“Grief rocks the Muslim world,” headlined the New York Times yesterday. Sounds serious. Did the Ka’aba implode? Did another redneck pastor burn a Qur’an? Did the Hagia Sophia get turned into a Trump casino?
No. The drama is all about the five-to-six-day pilgrimage to Mecca — the hajj — that all dutiful, able-bodied Muslims must undertake once in their lives. This year, due to coronavirus concerns, the hajj is effectively canceled. Kudos (for a change) to Saudi Arabia, which put health concerns over religious and economic ones.
The Saudi government, for which the hajj is a major source of prestige and tourism, announced Monday that no pilgrims from outside the kingdom could perform the hajj this year in order to prevent contagion. On Tuesday, Saudi officials narrowed the order, saying that only about 1,000 pilgrims would be permitted this year — a tiny fraction of the 2.5 million who came last year.
The hajj is supposed to be a spiritual journey, but it comes with coveted real-world bragging rights.
Making the trip is such a sacred milestone for the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims that in parts of the Arab world families of returned pilgrims paint murals on their homes to alert their neighbors to the pilgrim in their midst. … The pilgrimage conveys such religious status that many Muslims add the honorific “al-Hajj” or “Hajji” to their names on their business cards.
Oh well. Once there’s a vaccine or a cure for COVID-19, the hajj will be back. Probably next year. No big whoop — or so you’d think. But for weeks now, I’ve spotted stories of Muslims who saw the writing on the wall — who anticipated that this year’s hajj would be canceled — and who expressed not just a pang of sadness, but full-blown despondency. They reacted not with a better-luck-next-time shrug, but with tearful theatrics.
Lebanese believer Abdul-Halim al-Akoum, quoted in the Times:
“It is the dream of every Muslim believer to visit Mecca and do the hajj. But the pandemic came with no warning and took away that dream.”
Yasir Qadhi, dean of the Islamic Seminary of America, who had planned to lead 250 pilgrims on the hajj this year:
“There’s a sense of deflation and spiritual loss.”
An Egyptian school administrator, Zeinab Ibrahim, actually sobbed. Real tears.
“It was my only wish,” Ms. Ibrahim said. “To cancel it completely is such a shame. May God relieve us of this burden.”
Maybe they’re upset that they’re giving Satan free reign. That’s because at some point during the hajj, they must keep the devil at bay by stoning him.
Pilgrims must strike one of the three jamraat [sacred walls] with seven pebbles. After the stoning is completed on the day of Eid, every pilgrim must cut or shave their hair. On each of the following two days, they must hit each of the three walls with seven pebbles, going in order from east to west. Thus at least 49 pebbles are needed for the ritual, more if some throws miss. Some pilgrims stay at Mina for an additional day, in which case they must again stone each wall seven times.
And that’s how they vanquish the Dark Lord. Who will do it now? Looks like the forces of evil are going to have a banner year.
Other than that, staying at home, just this once, does have its advantages. The wanna-be pilgrims can hold onto their money a little while longer; making the trek to Mecca typically costs $3,000-$10,000.
They’ll also be safer. At least six times since 1973, passenger jets full of Mecca goers have crashed, killing more than 1,200 of them. Over the years, up to 110,000 hajjis have died from cholera outbreaks. A crane collapse took 118 lives in 2015, the same year that a fatal stampede killed more than 2,400 — almost as many as were trampled to death in earlier stampedes in 1990, 1994, 1998, 2001, 2004, and 2006. In the past, the hajj has also been marred by bomb explosions, and by clashes between demonstrators and Saudi security forces, leaving 400 dead and thousands injured.
Even when there are no violent episodes or crowd-control calamities, between dozens and hundreds of mostly older hajjis die from heatstroke, pneumonia, diabetes, and heart problems every year.
The pilgrims may love Allah, but I guess Allah doesn’t necessarily love them back.
(Image via Shutterstock)