The hajj pilgrimage to Mecca is one of the five pillars of Islam - every adult Muslim who is physically able and can afford it is required to make the journey once before dying. For about two million people each year, the hajj is a supreme moment of devotion to the religion of the Prophet Muhammad.

For the Wahhabi clerics who direct the official state sect in Saudi Arabia, however, the hajj is more an ideological than a spiritual observance. The small number of Muslims allowed to make the journey - 2 million out of at least 1.3 billion Muslims around the world - is a giveaway: The Wahhabis carefully vet hajj pilgrims, to exclude those of whom they disapprove.

Saudi-Wahhabi adherents prohibit and interfere with honours offered by hajjis to Muhammad, his family, his companions, his successors, and other Muslim holy people. In the perverse Wahhabi system - shared with the Deobandi sect in South Asia that leads the Taliban - expressing love for the Prophet and other distinguished Muslims is polytheism, setting up ‘partners’ alongside the creator. Today, Wahhabis and Deobandis condemn celebrating the Prophet’s birthday (mawlid) as an imitation of Christians, even though mawlid continues to be held wherever Muslims live - even, privately, in the Saudi kingdom. By contrast, traditional Islamic theologians praised the Christians for their love of their Prophet - as he is seen in Islam, although Muslims do not believe Jesus was the son of God. Traditional Muslims reply to the extremists that a religion that does not esteem its Prophet cannot bring fulfillment to its followers.

Wahhabis also despise the preservation of historic religious architecture, including shrines, graves, tombs, and notable mosques and madrassas. To them, Muslim prayer at any such sites is, again, polytheism - making a gravestone or a house into an idol. During the nearly 150-year long effort, beginning in the 18th century, to establish the Saudi-Wahhabi regime, the fanatics banned any construction, visiting, or prayer at shrines, graves, and tombs. Today they remain especially avid to wipe out the structures in which Muhammad and his family lived, lest Muslims visit and pray at them. Since their seizure of Mecca in 1924, the Wahhabi mentors of the Saudi royal family have schemed to extirpate the very building in which Muhammad was born - it was first turned into a cattle market, then into a library, but remains under threat of replacement by a car park. They have demolished or otherwise covered over the grave of the Prophet’s mother, and the house in which Muhammad lived with his wife Khadijah and their children. They also destroyed the first Islamic school in which the Prophet taught.

The Wahhabi mutawwa, or morals patrols (often miscalled a ‘religious police’) harass hajjis who visit the Prophet’s Shrine in Medina if pilgrims face the direction of Muhammad’s sarcophagus and utter blessings. But the intersection of naked vandalism and Wahhabi proscriptions against long-established Muslim customs is nowhere more dramatic than at Jannat-al-Baqi, the Medina cemetery of the Prophet’s family and companions. Jannat al-Baqi once included numerous domed shrines. But the Wahhabis tore down the monuments, turned the cemetery into a garbage dump, and prevented identification of any of the graves there.

Recent Western media coverage has noted that Shia Muslims continue to visit the site of Jannat al-Baqi and to pray, recite blessings, and express their emotions at the sanctity of those buried there. The mutawwa - including Arabs, Afghans, and Bangladeshis who understand the hajjis’ speech - not only tell them to lower their voices, but also confiscate their religious literature, and frequently detain and abuse them. The controversy over Jannat al-Baqi has been interpreted by some non-Muslim commentators as an expression of geopolitical rivalry between the Saudi kingdom, which proclaims its adherence to Sunnism, and Shia Iran. Iran, it is said, is using the issue of cultural devastation in Arabia to gain support for its political position among the world’s Muslims.

To believe such a claim is a serious error. Sunnis, especially followers of Sufi spirituality, are no less outraged by the wanton destruction of Islamic heritage, as symbolized by the transformation of Jannat al-Baqi into a waste ground, than are Shias. The rescue of Islamic heritage is not a political issue between states but a serious challenge to Muslims of any and all partisan views. Sunni Sufis who visit Jannat al-Baqi to express their affection for the Muslims interred there also suffer at the hands of the mutawwa: they are also pushed around and told how to pray, they see their religious books seized and torn up, and they have been arrested and beaten. In doctrinal terms, Sunni Sufis and Shias differ on many issues, but they are united in seeking to protect Islam’s physical legacy.

Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that officially rejects the concept of cultural preservation. While some archeological work goes on, it is typically hidden from the public or downgraded to minor facilities. Saudi King Abdullah has commenced various efforts to normalize his country, which is the sole state in the world to prevent women from driving, among other Wahhabi stupidities. A bold step in the right direction would be the dissolution of the mutawwa and an end to interference with the spiritual habits of hajj pilgrims, Sunni and Shia, Sufi and non-Sufi, alike.

If anybody believes the contention over cultural vandalism in Arabia favors Iran, an end to such irresponsible Saudi policies would certainly deprive the Iranians of a basis for their complaints.

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