The politics of Hajj: Why this year's pilgrimage will be more muted

Muslim pilgrims circle Islam's holiest shrine, the Kaaba, at the Grand Mosque in the Saudi holy city of Mecca, on September 6, 2016.
Muslim pilgrims circle Islam's holiest shrine, the Kaaba, at the Grand Mosque in the Saudi holy city of Mecca, on September 6, 2016.


    CNN reporter experiences Hajj in 2010


CNN reporter experiences Hajj in 2010 02:22

Story highlights

  • The annual pilgrimage of Hajj beings on September 9
  • But political tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia will affect those traveling to Mecca

(CNN)"For he who is able to journey to it" -- Prophet Mohammed

Among the holiest of Islamic obligations, Hajj, which this year begins on September 9, is a coming together of the "Umma" -- the peoples of the Prophet Mohammed.
    An annual pilgrimage of people, united in spite of sectarian beliefs, regional divisions and rivalries. A time when Muslims come together for spiritual rebirth, a time of contemplation. A time to return wandering steps to the path of righteousness.
    But this year that chorus will be diminished.
    Year on year the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran -- and by extension Sunni and Shia Islam -- has increasingly polarized the devotions of their congregations.
    Traditionally, the sheer number of pilgrims has also always been, since the rise of Islam, incredible. Never more so than for the host nation -- the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia -- whose custodianship of the Holy Mosques in Mecca and Medina have bestowed upon it a de facto right to the seat at the head of the table.
    In the Sunni Muslim world, at least. While for Iran's clerical class that sense of entitlement is a point of bitter contention.
    But that rising friction bubbled over this year when Iran announced back in May that it would be banning its pilgrims from performing Hajj.
    The source of the enmity can -- at least for this particular incident -- be traced back to 2015, when a deadly stampede produced the highest death toll at Hajj in almost two decades. The crush left 769 dead, according to Saudi authorities, who maintain the pilgrims ignored crowd control regulations. But this death toll is at odds with claims from repatriating nations that the number of the dead is closer to 2000 devotees -- more than 400 of whom where Iranians.
    More recently, tensions escalated once again in the lead up to this year's Hajj. Iran's Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reignited a war of words during a speech on Monday blasting Al Saud, the ruling royal family of Saudi Arabia. "The heartless and murderous Saudis locked up the injured with the dead in containers -- instead of providing medical treatment and helping them or at least quenching their thirst," he said. "The world of Islam must fundamentally reconsider the management of the two holy places and the issue of hajj."
    Saudi Arabia's Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al al-Sheikh dismissed Iran's condemnations, telling Makkah, a local newspaper: "We have to understand that they are not Muslims ... their main enemies are the followers of Sunnah (Sunnis)."
    Khamenei had previously criticized the ruling Saudi royals in the immediate aftermath of the stampede, calling for them to take responsibility for the disaster.
    "Mismanagement and improper measures that caused this tragedy should not be overlooked," Khamenei said at the time. "The Saudi government is required to accept its heavy responsibility for this bitter incident and meet its obligations in compliance with the rule of righteousness and fairness."
    Khameni's statement preceded the Saudi Arabia execution of a leading Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr on charges of terrorism. With tensions escalating as subsequent demonstrations in Tehran led to the storming of the Saudi Embassy and a severing of diplomatic ties.
    Sunni versus Shia explained
    Sunni versus Shia explained


      Sunni versus Shia explained


    Sunni versus Shia explained 01:24
    This continues to play out against the backdrop of growing Saudi unease at the nuclear deal struck between the US and Iran, the two countries' opposing positions in Syria and Yemen and inflamed sectarian tensions between the Kingdom's Sunni authorities and Shia minority.
    Now, as Saudi authorities announce new security measures and the deployment of extra staff, they find themselves still exchanging tit for tat accusations with Iran of "politicisation" and "incompetence."
    None of which changes the reality on the ground.
    There is a moment on the slopes of Mount Arafat -- or as close to it as the millions of pilgrims can find to stand -- on the last day of Hajj. It is a moment devoted entirely to the most intimate of prayers. When Muslims believe that the gates of heaven are open to receive, unequivocally, their hopes and dreams, their repentances and their losses. It is a moment where millions of voices rise up as one in unity.
    But the Umma will have to wait another year, with the hope that the next Hajj will bring with it the gift of reconciliation.