The Hajj Stampede Is Nothing New, But Raises Questions About The Future of Muslim Pilgrimage

Current Events

As of September 30, 2015, the death toll from last Thursday’s stampede of pilgrims completing the final ritual of the Muslim hajj stands officially at 769 with 934 injured.  Nearly 30% of the dead – 228 at the current count – were Iranian, which has further soured the perennially cool relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. What is the likely long-term impact of this sad event?

The issue is not new. The stoning at Jamarat has provided a continual crunch point for pilgrims on hajj, with pilgrim casualties either as they reach Jamarat or walk there from Mina. While the past few years have been largely incident free, there were mass casualties in 2006 (approximately 370 deaths), 2004 (250), 1998 (120), and in 1994 (270), with the largest mass deaths in 1990, when nearly 1,500 pilgrims died.

As a result, this final hajj ritual has occupied the bulk of Saudi efforts to manage pilgrim flow by installing a five-level stoning platform known as the Jamarat Bridge, to accommodate more pilgrims at the same time, and by establishing appointment times (via a “Pilgrim Scheduler”) for each pilgrim group to complete the stoning ritual.

Yet the problem remains.  There are too many people who want to be at the very same place, engaging in the same activity, at the same time.

Why? Because pilgrims follow Muhammad’s example on hajj, as well as in Islam generally. And Muhammad was said to avoid stoning the Devil in the morning.  Instead, he completed the ritual at midday, and Sunni scholars still agree that the stoning should not be done in the morning.

So while the Jamarat Bridge has made it possible for more pilgrims to take part in the stoning ritual at any given moment – a logistical issue – , it has not affected pilgrims’ reluctance to complete the ritual at unsanctioned times, such as the morning or late afternoon – a matter of conscience beyond Saudi state control.

The stoning ritual and the hajj

The stoning ritual asks pilgrims to re-enact the three temptations of the Devil represented in the hajj.  All relate to God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his son, Ismail.

Some Muslims believe that the Devil tried three times to tempt Abraham to disobey the divine command and not sacrifice his son. Others believe that the Devil first tried to tempt Abraham to disobey the divine command and not sacrifice his son, then tried to tempt Hajar to intervene and prevent Abraham from sacrificing Ismail, and finally tried to persuade Ismail himself to disobey.

All three are believed to have thrown stones at the Devil in rejection of his efforts to tempt them to disobey God. This belief is important because sin in Islam is understood as disobedience to, and thus distance from, God.  So the stoning represents the rejection of sin and embrace of God’s will, as well as the rejection of the Devil.

Muslims believe that the hajj was first performed by Abraham.  The rituals of the Muslim hajj include the circumambulation or walking around the Kaaba, as Abraham did, while reciting phrases Abraham is believed to have said – that the pilgrim is at God’s service, and acknowledges that there is only one God, with no partner, and that all power is God’s.

Some of the rituals commemorate the acts of Abraham’s wife Hajar (Hagar, in the Judeo Christian tradition), who ran back and forth through the desert, desperately searching for water to give her son, Ismail (Ishmael).

And the latter part of the hajj commemorates Muhammad’s standing on the plains of Arafat, outside the then-borders of Mecca, and stating that his mission of conveying the message of Islam was complete. The hajj ends with the ritual stoning of the devil, and with the celebration of Eid al-Adha, which commemorates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Ismail as a sign of his obedience to God.

Technically, none of the five pillars is more important than another. But the hajj is special because for most Muslims, it is a religious obligation that they will either never complete or only complete once – in part because it happens only once a year, and in part because of the financial and logistical challenges of going on hajj.

So it can seem more important, and with the rise of television has become much more visually prominent as a key symbol of Islam. Many Arab television channels, for example, are Saudi owned, and often show the Kaaba and scenes from the hajj at the bottom of the hour and in between regular programming.

Until the 20th century, scholars believe that the hajj was not particularly crowded. Mecca – a tiny town for most of its history – was a long distance from where most Muslims in the world lived, and the journey was long, difficult, expensive, and full of dangers. A pilgrim traveling from India or North Africa might spend up to two years on hajj – in part because he or she might need to work along the way, or get sick and need to recover.

