Religion meets realpolitik

Published: September 11, 2016

Muslim pilgrims circle the Kaaba at the Grand Mosque in Makkah September 4, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

Centuries ago a group of people made their way towards Mecca. They were unarmed and wanted to go to the Kaaba for pilgrimage. In spite of a dispute between them and the citizens of Mecca, they hoped that the party controlling the Kaaba would allow honour the centuries old tradition and allow them and their sacrificial animals’ entry into the holy sanctuary. However, the tribe controlling the Kaaba had no such intention and using their hegemony for political gains they denied the pilgrims of their right to enter.

This incident took place in 628 AD and the pilgrims comprised of the first generation of Muslims. They had been led by their leader and Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and the tribe of Quraysh had barred their way. The Quraysh and the Muslims were in the middle of a conflict and access to Kaaba was used for political purposes. The pagan members of the Quraysh tribe were able to come in the way of an Islamic rite. Realpolitik meets religion.

Since then the Kaaba has been under many empires. The Umayyads, Abbasids and Ottomans all held sway over Mecca but the Kaaba was open to all, including their political opponents. The Ottomans and Safavids had a long standing conflict but pilgrims came and went unhindered. Hajj or broadly speaking, pilgrimage to the Kaaba, was considered sacrosanct and the empires were ruled by Muslims and considered Islamic. No emperor, sultan or caliph could impose their will on the Kaaba even if they wanted to.

The politics of the region took a turn in 1932 with the birth of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The cities of Mecca and Medina, so critical to the Muslim world, through treaties with colonial powers and political expediency passed into the hands of one country. The Kaaba always had a family who were keepers or caretakers, but now the ancient site was part of a thoroughly modern construct: a nation state.

This outcome has one natural outcome. Nation states by their very nature are vastly different from empires. They have political and economic considerations and react accordingly. They build alliances and break them. Through state control they can monitor movement within the country and through passports and visas they control borders and decide who passes through them. And of course, they can enforce policies that their citizens and foreigners need to follow if they don’t want to run afoul of the laws.

The holy sites and Kaaba itself is an example of that. It is thought of as a shining example of the divine unity of Muslims and removes national divisions. Faith conquers all and brings together the global community. The reality is that within the nation state, it is very much bound in the narrow parameters of nationality and internationalism. It is a carefully managed undertaking that relies on quotas and visas and the national identities are ever present.

In a normal nation state this would be this, but Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is far from that. It’s a fiefdom of one family and subscribes to a very narrow belief system. Pilgrims are told what to do even within the holy places. There are sites holy to them but which the Saudi government blocked off because the Wahhabi school of thought considers veneration of personalities and monuments as heresy.

Historical monuments such as the homes of the family of the Prophet and his companions have been razed down and religious police shoos away pilgrims who linger at the few sites that remains. The city looks under occupation and there are instructions for ‘order’, as if from a foreign ruler. The ruler carries the title Khadim Al-Haramain Al-Sharifain (Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques), that his predecessor took in 1982 and so his rules are to be followed by all pilgrims regardless of their religious inclinations. Modern constructs have forcefully collided into an ancient and divine tradition. Modernity wins.

Sadly, this victory achieved by a modern nation state is a loss for pilgrims, a classic case being the fact that this Hajj will not have any person of Iranian nationality. As a country Saudi Arabia has political considerations. It has had a long running conflict with Iran and their theological differences are one aspect of it. They vie for regional supremacy and are on opposite sides in two armed conflicts: Yemen and Syria.

At last year’s Hajj 2,236 pilgrims died, at least 460 Iranians. This was not the first time Iran had lost its citizens at Hajj, in 1987 hundreds of Iranian pilgrims were killed by Saudi police. In an already hot political climate, the Hajj incident of 2015 proved impossible to resolve. No resolution between the countries means no quotas, no visas and of course, no pilgrims. The hegemony of political power reigned over holy considerations and the pilgrims of country of 80 million Muslims, 10% of them Sunnis, will not perform their religious duty this year at the very least.

Therein lays the problem. Nation states take policy decisions or undertake negotiations based on political expediency. Alliances are made or broken accordingly and the global political climate is dynamic and transient. A timeless and pious act like Hajj is thus affected in a world shaped by business-like realities. Religion meets realpolitik.

This situation is likely to repeat itself as the regional shift in power and other factors take hold. As in this case, Saudi Arabia’s relations with a country can affect pilgrims. If the Kaaba is indeed the common heritage of 1.5 billion Muslims than perhaps they should have a say in its access so the concepts of equality and equity that are central to Islam can hold true. Keeping this in mind, Khamenei’s statement of common ownership of the Kaaba – while practically difficult – is at least worth considering. Today the conflict with Iran played a role in the pilgrims’ loss. Tomorrow it could be another country.

