Why Is Saudi Arabia Burying King Abdullah in an Unmarked Grave? And why is Iran different?

King Abdullah died early this morning aged 90 after a short bout of pneumonia. However, in accordance with the Saudi royal family’s ultra conservative Muslim faith, often referred to as Wahhabism, there has been no official period of mourning and a public funeral will not be held, despite the fact Abdullah was head of state for almost 10 years.

Instead he was buried in a modest ceremony – his body was bathed in the manner in keeping with Islamic ritual and wrapped in white cloth before he was buried in Riyadh’s Al Oud cemetery where he joined previous Saudi monarchs, also interred in unmarked graves. Prayers were led by his brother and successor, King Salman, in a ceremony which was attended by members of the al-Saud family and prominent Muslim heads of state, Reuters reports.

Wahhabism, an ultra-conservative form of Sunni Islam, is the dominant faith of the Saudi state, adhered to by its ruling family, the House of Saud.

Dr Tony Street, an expert in Islam from Cambridge University, says that when it comes to burial, Wahhabists are “hostile to leaving anything that might become a site for veneration”, and that they characterise their belief as “simply a commitment to utter and absolute Tawhid, the affirmation of God’s supremacy”.

Interestingly, its followers often reject the term Wahhabi, as the word refers to the work of 18th century Muslim scholar Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, after whom the movement is named. “I think they just prefer to be called Muslims,” says Dr Street. He explains that calling something or someone Wahhabi “is awarding exactly the kind of eminence to a Muslim that they try to avoid. You don’t want to start setting up people in pseudo-hagiographical positions.”

King Salman has publicly rejected the term saying that it is unrepresentative of modern Saudi society. Speaking to daily Saudi Arabian newspaper Okaz, he said: “Enemies of the Sheikh Muhammad ibn Abd Al-Wahhab labelled his teaching as Wahhabism, a doctrine that doesn’t exist here.”

Imam-Reza-mirror-workThe mirror work in the Imam Reza Shrine in Iran

I really do not why the Shia are different on the subject. But they are. Iran is “Twelver Shiite.” From Wikipedia:

The Twelve Imams are the spiritual and political successors to the Islamic prophet Muhammad in the Twelver or Athnā‘ashariyyah branch of Shia Islam and in Alevi Islam. According to the theology of Twelvers, the Twelve Imams are exemplary human individuals who not only rule over the community with justice, but also are able to keep and interpret sharia and the esoteric meaning of the Quran. Muhammad and Imams’ words and deeds are a guide and model for the community to follow; as a result, they must be free from error and sin, known as Ismah or infallibility and must be chosen by divine decree, or nass, through the Prophet.

Imam Reza, the eighth, has an enormous shrine in Mashhad, Iran. Although it does not contain pictorial images, it is very elaborate and a popular site for pilgrimages.

Shah Abdul Azim Shrine : is located in Rey, Iran, contains the tomb of: ‘Abdul ‘Adhim ibn Abdillah al-Hasani (aka. Shah Abdul Azim). Shah Abdul Azim was a fifth generation descendant of Hasan ibn Ali and a companion of Muhammad al-Taqī. He was entombed here after his death in the 9th century . The whole construction consists of a portal with a lofty Iwan decorated with mirrors, several courtyards, a golden cupola, two tile minarets, a portico, a sepulcher, and a mosque.

The most historical and portable relic of this holy place, is its costly box which is made of betel-nut wood. On four sides of this precious box, a relief inscription in Nastaliq and Tulth characters, is carved. The mirror-work, paintings and gildings of the structure belong to the 19th century. Repairs are still being carried out in this complex of holy structures. For those who want to visit a major religious historical mosque and shrine close to Tehran, this is the place to see.

Sufi shrines can also be quite elaborate: here is an example from India.

Looking at the Saudi and Iranian photos reminds me that until the arrival of oil wealth, the Saudis were desert nomads. By contrast, Iran is an ancient civilization.