On the Eve of Hajj, Saudi and Iranian Officials Try to Define “Muslim”

by Derek Davison

Top Iranian and Saudi officials traded barbs earlier this week over who is and isn’t a true Muslim, deepening the Middle East’s most prominent, longest-running, and deadliest diplomatic crisis. On September 6, Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti, Abdulaziz Al al-Sheikh, pronounced that Iranians, no doubt to the great surprise of many of them, are not actually Muslim:

“We have to understand that they are not Muslims. … Their main enemies are the followers of Sunnah (Sunnis),” Al al-Sheikh was quoted as saying in remarks republished by the Arab News.

He described Iranian leaders as sons of “magus”, a reference to Zoroastrianism, the dominant belief in Persia until the Muslim Arab invasion of the region that is now Iran 13 centuries ago.

The theological implications of the mufti’s pronouncement are enormous and, presumably, escaped him. If Iranian Shi‘a cannot be Muslim because they descend from Zoroastrians, then by the same token Iranian Sunnis (descended from the same Zoroastrians), Turks (largely descended from shamanists), Indians and Pakistanis (Hindus), Pashtun (Buddhists), and, indeed, Arabs (polytheists, Jews, and Christians) don’t qualify as “Muslims” either. It’s also worth noting the commonalities between the mufti’s declaration, a classic example of takfir (the principle by which certain Muslim groups claim the right to declare that self-professed Muslims are actually unbelievers), and the ideology that animates the Islamic State, which is takfiri to its core.

From a historical standpoint, if opposition to “the followers of Sunnah” disqualifies one from being a Muslim, then it is, as Juan Cole points out, ironic that Wahhabism, the branch of Islam practiced and promoted by the Saudi royal family, was, in its earliest form, openly hostile to Sunnism:

Ironically, in the 18th century Wahhabis were the ones denouncing the Sunnis and attacking the Sunni Ottoman Empire. Through the centuries the Wahhabis have gradually asserted that they are Sunnis themselves. But they did not start out that way.

Iranian responses to the mufti’s declaration called Wahhabism’s claim to Islamic orthodoxy into question. For example, on September 6 Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted “Indeed; no resemblance between Islam of Iranians & most Muslims & bigoted extremism that Wahhabi top cleric & Saudi terror masters preach.”

Al al-Sheikh’s decision to define tens of millions of Iranian Shi‘a (at least) out of Islam was a reaction to new Iranian complaints over the death of over 2,400 pilgrims, hundreds of them Iranian, in a stampede that took place during last year’s Hajj. With pilgrims gathering in Saudi Arabia for this year’s Hajj, which began this week, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Monday reiterated Iran’s criticism of Saudi management of last year’s pilgrimage and the aftermath of the disaster:

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in a speech Monday excoriated Saudi’s rulers as “puny Satans” who have reduced hajj to a “religious-tourist trip.” Khamenei said Saudis murdered the pilgrims who died last year.

“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,” Khamenei said.

“The world of Islam must fundamentally reconsider the management of the two holy places and the issue of hajj,” he said, referring to the custodianship of Islam’s two holiest sites, in Mecca and Medina.

In May, Tehran announced that Iranians would not be permitted to undertake the Hajj this year, after negotiations between Iran and the Saudis broke down. That ban sparked protests, directed against the Saudis, in Tehran on Friday. For the Saudis, management of the Hajj is of paramount importance in terms of their dynastic legitimacy. They view criticism from Iranian officials, like President Hassan Rouhani’s call for the Saudis to be “punished” over the stampede, as a direct attack on the Saudi regime. It’s in that context that the Grand Mufti’s remarks must be understood.

This latest Saudi-Iran war of words is unlikely to make any significant headway in answering the age-old question of who is and is not actually a Muslim. Nor will it do anything to ease the suffering of people throughout the Middle East who have been caught in the crossfire of the region’s several Riyadh vs. Tehran proxy battles. As the muftis and imams trade insults, Muslims continue to suffer and die in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and Bahrain in conflicts fueled by the Saudi-Iranian battle for supremacy.

Photo: Abdulaziz Al al-Sheikh

Derek Davison

Derek Davison is an analyst covering U.S. foreign policy and international affairs and the writer/editor of the newsletter Foreign Exchanges. His writing has appeared at LobeLog, Jacobin, and Foreign Policy in Focus.


One Comment

  1. “He described Iranian leaders as sons of “magus”, a reference to Zoroastrianism,”

    That’s a curious statement. In fact, by extrapolation, it has even worse implications for Arabs. Didn’t Muhammad bring Islam to give a monotheism to the idol worshiping Arabs? So if Iranians are bad because they are “sons” of magus (what about their women? are the women also sons of magus?) what does that make Arabs who are sons of polytheistic idol worshipers?

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