The Baqee cemetery (Jannat al-Baqee), located in the sacred city of Madinah, Saudi Arabia, is a significant site of Islamic history and heritage. It is the resting place of several important early figures in Islamic history, including four of the twelve Imams particularly revered by Shia Muslims. However, in 1925, the cemetery was destroyed for the second time by Saudi Wahhabis, who consider the building of shrines as a form of shirk.
The destruction of the cemetery (and other heritage sites such as the Mualla Cemetery in Makkah) caused outrage across the Muslim world and has remained a contentious issue particularly for Shia Muslims, who have called for its reconstruction for nearly a century.
April 21 marked the anniversary of the site’s demolition in 1925 which coincided with the Islamic date of the eighth of Shawwal. As with every year, “World Baqee Day” was commemorated by repeated calls for rebuilding the Baqee, including social media hashtag campaigns and even a heated protest outside the Saudi embassy in London.
Al Baqee Organization, an NGO dedicated to preserving and rebuilding Saudi Arabia’s Islamic heritage sites is committed “to protect and stop further destruction of endangered heritage sites and restore all destroyed heritage sites; starting with Jannat-ul-Baqee as it rightfully believes that destruction of Jannat-ul-Baqee was the beginning of such atrocities in modern era.”
Following the growing entente and recent reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, this could finally become reality in the coming years. The rebuilding of Al-Baqee would be a significant step towards the full normalization of relations between the two countries.
The site of the former shrine is of great importance to Shia and Sufi Muslims, and the rebuilding of the cemetery would signal Saudi Arabia’s willingness to accommodate the needs of its significant Shia population.
It would also be a symbolic gesture towards Iran, which has long been a vocal advocate for the rebuilding of the cemetery. The potential rebuilding of Al-Baqee is particularly noteworthy given the recent changes taking place in the kingdom under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS).
He once vowed to return Saudi Arabia to “moderate Islam,” and has implemented a series of changes, aimed at modernizing the country and reducing its dependence on oil revenue. These changes include the relaxation of strict social codes, the promotion of tourism and entertainment, and diversification of the economy.
Much to the silent chagrin of ultraconservatives, music festivals and concerts have become frequent occurrences in the past few years along with other cultural events. Such initiatives would have been unthinkable in Saudi Arabia just a few years ago, and it signals a significant shift in the country’s cultural outlook.
This also appears to have yielded economic results, as according to the General Entertainment Authority (GEA), the Saudi entertainment sector helped bring in a record number of more than 120 million visitors since 2019 and until the first quarter of 2023.
The growing Iranian-Saudi entente, along with changes in the cultural realm being implemented in Saudi Arabia, could, therefore, lead to the reconstruction of Al-Baqee which would have far-reaching implications for the relationship between Tehran and Riyadh.
It would signal a significant shift in the Saudi establishment’s attitude towards Shia Muslims and would be seen as a conciliatory gesture towards the Islamic Republic, a bitter geopolitical rival for decades.
The rebuilding of Al-Baqee would not only be a symbolic gesture, but it would also have practical benefits for the Saudi regime.
First, it would help address the issue of sectarianism, which has been a lingering source of tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The move would also strengthen Riyadh’s soft power and project an image of greater religious tolerance in the country.
Second, the rebuilding of Al-Baqee would have considerable economic benefits. The cemetery is a significant site of religious tourism, and its reconstruction would attract millions of Shia Muslims from around the world who already visit shrines in Iran, Iraq and Syria. This would be a major boost to the Saudi tourism industry and would help to diversify the country’s economy, in accordance with MbS’s Vision 2030.
The importance of Al-Baqee to Shia Muslims cannot be overstated. The cemetery is the final resting place of four of the twelve Shia Imams: Imam Hasan, Imam Zayn al-Abideen, Imam Muhammad Al-Baqir, and Imam Ja‘far al-Sadiq.
These Imams are revered figures in Shia Islam, and the destruction of their mausoleum (a domed structure which was maintained by the Ottomans) was part of the Wahhabi movement’s campaign against what they saw as practices that deviated from their austere interpretation of Sunni Islam.
Yet recent changes being implemented by MbS, and the restoration of ties with Iran, may have created an environment in which the rebuilding of Al-Baqee is now possible.
However, rebuilding of the shrine is not without its challenges. There are still outstanding issues between Iran and Saudi Arabia, notably the conflict in Yemen, where peace talks are showing signs of progress and conflicts of interest in Lebanon. Syria is now less of a point of contention since its readmission to the Arab League.
Domestically, the Saudi regime would also need to carefully navigate the delicate issue of Wahhabi opposition to the building of shrines. While the current changes being implemented by MbS have led to greater cultural openness in Saudi Arabia, there is still resistance to practices that deviate from what is considered to be orthodox Sunni Islam.
There are promising signs, though, for example recent footage shared on social media appears to show that visitors – both men and women were allowed to visit the burial site up-close, of the Prophet Muhammad’s revered uncle, Hamza ibn Abd al-Muttalib near Mount Uhud. Ashraf Online, a Jeddah-based NGO, aimed at promoting Saudi heritage, captioned the video by stating that if the authorities were to also open Al-Baqee and Al-Mualla, “We will be the masters of all Muslims (Sunnis, Shias, Sufis). We will have a soft power that no power in the world can face, no matter how big it is.”
Indeed, there are even detailed plans and architectural models for the shrine’s reconstruction, one of which is the Baqi Project designed by US-based architect Zuhair Hussaini, which not only presents “a roadmap in efforts to rebuild the mausoleums of al-Baqi‘, but it is an opportunity to reinterpret mausoleum architecture.”
While the reconstruction of Al-Baqee remains elusive under the oversight of the Wahhabi establishment in Saudi Arabia, recent resilience and flexibility demonstrated by the kingdom in various areas make the eventual restoration of the shrine no longer unimaginable.
This much-awaited outcome could be achieved by the normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which has been long overdue.
Omar Ahmed has an MSc in International Security and Global Governance from Birkbeck College, University of London. He has travelled throughout the Middle East, including studying Arabic in Egypt as part of his undergraduate degree. His interests include the politics, history and religion of the MENA region.