As millions of Muslims start preparing for this year’s annual Hajj pilgrimage, Saudi authorities ask followers to delay bookings in light of the ongoing global pandemic.
Millions of Muslims around the world join the Hajj pilgrimage each year. At the same time, those that can’t celebrate the Feast of Sacrifice or Eid al Adha, evoking the Quranic account of Prophet Abraham’s trial, in which he was ordered by God to sacrifice his most beloved possession, his son Ishmael.
This year’s celebrations are likely to be altogether different as the coronavirus pandemic shuts down many countries.
Uncertainty looms over this year’s Hajj pilgrimage with Saudi Arabian authorities asking Muslims to wait until there are further updates before they make plans to visit the holy city of Mecca.
“The kingdom of Saudi Arabia is prepared to secure the safety of all Muslims and nationals,” said the Saudi Minister for Hajj and Umrah Muhammad Saleh bin Taher Banten told state television. “That’s why we have requested from all Muslims around the world to hold on to signing any agreements until we have a clear vision.”
So what is Hajj and the Feast of Sacrifice?
Abraham, whose name etymologically means the father of nations, would have slaughtered his son following God’s command without question, but in the face of the Prophet’s sheer determination and strength of faith, God swapped Ishmael with a ram and Abraham slaughtered it instead.
Since the Prophet Mohammed’s time, Muslims have marked the incident by sacrificing animals.
After the sacrifice, Muslims share meat with the needy, who might not be able to eat meat often, and their relatives, fulfilling God’s vision of brotherly relations.
They also visit each other to tighten their friendships and heal old wounds.
For Muslims around the world, completing the Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam, the others being: professing the oneness of Allah and the finality of the message as conveyed by the Prophet Muhammed, prayer, charity and fasting.
The Hajj pilgrimage is incumbent on all Muslims who are able to afford it and able to do it.
For those pilgrims that make the journey to Mecca, they will wear white robes and spend the night in an encampment at the hill where the Prophet Mohammad gave his last sermon.
The rituals will last for several days in which pilgrims throw rocks at stone columns symbolising the devil at another location called Jamarat.
Hajj, in addition to being a spiritual pilgrimage, is also an opportunity for Muslims to show unity irrespective of gender, colour or ethnicity.
In 2018, more than 2.3 million Muslims completed Hajj in what is widely considered one of the largest human gatherings in the world.
How is Saudi Arabia handling the coronavirus?
Saudi Arabia has confirmed more than 1,500 cases and ten deaths. In February, Saudi authorities suspended the year-round Umrah, a smaller and non-obligatory pilgrimage for foreigners and citizens alike in a bid to halt the outbreak from spreading.
The stopping of the Hajj this year would be a significant development and without precedent in recent history.
“Under the current circumstances, as we are talking about the global pandemic… the kingdom is keen to protect the health of Muslims and citizens, and so we have asked our brother Muslims in all countries to wait before doing [Hajj] contracts until the situation is clear,” added the Saudi minister for Hajj and Umrah.
Many Muslims around the world will see Saudi actions within reason and public safety measures. And throughout Islamic history, the Hajj pilgrimage has been cancelled more than 40 times.
This year’s cancellation may also impact Saudi businesses who are reliant on the Hajj and Umrah, putting further strain on Saudi finances.
In recent decades Saudi Arabia has drastically improved its provisions for healthcare. It has around 2.2 hospital beds per 1,000 population, similar to that of Sweden. Saudi Arabia spends only 5.7 percent of GDP on healthcare according to the World Bank, one of the lowest in the G20.
In recent years the kingdom has ramped up efforts to deal with viral outbreaks.
In 2012, Saudi Arabia saw an outbreak of the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) another branch of the coronavirus which likely saw a transmission between a camel and a bat.
Saudi Arabia saw the most cases with more than 1,000 infections and 452 deaths.