Hajj 2015: Thoughts and Recommendations by Isiaq ‘Deji Hammed
The airlifting of pilgrims back to their home countries started in earnest as Hajj 2015 is practically over since 27th September. All seemed to flow perfectly well until the morning of that fateful Thursday when Muslims all over the world were preparing for Eid-el-Kabir, and pilgrims who had spent the previous day on Mount Arafat moved from Muzdalifa to the Jamaraat area for the symbolic pelting of Satan with pebbles. Barely two weeks after the unfortunate crane-crash in Makah which claimed the lives of over 100 people with several hundred injured, little did anybody know that a worse tragedy was about to happen. The stampede at the intersection of Roads 204 and 223 resulted in over 700 dead and many sufferers of varying degrees of injury.
Before any comprehensive investigation was conducted to unravel the causes of the incident by the Saudi authorities, trading of blames and voices of condemnation were already at the highest decibel in the Muslim world and among concerned members of the international community. The first salvo coming from the Iranians: “The Saudi government should take full responsibility of the tragedy.” Some blame the incident on the indiscipline and failure of pilgrims to follow official directions on movements. As if that was not enough, the Head of Central Hajj Committee, Prince Khaled al Faisal blamed the disaster on “some pilgrims with African nationalities”. This irked a number of Africans who considered such utterance as racist. Yet some went as far as weaving a conspiracy round the incident. They insisted on the invisible hands of Teheran being responsible, with the sole aim of embarrassing the Saudi government and portraying same as incapable of assuring the safety and well-being of the guests of Allah.
As we await the conclusion of the investigation into the incident as ordered by His Royal Majesty, King Salman, the Custodian of the two Holy Mosques, whatever might be the immediate and remote causes of the stampede, we owe it to justice and fairness to set the record straight. This is so because a lot of barefaced lies, half-truths and hate-filled allegations are flying all over the news and social media.
First, it will be incorrect to blame the incident on the ill-preparedness of the Saudi government. Hajj, a gathering of millions of people (this year over 3 million), poses a serious and inestimable challenge of crowd control and safety. Millions of people perform the same acts and rites almost at the same time, within specific locations requiring movements and displacements covering several kilometres back and forth within a definite number of days. Any slight panic and loss of serenity could result in fatality and catastrophe of horrendous proportion. That this sort of awful disaster happened last 25 years ago is enough testimony to the serious planning efforts that the Kingdom deploys to ensure yearly safe and successful Hajj.
This year, a team of 100,000 security personnel consisting of an elite counterterrorism unit, traffic police and civil defense was deployed. At Mina air-conditioned and fire-proofed tents with heat-sensitive water sprinklers were provided. This is in reaction to the 1997 fatal fire incident. There was free medical care with toll-free number in many international languages in case of emergencies. I wanted to work as volunteer with the French section in Riyadh. I could not realize this wish because I was an intending pilgrim.
Jamaraat is no doubt the most tragedy-prone of the holy sites; little surprise the stampede occurred close to it, just like in 1994 and more recently 2006. The five-storey stele was constructed to facilitate and ease the bottlenecks at stone-throwing. Multiple access roads, water vapour spraying from metal pipes to cool the crowds, over 7000 cameras to monitor the crowd influx with police and paramilitary cordons stationed at strategic locations, including metro lines from Arafat to Mina through Muzdalifa.
Second, there isn’t any modicum of truth in the insinuation or attempt to insinuate that the Saudi government is racist or racially motivated in its dealings with Muslim faithfuls coming for Hajj from all over the globe. A cursory look at the reception arrangements made for pilgrims at the famous tent-city of Mina lay to bare this fact. The city was carefully divided into 8 zones and marked with different colours and numbers on the map guide for easy identification by the pilgrims. The zoning includes pilgrims from 1. Saudi Arabia 2. Arab Gulf countries 3. Iran 4. Non-Arab Africans 5. Arab countries 6. Turkey with America, Australia and Europe 7. South East Asia and last but not the least 8. South Asia. Aside where they were each mostly concentrated, small numbers of these pilgrims dotted every other parts of the Mina landscape and intermingled with different races.
In my case, being an internal pilgrim, I shared the same tent and male compartment with dozens of other internal pilgrims of different nationalities: Saudis, Nigerians, Pakistanis, Ghanaians, Sudanese, Yemenis and Indians. We all used the same facilities and helped ourselves to the same sumptuous buffets throughout our stay in Mina. This same reality held for other colleagues and compatriots in their tents.
Third, rather than blame trading and shifting, Muslims and Muslim communities should take a fair share of responsibility. There should be concerted efforts and planning from us all to avoid a repeat of such “relatively avoidable” massive loss of precious lives.
The Saudi Ministry of Hajj should adhere more strictly to quota system and restrict massive influx of pilgrims. The five-year recommended lapse for renewal of Hajj permit to intending internal pilgrims can be replicated for foreigners, and extended if need be to ten years. National Pilgrims Board should dissuade regular Hajjis. We should not see this measure as antithetical to free choice/worship but as a necessary step to safety and comfort to our fellow brothers and sisters, while simultaneously ensuring that a large percentage of Muslims from across the world can embark on this spiritual journey at least once in a lifetime. We may consider such restraint as a personal sadaqqah and a social responsibility for the well-being of other Muslims.
It was noticed that many Saudi security personnel speak only the Arabic language. This made communication and adherence to guides and instructions difficult as the majority of the pilgrims do not speak Arabic. There may therefore be the need to teach Hajj-designated security officers and other allied officials English, French and relevant international languages. An array of Hajj Volunteers Corps drawn from nationals of participating countries may be specially trained to collaborate and work with the Saudi officials for the duration of Hajj to limit cultural or linguistic barrier. Citizens of different countries studying in Saudi universities may come in here handy.
At this point, it needs repeating that Hajj is not a compulsory aspect of the Islamic religion. This is also in line with clear cut injunction that Allah has not placed any burden on His servants than they can bear. Sending aged, weak and sick family members to Hajj should stop forthwith. The Hajj rites I witnessed is not stress-free. Perhaps this explains Allah’s precondition of “ability” to embarking on Hajj. There is therefore the need to tamper the urge for Hajj with a degree of reasonableness. We must not forget this: there are other acts of Ibadah commensurate with Hajj in rewards that Allah’s Apostle magnanimously recommended.
It will not be out of place to advise those who intend to do Hajj to prioritize it, so this goal is accomplished while they are relatively young, healthy and full of energy.
On a final note, I enjoin the families, people and governments of affected pilgrims to take solace in Allah and in the reassuring words of the Saudi Foreign Minister, Adel Al-Jubeir: “The Kingdom has had a long history of spending tremendous resources to care for the pilgrimage to ensure that the pilgrims who come there have a successful pilgrimage. And we will reveal the facts when they emerge. And we will not hold anything back. If mistakes were made, who made them will be held accountable. And we will make sure that we will learn from this and we will make sure that it doesn’t happen again. I want to repeat again this is not a situation with which to play politics.”
Personally, I commiserate with families of the victims of the stampede, crane-crash and all those who lost their lives to other sundry causes in Hajj 2015. May Allah accept them as martyrs and grant them the best part of Al-Jannah in the company of pious predecessors. (Amin)