddie (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), 230-46.
15 The author of the British pilgrimage report of 1937 wrote of “the well-known reluctance of the Iranian Government to see good Iranian money spent outside Iran.” A. C. Trott, “Report on the Pilgrimage of 1937,” PRO, FO371/20840, reproduced in Records of the Hajj: A Documentary History of the Pilgrimage to Mecca, vol. 7, The Saudi Period (1935-1951) ([Slough]: Archive Editions, 1993), 194.
17 As reported by James S. Moose (Jidda), dispatch of 24 February 1944, National Archives, Washington, D.C., RG59, 890f. 404/55. For reproductions of the the British reports, see Records of the Hajj, 7:529-59.
18 Ali Shariati, Hajj (2d ed.; Bedford, Ohio: Free Islamic Literatures, 1978), 109. For more on the book, see Steven R. Benson, “Islam and Social Change in the Writings of ‘Ali Shari‘ati: His Hajj as a Mystical Handbook for Revolutionaries,” Muslim World 81 (1991): 9-26.
23 Figure given by Mehdi Karrubi, Tehran Television, 16 June 1988, quoted in Foreign Broadcast Information Service Daily Report: The Middle East and South Asia (hereafter cited as FBIS), 21 June 1988. The same need explains Iranian Shi‘ism’s rediscovery of the mausoleum of Sayyida Zaynab, the Imam Husayn’s sister, near Damascus. A minor site of Shi‘ite visitation in the past, it has been transformed into a major shrine, visited by thousands of Shi‘ites from Iran and Iranian-backed Shi‘ites from the Lebanese Hizbullah. Iran also has invested large resources in restoration of the still lesser shrine of Sayyida Raqiya, Husayn’s daughter, near the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. On these sites, see Biancamaria Scarcia Amoretti, “A proposito della communità imamita contemporanea di Siria,” Oriente Moderno, n.s., 3 (1984): 193-201.
27 Text of speech, Radio Tehran, 29, 30, 31 July 1987, quoted in BBC Summary, 31 July, 1, 3 August 1987. For a close content analysis of the message, see Michael Glünz, “Das Manifest der islamischen Revolution: Ayatollah Homeinis Botschaft an die Mekkapilger des Jahres 1407/1987,” Welt des Islams, n.s., 33 (1993): 235-55.
30 The most detailed eyewitness accounts from a pro-Iranian perspective include that of the Pakistani Shi‘ite journalist Mushahid Hussain, which appeared in the Washington Post, 20 August 1987, and the several reports collected by Qahtani, Majzarat Makka, 77-107. Qahtani’s book is an extensive survey of the event and the worldwide reaction to it. The Saudi director-general of public security, Gen. Abdallah bin Abd al-Rahman Al Shaykh, provided the most comprehensive Saudi account in a statement which prefaced a special Saudi documentary film on the incident, aired on Saudi Television on 20 August 1987.
40 For a Shi‘ite collection of alleged proofs of the Jewish origins of the Saudis, see Nasir al-Sa‘id, Tarikh Al Sa‘ud, vol. 1 ([Beirut]: Ittihad sha‘b al-jazira al-arabiyya, n.d.): 392-403. I am indebted to Prof. Werner Ende for this reference.
43 Khomeini’s message, Radio Tehran, 20 July 1988, quoted in FBIS, 21 July 1988. Abu Sufyan was a member of the Prophet Muhammad’s tribe who had originally opposed Muhammad. His son, Yazid, was responsible for the killing of the Imam Husayn. Another son, Mu’awiya, founded the Umayyad dynasty. The family and the dynasty are deemed usurpers in the Shi‘ite reading of early Islamic history.
65 For the Sunni-Shi‘ite strife of 1994, see “Sunnite ‘reprisal’ against Shiite sanctuary in Iran?” Mideast Mirror, 20 June 1994; and “The Coming Sectarian Conflict in Iran,” Mideast Mirror, 9 September 1994.
Posted by Martin Kramer in on October 10, 2010
Martin Kramer delivered this address in a lecture series on fundamentalism at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem, on or about November 21, 1990. For an Arabic translation of this address, go here.
Let me say, first of all, that I was surprised that this series does not include a lecture on Islamic fundamentalism in general. Shiite fundamentalism is a variety of Islamic fundamentalism—that is, many of its collective memories and its basic raw material, the sacred texts, are common to all of Islam. The Quran is the source of reference to all Muslims, Shiites included. So, too, are the precedents set during the life of the Prophet. To the extent that these are the basis of Islamic law, there is also very little difference between Shiites and other Muslims, whom we call Sunni. Indeed, the very notion of a distinct Shiite fundamentalism would be anathema to most Shiites today. They would claim that the Islam which they wish to restore to its former glory is a universal Islam, not a peculiar variety of Islam.
