Located in the Hijaz region of western Saudi Arabia, Medina is the second holiest city in Islam. It is home to the Prophet’s Mosque and its famous green dome, beneath which is found Muhammad’s tomb. Millions of Muslims visit Medina each year, often as a stopover before beginning the Hajj, or annual pilgrimage to Mecca. This week though, in the normally tranquil environs of the mosque, violence erupted and blood was spilled. The strife in Media comes on the heels of recently announced ‘reforms’ of the religious police and judiciary by Saudi King Abdullah, and is a telling sign of just how dismissively they were received.
Many Muslims from Saudi Arabia and beyond chose to visit Medina and the Prophet’s Mosque outside of the Hajj season, particularly Shia Muslims, as they did this week. It was to commemorate the anniversary of the death of Prophet Muhammad on 28 Safar (in the Islamic lunar calendar) in 632 AD, corresponding to Feb. 24 this year.
Situated across from the Prophet’s Mosque is a cemetery known as Jannat al-Baqi or “The Garden of Heaven.” It is where many notable persons in Islamic history are buried, including the Prophet’s companions, wives, and the 2nd, 4th, 5th and 6th Shia Imams (who are direct descendants of Muhammad through his daughter Fatima, and his cousin, Ali). Hasan, the second Imam and grandson of the Prophet, was murdered on 28 Safar. Since the day of his martyrdom coincides with that of the Prophet’s death, many pilgrims were also drawn to al-Baqi.
Before continuing, it should be understood that although Saudi Arabia claims to follow the Hanbali school in Islam, one of the four main schools of Sunni jurisprudence, in reality they follow Wahabism; an ultra-puritanical and often intolerant version of the religion derived from the 18th century teachings of Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahab.
It was the Muhammad ibn Saud, the founder of modern-day Saudi Arabia, who first forged an alliance and secured a pact with Abdul Wahab, which continues to be honored to this day. The followers of Abdul Wahab (or Wahabis) are allowed control over the educational and religious institutions in the country in exchange for permitting the Saudi royals family to rule it.
It is the Wahabis who have branded Shia Muslims ‘infidels’ for, among other reasons, their deep respect for, and veneration of, the family of the Prophet Muhammad. They consider the practice of visiting the graves of the Imams (who the Shia believe to be the Prophet’s divinely appointed successors) tantamount to idolatry. Indeed, not only visiting graves but commemorating anyone’s birth or death is anathema according to Wahabi doctrine.
As a result, there is pervasive and institutionalized discrimination against Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia, where they form about ten percent of the population. Among other examples, they are barred from obtaining governmental positions; activists are routinely jailed; academic prejudice is commonplace; religious leaders are prevented from broadcasting on radio or television and religious rites are curtailed to the extent possible (which media are also prohibited from covering). In one instance, Shias were even banned from donating blood.
Pilgrims vs. Religious Police
And so they came.
Between 5,000-7,000 Saudi Shia pilgrims from Qatif and Al-Hasa in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, where they constitute one-third of the population, arrived in Medina to visit the Prophet’s Mosque and al-Baqi cemetery in the days prior to 28 Safar.
The trouble started on the evening of Feb. 20 when the Mutawwa, or Saudi religious police, who work under the authority of the “Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice” were found to be illegally filming Saudi Shia women who had gathered outside al-Baqi (so much for virtue). Five male relatives who witnessed this demanded the police hand over or destroy the film. Instead, they were arrested.
After these arrests, thousands of pilgrims protested outside religious police headquarters. Scuffles ensued and riot police began beating protestors. In the following days, the religious police barred women from visiting al-Baqi, even in areas reserved specifically for them (women are not allowed to visit graves in Saudi Arabia) and were addressed with derogatory language at the Prophet’s Mosque. When all were prevented from entering the cemetery on Feb. 23, further clashes ensued. Three pilgrims were killed and nine arrested. Press TV also reports that a bus carrying them was attacked and a cleric stabbed.
Sheik Hussein Al-Mustapha, a prominent Shia cleric, told the Associated Press, “There was a flagrant aggression on women’s rights and the Shiite visitors. It was a premeditated action by extremist men who want to put an end to visits by Shiite visitors.”
It would not be the first time Shia pilgrims have been harassed and abused when visiting the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. In 2007, American citizen Sayyid Jawad Qazwini and a group of US and UK pilgrims experienced first-hand the ruthless behavior the Saudi religious establishment exhibits toward Shias.
‘Reforms’ of King Abdullah
Less than a week prior to the violence in Medina, King Abdullah unveiled the most sweeping reforms and reshuffling of prominent department officials the country has seen since he became king in 2005.
- Sacking the head of the religious police, Sheikh Ibrahim al-Ghaith. His replacement, Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Humain told Al-Arabiya news, “We will try to be close to the heart of every citizen. Their concerns are ours.”
- Removing Supreme Judicial Council leader Sheikh Saleh al-Luhaidan (infamous for his fatwa ordering that owners of satellite channels showing “immoral” content be killed).
- Expanding the Ulema Council (council of religious leaders) to include members of all four branches of Sunni Islam. Previously, it was limited to only those following the Hanbali school. No Shia members were included, although there are indications two eventually may be.
- Appointing the first woman deputy minister, the most senior job ever held by a woman in the Kingdom (although women are still prohibiting from driving).
- New heads of the administrative court, the Supreme Council of Justice, and the Supreme Court were named.
The tragic events which occurred in Medina are sobering evidence of the grip that the Wahabi religious establishment has on Saudi society, its police, and judiciary. The wanton discrimination and violence which continues to be meted out against Saudi Shia citizens make the reforms of King Abdullah—no matter how well intentioned—appear empty and hollow. Saudi columnist Najib al-Khonaizi remarked, “There’s a feeling that the Shiites’ ambitions have not been realized as hoped, and that could have played an indirect role in inflaming emotions. We have to admit that there’s tension in the Shiite street.”
As a result of the clashes, arrests and killings in Medina, there are now reports of protests breaking out in the Eastern Province with demands for increased freedom of expression and equal rights becoming more vocal. As reported by the Associated Press, demonstrators were even seen carrying banners reading “down with the government” and spray painting anti-government slogans on billboards—all unheard of in the tightly controlled nation.
It may very well be that spreading anger over the harassment and violence directed against Shias in Medina—insultingly juxtaposed against King Abdullah’s purported reforms—will become the real nidus and driving force behind meaningful change in the Kingdom.
Until then, it will be Saudi Arabia’s Shia Muslims who will point to King Abdullah and the litany of his reforms and remind everyone that truly, “the emperor has no robes.”