Journey of a Lifetime

November 25, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan, Muslim Media News Service (MMNS) Middle East Correspondent

2009-11-24T065219Z_497529973_GM1E5BO15BZ01_RTRMADP_3_HAJJ The journey to attend the Hajj pilgrimage is an essential pillar of Islam that all Muslims of means must perform at least once in a lifetime. Pilgrims from all over the world began to pour into the holy city of Makkah weeks ago with an estimated 2.5 million Muslims expected to perform the Hajj rituals this year.

The Hajj season has, for years, presented a host of difficulties for Muslims performing the sacred journey, which reveals the fleeting nature of the material world we live in. However, this year has revealed even more trials that pilgrims will have to cope with. The primary concern is, of course, the H1N1 virus. Before the pilgrimage has even commenced, 20 pilgrims have been diagnosed with the H1N1 virus while 4 people had died. Many of the pilgrims have been inoculated against the deadly H1N1 virus, however many have not. And recent scenes coming out of Makkah via satellite television show that only a handful of the masses are donning the infamous white surgical masks as a means of prevention. More than 20,000 medical personnel have been dispatched throughout the city and in the city of Medina to cope with H1N1 virus as well as other maladies that pilgrims may become afflicted with. Pilgrims arriving at the airport are being screened for H1N1 symptoms before they enter the Kingdom and the government has ordered a veritable army of doctors to be on duty around the clock.

This Hajj season also sees renewed tensions erupting between the Saudi Arabian government and the Iranian government over the way the latter perceives its pilgrims have been discriminated against during past pilgrimages. The war of words between both governments exploded recently when Iran’s Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Khamenei said, “Such acts are against the unity of Muslims and contribute to the goals and wishes of the US and foreign intelligence services. The Saudi government should fulfill its duty in confronting these acts.” To which the Saudi Arabian government retorted, “The kingdom does not permit any party to disrupt the security of the pilgrims or to attempt to divide the ranks of Muslims.” It is a very really concern this hajj season that sectarian violence could break out during Islam’s most holy occasion. More than 100,000 security personnel have been dispatched to maintain order and keep the pilgrims safe.

The current hajj season also marks the unveiling of a newly built bridge that will help diversify the traffic at one of the most important areas of the Hajj – the Jamarat or ritual ‘Stoning of the Devil’. This area is the most highly congested and where stampedes have occurred in the past killing pilgrims. The most horrific stampede occurred in 2006 when 364 pilgrims were crushed to death and scores more were maimed or injured. The 5-storey walkway is over 3,000 feet long and over 260 feet wide. It was built at a cost of over $1 billion and the Saudi government hopes that it will facilitate pilgrims as a safe passageway while simultaneously assisting them in fulfilling a Hajj rite.

And as if the dark cloud looming over this year’s hajj could not get any bigger, this year also marks the 30th anniversary of a coup by extremists who seized the Grand Mosque in a stunning act of aggression that sent shockwaves reverberating around the world. Saudi Arabian and French security personnel eventually stormed the mosque in a bloody battle that cost hundreds of lives.

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Saudi Arabia Improves Hajj Security, Bans Protests

November 25, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

Louisville Democrat Examiner, Timothy Morgan

2009-11-21T171100Z_1597266078_GM1E5BM032701_RTRMADP_3_FLU-SAUDI-PILGRIMS

A security official wearing a protective mask keeps an eye on cars at a checkpoint between Jeddah and Mecca before the start of the annual Hajj pilgrimage November 21, 2009.  Saudi Arabia said on Saturday four pilgrims had died of the new H1N1 flu virus three days before the massive Muslim haj is due to begin, al-Hayat newspaper said.

REUTERS/Caren Firouz

On November 25-29, the holy pilgrimage to Mecca of the Hajj begins in the Islamic world.  The Hajj is the fifth pillar of Islam and a moral obligation under the religion for every able-bodied Muslim who can afford the journey must do so at least once in their lifetime.

