Death of a Hajj

Mina Tent City. By Omar Chatriwala of Al Jazeera English (Some perspective on Mina) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Mina Tent City. By Omar Chatriwala of Al Jazeera English (Some perspective on Mina) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Ali Asadullah

Editor’s Note: This op-ed is part of our Hajj 2015 series.

Tragedy striking during the annual Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca is not a new phenomenon. As news reports continue to trickle in about the 2015 stampede that claimed some 717 souls, one immediately recalls previous incidents where stampedes, fires and other causes led to a mass loss of life.

Each time such unfortunate deaths of pilgrims takes place, to a certain extent that Hajj itself dies with them, forever marred by the memories of the tragedy.  And, while it is true that those pilgrims can, from a certain perspective, be thought of as martyrs who have (Allah willing) achieved paradise, this can never be used as an excuse to look past the causes for these tragedies and to ignore corrective measures that might avert such catastrophes in the future.

As I sit comfortably enjoying my Eid Al-Adha vacation, my thoughts and prayers go out to the families of the dead. My thoughts also turn to my own experiences as a Muslim who has performed the Hajj on three separate occasions. From this vantage point, I would like to share to my thoughts on the pilgrimage, the reasons I feel why tragedy continues to strike and what can be done to ensure that such loss of life never happens again.

How Hajj Works

First some background: The rites of Hajj essentially have been codified in Islamic law from the earliest days of the religion. Unlike Ummrah (the lesser pilgrimage), Hajj takes place largely away from the Ka’ba and Grand mosque in specified areas just outside Mecca. Because these areas are geographically referenced with specificity in Islamic law, one must be in certain places at certain times for one’s Hajj to be considered valid.

There is some flexibility in this regard, but not much; and if you have ever been to Hajj, you know how obsessive-compulsive many Muslims can be when it comes to adhering to the nifty details of Islamic jurisprudence. I can understand the concern, as some people have spent their entire life’s savings to travel to Mecca.

They become single-minded in their focus on performing an accepted Hajj (a pilgrimage performed exactly right and therefore accepted by Allah); and in doing so, often ignore others’ needs and others’ safety. So, we have geography and jurisprudence significantly influencing people’s behavior. And, it is difficult but not impossible to work around these two issues.

Some have suggested simply expanding the geographical boundaries related to the Hajj, but again, given the codified religious rulings on the rites of Hajj, this is a non-negotiable.

When I made my first Hajj in 1996, things were not nearly as hectic, chaotic and cramped as they are today. Additionally, I was an athletic 20-something who could easily use my physicality to get out of a tight spot. However, despite having age and health on my side, I often found myself in cramped quarters that did indeed cause a minor amount of panic to set in. I remember one instance while walking through a pedestrian causeway:  Foot traffic had ground to a halt as the pathway narrowed. This did not, however, stop pilgrims from trying to push from behind as they entered the causeway.

Standing six feet, two inches in height, I could see over most pilgrims’ heads and had access to fresh air; so I did not feel that I was in any immediate danger. However, from time to time, the pushing from the back of the crowd would send pressure waves through the mass of people. I was sandwiched shoulder to shoulder and back to front with other pilgrims, with all of us packed liked sardines as far as the eye could see.

The pressure waves would squeeze me tighter than the tightest bear hug I had ever experienced. If I exhaled at the moment the pressure wave reached me, I would momentarily not be able to inhale until the pressure had been released and transferred on to others around me. We swayed back and forth with the movement, much like the waters in the open ocean or a lake.

The Laws of Fluid Dynamics

This brings me to the first important observation one must understand in analyzing any Hajj tragedy: Hajj crowds obey laws of fluid dynamics. This has been written about at length, but is often spoken about in scientific terms and with such generality that the on-the-ground effects are missed.

Put simply: You go where there crowd goes, and may Allah help the old, young, weak and infirmed amongst you. In fact, may Allah help anyone who loses their footing, because once on the ground, it can be impossible to get back up.

To emphasize the fluid dynamic nature of these crowds, let me relate an anecdote from my second Hajj in 2005. By this time in my life, I had experienced a health crisis that left me with a somewhat disabled left leg. Walking with a permanent limp, Hajj had become a completely different challenge.

