As news of the Covid-19 virus broke this year one of the first dramatic headlines was that hajj was cancelled. Hajj, an annual and often just once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage Muslims make to Mecca in Saudi Arabia was cancelled over fears of coronavirus spread.
Hajj has fielded viruses before but was not immune to the MERS virus and the H1N1 avian flu, that most of us believed would spare us. This year was the first time in 90 years that hajj was effectively cancelled to foreign pilgrims. Normally 2.5 million people come every year.
But now the Saudi Arabian government, which has faced one of the most devastating impacts of Covid-19 in the Middle East, with more than 250,000 infections and nearly 3,000 deaths, has renewed its support for the life-defining pilgrimage by allowing people from 160 different nationalities already residing in Saudi Arabia, to complete the journey, safely and with social distancing measures in mind, reports the New York Times.
“The hajj is one of Islam’s most important and profound requirements, performed once in a lifetime. It follows a route the Prophet Muhammad walked nearly 1,400 years ago and is believed to ultimately trace the footsteps of the prophets Ibrahim and Ismail, or Abraham and Ishmael as they are named in the Bible.
“The hajj, both physically and spiritually demanding, is intended to bring about greater humility and unity among Muslims. But rather than standing and praying shoulder-to-shoulder in a sea of people from different walks of life, pilgrims this year are social distancing — standing apart and moving in small groups of 20 to limit exposure and the potential transmission of the coronavirus.”
The Saudi Government, which is not an elected government but overseen by King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, will welcome pilgrims to hajj which starts today Wednesday July 29. They will already let up to 10,000 people already living in the kingdom for the pilgrimage to complete the mission, and will provide for them meals, hotels, transportation and healthcare.
No kissing the kaaba!
Al Jazeera gives an update on how those already in Saudi Arabia will be permitted to perform hajj. Here is an excerpt:
Pilgrims will be tested for the new coronavirus before arriving in the holy city of Mecca and will be required to quarantine at home after the ritual. Wearing face masks at all times will be mandatory for pilgrims and organisers.
Touching or kissing the Kaaba, the holiest site in Islam, will be banned during Hajj this year, and a physical distancing space of 1.5 metres (five feet) between each pilgrim during the rituals – including mass prayers and while in the Kaaba circling area – will be imposed, according to a statement by the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control.
Congregational prayers are permitted, but worshippers are required to wear face masks and to maintain physical distancing. Also, access to holy sites at Mina, Muzdalifah, and Mount Arafat will be limited to those with Hajj permits until August 2.