February 23, 2006 Special Dispatch No. 1099

Saudi Clerics Criticized Following Death of Hundreds in Mecca Stampede: ‘We Must Stop the Disregard for Human Life Based on Rulings That Adhere [Strictly] to the Written Word’

February 23, 2006
Saudi Arabia | Special Dispatch No. 1099

The ritual of "the stoning of the Devil," which is part of the Muslim Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca), ended this year with the deaths of 363 pilgrims in a stampede that occurred when 600,000 Muslims gathered prior to the ritual, which by tradition must begin at midday. The disaster sparked harsh criticism of the clerics who had refused to allocate more time for the ritual - which would have reduced the crowding - even though circumstances had changed since the days of the Prophet and the number of pilgrims is now in the millions.

The following are the main responses to the incident:

For Years, Clerics Have Turned a Deaf Ear to Warnings [About Dangerous Crowding]

Hussein Shubakshi, Saudi columnist for the London daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, criticized the clerics' rigidity: "One cannot investigate this tragic event without considering the fatwas that strictly forbade the holding of the stone-throwing ritual before noon. For years, the clerics have displayed rigidity [in religious ruling] and lack of independent thinking, turning a deaf ear to the voices which repeatedly warned [about the dangerous crowding] and which demanded a greater number of lenient fatwas...

"How sad it is that, even on the day of the ritual itself, [clerics] issued an opinion stating that adherence to the 'prescribed hour' is the ruling that must be followed. This position [surely] played some part in causing the crowding and confusion that led to the disaster. We must stop this disregard for human life based on religious rulings that adhere [blindly] to the written word without considering the [actual] situation and the conditions that have changed [since the days of the Prophet]...

"There are many fatwas regarding the pilgrimage; some reflect a limited and ineffective [approach] to religious ruling, and others reflect a belief - not only theoretical but practical - that shari'a is valid in all eras and places...

"The role of the religious [scholars] is to constantly study the religious texts and [to seek] suitable interpretations that protect the sanctity of the Muslims' lives... [and not to] cling to the interpretation of some human [cleric] who rules according to his own religious judgment and limited knowledge." [1]

Clerics Talk of Opening the Gates of Itjihad - But in Practice, They Seldom Do

Al-Sayyid Walad Abahu, columnist for the daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, wrote: "I have participated in the Hajj a number of times, and I always noted that the main cause of the logistical problems is failure on the part of the Muslim clerics to find religious solutions for contemporary difficulties. The pilgrims cannot expect the supervising authorities to find solutions, since the problems have to do with religious rituals and are not [only] with logistics...

"In recent years, the [stone-throwing] ritual has been the major [arena] for catastrophes during the Hajj. Even though the issue is controversial, and was never agreed upon unanimously, most clerics still stress that [pilgrims] must follow the most widespread and well-known ruling [i.e. that the ritual take place after midday]. [They adhere to this opinion] even at the cost of hundreds of lives, disregarding the fact that it is impossible for two million pilgrims to pass over one bridge during a period that usually lasts no more than six hours.

"This rigid outlook has become a dangerous problem in the method of interpreting, reading and applying the [sacred] text. The problem exists [not only with respect to the Hajj but] also with respect to other essential issues that concern the modern Muslim who wants to adhere to his religion but also [wants] to march with the times... Most clerics... talk a great deal about opening the gates of it ijtihad [i.e. independent judgment in religious ruling], and about creating a climate of renewal. But in practice, they seldom do this, [since] this would require a systematic effort of interpretation that goes beyond the repeated dissemination of an ancient hadith..." [2]

The Clerics' Thinking is Stuck in the Past; That is Why Most Cannot Change

Saudi writer Shteiwi Al-Gheithi stated in the Saudi daily Al-Watan: "The recent incident shows that the religious crisis that we are experiencing, as a nation that 'adheres to the written word,' is more general [and does not pertain only to the Hajj rituals]...