I was now far more concerned about my surroundings and the crowds around me. Thankfully, I had travelled to Makkah with a friend, his wife and two daughters; so I felt reassured that someone was at least looking out for me.

Things went well until the ritual of the stoning of Satan (Rami Jamaraat). We reached the stoning station and began tossing our pebbles at the large stone wall, repeating praises to Allah and rebuking Satan and his works. The crowds were not overwhelming, but activity was chaotic and turbulent.

To protect the women of our party, my friend and I acted as a buffer against the crowd with his wife and two daughters, who were all no more than five feet, five inches in height and stood directly in front of us. Suddenly a mass of pilgrims surged from my right. We could not tell from where they came, and we had no idea as to why such a large group of people had suddenly appeared.

People flowed and rushed by in a blur. It was at that moment that my friend’s eldest daughter simply disappeared. It happened in an instant. One moment she was in front of me, slightly to my right, and the next she was simply gone, as if a raging torrent of water had swept her under and onwards to some unknown place. We immediately tried to run after her, but were caught in the torrent of people as well.

Rushed forward, I could barely keep my balance, but thankfully reemerged about 100 yards in the distance where things were less chaotic.

All ended well. My friend’s daughter had managed to keep pace with the crowd and ran with the other pilgrims until she could find a way out of the rush.  She made it back to our Hajj group little worse for wear; but the entire incident still gives me shivers.

Muslim Behavior Modification

This brings me to my second point: Unfortunately, some Muslims don’t know how to act right. It’s not a diplomatic thing to say, but it’s simply the truth. In the above anecdote, there was no good reason for the stampede. There was plenty of room for everyone in the area surrounding the stone wall.

Had everyone just taken their time and waited patiently, each pilgrim would have had more than enough time and space to complete the stoning ritual. However, if you’ve been to Hajj, then you know many Muslims display a level of impatience and boorish behavior that, by my estimation, can sometimes border on the criminal. (Which is an interesting dichotomy since when in the state of Ihram, or purity, for the Hajj, we are supposed to be on our best, most kindest behavior)

It’s beyond annoying to constantly have someone yelling “Tareeq, ya Hajj!” (i.e. “make a path/move along/let’s go/hurry up”) when there’s no place to go or when a little patience would delay you only a couple minutes at most. And, some of these types of people end up pushing and shoving at the expense of others’ safety.

So my feeling is that there has to be an element of behavioral modification amongst pilgrims.  This means some type of educational awareness program must be made mandatory for all Hajj tour operators in the pre-Hajj period. Then, once Hajj has commenced, a strict zero tolerance policy should be implemented by the authorities in Mecca.

If you engage in reckless behavior, your Hajj is over. If enough people get sent home, the word will start to get around.

As a friend of mine noted in a recent online discussion on this issue: “Civility isn’t just a nice thing at the Hajj; it’s a matter of life and death.”

It’s that simple.

Will this be easy to implement? Not by a longshot, especially when pilgrims come from all corners of the earth and behave in a million different ways. But it’s worth serious consideration.

Civility goes both ways as well. Saudi police, volunteers and authorities can, at times, take a rather harsh tack in dealing with pilgrims. Improvements have been made, but it does little good to yell at people in Arabic when the majority of pilgrims come from non-Arabic speaking countries. In such situations, all these pilgrims see is a stern, harsh, uniformed individual screaming at them.

This becomes particularly problematic when the information being conveyed is important. So, the fact that Hajj remains a largely Arabic language affair, indeed leads to miscommunication in important situations.  Though there is signage in multiple languages, I feel there there needs to be more in the languages most significantly represented in Hajj.

Since the Saudis know how many visas have been issued and to which countries, they actually have an accurate record of languages that need to be covered during any given Hajj year. And absolutely there need to be more multilingual staff who can communicate on the spot so that harm can be averted.

Photo (which has been cropped) courtesy of Al Jazeera English and Flickr Creative Commons. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/
Photo (which has been cropped) courtesy of Al Jazeera English and Flickr Creative Commons. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Modernize the Hajj or Reduce the Numbers?

But, all of the foregoing really only represents a drop in the bucket compared to what I perceive to the be central problem facing Hajj in the modern era. On the one hand, the authorities attempt to continually modernize Makkah and leverage technology; but they never take that to its logical end.

