On Aug. 30, the official Twitter account of the Saudi Embassy in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, tweeted: “Ambassador Abdulaziz bin Khalid Al-Shammari met the religious authority Sheikh Mohammed Ishaq Al-Fayyad at his residence in Madinah. During the meeting, cordial conversations were exchanged and Sheikh Al-Fayyad was welcomed in the Kingdom.”
The message was posted along with two pictures of Grand Ayatollah Al-Fayyad and Al-Shammari sitting together without formalities. These pictures reflect the positive relationship that is quietly being built between the Saudi government and the religious authority of Shiite Muslims in the Najaf Hawza in Iraq.
Najaf is a city sacred to millions of Shiite Muslims, who visit it annually from all over the world. It is home to the shrine of Imam Ali bin Abi Taleb, who is second in the Shiite hierarchy after Prophet Muhammad. His mosque and grave make up an important shrine, at which prayers are offered and donations are made to help manage the affairs of the shrine and help the poor and needy. Some of the donations also go toward supporting the seminary, which houses dozens of Shiite scholars, including the two most prominent religious authorities for Shiite Muslims: Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani and Al-Fayyad.
The Najaf Hawza adopts a method that is far from politics and parties, as it believes that the state should not involve religious scholars in its management and that competent civil figures should be entrusted with such affairs. It cannot be said that the Najaf Hawza believes in the secularism of the state, but it certainly believes in the separation of religion from government, not the separation of religion from life.
Al-Sistani, the world’s supreme authority for Shiite Muslims, refuses to apply the Velayat-e Faqih (Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist) model to Iraq. He believes that the government should be made up of people of competence, experience, integrity and good management. He also refuses to let his agents engage in partisan or government activities and he supports moderate discourse rejecting takfir, violence and terrorism.
Relations between the Kingdom and the Najaf Hawza are the result of mutual trust that has been built slowly over recent years
These attributes of the Najaf Hawza — its distance from political Islam, its endeavor to preserve civil peace and good relations with different religions and sects, and its support for good relations between Iraq and the Arab countries — all made the Saudi government seek to build ties with it. These relations, which need to be developed and turned into joint projects, are the result of mutual trust that has been built slowly over recent years, away from the pressures of the media or fanatics.
There is mutual respect between Saudi Arabia and the religious authority of Najaf, and with Al-Sistani in particular. This is displayed during the annual religious occasions, specifically the special arrangements that take place during Hajj season. For example, during the last season, which was very successful and well organized, the Saudi government took good care of the religious mission of Al-Sistani and other nonpoliticized religious authorities, whether they came from Iraq or Iran.
There was a Saudi figure who was a point of contact between the Kingdom and the missions of the religious authorities. He accomplished the tasks assigned to him and contributed to solving any logistical problems. He also facilitated administrative matters throughout the Hajj season, which built trust little by little between the two parties and created mutual affection and respect.
Saudi diplomacy is not limited to one method, but takes various forms; it evolves, takes into account changes and seeks to build communication efforts. Hence, I can call its openness to the religious authorities of Najaf “spiritual diplomacy,” through which it seeks to build relations of mutual respect with various wise spiritual leaders of different religions and sects, and to preserve civil peace and consolidate respect for pluralism and religious freedom, as well as confront hate speech, intolerance and sectarianism and blockade the destructive effects of armed militias and terrorist organizations that practice violence in the name of religion.
However, the Saudi government did not treat only the Hajj mission of Al-Sistani with respect — this conduct lies at the heart of the service of visitors to the Grand Mosque in Makkah and the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah.
The leader of the Iraqi National Wisdom Movement, Ammar Al-Hakim, visited Saudi Arabia last month and was hosted by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Last year, Makkah hosted the Forum of Iraqi Religious Authorities, under the umbrella of the Muslim World League, during which discussions took place between Dr. Mohammed bin Abdulkarim Al-Issa and a group of respected scholars and professors in the Najaf Hawza. The forum was an unprecedented step forward in the openness between the two parties.
Whoever observes the steps toward reform taken by the crown prince, specifically in the field of reforming religious discourse and rejecting extremism, realizes that what Riyadh is doing is not a temporary tactical act, but rather a vision that aims for a future free from extremism and sectarian conflicts.
There is also the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue, whose headquarters was recently moved to Portugal and which last week appointed a new secretary-general, Dr. Zuhair Al-Harthi, who is active in training young leaders on the values of pluralism and respect for human and cultural diversity. The trainees include young religious scholars from Najaf Hawza.
This is a small part of a broader approach, which relies on cultural diplomacy and spiritual diplomacy as tools for achieving peace.
Strengthening constructive communication between the Saudi government and the religious authority of Najaf contributes to confronting sectarian and extremist discourses, brings points of view closer together and confronts the violence that threatens the Middle East.
Hence, the respectful relations between Saudi Arabia and the authorities in Najaf are evidence that the Kingdom does not have a problem with Shiite Muslims and that it is not working against “the doctrine of the Ahl Al-Bayt,” as some promote. Rather, Riyadh stands against political Islam, whether it is Sunni or Shiite, and therefore it opposes the discourses of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hezbollah alike.
• Hassan Al-Mustafa is a Saudi writer and researcher interested in Islamic movements, the development of religious discourse and the relationship between the Gulf Cooperation Council states and Iran. Twitter: @Halmustafa