Millions of Muslims converge on Mecca to perform ‘smart haj’

The pilgrimage is becoming increasingly smart, with high-tech applications helping the faithful navigate Islam’s holiest sites.
Sunday 19/08/2018
A Saudi engineer (L) shows pilgrims a smart umbrella, which uses solar energy to cool the user, in the Saudi holy city of Mecca. (AFP)
Going high-tech. A Saudi engineer (L) shows pilgrims a smart umbrella, which uses solar energy to cool the user, in the Saudi holy city of Mecca. (AFP)

BEIRUT - Whether pushed in a wheelchair or holding a walking stick, Muslims from all over the world converge on the holy city of Mecca to perform the haj, one of the five pillars of Islam that the faithful are expected to carry out at least once in their lifetime.

Almost 2 million people descend on Mecca every year on the eighth day of Dhu al-Hijjah, a month in the Islamic calendar that translates as the “month of pilgrimage.”

The 3-day pilgrimage, the world’s largest, is becoming increasingly smart, using high-tech applications to help the faithful navigate Islam’s holiest sites.

The Saudi Ministry of Haj and Umrah set up 16,000 communication towers and more than 3,000 WI-FI hotspots. The towers will provide pilgrims with undisrupted 4G mobile internet to maintain contact with their families and make use of the ministry’s online services.

Under the “Smart Haj” initiative, pilgrims with smartphones can download the Asefny app, allowing them to send health reports through their phones and request help in a medical emergency. The app tracks pilgrims’ locations to provide them with services or assistance for those with special needs.

The ministry also introduced a new version of the Manasikana app meant to guide pilgrims through every step of haj, from signing up for the pilgrimage to returning home.

Available in eight languages, the app provides information that includes prayer times and flight schedules, the weather forecast for Mecca, Medina and Jeddah, emergency numbers, the location of the nearest emergency centre and currency exchange rates.

An inaugural Haj Hackathon, organised in August to help the ministry come up with technological solutions to some of the pilgrimage’s most pressing issues, saw an all-female team of Saudi and Yemeni computer programmers win first place with Turjuman, an instant translation app to facilitate communication between pilgrims.

Other ideas included Haj Wallet, which would allow pilgrims to pay through their phones for services during haj, reducing cases of pickpocketing.

For many pilgrims, the journey to Mecca is the first time they will leave their countries or fly on an aeroplane. More than half of those performing haj are from low-income countries and many others come from conflict-ridden ones.

“This was my dream from childhood,” Raja Amjad Hussein, 40, who made the trip to Mecca from Pakistan, told Agence France-Presse. “I can’t explain. I have no words. For many Muslims this is the big, the biggest, dream of life, to see the Kaaba and pray for yourself and the whole Muslim nation.”

Pilgrims perform rituals around the Kaaba and on the Mount Arafat plain east of Mecca. The haj ends with Eid al-Adha, a 3-day feast that starts with the “stoning of the devil.”

Eid al-Adha — the “feast of sacrifice” — includes the slaughter of sheep, with the meat distributed to Muslims in need. The ritual symbolises Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, Ishmael, on the order of God.

The 2018 pilgrimage comes more than a year into the worst political crisis to grip the Gulf, pitting regional heavyweights Saudi Arabia and Qatar against one another but Qatari pilgrims are permitted into Saudi Arabia for haj.

Iranian pilgrims are also in attendance this year. Tehran barred its citizens from the haj following a 2015 stampede that left about 2,300 pilgrims dead, including hundreds of Iranians.