It’s Time to Make the Hajj Smaller

The COVID-19 shutdown is an opportunity to reflect on what Islam’s holy pilgrimage has become—and what it should be.

An elderly Palestinian man sits in front of a mural depicting the Kaaba.
An elderly Palestinian man sits in front of a mural depicting the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest shrine, in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, on Monday. Mohammed Abed/AFP via Getty Images

I’ve never been on the pilgrimage to Mecca that all Muslims who are able to must make at least once in their lives, but growing up I learned the rituals expecting to one day make the trip. At a young age, we practiced. The Islamic school I attended set up a mock Kaaba, the black cube at the center of the Grand Mosque, in our gymnasium. The students dressed in the all-white ihram, the customary, equalizing plain clothing worn by pilgrims, and studied the special prayers we’d all hoped to one day repeat around the real thing. I didn’t doubt for one minute that I’d eventually be able to make it.

Young boys dressed in white file into a gym for a practice hajj.
The author, at 9 years old, participating in a practice hajj inside an Islamic school gymnasium. The Ismail family

This year, because of the coronavirus pandemic, the government of Saudi Arabia has limited the hajj, which begins this week, to about 1,000 residents of the kingdom, a far cry from the more than millions who usually attend from around the world. The decision was met with grief around the world. Many hopeful pilgrims have saved for years to be able to book their trips months and even years in advance, and could never have predicted that a pandemic would have prevented them from going. While this is a disappointment for Muslims everywhere, it’s worth keeping in mind that it’s only in recent years that the hajj has been accessible to so many. The expectation that every Muslim can and should make the trip, which I grew up with, is a new development in the Muslim world, and one that comes at great expense.

Before the advent of motor vehicles and commercial airline travel, pilgrims traveled by boat, on foot, or, by camel. If they weren’t killed by disease or bandits, they would get the chance to complete one of the obligatory pillars of their faith. And then they would have to survive the journey home. In some cases, the journey would take years. Then, in the late 19th century, the steamboat revolutionized intercontinental travel, and the number of pilgrims skyrocketed. Between 1868 and 1892, the numbers more than doubled. Once airlines began offering routes to Saudi Arabia in 1937, the numbers shot up again. In 1941, only about 24,000 pilgrims made it. By 2012, it was over 3 million. Both my parents went in their 50s from the U.S., a journey that might not have been possible before airplanes.

But while technology has allowed millions more the opportunity to follow in the Prophet Mohammed’s footsteps and complete one of the central rites of their faith, the hajj’s modern accessibility comes with a price.

“This is something infectious disease experts talk about pretty much every year,” says Zahra Jamal, associate director of Rice University’s Boniuk Institute for Religious Tolerance. She says that although the decision to severely limit the hajj this year over COVID-19 concerns is the correct one, gathering in the millions makes the spread of disease a major concern even in years without a pandemic: “Basically, you’re body to body, right? And not everybody has a great immune system for exposure to, for example, malaria.”

The hajj has been curtailed, and in some cases entirely canceled, in the past, notes Jamal. The black plague, drought, famine, cholera, MERS, and Ebola have all prompted intervention by hajj officials. But she says there hasn’t been a disruption this major in modern times. “Because no pandemic occurred in the world for over a hundred years, so none of us have any human memory of it, so this is freaking people out,” she said. “With all of the changes to life that came with it, here’s something that’s really special and important that now also has to change.”

I’m one of those Muslims who was shocked. I’d never seen Mecca emptied before. I didn’t even realize the tile in the Grand Mosque was white, because it had been filled with people in every photo I’d ever seen.

An aerial view shows an empty white-tiled area surrounding the Kaaba in Mecca’s Great Mosque.
An aerial view shows an empty white-tiled area surrounding the Kaaba in Mecca’s Grand Mosque. Bandar Al-Dandani/Getty Images

Disease isn’t the only concern. A site whose earliest foundations date back to the seventh century simply isn’t equipped for modern crowds. In 1990, 1,426 pilgrims were trampled to death in a stampede.* Just five years ago, another 2,236 were trampled in a narrow tunnel. To further limit the number of pilgrims wouldn’t be unheard of. Officials have already put in place several restrictions on who can enter the holy city during the hajj period. A specific pilgrimage visa is required, and each country is allotted a limited amount per year. Officials are already under pressure by some to make their application processes more transparent, given that, in some cases, it can take up to 10 years for one’s hajj visa to be approved.

The hajj is big business for Saudi Arabia, bringing in about $12 billion a year and providing an incentive to only make it larger. Hajj officials continue to work on the Grand Mosque, adding more hotel rooms and expanding tunnels to accommodate more people, but in some cases, renovations come at the expense of important historical sites that have been preserved for generations. The house of Mohammed’s first wife, Khadijah, was recently replaced with a block of 1,400 public toilets. It’s not unreasonable for the purveyors of the hajj to want to accommodate pilgrims, but as a Muslim who hasn’t gone yet, I wonder what will be left of Islam’s holiest site for me to see when I do try to make the trip. If numbers continue to go up as the global Muslim population rises, will it ever be safe from disease or uncontrollable crowds?

The coronavirus shutdowns have been an opportunity to people and institutions everywhere to reflect on their priorities. Now would be a good time for Hajj officials to do the same.

Jamal and I spoke about the spiritual importance of the hajj for Muslims. “For folks who are actually going on the hajj this year, they may not actually feel like they’ve done a proper Hajj because of all the new safety restrictions,” she said. For instance, instead of helping yourself to the Zamzam water well—which Muslims believe miraculously sprung up to quench the thirst of the wife and son of Abraham when they were stranded in the desert—officials will be distributing the water in sanitized bottles. “Hajj is a manifestation of an inner spiritual journey. And that journey is about communal transformation, going through all of the different rituals. It’s really about obliterating the ego, forgetting the self, and remembering God, and then sharing that bounty with the rest of creation,” she said, “If you can’t physically go on the hajj because they’ve limited the numbers post-pandemic, for example, that’s OK because God is merciful.”

The Saudi royal family has saved lives by limiting entry to only domestic worshippers this year. Had they resisted the science and allowed millions to gather in close proximity and then return to their home countries, it would have been a global disaster. This raises the question of whether they should save more lives by limiting capacity in normal years. It seems entirely reasonable to limit the size moving forward, showing the same amount of restraint and caution they’ve shown this year in the face of a pandemic. I’m not sure what a reasonable yearly number of pilgrims would be, but I know that regular stampedes from overcrowding show that the current number is too high.

I realize that as a Muslim myself who has not been on the hajj, I’m arguing to make the journey even less likely to accomplish in my lifetime. There are close to 2 billion Muslims worldwide. Even at current capacity levels, it would take more than 500 years for every Muslim to go on the hajj. So, it’s already not a reasonable expectation that every Muslim have the opportunity to go. But it will save lives, and Mecca’s historic sites.

It’s worth coming to terms with the fact that many of us will die before ever setting sights on the holy Kaaba in person—and it’s probably better if we don’t ever see it.

Correction, July 27, 2020: This piece originally misstated the number of Muslims who died in the 1990 Mecca stampede. It was 1,426, not 1,462.