While this year’s Hajj is now finished, something fascinating happened in the months leading up to the festival: the General Secretary of the Union of Tunisian Imams, Fadhel Ashour, called on the Grand Mufti of the country to discourage people from performing the Hajj this year as the costs of the Hajj are too high and Saudi Arabia is using this money to wage war in other Muslim countries: “The money that goes to Saudi authorities is not used to help poor Muslims around the world. Instead it is used to kill and displace people as is the case currently in Yemen.” Instead, he recommended for people to spend this money on the improvement of their domestic conditions.1 I think this is a fruitful case to ponder Islam as an ontological vs. ontic category and the related affinity between private piety and the political. Here, we can understand the ontic as that which relates to entities and beings while the ontological corresponds to the conditions of existence, the intelligibility of them and the meaning of Being. After presenting a brief account of Riyadh’s position among the Ummah, I will explain how the call for boycott exemplifies an ontological understanding of Islam, which takes us to the political.
The controversies over Riyadh’s suitability to control the holiest places of Muslims and in/ability to manage the organization of the Hajj, leading some to suggest for an international Muslim organization to run them, are not new. The difficulties that pilgrims have faced over the years is one of the reasons for these controversies and also the outrage. These difficulties are not limited to their bad treatment at the hands of the authorities, such as the disorder and long hours of waiting at the airports, insufficiency of transportation facilities in respect to the millions of pilgrims, inadequacies in the health services and accommodations. With the problems in the management of the gatherings, all these difficulties also cost the lives of pilgrims. While the first example coming to mind is the Hajj stampede in 2015, resulting in at least 769 death, the total number of pilgrims – of both Hajj and Umrah – who died between 2002-2015 is 90,276 according to official records.2 Another reason for the controversy and outrage is Riyadh’s market management mentality: the privatisation and commercialization of the Hajj and Umrah sector, raising the costs;3 increasing the number of shopping malls and luxury hotels while abolishing the Islamicate memory of the city on the pretext of expanding the place for pilgrims.4 In addition to these, the political record of Riyadh is not a very good one in the eyes of many Muslims. Boosting relations with Trump and waging the war in Yemen, thus far resulting in the death of more than 10,000 civilians, are among the most recent cases. Yet, despite all these controversies, Riyadh remains to benefit from its control of the holy cities, hosting the Hajj without any response to the outrage and controversy. Furthermore, this outrage does not result in any serious sanction on Saudi Arabia as the number of Muslims who perform the Hajj has increased substantially. Thus, boycotting the Hajj may have a crucial impact on Riyadh’s attitude. However, considering that Hajj is obligatory for every Muslim who can perform it, calling for Muslims to boycott it may seem problematic at the first glance.
Approaching Islam as an ontological category rather than an ontic one may help to clarify this issue. Any attempt to define Islam merely as the religion prohibiting alcoholic beverages, making five daily prayers or the Hajj obligatory, or even as the religion of peace etc. are examples of this ontic approach. Such an approach is problematic not only because none of these can be considered in isolation but also “Islam is not reducible to its ontic manifestations.”5 And, awareness of its irreducibility and interconnections is only possible through an ontological understanding of Islam. Ashour’s calling for a Hajj boycott is a good example of the ontological understanding of Islam, because he does not look at it in isolation which would have resulted in a very straightforward and ontic commentary, something like that as the Hajj is a compulsory ibadah (worship), there cannot be any excuse not to do it specific to this year. Instead, he sees Islam as an ontological category and in order to secure it, its ontic manifestations can be suspended.
In relation to this ontic-ontological division, another thing Ashour’s call reminds us of is the relation between private piety and the political. The reluctance and unresponsiveness of Riyadh to change its political stance and improve the Hajj conditions demonstrates the necessity of political sanctions and the inadequacy of private piety to solve the problems of the Ummah. Despite the public and social nature and benefits/rewards of Hajj as an ibadah, the reason for performing it for many Muslims is private piety – fulfilling an obligation, personal salvation, mystical/spiritual experience etc. – rather than these rewards. And, as long as we – Muslims – continue to visit the Holy places for Hajj and Umrah – as an act of piety – without transforming our outrage into some tangible reaction – a political act – Riyadh will benefit from the situation without changing anything. Especially remembering how Riyadh abuses its power over the performance of this important ibadah for political reasons, like when it barred Iranian pilgrims from performing Hajj,6 boycotting the Hajj as a political reaction to Riyadh appears to be a good way of both reclaiming the Hajj7 and helping the parts of Ummah suffering from Riyadh’s political greed as an act of solidarity with them namely those in Yemen and who are mistreated in Saudi and also during the Hajj.
 Salman Sayyid, Recalling the Caliphate: Decolonisation and World Order (Oxford University Press, 2014), p.8.