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OP-ED: Hajj: The quest for Allah’s mercy

  • Published at 02:07 pm July 30th, 2020
Hajj Makkah
File Photo: Saudi Arabia has restricted the annual Hajj pilgrimage to citizens and residents this year and set a maximum of 60,000 pilgrims limit in response to the Covid-19 pandemic Reuters

How the pandemic has changed protocols for the great annual pilgrimage to Makkah

Defying all odds, including the pandemic, war, and earthquakes that have threatened the followers of Islam for 14 centuries, Muslims from the corners of this planet have steadfastly made their annual pilgrimage to the holy city of Makkah. 

Rituals of this unique worship of Allah have attracted millions of faithful from around the world. This year, the Islamic world has been faced with an exception. In order to halt the spread of coronavirus, Saudi Arabia has restricted participation in the Hajj, which is scheduled on July 31, 2020.

For all Muslims, the essence of the Hajj is the holiest Muslim congregation, at the plains of Arafat, in Saudi Arabia. On the ninth day of the lunar month of Zil-Hajj, pilgrims are required to gather on the great Plain of Arafat and offer their deepest, heartfelt prayers. It’s a reminder of the day of Resurrection, when everyone will stand “naked” before God on Judgement Day and nothing counts but our actions and their effects upon our souls.

Reports say that, in the current year, between 1,000 and 10,000 people, who are already in the kingdom, will take part. Historians searching for a comparable disruption hark back a millennium to the year 930AD when the Qarmatians (a revolutionary Shia sect), reportedly had pillaged Makkah and stole the sacred Black Stone.

The sermons echo loudly in the nearby hills. Do not curse the well that quenches your thirst. A haji’s spirit has a thirst for the living water. Let’s remember the aim for our quest. it keeps inspiring to find more and more. Otherwise, satisfied we would sit, and lazily rest on the shore.

You don’t know what thirst is until you drink for the first time.

A tough decision

The decision to curtail access to one of Islam’s five pillars could not have been easy for Saudi Arabia. King Salman, like his predecessors, prides himself on the kingdom’s jurisdiction over Makkah, which allows him to claim leadership of the Muslim world. 

His titles include “custodian of the two holy mosques,” referring to the Grand Mosque in Makkah and the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina. But a normal Hajj also carried its own risk of becoming a “super-spreader event” for the kingdom, and the world.

Saudi Arabia, with a population of 35 million Muslims, has suffered from nearly 265,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and just over 2,700 deaths. New cases, after spiking in June, have been decreasing of late. The Hajj, though, risked giving the disease new momentum. The pilgrimage lasts five or six days, depending on the lunar Islamic calendar.

Crowds are often packed into tight spaces, sometimes nine to a square metre. The traditional garments worn by men leave part of the upper body exposed, leading to much skin-on-skin contact. Pilgrims also share food and razors in order to shave their heads, part of the ritual for men. Many grow tired and dehydrated from the exertion. Germs and infections from all over the world have little trouble spreading in such an inviting environment.

Concerns over the Hajj and contagion are nothing new. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the pilgrimage was seen as a primary conduit for disease. Tens of thousands of pilgrims died in cholera outbreaks in 1821 and 1865, which also spread to other regions. Global powers then stepped in through a series of international sanitary conferences between 1851 and 1938, leading to pilgrims being quarantined and inspected.

The waters of the sacred Zamzam well in Makkah, from which pilgrims drink, were even sterilized. More recently there have been outbreaks of meningococcal disease, gastrointestinal illnesses, pneumonia, and flu.

In 2012, an outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), another deadly disease caused by a coronavirus, led to criticism of the Saudi government. After some initial co-operation, Western virologists accused the Saudis of turning suspicious and stubborn. The kingdom rejected offers of help from the World Health Organization (WHO) and other international experts, who are indeed, better able to track the disease.

Because MERS is not as easily spread as Covid-19, it is less of a risk to the world. Still, concern over it had led to lower Hajj attendance in 2013, when the government asked elderly and chronically ill Muslims to stay at home, and capped the number of pilgrims.

Lately, the Saudi government has taken steps to lower the risk of the Hajj spreading disease. It has installed 21,000 extra toilets and begun approving barbers who shave pilgrims at the end of the pilgrimage. Thousands of health care workers offer free care to those in need. Pilgrims are required to be vaccinated against diseases such as meningitis; those who are especially vulnerable, such as pregnant women, are told not to come.

