Grand mufti Abdul Aziz al-Asheikh’s sermon to pilgrims received wide media coverage in the Islamic world, particularly his assertions that “Islam condemns all violence and terrorism plaguing the world today.”
As for sectarianism and divisions, he told Muslims, “don’t be divided into diverse schools of thoughts, get united against injustice.”
“You should know that you are targeted by your enemy ... who wants to spread chaos among you,” the Saudi Gazette quoted him as saying.
This year’s hajj, the annual pilgrimage that is one of Islam’s “five pillars,” comes at a time when the Syria conflict has poured fresh fuel onto the divide between Sunnis and Shi’ites that originated in a succession dispute after the death of Mohammed 14 centuries ago.
The Assad regime and its allies, primarily Iran and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, are in the Shia camp while rebels trying to topple it are predominantly Sunnis, supported by Sunni Gulf states.
Radical Sunni clerics have used increasingly sectarian rhetoric as they encourage fighters to join the jihad, and aside from the bloodshed inside Syria itself the Sunni-Shia violence has spilled over this year into Lebanon and, especially, into Iraq.
An appointee of the Saudi monarch who carries the title “custodian of the two holy mosques,” the grand mufti holds a very influential post and his statements and rulings carry significant weight.
But al-Asheikh, who has held the position for nearly 15 years, has come under fire on occasion over comments about Shi’ites – among other things.
Last June, prominent Sunni scholar and Muslim Brotherhood spiritual leader Yusuf Qaradawi made headlines when he urged Muslims to join the jihad against Syrian President Bashar Assad and his ally Hezbollah, which he labeled “the party of Satan” (Hezbollah means “party of Allah.)
Qaradawi’s provocative speech implied that the conflict in Syria was part of a global struggle between Sunnis and Shi’ites, saying 100 million Shia could only defeat 1.7 billion Sunnis because the latter were “weak.”
Al-Asheikh publicly supported Qaradawi’s comments, calling for “substantial measures against this repulsive sectarian group [Hezbollah] and all those backing it.”
In 2011 the grand mufti’s characterization of Shi’ites brought a reprimand from one of Shia Islam’s senior most figures, the Qom, Iran-based Grand Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi,
In an open letter to al-Asheikh, Shirazi criticized him for calling Shi’ites “enemies of Muslims,” and accused him of “stigmatization, lying and disrespecting Shia.”
“The enemies of Islam want sectarian strife and want war to break out among Muslims so that they can exploit the rich resources of the region,” he wrote, all churches in the Arabian peninsula should be destroyed, citing a hadith – a saying or tradition of Mohammed – to the effect that “there are not to be two religions in the [Arabian] peninsula.”
Saudi Arabia already does not allow the existence of churches or public expressions of non-Muslim religious worship, but al-Asheikh was speaking to a delegation from Kuwait which sought his guidance on the question of non-Islamic places of worship in the small Gulf state.
Saudi Arabia, which is governed according to the strict Wahhabi strain of Sunni Islam, was given the number two spot on Open Doors USA’s 2013 list of the world’s worst persecutors of Christians, behind North Korea.