Monday, October 28, 2013

Why are Muslims finding it harder to complete the Haj?

THIS month Muslims from all over the world are in Saudi Arabia for the haj. The Koran says that all Islam's followers who are physically and financially able should make the annual pilgrimage—one of five pillars of Islam—once in their lifetime. 

Pilgrims travel to Mecca to carry out a set of rituals that are associated with both the Prophet Muhammad and Abraham before him. These include circling anti-clockwise seven times around the Kaaba, the black cube that Muslims face to pray wherever they are in the world, and drinking from the Zamzam well, said to have sprung into being when Abraham’s wife, Hagar, was desperately seeking water for their son Ismail. This year many who had hoped to make the pilgrimage have been disappointed. 


In many ways the duty is much easier to fulfil than it once was. Rather than spend days trekking over land as their forebears did, making the haj almost impossible for Muslims in far-flung lands, today pilgrims from across the globe can fly or bus into Mecca. A range of accommodation caters for all tastes, from simple lodges to fancy five-star hotels. Restaurants abound. If the haj falls in the summer months, when Saudi temperatures soar to 45°C (113°F), air-conditioning makes things more tolerable. There are even spas for those weary from the walking required by the rituals, and mobile apps to help pilgrims on their way.

But the growing global Muslim population of 1.6 billion, coupled with cheaper international travel, has brought its own problems. Back in 2004, 2.2m Muslims went to Mecca. Last year the number was 3.2m, the highest ever. Stampedes in 1990, 2004 and 2006 caused hundreds of deaths. This year Saudi Arabia, which gives a quota of haj visas to each country on the basis of the size of its Muslim population, has slashed the number of visas for foreign pilgrims by 20%, as it carries out renovation works to expand the capacity of the Grand Mosque. Thanks to an outbreak of the coronavirus in the Kingdom, many countries have asked elderly and sick Muslims not to travel. First-time pilgrims have been given priority.

Muslims who do not get a haj visa can travel for the umrah, or lesser pilgrimage, which involves the same rituals but is not undertaken during the last month of the Islamic year, as the haj is. Some disappointed would-be pilgrims have come up with more novel solutions. In Istanbul Turkish Muslims watched videos of Mecca as actors gave them a virtual tour of the holy land. Next year the renovations should mean more visas once again. But the growing number of Muslims, and growing prosperity in many Muslim countries, means the backlog is likely to grow: South Africa recently announced that citizens on the waiting list may face another six years before they get a slot. The Economist

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