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The Hajj In Time Of Pandemic

July 28, 2020

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Credit…Saudi Ministry Of Media, via Reuters

I have always been drawn to better understand the hajj.  Over my lifetime of watching the event occur, talking with people who have undertaken the mission and spoken about the completeness they feel as a result leaves me awed.  I find the history of Islam intriguing, and especially how it impacts the Middle East and nearby regions politically.  The more I learn has deepened my respect for the faith as it is practiced by the majority.

This year there are changes for the pilgrims due to the pandemic.

In any other year, Muslims undertaking the hajj, the annual pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca that observant Muslims are obligated to perform at least once, would drink from a holy well. They would kiss the Kaaba’s sacred black stone as they thronged the Grand Mosque. Before they left Mecca, they would collect pebbles to ritually stone the devil.

During the virus edition of the hajj that begins on Wednesday, the black stone is off limits. Authorities in Saudi Arabia are issuing bottled water from the Zamzam well instead of letting pilgrims drink from cups at the source. Also in the pilgrim packages: sterilized pebbles to hurl at the devil, personal prayer rugs and other items intended to prevent an outbreak from marring the hajj.

But the chief public health measure the Saudi government has taken is to limit attendance, shrinking one of the world’s most famous crowds to a select few. About 2.5 million Muslims from around the world performed the hajj last year; this year, Saudi Arabia said it would allow just 1,000 pilgrims, all of them from within the kingdom, though it has not released the final number.

Across the Middle East, celebrations for Eid al-Adha, the festival of sacrifice that marks the end of the hajj this weekend, will likewise be paler this year.

In Oman and Bahrain, where the unchecked spread of the virus among low-paid foreign laborers living in crowded conditions has contributed to two of the world’s worst outbreaks, officials have urged residents to forgo the large celebrations that usually mark Eid, and Oman has reinstituted a domestic travel ban and curfew. In Egypt, new cases have fallen as the country resumes normal life, but a live broadcast will replace communal Eid prayers.

In the United Arab Emirates, where it is common for residents to buy sheep or other livestock to sacrifice and donate during Eid, the authorities were encouraging people to use apps to reduce crowding at slaughterhouses and markets.

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