Rather, they have one foot in the past and another in the future, which leaves room for unfortunate tragedies to continue to happen.

Currently, the approach is to try to keep the traditional feel of Hajj while also increasing numbers. I feel these are mutually exclusive. Either Hajj becomes an ultra-modern, high-tech affair, or they have to start significantly reducing the number of people they allow each year.

In all honestly, I believe reducing the number of pilgrims isn’t realistic. Hajj is literally the trip of a lifetime for so many Muslims; and with nearly 1.5 billion Muslims longing to fulfill this pillar of the religion, reducing numbers would send up a hue and cry and elicit criticism that the Saudi authorities could not bear.

In response to the demand, Saudi Arabia has embarked on a series of development projects that have expanded the holy sites in Mecca. However, the areas in which most Hajj rites take place, remain relatively unchanged. And because Hajj is steeped in both codified religious and cultural tradition, there is a valid reluctance to change the look and feel and overall experience of Hajj.

But now, tradition and safety are colliding.

Is a High-Tech Hajj the Answer?

The tent city in Mina is cost-effective, quaint and easily configured and reconfigured; but it is also an accident waiting to happen. They can catch fire, have a limited capacity and are set up in never-ending sea of beige and white that is confusing for pilgrims. The same can be said for the plain of Arafah where the Hajj climaxes each year.

My belief is that more permanent, multi-story structures need to be built in order to allow for better management and flow of pilgrims. The Saudis have decided to “stack and pack” pilgrims near the Grand Mosque, so why not in Mina and other Hajj areas?

Additionally, public transport needs to become more prevalent and not just an option, but required for most movement of people. The trains that already have been added help, but there need to be more options and rigorously organized busing.

To go with these new building and transportation efforts, there needs to be the implementation, perhaps, of smart-chip wristbands and gated camps in Mina. In this system pilgrims would not be able to leave their Hajj group’s designated areas until designated times. Pilgrims would swipe their wristbands and go directly to a bus or train, and then directly to a ritual destination, with computers routing and switching people traffic like routers switch and control internet traffic.

Computers would then be able to provide a real-time measurement of crowd sizes that would allow for important corrective measures to be taken on the spot instead of the current hand-wringing that takes place during a crowd emergency.

In truth, a properly managed, high-tech Hajj, should be virtually modeled each year once all Hajj visas have been issued. At present, there is a lackadaisical, laissez-faire approach to crowd control. There is the assumption that since everyone is basically familiar with the rites of Hajj, that things will work themselves out.

And most of the time, they do, except when they don’t and hundreds die. In the future, I can envision Hajj being tightly managed, almost down to the minute and to the person.  And technology done correctly can be almost transparent to the pilgrim, allowing for some of the traditional look and feel to remain.

Getting Scholars on Board with Hajj Safety Measures

Such an approach might also benefit from some lateral thinking amongst scholars. There is a well-known Hadith of the Prophet Mohammed that states: “Hajj is Arafah.” The understanding here is that if all else goes awry, simply making it to the plain of Arafah constitutes an accepted and complete Hajj for the pilgrim.  Perhaps a tightly regulated, high-tech system could be put in place that focuses on ensuring that all pilgrims arrive in Arafah on time.

Then, clear and unambiguous fatwas from major scholars could be communicated so as to allay any fears over missing other parts of the Hajj. This would allow authorities more flexibility in containing pilgrims in gated areas when safety concerns warrant delays in movement that would prevent the on-time completion of non-mandatory Hajj rites.

It’s a controversial suggestion, I know, but one that may need to be seriously considered.

The events of the past week have been tragic, but avoidable. I think to the actions of the Prophet Mohammed before he and the Muslims faced the Quraish at the battle of Badr. He went about organizing and preparing to the very best of his ability, and once that was complete, he then made supplications to Allah to make the Muslims victorious against their oppressors.

We now need to do the same with Hajj: Leverage every available technology and methodology, and then, leave the rest in the hands of Allah. For we cannot afford the death of another pilgrim, nor the death of another Hajj.

Ali Asadullah was the founding editor of iViews.com, one of the first online Muslim current affairs publications.  He has also written for a variety of other publications on topics ranging from religion to race relations, technology, business and other issues.  He currently lives and works in Saudi Arabia.

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