"We are unable to keep up with the rapid changes and developments of our age, and therefore find ourselves in a state of religious confusion in the face of the rapid changes and modern needs of our times. This confusion is one of the expressions of our cultural backwardness in the international arena, and is one aspect of the religious crisis that most of our clerics are experiencing. Their thinking is stuck in the past, and that is why most of them are unable to [adopt] a religious outlook that is capable of changing...

"It is essential that many clerics work to strengthen the lenient religious laws and the laws that safeguard the common good. [They should also] rely more on the intent of the text rather than on its external and literal aspects..." [3]

"We Have Begun [to Hear] Saudi Clerics Who Wish to Exercise Independent Judgment"

Media advisor Jamal Ahmad Khashoggi, former editor of the Saudi daily Al-Watan, wrote: "We have begun [to hear the voices] of Saudi clerics who wish to exercise independent judgment in religious ruling - which will benefit the state and the believers - and who wish to liberate [themselves] from the outlook of one particular religious school. The Saudi leadership has been demanding this ceaselessly. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its leadership are strongly connected to Islam, but the state and its leadership have always been ahead of the formal religious establishment in their outlook regarding the future. The religious establishment has a place of honor, even if the state has had to deviate [from its recommendations] owing to its rigid positions on modern questions...

"Two recent issues of this kind were the issue of mobile phones with cameras - which almost turned us into a model of backwardness - and, more importantly, the issue of insurance. Had the state accepted the position of the [religious] establishment regarding the latter issue, Saudi Arabia would today not be a member of the World Trade Organization... [4]

"The issue of performing the stone-throwing ritual after midday exemplifies the religious crisis that exists in Saudi Arabia, [and that stems from] the insistence on strictly following books by ancient [religious authorities] - and not even all the ancient [religious authorities], but only a small group among them...

"Sheikh Abdallah Al-Mutlaq, member of [Saudi Arabia's] Council of Senior Clerics, was one of the few courageous clerics who voiced a different and reasonable position [regarding the Hajj rituals]... Two days before the disaster, he surprised the viewers on Saudi TV... by giving his religious opinion that the stone-throwing can be carried out throughout the entire day. Had the Council of Senior Clerics adopted this view, and had the Ministry of Islamic Affairs distributed it among the clerics... - who continued, with unbelievable obstinacy, to issue fatwas prohibiting the performance [of the ritual] before midday - the disaster might have been prevented. [This catastrophe] should not be made light of, as was done by one of the clerics: he took out a [pocket] calculator and calculated that the number of fatalities - 14 per 100,000 [pilgrims] - is not large compared to [similar incidents of overcrowding that have occurred] around the world...

"The position of Sheikh Al-Mutlaq, and those of other respectable clerics like Sheikh Saleh Al-Sadlan and Sheikh Abed Al-Muhsin Al-'Obikan, restore our faith in the [religious] judicial authorities of our country, and in their ability to meet the demand for renewal and change - which are required in these [modern] times - without violating the laws and principles [of Islam]..." [5]

Saudi Interior Minister Prince Naif: Clerics Should Find Religious Solutions

Saudi Minister of the Interior Prince Naif bin Abd Al-Aziz, head of the Pilgrimage Higher Committee, called upon the clerics in Saudi Arabia and across the Muslim world to find religious solutions in shari'a that would enable the believers to perform the ritual both before and after midday, in order to protect their lives. [6]

[1] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), January 17, 2006.

[2] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), January 19, 2006.

[3] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), January 20, 2006.

[4] In October 2004, the Mufti of Saudi Arabia issued a fatwa forbidding the use of mobile phones equipped with cameras. However, after such phones were smuggled into the country and sold there, several government ministries recommended that their use be permitted, and the recommendation was accepted. Insurance is quite new in Saudi Arabia. Motor vehicle insurance was introduced in 2002, and health insurance bylaws were approved in July 2003.

[5] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), January 17, 2006.

[6] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), January 14, 2006.

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