Skip to content
Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Is a Schism Developing in the Sunni Camp?

Filed under: Muslim Brotherhood, Radical Islam, Saudi Arabia

Is a Schism Developing in the Sunni Camp?
Muslim pilgrims during the Haj to Mecca. (Wikipedia / Muhammad Mahdi Karim)

The pilgrimage season to Mecca passed uneventfully, and this year the Saudi government introduced measures to ease the pilgrims’ comfort, such as air-conditioned tents on the Haj sites, justifying its title as Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques. However, fissures are showing in this title, with the status of Saudi Arabia being doubted, in fact by the Sunni side of the Islamic dispute.

The best-known theologian of the Sunni, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawy from Qatar, tweeted that the true pilgrimage is not physical, but spiritual. “Allah has no need for this Haj,” he proclaimed. “Allah has no need for his worshippers. If they were given commandments, it is for the sake of their self-purification, so their spirit will be elevated spiritually and morally towards their Creator, and they will be granted their various life rewards.”

Al Qaradawy Tweet
Al Qaradawy Tweet1

In other words, he is not questioning of the status of Saudi Arabia here, but rather of the status of the Haj itself.

Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawy
Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawy, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood (Egyptian press)

The background for this tweet is a deep schism between Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabism and the Muslim Brotherhood school of thought of Qatar. Sheikh Qardawi resides in Doha, Qatar (and is considered a terrorist in his native Egypt), and his tweets reveal another layer in the dispute between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Wahhabis and their relationship to Sufism. The Sufi school of thought is deeply entrenched in Egypt and relates mostly to the worship of holy places and tombs, and the worship of Allah through joy and revelations, to reach the spiritual elevation and connection with Allah in the heavens above. The Wahhabis, on the other hand, see all these revelations as idolatry, and they set out to destroy such places of worship as much as they can.

Religious authorities in Saudi Arabia seek to destroy many of the sites. According to a 2014 report in Time, the Mecca house of Muhammad’s first wife, Khadijah, “has made way for public toilets. A Hilton hotel stands on the site of the house of Islam’s first caliph, Abu Bakr.”2

The Green Dome of the Al-Masjed Al-Nabawi Mosque in Medina
The Green Dome of the Al-Masjed Al-Nabawi Mosque in Medina, built over the tomb of Muhammad and the Caliphs Abu Bakr and Umar. Some Wahhabi religious authorities call for its destruction. (Wikimedia Commons)3

Jerusalem’s Role in Islam

One of the important points of contention between the Sufis and the Wahhabis is the attitude toward Jerusalem. Some of the Sufis claim that the Al-Aqsa mosque is more important than Mecca. They claim that the angel Gabriel was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad in Mecca “because that is where the prophet happened to be,” but for him to ascend the seven heavens, he had to come to Jerusalem, which is the gateway to heaven. This is the meaning, according to the Sufis, of the Isra and Miʿraj, the miraculous journey of the Prophet upon his steed Buraq and his ascension to Heaven from the Foundation Stone in Jerusalem.

The tweets by the Egyptian-born Qaradawy abound with expressions related to the Mi’raj – the rise of the Prophet Muhammad to heaven. Qaradawi appears to be preaching to the Sunnis of the Muslim Brotherhood to prepare the ground for Jerusalem to serve as a substitute for Mecca. This emphasis on Jerusalem explains the increased involvement or Turkey and the Islamic Movement’s Raed Salah in Jerusalem events on the Temple Mount.

Meanwhile, on the Wahhabi side, the opposition to tombs and holy sites have led to the damage and even destruction of holy places related to Muhammad and his family in al-Medina and Mecca.

A Patriot missile battery stationed near the Great Mosque of Mecca.
A Patriot missile battery stationed near the Great Mosque of Mecca. (Yemen press)

The Iranian Shiites Role

It should be recalled that the original undermining of the status of Mecca emanated from the Shiites, who have their own holy places in Iraq: Najaf and Karbala.

This year, pictures were published of Patriot batteries deployed by Saudi Arabia to protect the pilgrims at Mount Arafat from the missiles of Iranian-backed Shiite Houthis in Yemen.

In the growing schism within Islam, nothing is sacrosanct. Not even Mecca.

* * *