The Hajj is the largest annual pilgrimage in the world, with 2.5 million Muslims expected to make the trip this year.

With such a large movement of people, the Saudi government has issued warnings that all protesting during the Hajj is banned.  The government has also stepped-up security, with more than 100,000 Saudi military deployed during the pilgrimage.

While the Saudi Arabian security forces assert that they do not expect any troubles, the interior ministry official in charge of security, Gen Mansour al-Turki, said that “We will not allow any actions that might disturb any other pilgrims, or affect their safety.”

In 1987, 402 people were killed when troops broke up a protest by Shia pilgrims.  This year is also the 30th anniversary of the seizure of the Great Mosque in Mecca, home of the Kaaba and Islam’s holiest site, by Sunni extremists.

The Kaaba is a cuboidal building in the center of the Great Mosque in Mecca that pre-dates Islam and is the holiest site in all of Islam.  Muslim beliefs say that the original building on the site was built by Abraham.  Thus, a mosque was built around the site and all Muslims, regardless of their location, must face the Kaaba during daily prayers, as well as take part in the Hajj if able.

Last month Iran’s President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, warned that it would take “appropriate measures” if its citizens faced restrictions.  Ayatollah Khamenei, the Iranian Supreme Leader, called for the Shia to show that they were dealing with challenges to their unity.

Thus, the Saudi government has responded by both warning Iran not to abuse the Hajj for political purposes, and by the ban on protests.

Authorities are also hoping to prevent a repeat of the deadly stampedes, such as in 2006 when 364 people were killed, that have afflicted the Hajj.  In response, the Saudi Government has recently finished the rebuilding of the Jamarat Bridge at Mina, the 950m (3,135ft) long, 80m (260ft) wide five-story pedestrian walkway, which cost $1.2bn, and that authorities hope will prevent overcrowding.

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Muslim 500 – A Listing of the 500 Most Influential Muslims in the World

November 17, 2009 by · 12 Comments 

By Adil James, MMNS

mabda500cover-v2 A fascinating new book has just been issued by The Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center (in Jordan) in concert with Georgetown’s Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.

The book lists the 500 most influential people in the Muslim world, breaking the people into several distinct categories, scholarly, political, administrative, lineage, preachers, women, youth, philanthropy, development, science and technology, arts and culture, media, and radicals.

Before this breakdown begins however, the absolute most influential 50 people are listed, starting with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.  The top 50 fit into 6 broad categories as follows:  12 are political leaders (kings, generals, presidents), 4 are spiritual leaders (Sufi shaykhs), 14 are national or international religious authorities, 3 are “preachers,” 6 are high-level scholars, 11 are leaders of movements or organizations.

The 500 appear to have been chosen largely in terms of their overt influence, however the top 50 have been chosen and perhaps listed in a “politically correct” order designed not to cause offense.  For example, the first person listed is the Sunni political leader of Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah.  The second person listed is the head of the largest Shi’a power, Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei.  As these are not the two Muslim countries with the largest populations, and do not even represent the two countries with the most spiritual or religious relevance (Saudi Arabia yes, Iran no) therefore clearly the decision of spots one or two appears to have been motivated by a sense of political correctness.

In total 72 Americans are among the 500 most influential Muslims, a disproportionately strong showing, but only one among the top 50.  Sheikh Hamza Yusuf Hanson of Zaytuna Institute is listed surprisingly at number 38.  The world leader of the Naqshbandi Haqqani Sufi order, however, Sheikh Nazim al Haqqani, with millions of followers worldwide, spiritual adviser to kings, presidents, doctors, lawyers, professors and others across the spectrum of profession, race, and ethnicity on seven continents, is listed at number 49.  While Sheikh Hamza Yusuf has successfully built the Zaytuna Institute, his influence is confined mostly to American academia, scholars and students.  Surprisingly, Khaled Mashaal, leader of Hamas, (at number 34) is listed before any American Muslim. 

