Hajj 2021: pilgrims gather at Mount Arafat while socially distancing

Worshippers follow Covid-19 safety rules to prevent the spread of coronavirus

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Amid Covid-19 health restrictions surrounding this year's Hajj in Saudi Arabia, about 60,000 pilgrims gathered at Mount Arafat, known as the Mount of Mercy, on Monday.

The usual scene of hundreds of thousands of men and women on the mountain will not be repeated this year, as pilgrim numbers have been reduced to a fraction of their normal size.

Social distancing and other coronavirus precautions have been put in place by the Saudi authorities to ensure the pilgrimage – one of Islam's five pillars – is performed safely.

Millions of Muslims worldwide also commemorate Arafat day by fasting.

Early on Monday, the second day of the five-day pilgrimage, Saudi coronavirus restrictions prevented worshippers from touching Mount Arafat.

Instead, they stood behind barriers and sat metres apart in air-conditioned tents, reciting prayers and reading verses of the Quran. Later in the day, some were allowed the scale the hill.

The Hajj is one of Islam’s most important requirements and is to be performed once in a Muslim's lifetime. It follows a route the Prophet Mohammed walked nearly 1,400 years ago and is believed to ultimately trace the footsteps of the Prophets Ibrahim and Ismail.

"The day of Arafat is crucial for Muslims and especially for pilgrims during Hajj," said Samira, a Saudi citizen. "This is the day we hope Allah forgives us all our sins. This is the day our Prophet gave his last sermon on Mount Arafat and Allah completed our religion.

"Just standing on the same ground where a verse from the Quran was revealed to our beloved Prophet makes my body shake. I am filled with gratitude."

Only a lucky vaccinated few, who are between the ages of 18 and 65 and reside in Saudi Arabia, were eligible to perform the pilgrimage this year. Pilgrims The National spoke to marvelled at their luck.

"To be one of only 60,000 doing Hajj ... I feel like I am part of a [privileged] group that was able to reach this place," said Saudi citizen Baref Siraj, 58.

Another Saudi pilgrim, Umm Omar, 62, said Monday was the best day of her life.

"Today I feel like I have achieved the purpose I was sent for and I am able to complete my religion. This is the most gratifying experience of my life," she said.

Volunteers helping the event to run smoothly also spoke about their enthusiasm at being involved.

“Hajj is about embracing everyone for who they are, with no issues of rank or authority," said Adnan, a Hajj volunteer.

“We sleep together, eat together and wear the same clothes."

For afternoon prayers, pilgrims attended Namirah Mosque where they heard a sermon about kindness before dhuhr and asr prayers began.

After an initially drizzly morning, temperatures rose in the afternoon.

“My phone died due to the heat; that's when I knew it was time to go in the shade and get some rest," said a Saudi pilgrim, who did not want to be identified.

After prayers, many headed back towards Arafat, where they rested until sunset.

Also marking this occasion were the sons of a veteran moutawef or pilgrimage guide, who took up the mantle after their father died in August.

Majed Tounsi took his own sons to the Grand Mosque and reminisced about a time when he stood by his own father's side as a child during Hajj and the smaller pilgrimage known as Umrah.

"If something happens to me, you and your brothers will have to stay together and continue my work," Taalat Tounsi said, according to his son, Majed.

"We all decided to work this year for the first time in the service of pilgrims, to honour the memory of our father," the 32-year-old doctor said.

The Tounsi family have been serving as guides for 80 years.

A former sports journalist before devoting himself to the vocation, which is passed down from generation to generation, Taalat Tounsi died at the age of 52, leaving behind six sons and two daughters.

After leaving Mount Arafat, pilgrims will travel to Muzdalifah overnight before performing the stoning of the Devil ritual.

Saudi Deputy Minister of Hajj and Umrah Abdul Fattah Mashat said 1,700 buses would take the pilgrims from Mina to Muzdalifah, where they will spend the night before the third day of Hajj.

The pilgrimage ends with the Eid Al Adha celebration, marked by the distribution of meat to the poor around the world.

- With additional reporting from AFP

Updated: July 21st 2021, 8:07 AM
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