Palestine, Pilgrimage and the Question of Islamic Unity

By Jesse Wheeler



Saudi Arabia has stopped issuing pilgrimage visas for Palestinians with temporary Jordanian passports, as well for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon holding refugee travel documents. Such actions effectively prohibit hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from visiting Mecca and Medina for the Hajj or Umrah pilgrimages and thus from participating in one of the core pillars of Islamic faith and practice. Beyond temporary Jordanian passports or refugee travel permissions issued by Lebanon, many lack access to any other form of travel documentation.

While encouraged to apply for passports from the Palestinian Authority (PA), which would enable Palestinians to receive pilgrimage visas from Saudi Arabia, many fear the repercussions of doing so. For example, should residents of East Jerusalem acquire a PA issued passport, they would open themselves up to having their legal status and Jerusalem residency revoked by Israel. In Lebanon, should a Palestinian apply for and receive a passport from the Palestinian Authority, they would be at risk of losing their refugee status and be required to apply for residency status as a foreigner. For its part, the PA does not currently issue passports to residents of East Jerusalem or refugees in Lebanon.


Most analyses tie Saudi actions to their apparent support for Trump-Kushner’s “Deal of Century” plan for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the manner by which such support corresponds to the regional realignment of alliances, contra Iran, about which I have written previously. Such actions increase pressure on the Jordanian, Lebanese and Syrian governments for the permanent resettlement and patriation of Palestinian refugees within their respective states. This, it is presumed, would have the effect of removing entirely the refugee issue and right of return from any possible final-status negotiations, a seemingly vital component of the Trump-Kushner plan. Given Lebanon’s tense sectarian balancing act, the historic tensions existing between (many) Palestinians and (many) Lebanese, and the current uncertainties of the Syrian refugee crisis, the likelihood of Palestinians gaining citizenship is exceedingly unlikely. What is revealed, therefore, is an extreme callousness on the part those pursuing such policies and/or profound ignorance regarding the myriad complexities of Middle Eastern socio-political identity.

The question to which I keep returning, however, is what such an action ultimately means for the Islamic community and regional Islamic identity. As an outside observer, it appears as if the Saudi regime is posing a direct challenge to the ideal of Islamic unity, of which the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca is the ultimate emblem. To what extent, it may be asked, could such a blatant manipulation of religious obligation and sentiment by the Wahabi state serve to delegitimize, or further delegitimize, Saudi custodianship of the “Holy Cities.” British-Palestinian journalist Ghada Karmi captures this growing regional sentiment when she writes:

Far from the unity and harmony enjoined by the spirit of the Hajj, Saudi Arabia is deeply involved in war and conflict. Since 2015 it has been the spearhead of a devastating war on Yemen […] The Saudis have needlessly prolonged the deadly conflict in Syria through indiscriminate funding of vicious jihadist groups […] Most seriously, Saudi Arabia has been lining itself up ever more closely with Israel, the arch warmonger of the region[.]

Or, in the words of slain journalist Jamal Khashoggi:

Saudi Arabia is defined and represented by its Islamic stature […] Muslims around the world deserve to see the birthplace of Islam represent the ethics of Islam.

If Saudi actions don’t pose such a challenge, it might be asked to what extent has the ideal of Islamic unity been all but abandoned. And what, considering the above, should be our response as followers of Christ?

Theological and Missiological Reflections

I know that some might see in this an opportunity to highlight the apparent disunity as a weakness to exploit in a perceived clash of religions. While it is indisputable that the Islamic ummah has since at least the time of Caliph Uthman been every bit as disunited as has our “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church,” such polemics represent a clear violation of the spirit of Christ upon whose sayings and example we model our lives – a violation of the command to do unto others as we would want done for ourselves.

What I do feel appropriate, however, is calling the Islamic community to act in accordance with its best principals, its best version of itself, whilst simultaneously commending the Lordship of Christ Jesus as solution to the many questions, challenges and debates confronting the contemporary Islamic community. As described by David L. Johnston, an increasing number of Islamic legal scholars have been reviving the principal of istislah, or the search for public benefit (maslaha), as the underlying ethical basis of Islamic law. In our own pursuit of the common good as citizens of God’s Kingdom, we should partner with our Muslim neighbors for the sake of the public good while making use of any available opportunity for the proclamation of the lordship of the crucified messiah.