Haj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia: A look at one of the largest religious gatherings in the world

For the second year in a row, Muslims from abroad have been excluded from the haj.
For the second year in a row, Muslims from abroad have been excluded from the haj.PHOTO: REUTERS

MECCA, SAUDI ARABIA (AFP) - The annual haj pilgrimage, one of the five pillars of Islam, will start on Saturday (July 17) with just 60,000 vaccinated Saudi residents allowed to take part this year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

For the second year in a row, Muslims from abroad have been excluded from the haj, which drew 2.5 million pilgrims to Saudi Arabia in 2019 before the virus struck.

All Muslims are expected to complete the haj to Mecca - from which non-Muslims are strictly banned - at least once in their lives if they have the means to do so.

Believers converge on the holy city for several days of rituals in which they retrace Prophet Muhammad's last pilgrimage.

Here is a rundown of the ceremonies at what would usually be one of the largest religious gatherings in the world.

White garments

Pilgrims must first enter a state of purity, called ihram, which requires special dress and behaviour.

Men wear a seamless shroud-like white garment that emphasises unity, regardless of social status or nationality.

Women must wear loose dresses, also often white, exposing only their faces and hands.

Pilgrims are not allowed to argue or bicker and are prohibited from wearing perfume, cutting their nails or trimming their hair or beards.

Rituals begin

The first ritual requires walking seven times around the Kaaba, the large black cubic structure at the centre of Mecca's Grand Mosque.

Made from granite and draped in cloth, the Kaaba stands nearly 15m tall.

Muslims turn towards the Kaaba to pray, no matter where they are in the world. The structure is said to have been first erected by Adam and then rebuilt by Abraham 4,000 years ago.

Pilgrims next walk seven times between two stone spots in the mosque.

They then move on to Mina, around 5km away, ahead of the main rite of the pilgrimage at Mount Arafat.

Mount Arafat

The climax of the haj is the gathering on Mount Arafat, about 10km from Mina, where it is believed that Prophet Muhammad delivered his final sermon.

Pilgrims assemble on the 70m-high hill and its surrounding plain for hours of prayers and Quran recitals, staying there until the evening.

After sunset they head to Muzdalifah, halfway between Arafat and Mina, where they gather several dozen pebbles so they can perform the symbolic "stoning of the devil".

'Stoning the devil'

The last major ritual of the haj is back at Mina, where pilgrims throw seven stones at each of three huge concrete walls representing Satan.

The ritual is an emulation of Abraham's stoning of the devil at the three spots where it is said Satan tried to dissuade him from obeying God's order to sacrifice his son, Ishmael.

After the first stoning, the Eid al-Adha feast of sacrifice begins, marking the end of the haj.

Sheep are slaughtered, in reference to the lamb that God provided for sacrifice instead of Ishmael, in a ceremony that is held at the same time around the world.

Men then shave their heads or trim their hair while women cut a fingertip-length off their locks.

The pilgrims can then change back into normal clothing, returning to circumambulate the Kaaba and complete their stone-throwing rituals before heading home.

Four other pillars

The haj is the last pillar of Islam. The four other essential pillars are: profession of the faith; daily prayers; alms-giving and fasting from dawn to dusk during the holy month of Ramadan.


Past incidents and disasters

It is Islam's holiest pilgrimage, but the haj to Mecca in Saudi Arabia has been plagued by deadly disasters from stampedes to militant attacks in recent decades.

Yet the last time the pilgrimage was cancelled outright was in 1798, when Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt.

The coronavirus pandemic did however force the kingdom to radically downscale last year's event to just 10,000 people, a far cry from the 2.5 million believers who took part the previous year.

In this year's haj starting Saturday, some 60,000 vaccinated Saudi residents will be allowed to take part.

Here are some recent incidents that have marred the 12-century-old rite:

Stampedes

Sept 24, 2015: A stampede during the "stoning of the devil" ritual in Mina, near Mecca, kills up to 2,300 worshippers in the worst haj disaster ever.

That comes after more than 100 people are killed and hundreds injured, including many foreigners, when stormy weather topples a crane onto Mecca's Grand Mosque less than two weeks before the pilgrimage.


Saudi emergency personnel stand near bodies of Hajj pilgrims at the site where at least 717 were killed in a stampede in Mina on Sept 25, 2015. PHOTO: AFP

Jan 12, 2006: Some 364 pilgrims die in a stampede during the Mina stoning ritual, in which haj participants throw pebbles at three headstones to symbolise their rejection of Satan.

This follows a hotel collapse a week earlier in the city centre, which kills 76 people.

The previous year three pilgrims are crushed to death in a stampede on Jan 22 at the stoning ceremony.

Feb 1, 2004: 251 people die after a huge stampede at the stoning ceremony on Feb 1.

April 9, 1998: More than 118 people are killed and 180 injured in a stampede at Mina.

May 24, 1994: During the Mina stoning, a stampede kills 270 people, with authorities blaming "record numbers" of pilgrims.

July 2, 1990: The failure of a tunnel ventilation system triggers a huge stampede that kills 1,426 pilgrims, mainly from Asia.


Security forces and medics gathering at a site following a stampede at the eastern entrance of the Jamarat bridge on Jan 12, 2006. PHOTO: AFP

Attacks

July 10, 1989: A twin attack on the outside of the Grand Mosque kills one and wounds 16. Weeks later 16 Kuwaiti Shiites are found guilty and executed.

Nov 20, 1979: Hundreds of gunmen opposed to the Saudi government barricade themselves inside Mecca's Grand Mosque, taking dozens of pilgrims hostage. The official toll of the assault and subsequent fighting is 153 dead and 560 wounded.

Protests

July 31, 1987: Saudi security forces suppress an unauthorised protest by Iranian pilgrims on July 31 in which more than 400 people including 275 Iranians are killed, according to an official toll.


Saudi rescue workers work at the site of a collapsed old building near the Grand Mosque in the holy city of Mecca on Jan 5, 2006. PHOTO: AFP

Infernos

April 15, 1997: A fire on April 15 caused by a gas stove rips through a camp housing pilgrims at Mina, killing 343 and injuring around 1,500.

May 7, 1995: Three people die and 99 are injured in a fire at the Mina camp.

December, 1975: A huge fire started by another exploding gas canister in a pilgrim camp close to Mecca kills 200 people.