This year's Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca appears to be proceeding calmly and peacefully, despite earlier unconfirmed reports from Iran that at least two demonstrations had taken place. Security is tight. There are reports that several thousand Egyptian troops have flown to Saudi Arabia in case Iran or pro-Iranian pilgrims attempt to make good on threats to hold rallies during this year's pilgrimage, or hajj, which concludes on Wednesday.
Last year, after a violent confrontation between Saudi security forces and Iranian pilgrims in which more than 400 persons died, Iran vowed revenge against Saudi Arabia and renewed calls for the overthrow of the Saudi royal family. Saudi Arabia broke diplomatic relations with Iran three months ago, citing Iranian attempts at subversion.
Iran has refused to send a delegation to Mecca this year, in part in protest over new, Saudi-imposed restrictions that would limit Iran's hajj delegation to 45,000, down from some 150,000 last year.
Despite Iran's absence, Saudi officials have been concerned about Iranian attempts to encourage pilgrims from other Muslim nations to hold rallies and demonstrations this year in Mecca. Suspect pilgrims have faced extensive searches when arriving in the kingdom, and Saudi authorities have warned that pamphlets and photographs deemed inappropriate for hajj would be confiscated. These include the poster-sized portraits of Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini that were openly displayed by Iran's hajj delegation last year.
Despite the apparent calm in Mecca, Iran and Saudi Arabia remain locked into a vicious propaganda war.
Iranian officials in Tehran reported that demonstrations took place in Mecca last Wednesday and on Friday, the first official day of the hajj. The Saudis say the reports are ``lies and fabrications.'' There have been no independent reports from Mecca of pro-Iranian or other rallies.
The Saudis have supported Islamic conferences throughout the Muslim world in an effort to gain support.
Earlier this month the Saudi Press Agency reported from London that the first ``European Islamic Conference'' had issued a statement saying that ``Khomeinism is one of the most dangerous deviating sects ever known by mankind.''
The SPA report said that Khomeini and his aides were motivated by a ``wicked and secret creed.''
Last week in a message to the world's Muslims marking the first anniversary of the deaths of Iran's pilgrims in Mecca, Ayatollah Khomeini said: ``God willing, we will empty our hearts' anguish at the appropriate time by taking revenge'' on the the Saudi royal family and the United States.
He vowed that Iran would ``liberate the Kaaba from the clutches of the incompetent individuals and strangers.'' The Kaaba, in Mecca, is the building Muslims face during prayer.
The statement underscores the depth of hatred between Iranian and Saudi officials, and it suggests that even though Iran has announced its willingness to negotiate an end to the Gulf war, there will be no early compromise with the Saudis.
In the Iranian view, Mecca has become the most visible arena for an ideological battle between the revolutionary Islam of Ayatollah Khomeini and the more status-quo Islam of the majority of the governments in the Islamic world, and particularly the Sunni Muslim monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula.
In his message Khomeini attacked Saudi Arabia's position that there is no place for demonstrations and political rallies during the pilgrimage in Mecca. ``Hajj has been made obsolete,'' Khomeini said in rebuttal. He added, ``The greatest ailment of Islamic society is that they have not yet discerned the genuine philosophy of divine injunctions. And hajj with all its secrets and glory has still remained as a dry, abortive, and unproductive devotion.''
Some Islamic scholars have argued that Islam's holy sites in Mecca and Medina and the management of the hajj should be placed under the control of an international Islamic committee. The argument has been that under current Saudi patronage the free flow of ideas - including radical discussions of the establishment of Islamic governments and societies - has been suppressed.
But they say that the hajj has been reduced to a ceremonial and mechanical role to prevent it from posing a threat to the Saudi government.
In his message, Khomeini predicted: ``The tragedy in Mecca will act as a foundation for major developments in the Islamic world and an appropriate ground for uprooting the corrupt systems in the Islamic countries, as well as cause for banishing these Saudi theologians.''
Hajj: ancient ritual, modern logistics
``Here am I, oh God, at thy command. Here am I,'' more than one million Muslim pilgrims, clad only in the two seamless pieces of white cloth, or ihram, that symbolize spiritual purity, cried in unison this year upon their arrival in Mecca, site of the hajj rituals. The hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam, is a religious duty to be performed once by every financially able Muslim.
The rituals commemorate events in the lives of the prophet Abraham; his wife, Hagar, and their son, Ishmael.
Abraham, a prophet who preceded Muhammad and the revelation of Islam by centuries, was revered by the prophet Muhammad because he actively opposed the idol worship common in pre-Islamic Arabia. Abraham preached instead that there is only one God, which is a central teaching of Islam.
The rites of the pilgrimage include circling the Kaaba seven times; running seven times between the hills of Al-Safa and Al-Marwan; standing in prayer on the plain of Arafat; sacrificing a sheep, cow, or camel; throwing seven pebbles at three stone pillars, and circling the Kaaba seven more times.
Each of these actions is rich in meaning for the pilgrims. Running between the hills of Al-Safa and Al-Marwan commemorates Hagar's frantic search in the desert for water for her young son before the angel Gabriel appeared and showed her the now-famous well of Zamzam.
The sacrifice of a sheep or camel is made in remembrance of Abraham's devotion to God when he prepared to sacrifice his son in obedience to God. Abraham's obedience proved, God substituted a ram for Abraham's son.
And the casting of pebbles at the pillars of stone represents Abraham's rejection of the temptation not to obey God's command to sacrifice his son.
Facilitating the pilgrims is a major logistical feat for Saudi Arabia with five million loaves of bread and two million blocks of ice provided each day to the temporary tent cities that carpet the barren Hijaz valleys in and around Mecca. Provisions are even made for those who die: Some 780 new graves have already been prepared at Mina and 242 graves at Arafat, both near Mecca. Though it may seem a tragedy to die during the once-in-a-lifetime trip, most Muslims consider it a blessing. According to Islamic teachings, anyone who dies on the hajj is guaranteed entry to paradise.