It seems strange that Yusuf is the only American listed in the top 50. Especially when Rep. Keith Ellison (D-5-MN), Tariq Ramadan and Ingrid Mattson are listed among the “honorable mentions” in the book (“honorable mentions” were almost among the top 50 but not quite—they are still listed among the 500).  Ingrid Mattson alone is likely more influential than Hamza Yusuf Hanson, for instance.  Not to mention Rep. Keith Ellison.  Even the Nobel prize winner Mohammad Yunus is listed only among the honorable mentions.

Sheikh Hisham Kabbani in the USA is listed among the most influential scholars in the Muslim world, and his relative Mohammad Rashid Qabbani, the Grand Mufti of Lebanon and its leading Sunni scholar, is also among the most influential scholars.  The Shi’a marja Ayatullah Sayeed Mohammad Fadlallah is the other listed scholar for Lebanon. 

The 18 prominent American Muslims in the Scholars section of the book also include Yusuf Estes, Sulayman Nyang, Muzammil Siddiqui, Sherman Jackson, Zaid Shakir, and Nuh Keller.  Two Americans are listed as Political figures in North America.  Nine Americans are listed as Administrative leaders, including Siraj Wahhaj—surprising to list him as an administrative leader rather than a preacher.  One Canadian is listed under the Lineage section, namely Jamal Badawi, but no Americans.  Under the Women heading appear six very recognizable names, perhaps most recognizable among them Ingrid Mattson, the controversial Amina Wadud, and the extremely influential Dalia Mogahed (who wrote the perhaps watershed work Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think.)  Two Americans are listed in the Youth category.  Under the Philanthropy category is listed one person, Dr. Tariq Cheema, co-founder of the World Congress of Muslim Philanthropists.  13 Americans are listed under Development, including strangely the boxer Mohammad Ali.  Four Americans are listed under Science and Technology, perhaps most recognizably Dr. Mehmed Oz, who frequently appears on morning television to help explain medical situations to people, and who shows an interest in the overlap between traditional medicine and spirituality.  Seven Americans are listed under Arts and Culture, including the notable actors Mos Def and Dave Chappelle, also the calligrapher Mohammad Zakaria.  Nine Americans are listed in the Media section, including Fareed Zakaria and the filmmaker Michael Wolfe.

The book’s appendices comprehensively list populations of Muslims in nations worldwide, and its introduction gives a snapshot view of different ideological movements within the Muslim world, breaking down clearly distinctions between traditional Islam and recent radical innovations.

People who are themselves prominent scholars contributed to or edited the book, including of course Georgetown University’s Professor John Esposito and Professor Ibrahim Kalin.  Ed Marques and Usra Ghazi also edited and prepared the book.  The book lists as consultants Dr. Hamza Abed al Karim Hammad, and Siti Sarah Muwahidah, with thanks to other contributors.

The entire book is available online (here:  http://www.rissc.jo/muslim500v-1L.pdf) and we hope that it will be available for sale soon inside the United States.  Currently it is not available.

To encourage the printing and release of the book in the United States you can contact Georgetown’s Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at cmcu@georgetown.edu, or by phone at 202-687-8375.

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Iran: Rafsanjani Poised to Outflank Supreme Leader Khamenei

June 27, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

Eurasianet

khatami-rafsanjani

Former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani shown here voting with reform leader former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami.

(Photo: Amir Kholoosi / ISNA)

Looking past their fiery rhetoric and apparent determination to cling to power using all available means, Iran’s hardliners are not a confident bunch. While hardliners still believe they possess enough force to stifle popular protests, they are worried that they are losing a behind-the-scenes battle within Iran’s religious establishment.

A source familiar with the thinking of decision-makers in state agencies that have strong ties to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said there is a sense among hardliners that a shoe is about to drop. Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani – Iran’s savviest political operator and an arch-enemy of Ayatollah Khamenei’s – has kept out of the public spotlight since the rigged June 12 presidential election triggered the political crisis. The widespread belief is that Rafsanjani has been in the holy city of Qom, working to assemble a religious and political coalition to topple the supreme leader and Pres. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

“There is great apprehension among people in the supreme leader’s [camp] about what Rafsanjani may pull,” said a source in Tehran who is familiar with hardliner thinking. “They [the supreme leader and his supporters] are much more concerned about Rafsanjani than the mass movement on the streets.”