The government has even developed an electronic early-warning system with the WHO. It scans records from hospitals and clinics and sounds an alarm with Hajj organizers if there are early signs of an outbreak.

Still, some are pushing for a safer option. For centuries, Muslim mystics have urged believers to prioritize the spiritual Hajj over the terrestrial one. Today, some sheikhs are echoing that call (in part to tweak Saudi Arabia). Software developers have created apps offering Muslims a virtual pilgrimage.

A “hajplication” (virtual replication of the rituals of Haji) developed by Ahmed Alhaddad, a Kenyan computer engineer, connects would-be pilgrims to proxies in Makkah who livestream the experience. 

For $500, a fraction of the cost of a real trip, customers can maintain social distance and avoid walking miles in 50C heat. “Easy process, same blessings,” says Mr Alhaddad’s website.

Will Saudi Arabia agree to change the process?

The Saudi government, however, may not be agreeable to pursue the idea. Religious pilgrimages had netted it $12 billion last year, accounting for the largest chunk of GDP after oil. Mohammad bin Salman, the crown prince and de facto ruler, has built up Makkah, hoping to make billions more dollars, while creating 100,000 new jobs. 

It is all part of his plan to wean the Saudi economy off oil. But the government aimed to attract 15 million foreign pilgrims outside of Hajj by 2020.

Managing crowds is normally a challenge during the pilgrimage. So, over the five days prescribed in the Islamic lunar calendar -- which fall between July 28 and August 2 in 2020 -- at most 10,000 Saudis and nationals from other countries will perform the rituals. They must follow physical and social distancing protocols.

While the Hajj has been restricted and suspended in the past because of conflict or disease, 2020 is the first time Saudi Arabia -- established in 1932 -- has so significantly curtailed the pilgrimage.

Dreams for the economy

Meanwhile, given huge drops in the current demand for oil due to the economic crisis provoked by Covid-19, the longer-term impact of the virus could deal a real blow to Saudi Arabia’s ambitions to diversify its economy by expanding pilgrimage-based tourism. 

It also highlights concerns about governance and regulation of the pilgrimage industry beyond the kingdom, raised in my own searches while mapping the challenges of the Hajj sector in the UK.

When the Saudis first took control of the Hijaz area of western Arabia -- where Makkah is situated -- in the 1920s, Hajj was the most significant source of revenue for the region. This financial dependence on Hajj ended in the years following the discovery of oil in the late 1930s.

As oil prices quintupled during the 1970s and international air travel became the norm, the Saudi rentier state increasingly deployed Hajj as part of its diplomacy beyond the Arab world.

The House of Saud has also demonstrated its largesse to the “guests of God” by expanding pilgrimage infrastructure as the number of overseas hajis expanded from 100,000 each year in the mid-1950s to nearly 1 million, only 20 years later.

Into the 1990s, however, global recession began to focus Saudi attention on the benefits of systematically commercializing pilgrimage despite the challenges of rapid modernization for safety, heritage, and the environment.

Obviously, the fallout of Covid-19 will magnify challenges that the Muslim pilgrimage industry was already confronting. The sheer lack of professionalism and performance among some Saudi-licensed Hajj organizers is exacerbated by inconsistent professionalism and performance to regulation and enforcement.

What’s needed now is more effective self-governance by the pilgrimage industry, as well as more transparent and better co-ordinated communication between pilgrims, travel companies, as well as Saudi and other authorities.

Last year, only 7.5 million hajis had showed up. And this year, thanks to Covid-19, the number will be much, much lower.

The Hajj is also big business. This unique form of Islamic worship conducts attending hajis through a five or six-day pilgrimage that starts this year at the end of July, and the umrah, a lesser pilgrimage that can be performed at any time of the year, earn Saudi Arabia billions of dollars each year. Muslim communities from Texas to Tajikistan have travel agencies specializing in getting pilgrims to and from the holy sites and providing accommodation along the way.

“The current year has proved testing for the followers of Islam. It has been a catastrophe, at all levels -- economic, social, and religious,” said Tariq Kalach, who runs a Beirut travel agency that was planning to take 400 pilgrims to Makkah this year.

Nazarul Islam is an educator based in Chicago.

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