Hajj was first time cancelled in 930 after the leader of Qarmatian tribe attacked Mecca
Past six months have seen recessional changes both economical as well at developmental front and brought everything to standstill due to the ongoing health crisis. Among many other things, religious events are the worst hit forced to adjust to new realities. The Muslims first observed the holy month of Ramadan under much-subdued conditions and then came the annual Hajj pilgrimage which is the biggest yearly event for Muslims. This year it was a very low-key event and altogether different from previous years.
With pandemic swirling at a much faster rate world over, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia was forced to suspend the international Hajj, instead limited it to as few as 1,000 people with two-thirds among the pilgrims were foreign residents from among 160 different countries and one-third being Saudi security personnel and medical staff. The pilgrims were seen donning face masks and moving in small groups after initially remaining in quarantine for days. They were further seen following strict precautionary protocols maintaining social distancing norms and wearing bracelets keeping check on the health status of these pilgrims. This year’s symbolic Hajj is of course a very new experience for all of us but it will be remembered for times to come and the message from this year’s Hajj is clear, that human lives are above all everything and as per the teachings of Islam as revealed by Allah in holy Quran [5:32], that whosoever kills a human being without any reason, it is as though he had killed all mankind, has been taken due care of.
Annually, some 2.5 million pilgrims from around the world visit the holy place to perform Hajj. The Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Hajj and Umrah defended this year’s Hajj decision along religious lines, saying it had been taken to “ensure Hajj is performed in a safer manner from a public health perspective in preserving the lives of human beings.” However, the Muslims across globe were verily disappointed by restrictions on international travel to Mecca. This year’s Hajj was not the first time the pilgrimage has been restricted, downsized and held for just a symbolic purpose to fulfill the religious purpose, but previous disease outbreaks and political tensions have also led to curbs on the ritual. Following are few examples from the past timeline when the Hajj was partially or fully suspended:
Hajj was first time cancelled in 930 after the leader of the Qarmatian tribe, from present-day Bahrain attacked Mecca. As many as 30,000 people are believed to be killed, according to some estimates. The Black Stone was looted, pieces of it were stolen and the holy well of Zam Zam was also desecrated. The Black Stone was finally returned to Mecca some 20 years later leading to temporary suspension of Hajj.
The Hajj was performed smoothly for some centuries together after the initial Qarmatian raid in 930 without any intermittent partial or full suspension of Hajj rituals until the devastating cholera outbreaks that struck several times throughout the 19th century resulting in suspension of pilgrimages, including the Hajj in 1837 and 1846. The disease further returned in 1865 in Hejaz on which an international conference was called in Constantinople, modern-day Istanbul and decided that quarantine ports would be set up in places such as Sinai and Hejaz to help limit the spread of the disease. Later again in-between 1830 and 1930, there were at least 27 cholera outbreaks among pilgrims in Mecca that severely impacted the process of Hajj and it’s operationalization by Saudi kingdom.
Seizure of Grand Mosque
After further streamlining the Hajj process for some time together. A Saudi armed group of about 500 men seized the Grand Mosque somewhere in November/December 1979, forcing the mosque’s closure for at least by two weeks. Led by a former Saudi soldier, Juhayman ibn Muhammad ibn Sayf al-Otaybi, who was critical of the kingdom’s ruling family over politicization of religious affairs and called for a return to what he deemed the original Islam. The French tactical police unit has later been helpful to end the siege and in retaking back the mosque by Saudi forces.
On July 31, during the annual Hajj ritual of 1987, Iranian worshippers held large political demonstrations denouncing the policies of the United States and other nations to which Saudi police responded leading to serious clashes and left some 400 people dead, 275 being among Iranian pilgrims.
Saudi Arabia temporarily stopped issuing Umrah and Hajj visas for the citizens of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone during 2014, the three West African countries that were hardest hit by a major outbreak of Ebola in West Africa. This epidemic also impacted the Hajj process and lead to partial yet country wise restrictions on performing the Hajj.
More recently, it was again Iran in the news in 2016 who decided against sending pilgrims to Hajj after talks failed with Saudi Arabia to guarantee the safety of their pilgrims in light of a stampede during the 2015 Hajj when 700 worshippers, many of them from Iran, were killed.
The latest entry to this list being Coronavirus pandemic of 2019 that has severely impacted the operationalization of Hajj by Saudi administration and forced them to stand by it’s decision of cancelling the international Hajj.
Above timeline events reveal the ordeal when, why and how led to the partial/complete suspension of Hajj in past and this year’s restrictions are not a new thing to experience. We are blessed that at least the Hajj rituals were completed with full grace, although downzised and amid restrictions.
Author works as Senior Research Fellow (DST INSPIRE), Regional Research Laboratory, Jammu
Sheikh Umar Ahmad