So historically only a tiny minority of Muslims made the pilgrimage. In the modern era, steamships and then airplanes have made the travel portion of the hajj much more accessible. The challenge since the 1970s has been the carrying capacity of Mecca.  It can hold only a tiny fraction of the 10s or 100s of millions of Muslims who would like to go on hajj each year.

Political fallout – but not where you think

This year’s pilgrim deaths do not pose an existential threat to the Saudi state, however much the Iranian government may criticize it – nor to regional politics, however much the Saudis may try to blame Iranian pilgrims for the stampede.

Nor did they mar the hajj experience of the many pilgrims who saw and felt the “blessedness” of being invited to visit the house of God, as a friend who went on this year’s hajj described it. Criticism over crowd management is like that of Mecca’s recent construction projects.  It highlights global Muslim skepticism over Saudi Arabia’s administration of the hajj, but does not jeopardize it.

Even the recent questioning of the official death toll, will do little beyond ruffling political feathers already askew by the Syria conflict, the rise of ISIS, and other regional concerns. By next year’s hajj, the angry voices currently denouncing Saudi Arabia will likely have turned to other issues.

What this latest tragedy does raise is the ongoing issue of how many pilgrims can safely make hajj each year – and how many of these should be Saudi citizens or residents. According to the Ministry of Hajj’s statistics office, in 2014 (1435 Hijri), 2,085,238 pilgrims made hajj. Of those, 238,023 were Saudi citizens, while 459,162 were non-Saudis living within Saudi Arabia.

In other words, Saudi citizens comprised 11% of hajj goers, while “internal pilgrims”, as the Ministry terms them, comprised 33% of the year’s pilgrims. Yet Saudi citizens comprise only 1% of the world’s Muslim population, and the total Saudi state population comprises only 1.75% of the world’s Muslim population.

Approximately 28 million people comprised the source pool for one third of the hajj population for 2014, while 1.57 billion Muslims are accountable for the remaining two thirds. In other words, Saudi citizens are over-represented in the hajj – which in principle and in accordance with the Saudi hajj visa allotment should be equally open to all Muslims – by a ten to one ratio.

But the biggest boost in terms of being able to make hajj comes from being a Saudi Arabia resident alien. Is this perhaps the best non-citizen perk of a rentier state – or the strongest grounds for critiquing Saudi Arabia’s management of the hajj?

The hajj breakdown matters because the disparity between the number of Muslims who want to go on hajj each year and the carrying capacity of Mecca is only widening. At 2015’s hajj rate of 2.1 million pilgrims, it would take approximately 760 years just for every Muslim alive today to make the hajj pilgrimage.

If Saudi Arabia increases the annual pilgrim flow to 3.1 million, it would take approximately 515 years – a non-solution. While the Saudi government can be roundly criticized for many of its decisions regarding Mecca and the hajj, managing the hajj is a challenge that no government could meet, because it is no longer physically possible for every Muslim on earth to fulfill the fifth pillar of Islam.

In the long run, the biggest and most significant impact of incidents like last week’s tragic pilgrim deaths should be to raise the question of the meaning of hajj in an era in which completing the hajj is an increasing impossibility.

Will this dilemma mean re-conceptualizing the hajj as an interior pilgrimage, or a digital one?  Expanding the time frame so that pilgrims completing the umra, or “lesser pilgrimage”, are understood to have fulfilled the hajj requirements?

“Downgrading” this pillar to an optional status? If last week’s stampede does not represent an existential threat to the Saudi state, it should raise questions about the past and present understanding of the hajj – questions for Muslims around the world, and not just in Saudi Arabia or Iran.

Andrea Stanton is Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies, focusing on twentieth and twenty-first century Islam in the Middle East and globally. Her research focuses on media and religious identity, and investigates the sometimes conflictual, sometimes cooperative relationships between new technologies and claims to religious authority. Her most recent historical work examines government management of religious broadcasts in Palestine in the 1930s and 1940s, connecting this to a broader trend of Middle Eastern states controlling religious communities’ access to radio and television. Her most recent contemporary work examines the emergent phenomenon of “Islamic emoticons,” which appear in online Islamic chat forums and websites.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Like what you're reading?

Join our mailing list to receive an email every time we post new content.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This

Share this post with your friends!