Sibtain Naqvi

Sibtain Naqvi

A writer and social commentator who has written extensively for various Pakistani English dailies. An art critic accredited by the AICA and the Royal College of Art, London, he dabbles in music and sports writing and tweets @Sibtain_N (

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • vinsin

    Why Arab Pagans cannot have any say about Kaaba? Saudi or Arabs cannot be held responsible for people of other faiths converting to Islam. Converted people cannot impose their version of Islam on Saudi Arabia or what needs to be done with Kaaba. Kaaba is not a historical part of converted people history, it is part of Arab civilization.
    If Arab Pagans cannot come, so do Shia, Ahmedi etc as defined by Arab countries.

    What about Sikhs religions places (mecca) in Pakistan? Should Lahore (part) be then ruled by Sikhs.Recommend

  • BrainBro

    Three of the four caliphs were murdered.

    Abu Bakr, the first caliph, lives no more than two years after the death of Muhammad.

    Abu Bakr is succeeded in 634 by Omar (another father-in-law of Muhammad), who in 638 captures Jerusalem. Six years later Omar is stabbed and killed in the mosque at Medina – for personal reasons, it seems, by a Persian craftsman living in Kufa.

    Othman, chosen as the third caliph, is a son-in-law of Muhammad. Othman, like his predecessor, is assassinated – but this time by rebellious Muslims.

    They choose Ali, another son-in-law of Muhammad, as the fourth caliph. For the first time within the Muslim community the selected caliph is the choice of just one faction. Ali’s caliphate eventually provokes the only major sectarian split in the history of Islam, between Sunni and Shi’a.

    Raised to the position of caliph by rebels, Ali spends most of his reign in conflict with other Muslims. He wins the first battle, near Basra in 656, against an army fighting in support of Muhammad’s widow, A’isha. She is herself in the fray, riding a camel, with the result that the event is remembered as the ‘battle of the camel’.

    But it is Ali’s last success. The governor of Syria, Mu’awiya, wages a prolonged campaign against him to avenge the murder of the caliph Othman, his kinsman. Other opponents succeed in assassinating Ali, in 661, outside the mosque in Kufa – a Muslim garrison town to which he has moved the capital from Medina.

    Pakistan has taken the Saudi route since Iran took on the United States.

    Even if Pakistan took the Iran route, things would not have been different anyway.Recommend

  • Kajamohideen

    Once the Muslims took control of the Kaaba pagans who had worshipped there for centuries were fir ever barred from their sacred pilgrimage to Mecca.Recommend

  • muhammed

    The Iranians pose an existential threat to the sunni nation states due to their constan attempts of exporting their extremist Shia revolution.
    It’s a very good move by Saudia that they have finally realised the threat and starting drawing the lines.
    If grave worship under fancy titles can be accepted as an action then razing mazaars should also be accepted as a natural reaction to safeguard the correct creed by those who have been entrusted by Allah to rule over this land. Not even a leaf falls without Allah’s will. Go to istanbul and see their instructions upon entering Ayup mazaar before quoting Ottoman examples my friend.Recommend

  • Parvez

    ‘ Politics and religion are absolutely not compatible ‘…….. this has been proved time and again but never heeded, especially where it needs to be heeded.Recommend

  • Juan

    Iranians, despite their wish for power and interests in Syria and Iraq, are not an existential threat to Sunni states, who are more likely to be hit by Sunni extremist terrorists or protests by Sunni citizens than anyone else. It’s a paranoid view and overblown reaction by hyper Sunnis who fear any Shia presence and taken the Iranians rhetoric of calling for an uprising against Sunni dictatorships at face value. Truth is there’s no militant insurgency in Bahrain, and the protests there were inspired by the Tunisian revolution. They barely help out the Houthis in Yemen, as much as the media, Saudi Arabia and Iran like to exaggerate. They couldn’t even form an Islamist government in little Lebanon, and the Islamists in Gaza are still of a Sunni creed and an extension of the Muslim Brotherhood.
    One might say Saudi Arabia as being a threat for spawning Sunni Islamist extremists regionally, if not globally and indeed have drawn the lines so much so to form an odd alliance with Israel.
    Destruction of religious places as a justified reaction to an act of worship because of your intolerant supremacist beliefs? A monarchy are anointed by God? Sounds like the rationalization of a Sunni Islamist of the Wahhabi kind.Recommend

  • siesmann

    You mean -not even a leaf falls without Mullah’s will.And you obviously don’t see Saudi export of violent and hateful Wahhabism as a problem.Recommend

  • Agha

    Great and balanced response to paranoia.Recommend