Yet the fact remains that the division between Shiite and Sunni is the fundamental division of Islam, with very early origins in the history of Islam. Although Shiites share basic texts and fragments of historical memory with Sunnis, over time they have generated their own peculiar texts and, more importantly, their own way of remembering the past of Islam. In many respects, Shiite reading of sacred history has been precisely the opposite of the Sunni reading. If we assume that fundamentalism is an attempt to return to the sources, to the fundamentals, then we have to know something about the past—not the past “as it was,” as we might construct it through critical historiography, but the past as it is lived today, as it is understood in the present by fundamentalists themselves. In this case, it is not sufficient to understand the broad Islamic past, its analogies and symbols. We must begin by inquiring what is unique and special to Shiism.
The usual way to describe Shiism’s essence is to say that its adherents have always championed the claim of Ali, the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, and his male descendants, to lead the Muslim community. Shortly after the Prophet’s death in 632, there formed around Ali a shi’a, or party, which put him forward as the most worthy successor to leadership of the community. The partisans of Ali also believed that he had been designated as successor by the Prophet himself, who earlier had given Fatima, his only daughter, to Ali in marriage.
But there were men of influence in the early Muslim community who favored other candidates. These caused Ali to be passed over three times for the position of caliph, or successor. When Ali finally did come to rule, in 656, they withheld their allegiance. And after Ali’s murder in 661, the caliphate again reverted to men outside the Prophet’s line. One of Ali’s sons, Husayn, eventually put together a band of followers who championed his own claim to rule. But when this grandson of the Prophet made his bid for power in 680, he was massacred with his family and followers on the desolate plain of Karbala in Iraq. Only one of Husayn’s sons survived; Husayn’s own severed head was sent to the caliph in Damascus.
For the powers that were, the eradication of the small band at Karbala was little more than a routine counter-insurgency operation. But for Shiite legitimists, it was a searing trauma. The martyrdom at Karbala, commemorated annually by Shiites through the observance of a ten-day period of mourning, culminating in Ashura, vested Shiism with a deeply emotive strand of martyrdom. The sense of Islamic history as a litany of suffering came to pervade Shiism. The fate of the martyrs was all the more poignant for the tragic truth that they had been slain by fellow Muslims. To mourn them was also to grieve for Islam, whose adherents had gone astray before the body of the Prophet had gone cold.
Thus Islam divided, between the legitimist adherents of Ali’s shi’a and those who claimed to walk only the Prophet’s path, his sunna—that is, between Shiite and Sunni Islam. What began as a dissident position on the matter of succession in the seventh century blossomed in time into a full religious tradition, distinguished from Sunni Islam by its own reading of theology and sacred history. The lines of Husayn’s descendants came to be regarded as Imams—leaders of the spirit, carriers of the divine spark, infallible. Some were great teachers, and some even had amicable relations with the temporal rulers of Islam. But the Shiite tradition has it that none died a natural death. All were ultimately murdered (usually by poison) for posing a legitimist challenge to the rule of Sunni usurpers.
Soon Shiism itself split into fragments, large and small, which reflected every possible form of discontent in Islam. The varieties of Shiism readily provided spiritual succor to the many opponents of the reigning order—to those who felt dispossessed or excluded from the manifestly successful enterprise of Sunni Islam. We know really very little about the sociology of these early movements of rebellion, but the fact is that early Islamic history is strewn with Shiite uprisings. Most of these failed dismally, but there were brief periods when parts of the Muslim heartlands came under Shiite rule.
One radical branch of Shiism gained special renown for its mastery of revolutionary violence. The Ismailis emerged from a ninth-century divergence of Shiite opinion over the identity of the seventh Imam. They articulated a powerful utopian vision, and operated secretly to spread their message and undermine the existing Sunni order. In 969, an Ismaili movement seized Egypt and established the Fatimid state and caliphate (after Fatima, daughter of the Prophet).
