Any Muslim considers Hajj to be a journey in repentance and submission, and hopes to return home cleansed of all sins, like a new-born baby. Hajj is an arduous undertaking beginning with the hijra (migration) of the Muslim from his or her place of abode to Makkah in preparation for the performance of various rites. Yet under the control of the House of Saud it has become synonymous with disaster. This last Hajj was no exception.
On the very day that the hujjaj (pilgrims) returned from Arafat and Muzdalifa (March 5), 40 of them were trampled to death while performing the rami (stoning of the shaitans) in Jamarat. These deaths were completely avoidable: the Saudi policemen assigned to crowd control should have been more diligent. The deaths occurred not on the ground level, where crowd-control is non-existent, but on the upper level, where the flow is supposed to be controlled. The hujjaj have to climb a ramp about half a kilometre away and make their way towards the Jamarat. After hundreds of deaths in 1997 (the Saudis admitted to only 243 deaths, while independent sources said more than a thousand perished) in the same area, crowd-flow was regulated by allowing people to enter from one direction and exit in another after completing their rami. Yet despite such regulations, 40 pilgrims were trampled to death this year as well.
Too many people were allowed onto the ramp, and when the crowd reached the Jamarat al-uqba (the big Shaitan), they had to stop to perform the rami. It was at this point that some women tripped and fell down. Others tripped over them, and within minutes 35 people were crushed to death; another 170 or so were seriously injured. Five of the injured later died in hospital. The deaths occurred at around 8:20 am when most of the hujjaj had not yet arrived from Muzdalifah. These pilgrims had obviously walked the four or five kilometres to Mina in hopes of avoiding the rush when other pilgrims would arrive to do their rami (buses and other vehicles take between five to six hours to reach Mina because of traffic congestion).
Commenting on the deaths, Saudi interior minister Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz tried to place the blame on the hujjaj themselves. “Pilgrims must be given proper guidance in their home countries on how to conduct their pilgrimage and behave in the right way. We cannot do this on our own”, he said (Saudi Gazette, March 11). There is merit in pilgrims getting proper guidance before they set out for Hajj, yet it is incorrect to state that their home countries must take responsibility. Many pilgrims come from non-Muslim countries, where the authorities have no particular interest in how Muslims conduct themselves during pilgrimage. Beside, were these governments to get involved in the conduct of Hajj, it would set a dangerous precedent.
Prince Nayef is also wrong to claim that “we cannot do things on our own.” When it suits its purpose, or when the House of Saud feels threatened, it acts swiftly and often brutally. At about 11:30 pm on March 1, several thousand Irani, Palestinian and Lebanese pilgrims started to recite the takbeer loudly during tawaaf of the Ka’aba. The sound of the takbeer electrified other pilgrims, who joined them. Suddenly, thousands of Saudi policemen swarmed the Haram and dragged away those reciting the takbeerat. Surely it is not a crime to recite the takbeer loudly, especially inside the House of Allah? Yet the Saudis perceived this as a threat to their authority. If they can act to prevent Muslims from reciting the takbeer inside the Haram, they can surely control crowd-flow at the Jamarat.
The deaths at Jamarat were not the only ones this year: five women were crushed to death during sa’i and another died, again trampled to death, when she fell down during tawaaf. Such deaths are entirely avoidable: “God’s Will” should not be invoked to justify them. Everything that happens is God’s Will, indirectly or directly, but He has also given us the ability to act properly and to take all necessary precautions. Those who have appointed themselves guardians of the Haramain are answerable to Allah for their negligence of His guests.
Some people maintain that managing two million pilgrims is a monumental task and that the Saudis should be complimented for doing a good job. In fact, Saudi officials themselves, from king Fahd down, all congratulated themselves on a “job well done.” Were this really the case one would not begrudge them their laurels, but the facts speak differently. One was the complete absence of traffic-management, vehicular as well as human. It appears that the Saudis have no concept of traffic-management, or indeed of any management at all; things just happen. The only thing they are good at is blocking roads. This creates enormous problems for pilgrims, but their well-being appears to be the least of the Saudis’ concerns.
Take, for instance, the Juma salah on Friday March 2. Because king Fahd and a number of foreign heads of government (Pakistani chief executive general Pervez Musharaf, president Omar Hasan al-Bashir of Sudan and prime minister Hasina Wajed of Bangladesh) were present in the Haram, the entrance to the Haram was closed from 9:30am. This created enormous difficulties for other pilgrims who were locked outside and had to fend for themselves in the limited space. According to eye-witnesses, the third floor inside the Haram was virtually empty and hundreds of thousands of people could have been accommodated there on the auspicious day, but Saudi paranoia about “security” got the better of them. What were these so-called dignitaries and their hosts afraid of in the House which Allah Himself has proclaimed is a “place of peace and security” (3:97)?
There were other jars to one’s sensitivities during Hajj. Nawaz Sharif, the former Pakistani prime minister, was a guest of the Saudis. In Madinah, he made highly visible appearances in Masjid-e Nabawi and tried to seek out Pakistanis to shake hands. There was also no dearth of Pakistanis congregating around the thief of Model Town. One was reminded of Mirza Ghalib’s couplet: Ka’aba kiss moon say jawo gay Ghalib, Sharam tum ko magar nahi ati? (“How can you face the Ka’aba, Ghalib; do you feel no shame?”) Of the subcontinental brigade, only India’s Atal Bihari Vajpayee was absent, for obvious reasons. (Although, if the Saudis had their way, Vajpayee might be granted honorary “Muslimship” to ‘perform Hajj’, as was granted to Mrs Tien, the late wife of former Indonesian president Suharto, in 1991. Mrs Tien was a staunch Catholic who did much to promote Catholicism in Indonesia.)
Most pilgrims’ common experience of Hajj is that they develop a cough and sore throat. There is too much pollution to be able to avoid picking up the infection. Most of this pollution is the result of fumes from hundreds of thousands of vehicles that converge on Makkah during Hajj. According to Saudi reports, at least 410,000 vehicles arrived in Makkah for this year’s Hajj. These vehicles not only create traffic congestion but also spew harmful fumes, causing much suffering to pilgrims. It would be environmentally far cleaner if electric trains were to run between Jeddah, Makkah and Madinah, and a circular track laid between Makkah, Mina and Arafat. Not only would such a train-service expedite the flow of traffic, it would also help reduce the massive pollution, as well as the illnesses that invariably result.
There is another worrying factor: pollution caused by humans. Unfortunately, Muslims are neither the most organised nor the most conscious of cleanliness. Islam lays great emphasis on cleanliness (cleanliness is half of iman, according to a well-known hadith) but Muslims are far removed from this practice. In Mina, Arafat and Muzdalifa, the amount of garbage has to be seen to be believed. There are no garbage-bins anywhere for Muslims to place their waste in. True, not all Muslims would deposit their garbage in the proper place, but those who wish to act responsibly should be provided facilities to do so. Currently, roads and sidewalks are turned into garbage-dumps where plastic bottles, bags and leftover food are discarded. The result is not only an eyesore but a clear health hazard, as well as being unIslamic.
Hajj reflects the state of the Ummah at any given time; the chaos that reigns during Hajj reflects of the plight of the Ummah. Far from being an opportunity to foster Muslim brotherhood and understanding, Hajj has been reduced to a challenge to survive. The lofty goals of Muslim unity and following the steps of three great Prophets of Allah — Ibrahim, Ismail and Muhammad, upon them all be peace — are lost in the chaos that confronts Muslims during Hajj.