One of the biggest Muslim events of the year has, like everything else, succumbed to the pressures of the relentless Coronavirus by dramatically restricting the allowed number of attendees. Normally, millions of practicing Muslims from around the world travel to the holy city of Mecca for 5 or 6 days of continuous worship, uniting them in their beliefs. This year, the Ministry of the Hajj has proclaimed that only Saudis and foreign nationals already in the country may participate, in response to the threat of the virus. In a statement reported by the NY Times, the Ministry assured, “This decision is taken to ensure Hajj is performed in a safe manner from a public health perspective while observing all preventative measures and the necessary social distancing protocols to protect human beings from the risks associated with this pandemic,” trying to calm those surely unhappy to hear of this limitation.
Performed only once every year, this congregation at Mecca is far more for Muslims than a religious festival. Many save for years to attend, as it is a pilgrimage and ceremony they must perform at least once in their life to wipe away past sins and connect them all in their faith. As the BBC summarizes it, “The Hajj makes Muslims feel real importance of life here on earth, and the afterlife, by stripping away all markers of social status, wealth, and pride. In the Hajj all are truly equal.”
Even if the religion is not one you follow or agree with, it is one that brings millions of people assurance and a sense of belonging in the world. At the end of the day, the year 2020 has become a very heavy, hate-filled, terrifying, angst-ridden and agonizing year, so why not make small steps towards happiness and unity where we can? Though it makes clear sense to support and encourage social distancing and every measure being taken around the globe to curb the virus, this time feels different. It has been said that anyone participating in this year’s gathering will be required to self-isolate for two weeks both before and after the event, even with their reduced attendance.
If these drastic precautions are taken, including prohibiting Muslim attendees over the age of 65, perhaps restricting the numbers so significantly is not as necessary as it seems. Every Muslim believer hopes to come and revel in their faith with others in a place they consider most holy. The believers will find themselves denied this respite, in this time of unrest when they likely need it most. Not to mention, the revenue the country will lose due to this turnout could have a seriously detrimental effect to the Saudi Arabian economy. An event that usually brings in tens of millions of dollars will now be weakened, leaving a trail of deficit behind it in the airlines, restaurants and other accommodations that would have originally profited.
It is true, the U.S. has sadly begun to see a second spike in numbers of Coronavirus cases. This comes just after societies have begun to reopen. However, one cannot help but wonder if this is because we allowed our communities to return to work and to public outings, or because so many people and large gatherings continue to ignore our current health guidelines. Refusing to wear masks or other means of protection, these foolish actions have permitted the virus to live on, while others remain so careful and vigilant. If bars and gyms are finding it permissible to have patrons in their facilities with no face coverings, why should we stop these people merely looking for spiritual sanctity?
The Ministry of the Hajj’s choice are respectable and not to be condemned, but perhaps they can simply reinforce their safety and security measures surrounding the Hajj, closely monitoring all who wish to attend, instead of forbidding them entry? The Coronavirus is a formidable enemy, but we cannot let it win in every arena. Some things, like prayer, must persevere to pull us through. Hopefully, all Muslims no longer able to make the journey can take it in stride, like 68-year-old Kamariah Yahya from Indonesia, who told the International Business Times, “I’ve been preparing for years. But what can I do? It’s Allah’s will… it’s destiny.”