Haj rituals begin with over two million Muslims in Mecca

Saudi officials have reiterated their warning that the annual Haj pilgrimage should not under any circumstances be exploited for political purposes.
Friday 09/08/2019
Muslim pilgrims pray as they watch thousands of pilgrims circumambulate around the Kaaba, ahead of the Haj pilgrimage in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, August 9. (AP)
Muslim pilgrims pray as they watch thousands of pilgrims circumambulate around the Kaaba, ahead of the Haj pilgrimage in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, August 9. (AP)

LONDON - Despite the soaring summer heat, over two million Muslims from 180 countries have flocked to Mecca to officially begin the annual Haj pilgrimage.

The religious gathering, which sees millions of Muslims from around the world assemble in the holy Saudi city to perform one of the five pillars of the Islamic religion is a complex task in terms of planning and logistics with preparations for the annual event going year-round to ensure that all infrastructure, organization and safety requirements are in place

This year’s event takes place amidst regional tensions, including the conflict in Yemen, Iran’s’ continued threats to maritime traffic, and the ongoing dispute with Qatar.

 Saudi officials have reiterated their warning that the annual Islamic event should not under any circumstances be exploited for political purposes.

“Haj…is not a venue for political conflicts or for raising sectarian slogans that divide Muslims,” Abdulrahman al-Sudais, imam of the Grand Mosque of Mecca, said in a press conference a day before the start of the Haj, while Mecca Governor Prince Khalid al-Faisal also asked worshippers earlier in the week to “leave all other matters in your countries to discuss when you are back.”

Regardless of the escalating tensions with the Islamic Republic of Iran, which as a consequence has seen the deployment of US troops in the kingdom for the first time since 2003, around 88,550 Iranian pilgrims are due to take part in the hajj this year according to the Tasnim news agency.

However, in terms of numbers, pilgrims from Qatar are down this Haj season, despite efforts by the Saudi Government to facilitate their participation.

“Very few Qataris have come to Mecca for the pilgrimage,” Haj official Hassan Qadi said according to Agence France-Presse.

At the beginning of August, Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Haj and Umrah had to launch a new online link for Qatari pilgrims to register for the Haj after authorities in Doha blocked a previous link on July 17th, in effect hindering Qatari nationals from participation in this year’s Haj.

“The Kingdom will continue to provide all means to facilitate the arrival of our Qatari brothers and sisters who wish to perform the Haj. The attempts of the Qatari regime to politicize the Haj and place obstacles in front of the pilgrims coming from the State of Qatar will not deter the Kingdom from providing all help for them to perform the fifth pillar of Islam,” a statement from the ministry of Haj said according to Al Arabiya News.

According to official government statistics last year the total number of international and domestic pilgrims reached 2.37 million, more than 1.75 million of them from abroad. The 2018 tally topped the 2017 tally of more than 2.35 million international and domestic pilgrims.

This season, according to locally Saudi media, an estimated 2.5 million will participate in the Haj pilgrimage.

The fifth pillar of Islam, haj, is a ritual which all able Muslims should perform at least once in their lifetime. To perform the rite one must be a Muslim and an adult with a sound mind and possess the physical ability and means to perform the rituals. The worshipper must also have the financial resources to make the pilgrimage and still provide for one’s dependents at home. By successfully completing haj, usually over five days during Dhu al-Hijjah, the last month of the Islamic calendar, worshipper hope to gain a place in paradise.