Looking for Allah as a Shiite in Saudi Arabia

I came to Mecca seeking spiritual enlightenment. I found discrimination and distrust.

Muslim pilgrims circle counterclockwise Islam's holiest shrine, the Kaaba, at the Grand Mosque in the Saudi holy city of Mecca, late on September 20, 2015. The annual hajj pilgrimage begins on September 22, and more than a million faithful have already flocked to Saudi Arabia in preparation for what will for many be the highlight of their spiritual lives. AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH        (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH/AFP/Getty Images)
Muslim pilgrims circle counterclockwise Islam's holiest shrine, the Kaaba, at the Grand Mosque in the Saudi holy city of Mecca, late on September 20, 2015. The annual hajj pilgrimage begins on September 22, and more than a million faithful have already flocked to Saudi Arabia in preparation for what will for many be the highlight of their spiritual lives. AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH/AFP/Getty Images)

MEDINA and MECCA, Saudi Arabia — It’s an image famous the world over: a teeming swirl of pilgrims, thousands upon thousands garbed in white, wending slowly in circles around a two-story gilded black cube. Islam’s holiest site, the Kaaba, and the mosque that surrounds it, has captivated both Muslims and non-Muslims alike for more than a millennium. It is the religion’s ultimate symbol of global spiritual unity, the direction toward which every Muslim in the world prays.

But photographs can lie. Praying at the spiritual center of Islam as a Shiite Muslim, the smaller of Islam’s two major sects, is like attending Catholic mass as a Southern Baptist. Or these days, perhaps more accurately, it’s like attending Catholic mass at the Vatican as a Protestant during the Counter-Reformation.

I performed a pilgrimage just a week after the Saudi government executed dissident Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, whose death set off a wave of protests in Shiite communities around the world, including a torching of Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Tehran, which prompted the kingdom to sever diplomatic ties with Iran. It was a culmination of years of worsening relations between the world’s premier Sunni power and its geopolitical and religious rival, the majority-Shiite Islamic Republic of Iran.

As a journalist traveling on a pilgrimage visa, I already had plenty of reason for concern before my departure. I knew that writing about my experiences could get me or my family banned from returning, or worse. Saudi Arabia has detainedjailedflogged, and even sentenced to death writers who have criticized its policies or religion. I also knew that, as a Shiite with an Iranian name in my passport, I could hardly have chosen a worse time to go.

* * *

The official religion of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and its royal family, which has governed the twin holy cities of Mecca and Medina since 1925, is the fundamentalist form of Sunni Islam called Wahhabism. It emphasizes strict legal and social adherence to religious codes and defines certain deviances in belief or practice as apostasy, a crime sometimes punishable by death. Shiite veneration of saints is interpreted by the kingdom’s clerics as a form of idolatry, the worst sin in Islam. Disadvantages are imposed on the 15 percent of the Saudi population that is Shiite; members of the minority sect are barred from holding high government or military office there.

The House of Saud claims that its religious convictions have never affected its custodial duties at Mecca. And it’s certainly true that conflicts between Sunnis and Shiites are nothing new to the Middle East. But whenever the region’s religious schisms have stiffened, and the geopolitical ambitions of its rival states have started to express themselves in military conflict, those tensions are inevitably felt by Shiite Muslims in Saudi Arabia — including those on pilgrimage in Mecca and Medina.

These tensions have occasionally led to violence and discrimination for pilgrims. The most well-known incident occurred in 1987 during the Hajj, the massive annual pilgrimage, when a confrontation between Iranian Shiite pilgrims and Saudi police led to more than 400 deaths. Smaller incidents have occurred sporadically since then. In 2009, at Al-Baqi cemetery in Medina where four esteemed Shiite religious leaders, known as imams, are interred, Saudi religious police attacked a large group of Shiite pilgrims. In 2013, a group of American Shiite Muslims performing the Hajj claimed that they had been assaulted by a group of Sunni Muslims from Australia and that Saudi authorities had ignored their case. In April 2015, the alleged assault of two young Iranian pilgrims by Saudi authorities at the Jeddah airport led Tehran to suspend all Umrah, or lesser pilgrimage, flights to Saudi Arabia.

Diplomatic relations between the two countries broke down entirely days before my own flight to Saudi Arabia. Months earlier, even before Nimr’s execution, a Shiite acquaintance and former journalist, who had performed the Hajj several years before, had warned me repeatedly to be careful. Shortly before departing for Saudi Arabia from the United States, where I live, I almost canceled the trip at the urging of concerned friends.

