Qatar Foundation academic Professor Josef Waleed Meri explains how this year does not represent the first time that Hajj has been suspended for many pilgrims
As a historian who is writing a book on the history of pilgrims and pilgrimage in Islam (Hajj, Umra, Ziyâra), I have looked to offer a reflection about the decision to restrict the Hajj to 1,000 pilgrims from inside Saudi Arabia. In the context of the continued presence of COVID-19, the decision seems sound, and is supported by the oft-cited hadith of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH): “If you hear of an outbreak of plague in a land, do not enter it; but if the plague breaks out in a place while you are in it, do not leave that place.”
The decision has generated significant concern and debate across the globe among religious scholars and would-be pilgrims. However, the spiritual connection that Muslims feel with Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem as pilgrimage cities in Islam is only strengthened. Whether or not one agrees with Saudi Arabia’s decision, what is more compelling are the near-40 counts in recorded history, from the seventh century onwards, when the Hajj was totally or partially suspended due to varying circumstances.
The earliest known instance was in 862 due to Ibrahim b. Yusuf al-Saffâk, a descendant of the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law ‘Ali b. Abi Talib, through his son Hasan and a rival to the Abbasid Caliph. Al-Saffâk, along with his troops, in his plundering of Mecca killed over 1,000 pilgrims on Mt. Arafat.
From 930 to 952, the Qarmatian sect of Shi‘i Islam based in Bahrain made off with the Black Stone and slaughtered tens of thousands of pilgrims in the process, forcing the Hajj to be suspended until the ‘Abbasids paid a ransom for its return. In 967, the plague led to the cancellation of the Hajj. From 983 to 991, due to the conflict between the Shi‘i Fatimids and the Sunni Abbasids, the latter did not permit pilgrims from outside the Hijaz to perform Hajj.
Similarly, in 1256–1260, political disputes led to only the residents of the Hijaz being allowed to perform the pilgrimage. During the 19th Century, apart from the plague in 1831 which killed three-quarters of pilgrims, three cholera epidemics were the biggest threat to pilgrims and also led to the cancelation of the Hajj.
The suspension of Hajj is not a novel decision, but one that historically has been a reaction to extreme circumstances or in the interests of protecting pilgrims
The suspension of Hajj is not a novel decision, but one that historically has been a reaction to extreme circumstances or in the interests of protecting pilgrims. Until next year’s Hajj, Muslims can take comfort in the following accounts that reflect on experiences before, during and after the Hajj.
The Maliki judge and traveller Ibn Battuta (d. ca. 1377) who performed the Hajj four times, wrote of his experience in his travel account: A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Traveling:
“Swayed by an overmastering impulse within me, and a long-cherished desire to visit those glorious sanctuaries, I resolved to quit all my friends and tear myself away from my home. As my parents were still alive, it weighed grievously upon me to part from them, and both they and I were afflicted with sorrow…” (Trans. H.A.R. Gibb)
Yet, the Hajj today no longer takes one to two years, as air transportation has reduced the journey time and mobile phone applications have diminished the pangs of separation that people would experience.
Pilgrimage and historical accounts underscore the resilience of Muslim pilgrims and the countless hardships they individually and collectively experienced in making Hajj.
The theologian Al-Ghazali (d. 1111) in his Revivification of the Religious Sciences (Ihya’ ‘Ulum al-Din) counsels the pilgrim to reflect, magnify, hope and remember:
“As for the first glimpse of the Ka‘ba: it is recommended that he recall at that time and place the majesty of the House in his [heart], and that he be deemed by virtue of the intensity of his magnification of the House, to be beholding the Lord of the House. You should hope that God Most High will bless you with the Vision of His Noble Face as He blessed you with the Vision of His Majestic House. Thank God Most High for bringing you to this position and for joining you to the groups that came to Him. And remember [again] at that place the surging forth of people on the Day of Resurrection in the direction of Paradise, [of people] hoping that they all will enter it. [And reflect on] their division into those who are permitted to enter [it] and those who are driven away, [resembling] the division of pilgrims into those who are accepted and those who are rejected. Do not forget to remember with everything you see the affairs of the world to come, for all the conditions of the world to come.” (Trans. Ibrahim Umar; modified)
Pilgrims will hopefully have a profound experience and an exciting new world to look forward to next year
The 11th Century traveller Nasir-i Khosrow (d. 1088) tells his friend who made Hajj and did not understand the inner meaning of the manasik or rites of the Hajj: “Oh friend, you have not performed the Hajj! And, you have not obeyed God! You went to Mecca and visited the Kaaba! You spent your money to buy the hardships of the desert! If you do decide to go to Hajj again, try to perform it as I have instructed you!” (Trans. A. Behzadnia and N. Denny)
During the 20th Century, for the Scottish aristocrat Lady Evelyn (Zaynab) Cobbold, who was the first British-born lady to undertake the Pilgrimage, the Hajj was about precious memories and a profound spiritual experience:
“Time cannot rob me of the memories that I treasure in my heart, the gardens of Medina, the peace of its Mosques, the countless pilgrims who passed me with shining eyes of faith, the wonder and glory of the Haram of Mecca, the Great Pilgrimage through the desert and the hills to Arafaat, and above all the abiding sense of joy and fulfilment that possesses the soul. What have the past days held out but endless interest, wonder and beauty? To me an amazing new world has been revealed.”
Pilgrimage and historical accounts underscore the resilience of Muslim pilgrims and the countless hardships they individually and collectively experienced in making Hajj. The present decision that aims to control the impact of a pandemic on people and their spiritual lives may prove its worth for pilgrims next year, ensuring an experience that is both rewarding and successful. Pilgrims will hopefully have a profound experience and an exciting new world to look forward to next year.