At the cemetery where the Prophet Mohammed’s family is buried, an Iranian Shiite Muslim pilgrim overcome with emotion was grabbed by a Saudi soldier, who barked a sharp order: “Stop crying!”
The soldier, a gun at his hip, then hovered over the pilgrim as he wrapped up his prayers to make sure he didn’t start weeping again.
The Baqee cemetery is where the bitter rivalry between Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran gets personal. Iranians and other Shiites flock to the graves to pay respects to several revered descendants of Islam’s prophet, while Saudi soldiers and morality police try to prevent dramatic displays of fervent praying or weeping.
Shiites’ prayer books are snatched away, they are ordered to read only Saudi-approved verses written on billboards at the site, and groups of worshippers are broken up.
Part of the reason for the heavy restrictions is religious. Saudi Arabia’s strict version of Sunni Islam, called Wahhabism, considers customs like crying — or even praying — at gravesites and revering saints repugnant because it smacks of idolatry. In fact, many Wahhabi clerics consider Shiites heretics.
But beyond the religious practices lies politics.
The two countries have been locked in a struggle for influence across the Middle East. Saudi forces have been fighting for more than a month with Shiite rebels on the border with Yemen who it claims are backed by Tehran. The kingdom accuses Iran of fueling conflicts in Lebanon, the Palestinian territories and Iraq with its support for militant groups.
Saudi Arabia, an oil-rich US ally, also appears increasingly worried over Iran’s nuclear standoff with the West. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal expressed rare direct concern over Iran’s nuclear program in a recent interview with Western media — prompting angry comments by some Iranian officials for the kingdom to stay out of its business.
Mahdi Habibolahi, an Iranian who visited the Baqee after performing his hajj pilgrimage last month, sees a message in the harassment he and fellow Shiites face.
“Maybe they want to give us a warning, that you are different, you should be careful, you shouldn’t interfere [in the region’s politics],” said Habibolahi, an English teacher.
The Baqee is on a large piece of land in front of the mosque that encloses the Prophet’s tomb in the holy city of Medina. Locked behind high marble walls and iron gates in the Baqee lie thousands of relatives, companions and descendants of the Prophet — including four “imams,” the saint-like figures that Shiites believe should have been the successors of Muhammad as leaders of the Islamic world.
The presence of the imams draws Shiites from around the world throughout the year, but particularly in the days after hajj.
Iranian pilgrims organize an annual large prayer ceremony at the site.
Sunnis consider those buried in the Baqee respected figures, but don’t recognize the imams’ authority. Elaborate prayers and weeping at gravesites are not as common a practice among most Sunnis. For Wahhabis, it is an anathema — a suggestion that some earthly figure, even one close to Muhammad, could be the object of veneration.
Once the burial sites at the Baqee were marked with mausoleums and elaborate gravestones. But those were demolished in the early 20th century by Wahhabis. Today the cemetery is a bare stretch of dirt and sand, with graves’ locations designated only by raw, unengraved rocks or raised piles of earth — the way cemeteries are throughout Saudi Arabia.