By Tim Wyatt
As Muslims around the world begin to settle into the first Ramadan under lockdown, minds are turning to the next milestone in the Islamic calendar: the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.
All Muslims who are physically and financially able are required to travel to Mecca, Islam’s holiest city — now in Saudi Arabia — at least once in their lifetime. This year, the window for performing a series of rites in Mecca opens at the end of July. The exact date can vary slightly depending on which religious authority’s interpretation of the Islamic lunar calendar you follow.
However, with much of the world locked down to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, it remains unclear whether Saudi Arabia will permit the expected millions of pilgrims to enter Mecca. In addition, the official Foreign Office advice urges all UK citizens against all but essential international travel.
Mecca and the other Saudi Arabian holy city of Medina have already been shut to Muslims travelling from around the world for Umrah, a pilgrimage separate from Hajj which can take place throughout the year.
But cancelling the Hajj would be a monumentally more significant moment for the world’s billion-plus Muslims.
Throughout the 1,400-year history of Islam there have been various times when Muslims from particular places have been unable to travel to Mecca because of political conflict. Outbreaks of plagues such as cholera have also interrupted some pilgrims’ efforts to make their Hajj in the past too, most notably during the 19th century.
Historians of Islam, however, suggest there has not been a total cancellation for all pilgrims for at least a thousand years.
Saudi Arabian authorities are reported to be considering the idea. The country is already grappling with the coronavirus, with at least 10,000 confirmed cases and many cities, including Mecca and Medina, subject to sweeping curfews.
Muhammad Saleh bin Taher Banten, Saudi’s Hajj Minister, has previously urged Muslims not sign any agreements with Hajj tour operators until the situation becomes clearer.
Some have suggested the pilgrimage will still go ahead but with strict social distancing rules in place, with numbers tightly curtailed and vulnerable elderly or unwell people barred in an attempt to prevent any Covid-19 outbreak.
If the entire pilgrimage is cancelled it would be a significant hit to the Saudi economy. Reports suggest the kingdom makes about £8 billion each year from accommodating millions of pilgrims.
One British tour operator told The Daily Telegraph that some of his clients were still raring to go despite the pandemic, while others were prepared to wait or even keen to cancel and recover their deposits. A cancellation would prove devastating to many Muslims who have spent years saving money for the pilgrimage and fear they may die before being able to go another time, thus breaching the requirement to perform Hajj at least once.
Dr Mohammed Jiva, GP and head of British Hajj Delegation which provides medical support to the British pilgrims each year:
“Knowing the rituals that are involved during Hajj, but even more concerningly the four or so nights we spend in Medina you could have anything between 50 to 70 odd people literally sleeping shoulder to shoulder in one tent. You only need one person with Covid-19 for that whole tent to then get infected. And that would provide a significant peak within Saudi Arabia, [and] then there’s going to be a massive spike and all these people are likely to go back to their home countries at some point and transmit it further. In the absence of a vaccine, there is nothing that can be done. And my concern having worked in Saudi Arabia during these Hajj periods is that I don’t feel the Saudi healthcare facilities would be able to cope with a massive spike in Covid cases during that one month period.
Ibrahim Mogra, Imam and assistant general secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain: “I’ve been there several times myself and social distancing is impossible. No matter how well the Saudi authorities organise it, the nature of the rituals is such that it’s just not possible to have social distancing with the sheer volumes of people.
“On average we have something like 25,000 British pilgrims [each year] and many would have been saving up and looking forward to making the pilgrimage. The teaching says when you have all the means ready you should not delay the Hajj, your once-in-a-lifetime obligation, but people will be anxious because there are no guarantees.
“It is something that as Muslims we accept that it is the will of God and there must be a wisdom in all that is happening. When the right time comes we will answer the call and present ourselves for the Hajj.
“[If it is not cancelled] I would say to people that they should reconsider and give it a miss this year. If someone were to die before they are able to go for Hajj when it is safe to do so again, I firmly believe without a shadow of a doubt that they will be rewarded by God for having performed the Hajj. That’s very much part and parcel of Muslim teaching that all our actions are judged on intention.
“So it’s just about helping Muslims understand — because it’s a very emotional issue with a lot of sentiment involved. Families would talk about their parents, the grandparents, great grandparents, it’s such a big deal for Muslims. But I think people will understand. It was different to suspend the prayers in the mosques, it’s difficult to suspend the night prayers for Ramadan. But once you explain to people and you reassure them of God’s mercy and his rewards, people are accepting.”
Click here for Advice from the British Hajj Delegation, a charity that provides on-the-ground medical assistance for British pilgrims in Saudi Arabia, when the holy cities were closed in February to non-hajji pilgrims.
Click here for the British Islamic Medical Association’s general advice on Covid-19.