Ayatollah Khamenei now has a very big image problem among influential Shi’a clergymen. Over the course of the political crisis, stretching back to the days leading up to the election, Rafsanjani has succeeded in knocking the supreme leader off his pedestal by revealing Ayatollah Khamenei to be a political partisan rather than an above-the-fray spiritual leader. In other words, the supreme leader has become a divider, not a uniter.

Now that Ayatollah Khamenei has become inexorably connected to Ahmadinejad’s power grab, many clerics are coming around to the idea that the current system needs to be changed. Among those who are now believed to be arrayed against Ayatollah Khamenei is Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the top Shi’a cleric in neighboring Iraq. Rafsanjani is known to have met with Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani’s representative in Iran, Javad Shahrestani.

A reformist website, Rooyeh, reported that Rafsanjani already had the support of nearly a majority of the Assembly of Experts, a body that constitutionally has the power to remove Ayatollah Khamenei. The report also indicated that Rafsanjani’s lobbying efforts were continuing to bring more clerics over to his side. Rafsanjani’s aim, the website added, is the establishment of a leadership council, comprising of three or more top religious leaders, to replace the institution of supreme leader. Shortly after it posted the report on Rafsanjani’s efforts to establish a new collective leadership, government officials pulled the plug on Rooyeh.

Meanwhile, the Al-Arabiya satellite television news channel reported that a “high-ranking” source in Qom confirmed that Rafsanjani has garnered enough support to remove Ayatollah Khamenei, but an announcement is being delayed amid differences on what or who should replace the supreme leader. Some top clerics reportedly want to maintain the post of supreme leader, albeit with someone other than Ayatollah Khamenei occupying the post, while others support the collective leadership approach.

To a certain degree, hardliners now find themselves caught in a cycle of doom: they must crack down on protesters if they are to have any chance of retaining power, but doing so only causes more and more clerics to align against them.

Security forces broke up a small street protest on June 22 involving roughly a thousand demonstrators who had gathered to mourn the victims of the government crackdown two days before. Also on June 22, a statement issued in the name of the Revolutionary Guards demanded that protesters immediately stop “sabotage and rioting activities,” and threatened to unleash “revolutionary confrontation” against anyone who took to the streets.

Such a showdown could come later this week. One of the country’s highest-ranking clerics, Grand Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri has declared three days of mourning for those who have died in street protests. Grand Ayatollah Montazeri’s declaration could bring thousands of Tehran residents back out into the streets starting on June 24.

Meanwhile, the Guardian Council, an unelected state body with election oversight responsibilities, announced June 21 that it had found numerous irregularities connected with the June 12 presidential vote. A council spokesman, for example, admitted that the number of votes cast in 50 cities throughout the country exceeded the number of registered voters in those locations. The Guardian Council indicated that there may be as many as 3 million suspect ballots, but stressed the suspected cases of fraud were not such that it could have influenced the outcome of the vote. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Ayatollah Khamenei has repeatedly characterized the election as a “divine assessment” of Ahmadinejad’s popularity.

An election analysis released by the London-based Chatham House appeared to confirm that the official results, in which Ahmadinejad was said to have won with nearly two-thirds of the vote, could only have been achieved with massive vote-rigging. The report was based on voting patterns from previous national elections, and on a 2006 census.

“In a third of all provinces, the official results would require that Ahmadinejad took not only all former conservative voters, all centrist voters and all new voters, but also up to 44% of former reformist voters, despite a decade of conflict between these two groups,” said the report, which was prepared with the help of the Institute of Iranian Studies at the University of St. Andrews. The report also used statistical arguments to dispute the notion that Ahmadinejad was popular in rural areas of Iran. “That the countryside always votes conservative is a myth,” the report said.

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