Mosques open for prayers, Umrah and Hajj remain uncertain

While Hajj and Umrah remain uncertain, Saudi Arabia allowed mosques to open for Friday and daily prayers. Read here: https://www.arabnews.com/node/1680266/saudi-arabia. The Prophet Mosque in Madinah will operate with 40% its capacity with restrictions being lifted in stages while Makkah remains in full lockdown. The Umrah and Hajj pilgrimages, which attract millions of worshipers yearly, remain […]

While Hajj and Umrah remain uncertain, Saudi Arabia allowed mosques to open for Friday and daily prayers. Read here: https://www.arabnews.com/node/1680266/saudi-arabia.

The Prophet Mosque in Madinah will operate with 40% its capacity with restrictions being lifted in stages while Makkah remains in full lockdown. The Umrah and Hajj pilgrimages, which attract millions of worshipers yearly, remain suspended until further notice. What does this mean for Saudi Arabia?

Saudi Arabian government announced this month first tentative steps towards a return to a normal life by end of June after almost 10 weeks of restorations on movement.

Read more here: https://www.bloomberg.com/amp/news/articles/2020-05-26/saudi-arabia-to-ease-lockdown-with-local-travel-mass-prayers

The ban on prayers in mosques is lifted, as well as movement in Madinah. Makkah remains under curfew. The question wether Hajj this year will take place remains unclear.

The annual Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam, along with the Shahada (acceptance of one God and that Muhammad is His Prophet), daily prayer, the giving of alms (zakat), and fasting in Ramadan.

A healthy Muslim who is able to perform the Hajj without incurring debts should do so once in his lifetime. The Hajj takes place once a year, in the second week of the Islamic month of Dhul Hijja, which moves forward every year because the lunar Hijri calendar has only 354 or 355 days. The Hajj is performed over several days on the plains of Arafat, in the small town Mina, and in the Grand Mosque of Makkah.

At the time before motorized transport, getting to Makkah for the Hajj was an arduous and expensive undertaking, and not many people from abroad could perform it. Thus in the 1920s, less than 60,000 foreign pilgrims cam to Makkah; in recent years the number is closer to 1.8 million.

After oil, religious tourism is Saudi Arabia’s second highest source of income. This does not only include the Hajj, but also Umrah, the lesser pilgrimage to Makkah, which can be performed throughout the year, and visits to Madinah. At present, annual rates of pilgrims performing Hajj and Umrah are at around 13 million annually, and expected to go to 30 million by 2030. In the 1980s, less than a million pilgrims came from abroad to perform Umrah. A recent report in the English language paper Arab News suggests that revenues may exceed US$ 150 billion by 2022.

The increase in pilgrims is due to concentrated efforts made by the Saudi Arabian government to improve the infrastructure in Makkah, Madinah and Jeddah, and transport between and in these cities, including the Makkah-Madinah railway and Makkah Metro. Even then, the inflow of pilgrims is strictly controlled by quotas. Thus in 2018 approximately 430,000 Hajj pilgrims came from Arab countries, 1,050,000 from Asia, 88,000 from African, and 114,000 from Europe, America and Australia.

If no quotas were imposed, many more would come. It is therefore a reasonable assumption, confirmed by historic trends, that an increase in capacity will lead to more pilgrims, on the principle “build it, and they will come”.

Therefore, Saudi Arabia swiftly stopping the inflow of Umrah pilgrims as soon as Covid-19 became an issue was a momentous decision, particularly since Umrah traffic in Ramadan (April and May of this year) is one of the busiest seasons. However, due to the influx of so many pilgrims from so many countries, the Saudi health authorities are very familiar with epidemics and how to confront them.

Now it is even being considered whether to cancel Hajj this year. This is not unprecedented, since wars and diseases in the past have interfered with the Hajj.

Read more: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/27/opinion/coronavirus-hajj-pilgrimage.amp.html

It would be an enormous sacrifice, both spiritually and financially. However, with about 2.4 million pilgrims from Saudi Arabia and abroad congregating in close proximity, letting the Hajj go ahead would clearly put many people at risk. Moreover, no one must perform Hajj in any given year. Once in a lifetime is enough.