THE NEW MECCA
By Micah Halpern
Thursday November 5, 2009
Internal divisions within the Muslim world are as old as Islam itself. Disputes and conflict have resonated throughout history. This period is no different.
Mecca is the holy most site in Islam. In Mecca sits the Kabbah, the focus of prayer for all Islam and the site to which 1, 400,000,000 Muslims from around the world many of whom make a pilgrimage there. The city of Mecca is located in Saudi Arabia and for some Muslims that is a problem.
There is a movement underway to reorient Islam away from Mecca. The person at the forefront of this movement is a well respected Iranian Shiite cleric named Ahmad Alam al Hadi.
This Shiite cleric has his supporters. Al Hadi is trying to convince the greater world of Islam that Muslims should not pray towards, nor visit holy sites in, Saudi Arabia or Iraq because those countries are controlled by infidels. He asserts that the leadership of Saudi Arabia is empty of Islamic value and interested only in its own self preservation. He asserts that Iraq is run by the West. And al Hadi attacks the prevalent form of Islam in Saudi Arabia, Wahabism, as extremism and as not representative of true Islam.
Ahmad Alam al Hadi proposes an alternative site. He suggests replacing Mecca, the centerpiece of Islam, with Mashhad. Do not pray to Mecca, he says, pray toward Mashhad. Do not make pilgrimage to Mecca, make pilgrimage to Mashhad. Reorient yourselves, he says, towards Mashhad which has been a spiritual capital of Islam for hundreds of years. These are very powerful statements coming from a respected religious leader and they have sparked significant debate.
The truth is that Mashhad is and has been a Muslim holy site, primarily for Shiite Muslims, but it also holds importance for Sunni Muslims. Al Hadi claims that Mashhad already accomodates 20,000,000 Iranian pilgrims and 80,000 foreign pilgrims every year and can certainly accommodate the greater onslaught of pilgrims who would be making their way to Iran.
On paper, the plan works. But Islam is not about progress or about change. Islam is about tradition. Even the use of the verb "to orient" is based on tradition. The word "orient" means "to the east." Every Muslim place of prayer contains a mikhrab, a prayer niche, and that prayer niche points in the direction of Mecca. Moving away from Mecca, replacing Mecca, would be a revolutionary move in the world of Islam - and a move that would foment an Islamic revolution.
The irony behind the choice of Mashhad as the new holy site in Islam should not be lost. Imam Raza, the 8th Imam and one of the most influential leaders in the development of Sufi Islam, is buried there. After Imam Reza was murdered in the year 818, probably poisoned to death, there was massive conflict over who should take control his Abbasid Empire. The fight was between his two sons. One son was the son of his Arab wife, the other was the son of his Persian wife. The Shiite Persian son won.
Internal historical conflicts between Islamic groups have very deep roots. So do linguistic traditions. Saudi Arabia is called the land of "Hijaz," an expression which really means the lands of the Hajj, the religious pilgrimage to Mecca. Iran can try to unseat Mecca as the holiest of holy sites, but they will fail - there are too many direct links to the Koran and Mohammed. When the move to change is approached from the perspective of serious Muslim scholarship which begins every investigation by examining the written word of the Koran and the teachings of the prophet Mohammad the argument to replace Mecca with Mashhad appears very, very weak.
Iran wants to take over the world. But first, the Iranians will have to conquer the Islamic world. This is a good - even if unsuccessful, try. They will try and try again. Iran does not shy away from conflict and dispute.
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