Hajj is the annual major pilgrimage undertaken by muslims around the world to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. The dates are 8 to 13th in the month Zulhajj, the last month of the Islamic lunar calendar. It is obligatory for all muslims to perform the Hajj at least once during their lifetime. There is no restriction on the maximum number of pilgrimages that a muslim can perform and the major pilgrimage is often believed to be a transformational stage in a muslim’s life. A minor pilgrimage which can last less than a day is called Umrah and is optional. A majority of muslims perform several Umrah alongside Hajj. The only requirement for a muslim aspiring to go for Hajj is that they have the financial means to support both themselves during the trip as well as their family while they’re away.
Welcome Blessing or Logistical Challenge?
Saudi Arabia hosts over 2 million people every year. About 2 thirds of these are usually foreigners and such a mass of people brings with it many economic opportunities but also requires the administration of such a big crowd and ensure peace during the holy rituals. The Hajj is a major logistic challenge for the government as the pilgrims come from all around the world and there are possibilities of ethnic, cultural or even religious clashes. The highest number was recorded in 2012 with over 3.16 million pilgrims coming to the holy city. 2012 was also the highest in terms of locals performing the Hajj as an unprecedented 1.41 million locals visited Mecca. For foreigners, the record number was 1.83 million in the preceding year of 2011.
The pilgrims enjoy continually better facilities each year. The Saudi government has spent in excess of $100 billion since 1950 to improve the services available to pilgrims. The transport facilities are also improved every year.
The largest number of pilgrims is from the host nation itself which accounts for about 35% every year. This is now a recognized quota with a little change every year. The highest number of foreigner pilgrims come from Indonesia (about 15% of total), Pakistan (about 12%) and India (about 10%) closely followed by Bangladesh (about 7%) and Egypt (about 6%).
This very diverse crowd also attracts incidents which have led to deaths and stampedes in worst case scenarios. The first stampede in recent times occurred in 1990 causing 1,426 deaths. However, the worst took place on September 24, 2015 causing 2,411 pilgrims to lose their lives. With stampede being the largest cause of death, other notable causes are fires, protests and ethnic or sectarian violence. Pickpocketing is also a major issue which is unavoidable in such mass gatherings.
Over the last decade, the number of pilgrims kept on rising before the Saudi government imposed quotas starting in year 2013 onwards. The preceding years (2009 to 2012) saw a dramatic rise in the number of pilgrims visiting. From 2.5 million in 2009 to gradually 3.16 million in 2012, the logistical problems far outweighed the economic aspect of the pilgrimage and the quotas have resulted in a decline in the number of incidents. Additionally, there’s a quote of 700,000 for locals who cannot just decide to head to the sacred city during the Hajj season with a total cap of 2 million pilgrims overall in place now.
Hajj is a significant religious activity for Muslims and a transformational experience for most. The Saudi Arabian government has taken commendable measures in terms of logistics, facilities and general administration including law enforcement and maintenance of peace.