Arba’een the New Shia Hajj or an Interim Fill-In?
On Thursday, Fars News Agency (FNA) quoted Iraqi interior ministry spokesman Brigadier General Saad Maan as saying about one million Iranians have entered the country for Day of Arafah rituals. Following last year’s Mina stampede during Hajj, debates escalated on whether Iranians, the most severely hit population, should boycott Hajj in protest at the Saudi’s handling of the annual Islamic pilgrimage mandatory for Muslims that can afford it. However, it was Saudi sabotage in offering entry to Iranians, over accusations that Iran is politicizing Hajj, that came as the final blow. Iran, for its part, has boycotted Umrah, the minor hajj.
Fars News figures may be a little exaggerated but true to the meaning. An Iraqi shrine official has told AFP that he expects the number of pilgrims to reach a million, about 75 percent of them Iranians. As many as 64,000 of these Iranian pilgrims had booked places for this year's hajj but ended up in the Shia holy city of Karbala instead, AFP reported.
In recent years, the number of Iranian pilgrims to Iraq’s holy Shia cities has surged to record highs. Only on last year’s Arba’een, a Shia religious observance that occurs forty days after the Day of Ashura, some three million Iranians went on a pilgrimage to the holy city of Karbala, 100 kilometers south of Baghdad. Reports estimated the total number of pilgrims attending the observance from around the world as high as 17 million while two million Muslims attended the five-day annual hajj, according to a BBC estimate.
Most observers agree that beyond the revival of the Shia ritual of Arba’een, the new trend is a maneuver of power for Shiites, more particularly so because it takes place in a country afflicted with terrorist groups, including ISIS.
In late November, nearly a month before Saudi Arabia cut diplomatic ties with Iran, Mohsen Hessam-Mazaheri, a Principlist pundit, told a presser on cultural aspects of Arba’een that the rite was becoming a political one. “The Araba’een demonstration is turning into a political one for the West and the P5+1 to see,” the author of the book, Shia Media, told the presser. Hessam-Mazaheri went on to distinguish how Iranians and Iraqis view the “maneuver of power”, domestic for Iraqi Shiites and international for Tehran, and adds that the Iranian version of the pilgrimage is becoming more and more lavish with ‘cultural’ products ranging from headbands and backpacks to sunscreens.
Iran and Iraq both boast their handling of security of the Iranian pilgrims, many of whom traveled on foot, in the midst of terrorist attacks undertaken by ISIS across Iraq.
“Arba’een is more attractive and more easily accessible than Hajj and the Islamic Republic (of Iran) wants to manage the phenomenon. It will be perilous however, if we want to take control of Arba’een and say ‘Look how we handle Arba’een and how you handle Hajj’. This will reinforce the approach which sees Shia as a sect,” Shabestan News Agency quoted Hessam-Mazaheri as saying.
The comparison was already in the air. Days before the presser, then lawmaker Abed Fattahi, a member of the ninth Majlis’ health committee, hailed Iran’s Red Crescent Organization for its preparations during the observance, stressing on the importance of a proper handling in the face of the bitter Mina catastrophe. “Security during Arba’een is so high that Daesh is not allowed intervention, so that Mina cannot be repeated in Karbala,” Shafa Online quoted him as saying.
Din Online, Iranian online news outlet focusing on religion, sums up arguments for and against the boycott on Hajj. In Din Online’s account of the debate in Iran over a possible hajj boycott, those favoring a boycott bring up the negative economic impact on Saudi Arabia and the dignity of Iranian pilgrims while opponents believe the boycott will block Iran’s only channel to pass on the ‘message of revolution’ into the Sunni kingdom during Hajj. “Thus, critics of the boycott believe that it will endanger Iran’s interests more than those of the Saudis’ and a disruption of ties between Iran and the Saudi Arabia will benefit countries like Israel,” Din Online adds.
Fresh efforts by the Saudi kingdom to establish a secret alliance with Israel indicate that tensions between Iran and the Saudi Arabia are rooted in the latter’s concern over the rise of Iran as a regional power after it reached a landmark nuclear deal with the West. The war of words between the two Muslim nations has recently elevated to an unprecedented level after Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called Saudi officials oppressors who have hijacked hajj, in a speech made on the anniversary of the Mina incident.
Nonetheless, other pragmatic facets are also involved in diverting those who registered for Hajj, mandatory in Islam, to go on a pilgrimage to Karbala, highly recommended in Shia Islam but still not mandatory. AFP has talked with a woman from the Iranian city of Ahvaz, identified as Nasirah, who predicted that the substitution trip to Karbala could become a habit. “In Iran, the pilgrims... pay to get a visa and go to hajj. We in Iran wait a long time to get a chance to go. It can take 10 or 15 years,” she told AFP. “So I said let’s go for Arafah day in Karbala,” Nasirah adds. “If we are in Karbala, it’s the house of God; it can be considered hajj for us. So for the next few years, we will be coming to Karbala -- what can we do?”
While the prospects for a renewal of diplomatic ties between Iran and the Saudi Arabia are becoming increasingly slimmer, Tehran and Baghdad have recently announced joint efforts are under way to abolish the visa regime.
This is exactly what Hessam-Mazaheri, a sociologist whose focus is on religion, had sensed after last year’s Arba’een. In a post on his personal blog published on the same day he attended the presser to discuss the cultural aspects of Arba’een, he wrote the propaganda line comparing Arba’een with Hajj would ultimately result in a perilous coinage that is ‘Shia hajj’.
“Let’s not forget that the dichotomy has to potential to be accepted in the faith of the masses because the ‘rituals of the faithful’ are far more attractive than ‘religious rituals’, as the former provides for innovations. Just in the same way that mourning is more interesting than prayers, Arba’een is more interesting than the arid, repetitive, rigid, and hard-to-access hajj. Relying on the dichotomy will practically reduce Shiism to a sect and lead to deterioration of religiously motivated violations. Iran and Shiites will suffer from this more than anyone else.”
Iran has already begun its preparations for a more glorious Arba’een. Political confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia could not be worse. However, many experts believe that détente is a must in the foreseeable future and any further escalation could prove catastrophic.
The Arba’een boom, Hessam-Mazaheri tells Iranian Diplomacy, will decline or come to a stop in the years to come. By then, we should bear in mind that hajj is a religious mandate for all Muslims around the world, known for its inclusiveness and spirit of solidarity. No Muslim nation can afford to make it a plaything for political purposes.