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Why millions complete the Hajj despite the possibility of tragedy

  • Published at 04:17 am September 13th, 2016
Why millions complete the Hajj despite the possibility of tragedy
I was asked to write a piece explain the tragic stampede which occurred a few days ago for a blog page I contribute to. Below are my objective thoughts on the Hajj. I performed my Hajj in 2009, a few months after my father had died, and I was emotionally in a bad place. It is without doubt the most spiritually and physically demanding experience, and helped put so much of my life, in this life, into perspective. I sincerely doubt anything else will ever compare. The Hajj is a re-enactment of the final journey to Makkah taken by the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him and all the prophets of God). In this journey, Prophet Muhammad honoured several major events from the life of Prophet Abraham (pbuh) and visited these locations. These include a visit to Mina where Prophet Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son to please God, only to end up sacrificing an animal, which God replaced in place of his son. And also a visit to the Kaaba, built by Prophet Abraham, accepted as the first-ever house of God and appropriated as the birth-place of Islam during Prophet Muhammad’s time. The first Hajj during the sixth century had 3,000 pilgrims. These days, between 2 to 3 million people complete the Hajj: In my opinion, such a logistical feat is impossible without divine intervention, despite tragedies like the stampede from a few days ago. One of the rituals of the Hajj includes sleeping in the open desert for one night. During that day, and night, pilgrims all wear identical clothing: Two pieces of cotton to cover the chest and midriff and the loins. One of my most vivid memories is trying to sleep through that night. I took a place by a major walkway, and was facing oncoming pilgrims as they also arrived looking for a place to sleep. Pilgrims walked in a row, 100 people wide. And that flow of people did not stop all night. For over seven hours, through my intermittent sleep, I saw wave after wave of white cloth-clad pilgrims walk past me. They were men and women of all ages, colours, shapes, sizes. And yet, when I did a mental calculation afterwards, I worked out that I could only have seen 5% of the total pilgrim count that year. That’s how many people were there. I don’t mean to sound “in the know,” but unless you see it first hand, you will never comprehend what is like to be in a group of over 2 million people: All in one location with the same purpose and united behind one cause. If we assume Manchester United’s Old Trafford stadium has 70,000 spectators, that’s at least 30 full stadiums of people who are about 20 times more committed to a cause than even the most passionate United fan. For the vast majority of people who perform Hajj, it is a life-times savings of money, the height of spiritual ambition, and a promise to themselves that they will live life differently from that day onwards. When over 2 million people pray together at the same time and place, you feel the spirituality around you. It emits from every person into a collective force and you feel the energy rush through your soul; it’s exhilarating and uplifting, it has purpose and meaning. I also learned a lot about humanity. It was like being in the first series of the TV drama Lost, where all the fundamentals of socialisation and living together were brought to the fore-front of my thinking. During the Hajj, you have to walk ... a lot. And you have to travel by bus ... a lot. And you have to sit on the bus waiting for it to move ... a lot. You meet new people every few minutes, you rarely eat in the same place, you change beds every few days. You lose weight and get fit, you fall very sick with a cough that feels like you have shreds of glass in your throat. You lose touch with the timings of the world you left behind and your entire body and rhythm quickly gets synchronised to the task of praying to God five times a day, every day. As I mentioned above, one of the rituals involves Prophet Abraham’s sacrifice. Those familiar with the Torah, Bible, or Qur’an record of this event will know about the role of the devil: That he tries to persuade Abraham for three consecutive nights not to offer his son to God. And at each attempt, Abraham is tempted to listen to the Devil, only mastering his weakness by “stoning the devil” and so regaining his belief. Hajj pilgrims throw stones on three consecutive days at a wall where this event happened. All 2 million plus pilgrims have to perform this ritual on the same three days. The stampede happened on the way to this ritual. It’s obvious what will have happened: One person had a panic attack. He or she probably fell underneath somebody else. That raised voices all round. Within seconds screams, wailing and shouting. And so the second wave of panic starts just behind. Within a minute, you have a stampede. And in this instance, it is unfortunate that this collective panic attack happened in a relatively narrow lane with no side exits. It’s a bit like a huge flock of birds who move en masse when only one is disturbed. It is fashionable and easy to blame the Saadis or unruly Muslims for the stampede. It’s also not the first time this has happened, and at the same place. But try to envisage the mass of people described above. I doubt the collective human brain trust on crowd control knows how to control such a vast movement of people. You can get people from Harvard, McKinsey, and the Chinese army together with the people who organise religious festivals on the river Ganges, and even they will still fall short (I’m sure the Saadis have tried this). People always die during the Hajj. I prayed the obligatory five times a day for the 16 days I was in Makkah and Medina. And after every single prayer, at least 10 burial prayers were said for pilgrims who had died in the previous hours completing Hajj. That’s not surprising as 50% of all pilgrims are above the age of 50. Of course a stampede is a very gruesome, shocking, and violent last few seconds alive, but every single Muslim who is completing their Hajj would consider it a blessing to die during the Hajj. As personal wealth and life-age in predominately Muslim populated countries continue to increase, and air travel gets cheaper, more people are obligated to complete the Hajj every year. And so, stampede or not, even more people will complete Hajj 2016 than they did this year (unless the Saudis deliberately lower the numbers). I don’t blame the Saudis for this tragedy. It’s just one of those things: Impossible for mankind with our current knowledge to be 100% capable to stop it from happening. However, the Saudis will continue to employ the best brains on the planet to improve safety and comfort for the pilgrims. It is constant renovation and an ever-evolving process. Though it was six years ago, I can still vividly remember many experiences and feelings I had during my Hajj. I consider myself very fortunate to have gone during my early life, as I have the rest of my life to utilise the profound insights into humanity and myself that I learned. They were priceless life lessons. If I am able, I will go again.
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