In the year 1090, a breakaway faction of Ismailis established themselves in a fortress on a forbidding peak, in the Elburz range in Iran. From there, Persian-speaking emissaries went forth to the heterodox mountains of the northern Syrian coast, where they recruited a local Arabic-speaking following. These zealots were the dreaded Assassins, whose notoriety spread even to medieval Europe. From their Persian headquarters and their Syrian bases, they orchestrated a brilliant campaign of assassination against the perceived enemies of Islam. They did not believe that preaching their truth sufficed; wrongdoers had to be terrorized into acknowledging that truth. The Assassins targeted Sunni Muslim rulers, ministers, officials, and divines, as well as prominent Crusaders. Their most famous assassinations claimed an Abbasid caliph and a Crusader king. The assassins were particularly effective because they needed no route of escape. They set out to kill until they themselves were killed. The Assassins held out in their fortresses for almost two centuries, until they were extirpated by the Mongols in Iran, and by the Mamluks in Syria.
But in most times and in most places, Shiites plotted no revolutions and assassinated no enemies. They preferred a quiet existence as tolerated minorities within Sunni Muslim society. This was certainly the case for that form of Shiism which developed into what is known as Imami or Twelver Shiism. This branch of Shiism, which prefered a particular line of Imams who numbered twelve, eventually became the predominant school of Shiite Islam. The strategies of accommodation developed by these Shiites were far-reaching, and even included the deliberate concealment of their true beliefs. The pursuit of justice in the world was deferred to a point in eschatological time when the Twelfth Imam, having disappeared into occultation in 873, would return as messianic savior, as Mahdi, to do final justice.
These Shiites therefore deferred the obligation to wage jihad “in the path of God” to the day when the hidden Imam would reappear as redeemer and raise God’s banners. In the meantime, they drew comfort and inspiration from commemorating the martyred Imams, and inflicted violence only upon themselves in penitential rites of self-flagellation. Historical circumstance transformed their grief for the Imam Husayn into a call for inner repentance rather than revolution. This strand of the Shiite tradition abjured politics, and disdained all temporal power as an infringement upon the authority of the hidden Imam. The pursuit of power in this world was deemed the heretical doctrine of extremist dissidents like the Assassins, and not the duty of true believers, who were enjoined to equate faith with patience, virtue with suffering. Shiism would undergo a number of subsequent transformations, but this first level of historical experience, lasting almost a millenium, was one of withdrawal from Islam’s general presumption that man must implement God’s plan on earth.
The geographic locus of this quietist Shiism in medieval times lay in Iraq, with extensions in Syria, central Iran and Khurasan. During the late medieval period, the Shiite centers in Iraq suffered the repeated depradations of war. However, Shiism was redeemed by the Safavids, a mystical order whose leaders established themselves as the uncontested rulers of Iran in the early 1500’s. They immediately set about transforming Shiite Islam into state orthodoxy—something Shiism, in its quietest variety, had never been. The process of conversion was accomplished by persuasion and force, and Iran has remained firmly Shiite ever since.
This had two implications for Shiism. First, it established the centrality of Iran in the Shiite world. Shiism soon realigned around the Safavid realm, where the Shiite religious sciences flourished under the patronage of the state. Twelver Shiism came to be defined in large measure by its Iranian adherents, who today constitute about half of all Shiites. To the east and west of Iran there remained important Shiite populations, but these became, in a cultural sense, diaspora communities, usually deferring to Iranian Shiism in broad fields of theology, philosophy, and political thought. The cultural hegemony of Iran gave Twelver Shiism a sense of center which has ever eluded far©flung Sunni Islam.
The second implication was the rise of a clercal estate, formed by a powerful body of Shiite clerics, or ulama. They were closely bound to the ruling dynasty, and acquired irreversible trusteeship over vast properties. The influence of the religious scholars found doctrinal expression in the eighteenth-century triumph of certain ulama who claimed exceptional powers for Shiite expounders of Islamic law. These expounders, known as mujtahids, began to claim an authority unparalleled among Sunni ulama. It became obligatory for each Shiite to follow the rulings of a living mujtahid, and these rulings went far beyond the narrow realm of ritual and doctrine. As the Safavid state entered its decline, these ulama came to enjoy immense authority. They provided the stability which prevented political strife from turning into social disorder.
Until this point, the contacts between Shiism and the West had been rather limited. While Sunni Islam, and particularly the Ottoman empire, had a long history of contact and conflict with the West, Shiite Islam was geographically more remote. But beginning in the eighteenth century, Shiite Iran began to experience the direct effect of imperialism. The West was expanding: Iran faced the military imperialism of neighboring Russia and the commercial imperialism of Western Europe. The Qajar state could resist neither, despite the efforts of reforming and modernizing shahs. Ineffective as these reforms were in staving off foreign control, they quite effectively undermined the standing of the ulama. As foreigners staked ever larger claims to Iran’s resources and territories, certain ulama gave their support to movements of resistance, such as the Tobacco Protest which began in 1891, and the Constitutional Revolution which began in 1905.
