by Marjo Buitelaar
The Saudi government has recently ordered all hajj companies to put their activities on hold because of the coronavirus pandemic. The hajj of 2020, which is scheduled for end of July, will most likely be cancelled.
The hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, is compulsory for all Muslims who have the means and health to perform it. Due to rising prosperity and the affordability of air travel, the number of pilgrims has risen tremendously in recent decades. To better control the enormous flow of pilgrims, in the late 1980s the Saudi government introduced a quota system, allotting most countries one visa per thousand inhabitants.
Some countries, such as Morocco, distribute the quota of hajj visa through a lottery system, while others, such as Indonesia, work with waiting lists. For prospective pilgrims who managed to obtain a hajj visa for 2020, this means that they may have waited for it ten to twenty years. Since until recently it was customary for Muslims to postpone the hajj until they were ready to take leave of ‘al-dunya’ (worldly concerns) in preparation to meet their Creator, many elderly Muslims have spent a life time of savings to pay their package tour to Mecca. Cancellation of this year’s hajj increases the risk of dying before being able to accomplish the most desired journey of their life.
The coronavirus pandemic obviously causes enormous anxiety among religious and non-religious people alike. For some Muslims, this fear is exacerbated by wondering if, in line with a particular reading of a hadith (a story about the sayings or deeds of the prophet Muhammed) according to which “The Hour (Day of Judgment) will not be established until the Hajj (to the Ka’ba) is abandoned,”possible cancellation of the hajj is a sign that the world is coming to an end. This reading is contested, however, by those who point out that incidental cancellation of the hajj for health reasons, is something else than abandoning the hajj altogether.
Cancellation of the hajj is not unprecedented. The most notorious cancellation occurred in the tenth century when the religious sect of Qarmatians sacked Mecca in 930 CE and forbade hajj performance for several years in a row.
Marjo Buitelaar is Professor of Contemporary Islam at the University of Groningen.
Throughout Islamic history, epidemics such as cholera and typhus have resulted in high numbers of casualties among pilgrims in Mecca. The cholera outbreak in 1865 killed 15,000 of the 90,000 pilgrims. Indirectly, the hajj of 1865 played an important role in the conduit of cholera to Europe through pilgrims from India. In response, the British and Dutch colonial regimes imposed sanitary regulations, thus exercising and legitimating their power and control through governance of this important religious ritual. The steamships that enabled ever more pilgrims to perform the hajj in the second half of the nineteenth century, for instance, were to have covers to shield the upper deck pilgrims against the sun, and Western-educated doctors were put on board to monitor and treat pilgrims. Also, all arriving pilgrims were bathed in Lysol at quarantine stations that were set up near the entry port of Jeddah, such as on Kamaran Island and at al-Tor in the Sinai Peninsula. This interference with religious practice was highly unpopular among pilgrims, who themselves were responsible for the extra costs for accommodation and other provisions needed for the ten to fourteen days of quarantine. Colonial surveillance and sanitary control went hand in hand. The Dutch kept detailed records of their hygienic interventions on Kamaran Island, which simultaneously enabled them to keep a close eye on the risk of civil unrest and the spread of anti-Western Islamic movements.
In the meantime, western medical views on hygiene began to impact the sensibilities of reformist pilgrims. In the diaries of his hajj journeys between 1904 and 1908, the Egyptian civil servant and photographer Muhammad Ali Effendi Saudi mentions abstaining from drinking the blessed water from the Well of Zamzam lest it be contaminated. Likewise, to avoid catching a disease he decided against touching the black stone in one of the corners of the Ka’ba, the cubic building in the middle of the square of the Grand Mosque of Mecca.
In recent years, to protect the safety of pilgrims, Islamic authorities have allowed some changes in certain hajj rites, such as expanding the time slot during which the stoning rite should be carried out and allowing pilgrims to perform the sacrificial rite by proxy. Suggestions to expand the hajj season to spread out the number of pilgrims who are simultaneously present in Mecca have so far been rejected.
Within the course of the past few months, the coronavirus pandemic has upturned our daily lives and challenged seemingly self-evident truths. It is too early to assess how societies and cultures will consequently be reshaped, but should the hajj of 2020 indeed be cancelled, this is likely to increase the urgency of the debate about the religious validity of extending the hajj season.