Resolving the Problems of the Hajj

The number of pilgrims visiting Mecca for the Hajj has increased exponentially—from 57,000 in 1921 to more than two million this year. As more Muslims want to come each year, the demand to accommodate them will continue to increase. But the death toll in this year’s Hajj continues to climb (1,112 and still counting) as a result of the incident where two waves of pilgrims in Mina converging on a narrow road (which had been partly closed to allow a VIP Saudi prince to jump the cue), causing people to suffocate or be trampled to death.

The Hajj was never intended to be an ordeal where hundreds die a nightmarish death, crushed to pulp or burned in their cots. No one dares criticize Saudi Arabia—out of deference and, for many destitute countries, to keep the oil dollars flowing. However, there is a growing consensus among the world’s Muslims that something must be done.

This year’s tragedy is not the worst. The deadliest disaster to strike the Hajj was in 1990, when a stampede killed 1,426 people at an overcrowded pedestrian tunnel leading to holy sites in Mecca. The Saudis seem to be inured to the recurring tragedies. But the steady stream of Hajj tragedies in recent years has to be dealt with bravely and openly.

Only Iran dares to criticize the Saudis, with good cause in the case of the Hajj. Iran lost 465 of its pilgrims this year. In 1987, 402 pilgrims died when local security tried to break up an anti-US demonstration by Iranian pilgrims. Another politically inspired tragedy was in 1979, when disgruntled Saudi youths occupied the Masjid al-Haram, aiming to spark a revolution to overthrow the Saudi monarchy, clearly inspired by the Islamic revolution in Iran which overthrow the Shah.

Then, the Saudis called on French special forces to seize the mosque. At least 255 died, mostly innocent pilgrims. But then, it is rumored the Saudis called on Israeli special forces this year to help manage security. Thus the violation of the sacredness of the holy sites continues.

Last year, the hajj drew more than 3 million pilgrims without any major incidents. So it is possible to avoid tragedy if thorough preparations and efficient conduct of the rituals are implemented. Some points to consider:

1/ Most glaring is the complaint about pilgrims pushing and shoving at the expense of others’ safety. But civility isn’t just a nicety at the Hajj as the latest tragedy shows; it’s a matter of life and death. Some type of educational awareness program must be made mandatory for all Hajj tour operators in the pre-Hajj period. Then, once a Hajj has commenced, a strict zero tolerance policy should be implemented by the authorities in Mecca. If you engage in reckless behavior, your Hajj is over.

This issue of courtesy works both ways. Saudi police, volunteers and authorities take a harsh approach in dealing with pilgrims. It does little good to yell at people in Arabic when the majority of pilgrims come from non-Arabic speaking countries. This becomes particularly problematic when the information being conveyed is important. The fact that Hajj remains a largely Arabic language affair inevitably leads to miscommunication in important situations.

2/ Instead of building luxury hotels for the rich — imagine what the Prophet would say about this Saudi penchant? — multi-story structures need to be built in Mecca, Mina, and Arafah in order to allow for better management and flow of ordinary pilgrims. Additionally, public transport needs to increased, and should be the norm, not just as an option. The trains that already have been added help, but are far from meeting the problem.

3/ To go with these new building and transportation efforts, there needs to be the implementation of “smart-chip wristbands and gated camps in Mina”, as suggested by Ali Asadullah Alt Muslim. In this system, pilgrims would not be able to leave their Hajj group’s designated areas until designated times. Pilgrims would swipe their wristbands and go directly to a bus or train, and then directly to a ritual destination, with computers routing and switching ‘people traffic’ like routers switch and control internet traffic.

Computers would then be able to provide a real-time measurement of crowd sizes that would allow for important corrective measures to be taken on the spot instead of the current hand-wringing that takes place during a crowd emergency. The Hajj would be tightly managed, almost down to the minute and to the person. Technology implemented correctly can be almost transparent to the pilgrim, allowing for some of the traditional look and feel to remain.

There is a well-known Hadith of the Prophet Mohammed that states: “Hajj is Arafah.” The understanding here is that if all else goes awry, simply making it to the plain of Arafah constitutes an accepted and complete Hajj for the pilgrim. Perhaps a tightly regulated, high-tech system could be put in place that focuses on ensuring that all pilgrims arrive in Arafah on time. Then, clear and unambiguous fatwas from major scholars could be communicated so as to allay any fears over missing other parts of the Hajj.

4/ Saudi officials have beefed up security and safety measures for the Hajj ceremony. However, the paranoia within the Saudi government following the unrest in 1979 and 1987, not to mention the threat that ISIS poses to Saudi rule today, has made Riyadh focus more on increasing the number of security and police forces in recent years and pay less attention to the quality of medical services. During this year’s Hajj rituals, there were only 25,000 medical personnel as compared with 100,000 police added. Though a week has passed since the Mina incident, the exact number of the victims and their nationalities is still unknown.

5/ The most straightforward proposal is to sharply reduce the number of pilgrims to, say, a half a million. No one should even think of making more than one Umrah or Hajj visit. In consideration of the millions of poor Muslims who long to go, rich Muslims should donate to a fund to finance their trips. What is desperately needed is a return to the true spirit of the Hajj, which underlines equality before the Creator and brotherhood.

6/ OIC countries should unite to petition the Saudis for creation of a regulatory body with real powers to administer the Hajj so that responsibility can be shared.

7/ More controversial would be to promote pilgrimages to other holy sites and alternative Hajj commemorations for common Muslims. This could mean courses of education, social work to help locally in humanitarian crises, a ‘Hajj development fund’ to finance rejuvenation of the Muslim world in the spirit of the Hajj.

8/ Most radically would be to boycott the Hajj journey until it is at least safe for participants, or better yet, till the Saudi monarchy reforms to make a visit to Arabia a spiritually uplifting experience. Medea Benjamin, co-founder of the peace activist group Code Pink argues, “The world needs to boycott Saudi Arabia for its callous disregard for human lives.” She managed to unfurl a banner outside the US-Saudi Investment Forum in Washington DC last week, as delegates from the Saudi-American Business Council walked by. “Obama! Don’t meet with the war criminals! Don’t do business with the bloody Saudi monarchy!” she shouted as police dragged her away.

If Muslims showed their resolve and sense of self-sacrifice, this would convince the world to boycott the government of Saudi Arabia, as it did the apartheid government of South Africa, until the House of Saud brings democracy, civil society, human rights—including women’s rights—and a peaceful and tolerant interpretation of Islam to its people and the world.

  • A shorter version of this appeared at Mehr News Agency.
  • Eric Walberg is a journalist who worked in Uzbekistan and is now writing for Al-Ahram Weekly in Cairo. He is the author of From Postmodernism to Postsecularism and Postmodern Imperialism. His most recent book is Islamic Resistance to Imperialism. Read other articles by Eric, or visit Eric's website.