It quickly became obvious that I was an exception in not heeding such advice. Throughout my stay in Mecca and Medina, I never encountered another Iranian. And beyond feeling different from those around me, I was also made to feel apart.

From my first morning in Medina, at the Prophet’s Mosque for 6 a.m. prayers, my devotion competed with my self-consciousness. It was impossible for me to participate without standing out. Sunni Muslims pray differently than Shiites do. They say “amen” at different times. Sunnis touch their heads to carpet when they prostrate for prayer, but Shiites don’t — we place our foreheads on silver-dollar-size clay tablets known as mohr. It’s an obligatory sign of humility, an acknowledgment that we came from dust and will return to it, but Wahhabis interpret mohr as a form of idol worship, and Saudi authorities forbid them to be brought into sites in the holy cities. And while the vast majority of Sunnis fold their hands in front of their chests while they pray, we Shiites put our hands at our sides. The hand placement especially is a dead giveaway. We might as well wear a sign.

There, at the Prophet’s Mosque, a massive structure with grounds that can accommodate half a million worshippers, I was alone in a sea of unexpected amens and folded hands. I considered my options. It’s a feeling I know well, one familiar to Muslims of any variety who have lived in Europe or the United States in the immediate aftermath of a terrorist attack. The spike in Islamophobia forces us to ask ourselves, “Do I go outside wearing Islamic dress? At parties, do I pretend to drink the punch so I fit in?”

But I never expected to rehearse this inner dialogue in Islam’s birthplace. I had spent the weeks before the trip wondering what I would think when I was standing in such close proximity to Mohammed’s tomb, praying in a mosque he founded in the city that welcomed him after his flight from persecution in Mecca in 622 C.E. Would I feel a new closeness to God? But now, surrounded by thousands of hand-folders, with recent media reports replaying in my head, I folded my hands over my chest instead of putting them at my sides. Instead of awe, I felt shame.

The next day, we decided to seek out a place of worship where we might feel more at home — the closest thing to a Shiite mosque that Medina has to offer.

* * *

I glanced nervously at the police car idling about 50 yards from the entrance to the date farm. A group of us were gathered loosely into two clusters outside the gate, with men on one side and women, faces veiled and draped head to toe in black, on the other. Someone in the group began banging on the heavy wooden gates, demanding that we be let in.
It wasn’t just a date farm. Here, tucked away behind a tall gate, a concrete wall, and acres of date palms, lay a Shiite congregation hall. Medina’s indigenous Shiites have a historical association with date palm cultivation, and the meeting hall here, as with other similar Shiite congregation points rumored to exist in Medina, is not technically a mosque, which would imply a level of official recognition from the Saudi government. A sheikh affiliated with the meeting hall had formerly studied in Qom, Iran’s religious center; my companion had learned of the congregation through an acquaintance back in Iran.

It wasn’t easy to find. From the window of our hotel room — exorbitantly pricey during the Hajj, but reasonable during the pilgrimage off-season — we could see the Prophet’s Mosque as well as the busy street leading to it, lined with small shops selling religious garments and prayer rugs, street vendors hawking scarves and fruit, and white-clad pilgrims hurrying to and fro. It would have been easy to hail a taxi, and we’d even hoped at first to call an Uber, newly available as of November 2015 in Mecca and Medina, which we had already used to visit a huge local shopping mall replete with Starbucks, Krispy Kreme, and McDonalds. But we couldn’t locate the address on the map application. Online searches in English and Farsi revealed little about its address, or exact location, or even its correct name. We took to calling it the Qurban mosque, after the neighborhood it was located in.

Luckily, the clerk at our hotel, a Filipino Muslim named Abdullatef, proved astute. He knew of the Shiite house of worship, located on Sheikh Amro’s farm, and offered to give us directions. But he urged us to bring our passports with us. There might be a police checkpoint on the way, he told us, because there had been some “trouble.”

Abdullatef walked outside with us to help hail a cab. I watched as he let several go by without stopping them.

“I’m looking for a foreign driver,” Abdullatef explained. “Because Saudis, you know…” He trailed off. Eventually, he found a cab with a Pakistani driver who knew the place and agreed to take us there for 20 riyals, or about $5.

