“Among the lessons I learned on Hajj was that I needed to be mindful and keep the inner connection with God at all times and that self-improvement is definitely a never-ending struggle.” -- Kristiane Backer, From MTV to Mecca: How Islam Inspired My Life
As one of the five pillars of Islam (primary obligations to be preformed by all Muslims), the pilgrimage (Hajj) to the city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia is an extremely important event. This year, nearly two million Muslims descended upon the holy city for their pilgrimage. The event is often used as a celebration of life and as a reminder of Islam's emphasis on global unity. However, this event has been marred in recent decades by a series of controversies and tragedies. Last week, a stamped broke out in which 717 people were trampled. This event, and a crane collapse earlier this month which killed 107, have once again placed the spotlight on Saudi Arabia's management of the Hajj. Naturally, Iran (Saudi's regional rival) has also used these incidents as an opportunity to embarrass and shame Saudi Arabia. So what is the Hajj and why is it so important? This week we will investigate the meaning of the pilgrimage and uncover some of the scandals surrounding it.
As we mentioned before, the pilgrimage to Mecca is one of the five primary duties of Muslims throughout the world. These "Five Pillars" are the declaration of faith, daily prayer, charitable giving, fasting during the month of Ramadan, and the pilgrimage to Mecca. It should be noted that the pilgrimage (along with fasting and charitable giving) are only obligatory for those who are physically and financially able. Muslims who are too poor to buy a plane ticket or unable to physically withstand the rigors of travel are exempt. The Hajj is one of the great unifying experiences of Islam. Muslims from all corners of the world gather together in one place for worship and contemplation. The Hajj often becomes a transformative experience for Muslims. Malcolm X, former leader of the Nation of Islam (which did not believe that African Americans would ever be treated equally if fully integrated into society), converted to Islam and performed the Hajj in 1964. He often said that seeing Muslims of all ethnicities and backgrounds helped turn him away from violence and towards the idea that all races could live in peace (albeit as Muslims). The entire journey is to be performed from the 8th to the 12th day of the Islamic month of Dhu al-Hijjah. In order for the Hajj to fulfill the obligation completely, it must be performed during this time. Muslims can perform a "lesser Hajj" at any time throughout the year, but that experience is typically not as revered.
Contrary to popular belief, the Hajj is not just showing up in Mecca and walking in a circle a bunch of times. There are actually a number of specific actions which must be taken on specific days in order for the Hajj to be considered valid (this makes crowd control much harder). The entire process lasts for five days and includes visits to the plains of Arafat for prayer and meditation, the ritualistic "stoning of the devil" at Mina, a drink from the well of Zamzam, and several trips back to Mecca to circle the Kaaba. The pilgrims also shave their heads, have an animal sacrificed in their name to represent the story of Abraham and Isaac (the meat is used to feed the poor), and wear a special all white gown (known as the Ihram). The Ihram, in particular, is meant to show equality of all pilgrims regardless of social or economic status. In all, the experience is intended to bring the pilgrim closer to God and highlight the unity of all Muslims throughout the world.
So where does Saudi Arabia fit into all of this? Saudi Arabia has been administering the Hajj since the Kingdom was founded in 1932. As the "Custodian of the Two Holy Places," Saudi Arabia enjoys both the prestige of this title and the responsibility of managing the millions of pilgrims who travel every year. Whenever large numbers of people converge in one location, safety is always a major concern. As more pilgrims have been journeying to Mecca in recent decades, Saudi Arabia's safety and security teams have been having a hard time keeping up. In 1990, another stampede killed nearly 1,500 people, while similar incidents have occurred in 1994, 1998, 2004, and 2006 (usually during the "stoning the devil" step of the Hajj). Fires, concerns about disease, and political unrest have also caused significant headaches for the Saudis. One particularly bad incident occurred in 1987 when a group of Shia militants stormed the Grand Mosque and began taking hostages (page 55 on that link). In the ensuing firefight, nearly 400 people were killed. For its part, Saudi Arabia has stepped up its security measures and made numerous safety related changes to minimize these incidents. Still, many are beginning to think that the Hajj itself is simply too overcrowded to safely maintain.
This brings us to another Saudi controversy surrounding the Hajj: its perceived exploitation. Though Saudi Arabia will spend nearly one billion dollars on the Hajj this year, the Kingdom takes in roughly 8.5 billion per year in Hajj fees and related tourism expenses. A foreign pilgrim will usually spend anywhere from $4,000 to $5,000 during the trip. This causes severe restrictions for poor Muslims (though Saudi Arabia does provide a small number of scholarships for those who cannot pay). Saudi Arabia also places restrictions on who is permitted to attend (with wealthy and influential people often receiving preferential treatment). In addition to the Hajj itself, Mecca has also come under scrutiny for its increasing commercialization in recent years. What was once a humble city of Mosques and local businesses is increasingly becoming a luxury destination filled with high rise hotels, five star dining, and a massive 2,000 foot tall clock tower just outside the Grand Mosque. The recent crane collapse earlier this month was part of yet another large construction project in the city. This has led to many expressing frustration with the Saudis, accusing them of ignoring the humbling and unifying purpose of the Hajj.
Controversy aside, the Hajj is often seen as the defining moment of a Muslim's life. People return with a new appreciation for humanity and there is even evidence to suggest that communities hold fewer radical views when there are more Hajj participants. Still, the tragedies of the Hajj in recent decades ought to be a motivating force for change in Saudi Arabia. It is often a belief that the closer a Muslim is to mecca when they die, the better their afterlife will be. But this is likely of little consolation to the hundreds of families devastated by this tragedy.