- Nearly two million people from around 150 countries are expected to take part in the five-day pilgrimage this year
- It is the world’s biggest annual gathering of people and all Muslims are expected to do Hajj at least once in their lifetime
- The pilgrimage is one of the five pillars of Islam
Sept 11, 2016: Iran is boycotting this year’s Hajj, citing Saudi “incompetence” and a poor response by health and safety officials. Masses of Iranian Shi’ites have instead converged on the holy Iraqi city of Karbala for an alternative pilgrimage.
Tens of thousands of Iranian pilgrims are absent from this year’s Hajj as tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran flare over last year’s stampede, – the largest number of deaths reported by any country. During last year’s pilgrimage, several hundred Iranians were among at least 2,000 people crushed to death in a stampede in Mecca.
This year’s pilgrimage has introduced new security measures to prevent a recurrence of Hajj 2015’s deadly stampede, which, according to the Saudi Arabian officials, killed at least 760 pilgrims, however the actual death toll could be as high as 2,180.
This time Iran has boycotted the Hajj, but it comes at a time when tensions with rival Saudi Arabia are at a record high over conflicts in Syria and Yemen, where Tehran and Riyadh support opposite sides.
Saudi Arabia cut ties with Iran last January after demonstrators set fire to the Saudi Embassy in Tehran following Riyadh’s execution of a prominent Shi’ite cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr.
In recent weeks, rhetoric between the two capitals has escalated. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has challenged Saudi Arabia’s right to manage Islam’s holy sites, accusing the Saudi royal family of “murder” in last year’s stampede. A prominent Saudi cleric responded by saying Iran’s leaders are “not Muslim.”
Access to the Kaaba has been suspended during prayers and officers in red berets and camouflage uniforms have surrounded crowd-controlling barricades, as part of several safety measures implemented this year after the stampede.
Saudi Arabia's top cleric Abdulaziz al-Sheikh says Iranians are "not Muslims" https://t.co/Ly3KDj5EbE
— The Daily Star (@dailystarnews) September 6, 2016
The Kingdom has also issued pilgrims with identification bracelets, which carry a bar code readable by smartphones and that hold data such as the pilgrim’s identity, nationality and where they are staying in Mecca.Saudi Arabia has doubled down on safety and security in a bid to avoid a repeat of last year’s disaster. The publication Arab News reported that authorities had conducted 1,000 health and safety training courses in recent weeks and deployed 26,000 medical, technical and other official personnel to pilgrimage areas in Mecca, Medina, Arafat and Mina, along with a fleet of more than 175 ambulances.
Thousands of Iranians marched through the streets of Tehran on Friday to protest Saudi Arabia ahead of the Hajj.
Security officials have placed 1,000 cameras at strategic locations to allow constant monitoring of events.
All pilgrims are being outfitted with water-resistant e-bracelets equipped with bar codes that link to personal information, including medical records, in an effort to facilitate treatment in case of illness or injury.
Health, however, is only one concern. In early July, three suicide bombers struck separate targets across Saudi Arabia, including the site in Medina where the Prophet Muhammad is believed to be buried. No group claimed responsibility for the attacks, which Saudi Arabia believes was inspired by the Islamic State group. The bombings have raised questions about the kingdom’s ability to protect Saudi citizens and visitors during the Hajj.
Authorities have limited the number of visas for each country in an effort to control crowds. All “guests of Allah” are required to carry permits, and police have set up security checkpoints to prevent unauthorized pilgrims from entering the holy sites. It has also vowed strict punishment for all offenders.
‘Journey for God’
Hajj refers to a Muslim’s pilgrimage to Mecca and is one of the five pillars of Islam. At least once in his or her lifetime, each Muslim is expected to undertake this pilgrimage the sacred city of Islam. This holy journey is called the hajj in Arabic. While a visit to Mecca is beneficial any time of the year, it must take place during the month of Dhu al-Hijja (the last month of the Islamic year) to fulfill the requirements of the hajj.
As with the sawm (fasting), exceptions are made for those who are physically or financially unable to fulfill this obligation, and one is actually commanded not to make the hajj if to do so would cause hardship for his or her family.
The hajj is commanded in the Quran – “And pilgrimage to the House is a duty unto God for mankind, for him who can find the way thither” (3:97) – and its rites were established by Muhammad, but Muslim tradition dates it back to Adam and Abraham, who were instructed by angels in the performance of the rites. The hajj was one of the last public acts of worship performed by Muhammad before his death.
About 2 million Muslims complete the hajj each year. The government of Saudi Arabia has contributed significant resources to maintain the holy places and manage the crowd of pilgrims. Despite the large numbers seen in Mecca each year, only a small percentage of Muslims have fulfilled the duty. Those who have done so may add the title hajj or hajji to their names. (VOA)