The millions who made the trip to Saudi Arabia this year threw pebbles at vast pillars, shaved their heads and sacrificed animals. But the festival’s display of unity masks divisions in Islam, including hostility to the Shia Muslim minority.
Shia Muslims number 200-million and are the faith’s second largest denomination. Many perform the hajj, also travelling to Iran, Iraq and holy sites beyond.
In Mina, Saudi Arabia, hundreds of Shias have travelled from Britain to perform the hajj.
Among them is Mohammed al-Hilli, who says he has “been called a heretic and a no believer” and thinks some of the attitudes stem from Saudi preachers advocating hostility towards Shia Muslims.
He said there have been many incidents where the religious police, the mutaween, have victimised Shias, and they had disrupted the group’s prayer meetings Mecca’s Grand Mosque.
Another member of his group, Riaz Esmail, is on his ninth hajj. “Attitudes in Mecca towards Shias are better than they are in Medina,” he said. “There are a large concentration of Shias in the east of the country and that is a source of tension for the Saudis.”
Being singled out
Pilgrims from Britain are required to state which sect they belong to on their visa application. Esmail had no objection to this – if it was for the right purpose.
“If it’s being used to single me out then that’s unfair,” he said. “Sometimes when the religious police see us they say that what we are doing is bid’ah [an innovation deemed sinful].”
He said that on past visits to Medina, site of Mohammed’s grave and another important destination for pilgrims, he had been spat on. “It is very sad that Muslims should treat each other this way.”
Shia Muslims believe Muhammad’s family and certain individuals among his descendants, known as imams, have spiritual and political authority over the community.
They also hold that Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, was the first of these leaders and therefore Muhammad’s rightful successor.
Al-Hilli said he had not encountered outright hostility or prejudice in Mecca, but was alarmed about the situation in Medina, which is home to the graves of four out of 12 Shia imams.
In the past, some Shia Muslims have felt unable to visit the imams’ graves, as the mutaween stood guard to discourage them. Last year the government cordoned off the area entirely. Now it is open twice a day — to men only.
Al-Hilli said: “Women feel disadvantaged. It is very sad and brings tears to my eyes. No other place on earth has the graves of so many revered individuals from our tradition. I do not feel I can go there comfortably, there is always tension, pressure and harassment.”
Many Shia, when performing prayers during the hajj, will follow Sunni practices rather than their own, which include a different call to prayer, a different form of ablution, and combining prayers, worshipping three times a day instead of five.