The Hajj is a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia that every Muslim must make at least once in his or her lifetime. It is also one of what are known as the Five Pillars of Islam.
The caveat of the obligation to take part in the Hajj is that this only applies if doing so would not leave the person or their family in any financial hardship. It is also permissible for a person to send a proxy in their place if they are not able to attend themselves.
There are several different pilgrimage rites that pilgrims follow when completing the Hajj. One of the most popular is when pilgrims throw seven stones at each of the three pillars at Minā on three successive days. These pillars represent different devils.
With around 2 million people attending the Hajj each year, the rite is a beautiful example of how Islam can be a unifying, peaceful force. The Hajj brings followers from diverse backgrounds and from all over the world together to celebrate their faith.
In November 1979, The Holy Kaaba was violently seized by a group of overzealous radicals. They held the Holy Kaaba hostage for two weeks before the Saudi military took deadly force to put a stop to it. Unfortunately, the Hajj has also suffered many other terrible tragedies over the years.
The most tragic pilgrimage
September 24, 2015, saw by far the worst tragedy to hit the Hajj.
There is still a lot of dispute about exactly how many pilgrims lost their lives on that day. The official total released by the Saudi government was 769 deaths, but it is widely believed that the real figure is well over 2,000.
The tragedy led to a further worsening of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Over 400 of the dead were from Iran, leading the country to ban its people from attending the Hajj in 2016 as a result of 2015’s terrible incident.
According to a theory mainly supported by Iran, the tragedy was caused when the Saudi army blocked pilgrims’ paths to allow for the entrance or exit of a Saudi royal or other VIP. This theory could make sense, but it is also very convenient and quite likely untrue.
The Saudi explanation was that a group of pilgrims was allowed to get off buses and head towards the Jamarat Bridge at a time when they were not allocated to be there. With the vast crowds already mostly standing chest to back, this new surge of people caused overcrowding that resulted in the stampede and loss of so many lives.
A recurring theme
Perhaps the worst part of the most recent tragedy was that this is not the first time a stampede has taken pilgrims’ lives. 2015 was the worst incident, but it is a sad story that has been repeated many times over the years.
In 1990, a stampede in a pedestrian tunnel led to almost 1,500 deaths, with the majority of the dead being from Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia.
And in 2006, the stoning of the devil ceremony on the last day of the Hajj saw 346 people killed. Again due to a crush around the Jamarat Bridge. This tragedy was also caused by pilgrims arriving at the wrong time and producing a crush that caused the stampede.
Many countries who have lost citizens to these tragedies have pointed the finger of blame at the Saudi authorities. It cannot be denied, however, that Saudi Arabia has invested vast amounts of money in trying to make the Hajj as safe as possible.
Over $60 billion was spent on expanding the Grand Mosque and improving the infrastructure around Mecca. Over 100,000 security forces are deployed, and 5,000 CCTV cameras monitor the cross at all times.
Unfortunately, the crowd’s sheer size at the Hajj means that tragedies such as the ones that have taken place are always a distinct possibility. The only hope is that this latest tragedy will have led to further improvements in safety systems and that more pilgrims’ lives will not be unnecessarily lost again.