From the outset, then, it was the impact of Western imperialism which had the effect of mobilizing traditional religion. Yet this was not yet fundamentalism, for the old tradition was still alive and vital; it did not yet have to be rediscovered by returning to texts and reinterpreting them. In particular, the Shiite clergy continued to regard government through the same perspective as the previous millennium. Their interpretation of doctrine still led them to disdain government as a greater or lesser usurpation of God’s authority. The clergy, by their remonstrations, might lessen the evil effects of temporal government. But they would not take an active part in it.
In 1921, a military strongman emerged as savior of Iran. Reza Khan (later, Reza Shah) seized power from the tottering Qajars, and set Iran on an accelerated course of Westernization. The purpose of Reza Shah’s policy was to modernize Iran and so guarantee its independence. His son, Mohammad Reza Shah, went still further, by seeking to transform Iran into the region’s leading military and industrial power. Both of them hacked away at the the remaining authority of the Shiite clergy, whom they regarding as obscurantists and obstacles to progress. The state nationalized religious endowments and harassed outspoken ulama. Some clergy, aligned with certain traditional classes of the population, resisted this. One thinks of the Feda’iyan-e Eslam movement of the 1950’s, which also involved itself in assassination and terror. But by this time, the regime had succeeded in pushing Islam to the margins.
I have spoken a good deal here about Iran. But this was only half the Shiite experience. There remained important groups of Shiites to the north, south, east and west of Iran. It should be recalled that these Shiites remained under Sunni rule, and maintained the perspective of persecuted minorities. Many of these Shiites avoided persecution by seeking refuge in remote geographic areas—in Jabal Amil (South Lebanon), in the marshy south of Iraq, in the high mountains of Afghanistan. This isolation defended Shiites against Sunni persecution. But it also worked to their disadvantage, once the region was swept by successive waves of modernization. Until modern times, there was little difference in the material culture of Sunnis and Shiites in these lands. But change, despite its dislocations, still raised the material level of life in the cities with their predominantly Sunni populations. Shiites in turn began to leave their redoubts in pursuit of material betterment and flowed into cities in every greater numbers. Poor Shiite neighborhoods grew up around cities such as Beirut, Baghdad, and Kabul. There it became painfully obvious to Shiites that the religious stigma they had long borne had been transformed into the most glaring social and economic disadvantages. A sense of deprivation among these Shiites provided much fertile ground for ideologies of political dissent. But at first, the ideologies of the Left enjoyed a privileged standing, because the young associated their own Shiism with social backwardness and passivity. They sought some basis for assimilation into the mainstream of Islam, and an ideology of activism. Shiism provided neither.
Both in Iran and the Shiite diaspora, then, the Shiite tradition was under heavy assault. On the broadest level, we have to acknowledge the disorienting impact of the West, which has been a factor for Islamic fundamentalism generally. In the Shiite instance, this sense of grievance was heightened, in at least half the Shiite world, by a kind of internal oppression, of Shiite by Sunni. But why did the reaction to this oppression take a fundamentalist form? What happened to absolutely overturn the doctrines of Shiism with such suddenness and violence? What occurred to produce in Iran an Islamic revolution, and in the wider Shiite world a phenomenon like Hizballah, the Party of God? How was it that Shiism was transformed, from a quietest tradition to a theology of liberation?
Like all fundamentalisms, Shiite fundamentalism began with the reinterpretation of texts. Emmanuel Sivan has shown how, for Sunni fundamentalism, this reinterpretation occurred under the immense pressure of Egyptian and Syrian prisons. In the case of Shiism, a comparable degree of creative pressure was achieved in the Shiite shrine cities of Iraq. In these shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala, around the tombs of the imams, the aspiring Shiite clergy from throughout the Islamic world came to learn and teach. There they realized the extent of the crisis which faced Islam in general, and Shiism in particular. The younger generation had turned away, or was being turned away. It was embracing foreign ideologies and ways. The clergy, although respected, were increasingly regarded as too other-worldly. Although they stood against cultural subservience to the West, they did so as obscurantists. They had no answer to the crisis, except to intone the tradition.
A group of young clerics in Najaf responded by going back to texts, and reading them in an intentionally deviant sense—by deviant, I mean deviating from what had been a certain consensus of interpretation. The purpose was to make Shiism again relevant, to reinvigorate it, to refashion it as a theology of liberation.
