This week, nearly two million Muslim pilgrims from almost every corner of the Earth, representing virtually every nation in the world, took part in the Hajj, the spiritual journey to Makkah that all Muslims yearn to make at least once in their lifetime. The destructive prejudices and the petty differences that rend humanity all year round are washed away by the force of faith at Makkah. The gathering epitomises the revolutionary message of human equality advanced by the Prophet Mohammed in his last sermon on Mount Arafat. All pilgrims dress in seamless white garments. There is no hierarchy.
If the Hajj is an awe-inspiring spectacle for those beholding it, it is a healing, humbling, empowering and transformative experience for those participating in it. As the American civil rights activist Malik El-Shabbaz, better known as Malcolm X, wrote in a letter from Makkah in 1964, the Hajj induces an “overwhelming spirit of true brotherhood” among “people of all colours and races”.
It is possible, however, in the swirl of spirituality, to neglect the fact that the Hajj presents a gargantuan logistical and administrative challenge for Saudi Arabia. Planning for the Hajj is no less arduous than preparing for the Olympics – except that Saudi Arabia does this every year. Hosting millions of visitors annually requires Riyadh to mobilise extraordinary resources. Troops must be deployed to ensure the safety of pilgrims and detailed strategies must be drawn up to regulate their movement. Then there are the clean-up operations. In spite of the best efforts, new challenges present themselves every year.
Grumbles directed at the organisers of the Hajj are often overplayed by the traditional media and amplified by users on social media. The heat – when Hajj occurs in the summer – and the crowded conditions are sometimes no doubt difficult to bear and there have, regrettably, been fatalities in stampedes over the years. Some pilgrims also have experienced bureaucratic hurdles while travelling to Makkah, while others have complained about the impediments generated by construction around the Grand Mosque.
However, it is important to bear in mind that Riyadh has been making steady improvements over the years. It has introduced cooling systems, positioned more volunteers and expanded the tawaf lanes in which pilgrims circle the Kaaba, including specially designated lanes for disabled pilgrims. It has also gone out of its way to ensure that pilgrims from countries that are notorious for causing trouble in region are accorded fair treatment.
In the meantime, the rest of us should not allow material discomforts and physical challenges to distract attention from the spiritual significance of the Hajj. For the message of tolerance, coexistence and unity that radiates from the multitudes who have assembled in Makkah is the most powerful antidote to the divisions and hatreds that stalk humanity. And on that note, the end of this year's Hajj of course also means the celebration of Eid Al Adha. To all our readers, we wish you a blessed Eid.