Forgiveness & Unity Mark Start of First Hajj After Pandemic

By Special Arrangement

Makkah– It is a scene that stirs hope and relief for Muslims around the world.

One million pilgrims from across the globe amassed on Thursday in the holy city of Makkah in Saudi Arabia to perform the initial rites of the Hajj, marking the largest Islamic pilgrimage since the coronavirus pandemic upended the annual event a key pillar of Islam.

The Hajj is a once-in-a-lifetime duty for all Muslims physically and financially able to make the journey, which takes the faithful along a path traversed by the Prophet Muhammad (Pbuh) some 1,400 years ago. Pilgrims spend five days carrying out a set of rituals intended to bring them closer to Allah.

Hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life are experiencing a different kind of equality in Saudi Arabia this week, as they gather in Mina’s tented city to conduct their Hajj pilgrimage.

More than a million international and domestic pilgrims started their pilgrimage on Thursday in Makkah then moved in buses to Mina — eight kilometres to the east of Makkah, where they will stay for the next three days as part of the pilgrimage.

The Mina valley is an open space covered with more than 100,000 air-conditioned tents extending over 2.5 million square metres that can accommodate more than 2.6 million people.

Mina is known as the largest tent city in the world. Pilgrims must stay in Mina during Hajj and perform the Stoning of the Devil ritual at the Jamarat. The ritual is performed between sunrise and sunset in the final days of the Hajj.
Mina is also a place to put aside differences and interact on an equal footing.

“Mina is a place that can humble the powerful, who don’t normally mix with the likes of us back home. I will not mention names but this very rich guy who refused [to allow] me to marry his daughter six years ago, just because I earn a low income, came and shook my hand and we prayed together side by side here at Mina,” said Rashed Al Sabti, 33, a filing clerk at the UAE’s Ministry of Health.

This Friday, pilgrims will leave Mina and travel to Mount Arafat, five kilometres from Makkah, where the Prophet Mohammed is believed to have delivered his last sermon.

Pilgrims spend the day praying at Arafat until sunset, then walk the seven kilometres to the third holy site, Muzdalifah. There, they perform the sunset and night prayers and spend the night worshipping under the open sky.

This year, the Hajj is open to just 1 million foreign and domestic pilgrims who have been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, tested negative for COVID-19 and are between 18 and 65 years old. Authorities estimate 85% have arrived from abroad.

While this year’s attendance is far below the pre-pandemic influx of 2.5 million pilgrims, it represents a significant step closer to normal after the kingdom restricted the event to a small number of Muslim residents for the past two years.

The ritual was almost scrapped in its entirety in 2020, when as few as 1,000 residents were permitted to take part. Some 60,000 residents attended last year. The unprecedented restrictions sent shockwaves through the Muslim world and devastated many believers, who often save up and wait for years to make the pilgrimage.

Pilgrims at the holy site this year are not required to be masked or socially distanced, as during the past two years. However, Muslims are still prohibited from kissing or touching the cube-shaped Kaaba, the metaphorical house of God at the center of Makkah that pilgrims circle as they complete the Hajj.

The Hajj follows a route Prophet Muhammad (Pbuh) walked nearly 1,400 years ago and is believed to trace the footsteps of Prophets Ibrahim and Ismail.

Although no longer in the shadow of the pandemic, this Hajj is taking place amid Russia’s war on Ukraine, a conflict that may be thousands of miles from the homes of many Muslims but has sent the prices of staple foods soaring and spread misery across the world.

This year’s Hajj also showcases de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s latest efforts to loosen social restrictions and transform the kingdom. Saudi Arabia officially began allowing women to perform the Hajj without a male guardian, or mahram,” last year.

The Hajj in Islam is meant to be a great equaliser and unifier among Muslims. Pilgrims wear simple clothing: For men, it’s typical to wear a white draping garment, while women wear conservative dress and headscarves, forgoing makeup, nail polish and perfume to draw closer to God.

But even Makkah cannot escape the world’s wealth gaps: The well-heeled may pay some USD 3,000 a night for five-star hotels overlooking the Kaaba. For most people, however, the pilgrimage means sleeping in simple accommodations or on the ground around the mosque to perform daily prayers ahead of the hajj.

With many more people applying to perform the Hajj each year than the kingdom can accommodate, the Saudi government controls the flow of visitors through annual quotas based on each nation’s Muslim population.

The visa regulations have grown stricter after deadly incidents in recent years. In 2015, several thousand pilgrims were crushed to death in a stampede. This year, tight quotas were sharply reduced. Indonesia sent just over 100,000 people, the world’s largest contingent.

Regional powerhouse Iran, Saudi Arabia’s political foe that in 2016 barred its citizens from making the pilgrimage amid an escalating geo-political rivalry, sent over 39,000, down from 88,550 in 2019.

Iran has criticised the kingdom for its decision to restrict the number of pilgrims. As tensions eased between the rivals amid regional negotiations and a ceasefire in Yemen, Hajj officials from the countries met last month to discuss security for the first time in years.

Although the pandemic is far from over, with hundreds of new infections a day in the kingdom, the government is glad of the influx. The event is a critical source of prestige and tourism for Saudi Arabia.

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