Let me enumerate some of these radical reinterpretations. The most important was the reinterpretation of the martyrdom of the Imam Husayn at Karbala. The tradition had regarded this martyrdom in ways almost comparable to the martyrdom of Christ: the death of this pure and sinless saint was meant to remind all men of their individual sinfulness, of individual guilt. He did not seek to harm others or overturn the existing order. He sought merely to die a death which would inspire repentance in man. The Imam Husayn was mourned by the infliction of punishment on the self, by an internalization of violence.
This understanding of martyrdom had done good service to oppressed Shiite minorities which sought ways to give meaning to their suffering, and did not have the means to end it. But it hardly appealed to a young generation which strongly felt the need to resist oppression, and which located all guilt with the oppressor. In the radical new interpretation, the Imam Husayn emerged as a modern revolutionary, leading the struggle of the oppressed against impossible odds—as a kind of Muslim Che Guevera. He was very much interested in righting wrong in this world, very much concerned with power and thwarting the enemies of Islam. He was no longer to be mourned, but to be emulated.
The second radical reinterpretation concerned the role of the ulama—those learned in Shiite law. The traditional view held that human history had gone so far astray that only God could right it, that all government was corrupt, and that true men of God kept their distance from rulers and their palaces. The Messiah would eventually right all wrongs; it remained to the ulama to keep alive the pure flame, so that man might always know the true way. But the reinterpreters, going back to a particular text, suddenly announced that this traditional interpretation had not only been flawed, but that God had intended exactly the opposite: that the clerics themselves should rule, that they should struggle to implement God’s law here and now, that they should leave their dry books and lead the people to anti-imperialist revolution and justice.
There were other major reinterpretations, but these two were the most important. The first—the role of the Imam Husayn—was meant to force the common believer rethink the premises of Shiism, for it involved the radical reinterpretation of Shiism’s most familiar symbols. The second was meant to force the clerics themselves to rethink their attitude to the temporal world, and take up the responsibility of preaching radical change, even revolution, and then taking up the responsibility of government.
Around these two ideas, a growing group of clerics—from Iran and elsewhere in the Shiite universe—began to engage in wholesale reinterpretation of doctrine, spinning out theoretical models of Islamic government and Islamic economics. Concepts of Islamic government reached their furthest refinement after the arrival in Najaf in 1965 of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who spent fourteen years of exile in Najaf and there formulated his intellectual case for Islamic government. The principles of Islamic economics reached their fullest articulation at about the same time in the teachings of an Iraqi Shiite theoretician, Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr.
At the time of formulation, these ideas were so remote from implementation that they could only be described as highly theoretical—like pure research in physics, for which no one could imagine any practical application. But the radical reinterpretations of Shiism had an unexpected power. Timing was all-important. A generation earlier, neither the clerics nor the masses would have accepted such a radical reinterpretation of their political duty, because the old tradition still lived within them. They would have marked such a radical reinterpretation as a heresy. But a generation later, after still more relentless Westernization, the symbolism of the Imam Husayn might have been completely lost on younger people, whose distance from the tradition would have doubled, or tripled, or more. In other words, the reinterpretation came at a moment when people had forgotten enough of their own tradition to accept its radical reinterpretation as legitimate, but remembered enough of their own tradition to respond emotionally to its symbols. This, of course, is the dynamic of what is called “retraditionalization”—the reinventing of tradition—which is at the root of any fundamentalism.
Nor can we overlook the immensely complex social, political, economic, and psychological circumstances which combined to amplify this practically inaudible preaching into a roar. We are only at the beginning of such research. My present work on the Lebanese Hizballah is one such study—a minute examination of a fragment of the phenomenon, which has taken me even to the level of research of individual martyrs and clerics. At this level, a plethora of motivations are at work, not all of them what we might call ideological or religious. I will confess that the more I work on this level, the less useful I find the broad category of Shiism as an analytical tool. And yet the symbols of Shiism are everywhere in evidence—not just in the speeches of clerics, but in the slogans on headbands, and in the texts of the last will and testaments of martyred fighters. Along with all kinds of motives and desires, these people also carry within their heads an idealized and powerful vision of the past—a past they would restore. The reconstruction of that past will always have a place in the study of fundamentalism, even if we move on to more detailed sociological studies.
The historical moment of Shiite fundamentalism may have passed—defeated by its enemies in the Gulf war, and by its friends in the attempt to implement an Islamic Republic in Iran. Shiism may again be on the verge of a reinterpretation, one less optimistic about the ability of man to alter his fate. Shiism may be turned upside down again. But the achievements of Shiite revolution and terror in our time stand as evidence that no religious tradition is so other-worldly, that it cannot be reworked to inspire violence and self-sacrifice. But perhaps this tells you something you already have concluded: that no religious tradition is beyond fundamentalism.