Sheikh Amro’s date farm turned out to be quite close — about one-and-a-half miles southwest of the Prophet’s Mosque, in a quiet residential neighborhood full of blocky three-story buildings with cracked plaster façades and occasional graffiti. Since we arrived an hour before prayers, we took the time to walk the perimeter of the wall surrounding the farm, passing a couple empty plots littered with construction material, dust-colored street cats, and a tiny snack shop. When we returned to the entrance, a small crowd of worshippers had gathered — along with the conspicuous police car. Now, standing outside the walls of the farm under the watchful eye of local authorities, not sure if we would be let in, I began to wonder if this had been a bad idea. Finally, the gates opened, and we filed inside.

Despite the tens of thousands of people crowding in and around the holy cities’ vast public buildings of immense symbolic meaning, I had yet to see a single security search in Saudi Arabia outside of the airport, not even so much as a scanner or a bag check. Public security rarely seemed to be the Saudi authorities’ highest priority. But the members of this small house of worship, which accommodated only a few hundred, felt compelled to take a different view. They had organized their own search team, subjecting each new arrival to a pat-down and cell-phone check to make sure the handsets were real functioning phones, rather than some other less friendly device.

I passed the search without incident, but the security volunteer discovered the pouch containing the passport and cash that my travel companion had tucked under his shirt. The man demanded, through gestures, to see the contents of the pouch and eyed him warily, hesitating to let him in until he saw the Iranian passport. “Mashallah!” he said, visibly relieved, using an Arabic term of appreciation meaning roughly, “Wow, God’s will is amazing!” He waved my companion on through.


The building was nestled behind groves of mature date palms. Tapestries extolling the 12 Shiite imams covered the walls of the courtyard and the building inside; it was as though we had just stepped into an Iranian mosque. As we took off our shoes and filed into rows for prayer, I felt myself relax. Those around me slipped mohr out of their pockets and placed them on the carpets in front of them, and I took one of the small tablets from a shelf against the wall. Unlike many Saudi Sunni women, who wear the face veil known as niqab even while praying, the women here slipped off their face veils, as is required in Shiite tradition, and donned chador, a typically though not exclusively Shiite robe.

Those few simple changes transformed the hall from a roomful of strangers with whom I shared no common language into a place of warmth and familiarity. When the prayer started, I knew when to stand, when to bow, what to say. I held my hands at my side without trepidation. I touched my forehead to the cool block of clay. I whispered my thanks.

* * *

I tried to hold on to that warmth when I traveled to Mecca several days later to perform pilgrimage rites at Masjid al-Haram, the enormous mosque complex that surrounds the Kaaba, the four-walled structure that Muslims believe Abraham built as a shrine to God. In these rites, too, there are constant and visible Shiite distinctions. When circumambulating the Kaaba, many Sunnis hold a hand up each time they pass the corner containing the structure’s foundation stone and call out “Allahu akbar,” meaning “God is greatest.” But Shiites typically do not. We must keep our heads facing forward at all times, looking neither to the right nor left, nor behind us. As the pilgrims loop around the Kaaba, it is obvious who belongs to the minority sect.

That afternoon, with the sun blasting its desert heat over the tens of thousands gathered for prayers, I gazed at the first house of God from my third-story perch on the donut-shaped platform that surrounds the Kaaba. It was covered in a black tarp embroidered with gold, the gilt doors peeking out through a slit in the side. The original structure, I had read, was only the height of a man and had no roof. Abraham had no gold to decorate it with, and he certainly had no all-weather, custom-made cover to protect it from the elements. The original Kaaba was simple; it was humble; and it predated all of us — Sunni, Shiite, Wahhabi, Ahmadiyya, Ismaili, and the many other smaller sects that divide us today.

When the imam began the call to prayer, I kept my hands at my side.

On the flight back home to the United States, I felt lighter. But it wasn’t because I had experienced some kind of enlightenment. My moments of spiritual clarity in Saudi Arabia had been fleeting, overshadowed at most times by the suspicion I encountered in others, and the undercurrent of fear I felt in myself.

What gave me peace was that I knew I was heading back to a country where religious freedom is enshrined in the constitution, where Shiites and Sunnis and Christians and Jews and Buddhists can not only worship freely, but also sometimes even worship together honestly and openly, learning from each other’s approach to faith. I felt shame at hiding my Shiite identity — but that shame belonged not to me, but to Saudi authorities. They are the ones who have made it so difficult for Muslim pilgrims, through all the distrust, the dogma, and the soulless shopping malls crowding the streets near the Kaaba, to see God.

Image credits: AFP/Getty Images. Inline image used with permission.