Pilgrims prepare for a most unusual Hajj amid coronavirus

The decision to restrict the pilgrimage shows that Riyadh takes its responsibility towards worshippers very seriously
(FILES) This file photo taken on March 05, 2020 shows the white-tiled area surrounding the Kaaba, inside Mecca's Grand Mosque, empty of worshippers.  Saudi Arabia announced it would hold a "very limited" hajj this year owing to the coronavirus pandemic, with pilgrims already in the kingdom allowed to take part. / AFP / ABDEL GHANI BASHIR

This year’s Hajj is set to be unlike any other in living memory. Saudi Arabia announced last month that the annual pilgrimage will go ahead, but in a very limited capacity. No international travel will be allowed for the Hajj, so only 1,000 worshippers, all of whom must be residents of the kingdom, will be able to take part.

The limitations are crucial for pilgrims to be able to practice physical distancing and to stay safe. The kingdom has also announced an extensive set of precautions with the aim of keeping Hajj coronavirus-free.

These include mandatory facemasks for pilgrims and organisers alike, a ban on touching the Kaaba and staying at least one-and-a-half metres apart during mass prayers and other rituals such as Tawaf (circling the Kaaba seven times). Certain areas in Makkah will also be reserved for those with Hajj permits, in order to limit crowds gathering at holy sites.

Unfortunately, some have exploited the announcement of new safety measures as an opportunity to criticise Saudi authorities for imposing stringent measures, while others have falsely reported that Riyadh had cancelled Hajj altogether, "leading to disappointment". Had Saudi Arabia allowed for Hajj to resume as normal, it is entirely conceivable that these detractors would have criticised the kingdom all the same.

But when it comes to protecting the health and wellbeing of the faithful in today’s environment, policies must rely upon data and other information collected about the coronavirus, as well as recommendations by trusted global institutions. The World Health Organisation, which is the foremost international authority on public health issues, has backed Riyadh’s decision.

Saudi Arabia is home to Islam’s most sacred sites and its two holiest cities. This has endowed the kingdom with immense privilege, but also with great responsibility towards the Muslim world. Any decision that Riyadh takes in regards to pilgrimage and other religious affairs will often set an example for many other Muslim nations. For instance, Saudi Arabia’s decision to suspend all prayers in mosques mid-March was a difficult choice for the country’s population, but it has set a potentially life-saving example for other Muslim leaders to follow. Similarly, the decision to restrict the Hajj pilgrimage this year shows that the kingdom takes its responsibility towards worshippers very seriously, prioritising their health and safety over significant income generated by religious tourism, even as the world economy enters recession.

Any decision that Riyadh takes in regards to religious affairs will often set an example for other Muslim nations

For those lucky enough to be able to perform Hajj this year, the pilgrimage is set to be an even more unforgettable experience, as well as a symbol of resilience and caution during a difficult period. At a time when some have attempted to sow discord and spread false information about the coronavirus, pilgrims have an opportunity to show the world that it is possible to practise one’s religion while respecting public health measures. The upcoming Hajj pilgrimage will be a testament to the harmony between policy and faith, and will serve as proof that protecting one another is truly a virtue.