Under the Backdrop of the Israeli-Hamas conflict: Millions of Muslims flock to the Holy City of Mecca for Hajj

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Hundreds of thousands of Muslims circle the Kaaba, the black building in the middle of the Grand Mosque, in Mecca, Saudi Arabia (Al Arabiya)

Hajj, one of the greatest pilgrimage movements, is performed annually during the Islamic lunar month of Dhul-hija. As events kick off in the holy Saudi Arabian city of Mecca this Tuesday, the ceremony not only unites Muslims from various socioeconomic backgrounds, languages, races, and ethnicities but acts as a chance to seek forgiveness for past sins and cultivate one’s closeness with divinity.

Before Hajj, Muslims enter the state of “Ihram,” a sacred state before crossing the pilgrimage boundary of “Miqat.” Women are expected to uncover their heads while men wear unsewn white Ihram clothing to embody their humbleness and sanctity towards God.

For Muslims, Hajj also takes the form of a religious duty; the duty to fulfill one out of Five Pillars of Islam by participating in Hajj at least once in a lifetime. The most important and famous ritual is “tawaf,” which involves circling the Kaaba, the stone building at the center of the holy site, seven times counterclockwise.

However, inevitable hardships unfolded for this year’s ritual event following attack advancements of the Israeli-Hamas war on October 7th last year. The war has “created a lot of anger in the broader Muslim world,” notes Umer Karim, a Saudi Politics expert at the University of Birmingham. Karim predicts that “protests or performance is bound to happen by individuals or groups of pilgrims, and the Saudis understand this is a slippery slope.” However, despite political turmoil, the Gulf’s minister for pilgrimages alerted zero tolerance for any “political activity.”

Trailing the Israeli offensive on the Gaza Strip, leaving approximately 37,000 innocent civilians dead, Saudi King Salman issued an addition to anchor “1,000 pilgrims from families of martyrs and the wounded from the Gaza Strip.” The Saudi Press Agency cements that the Saudis will “increase their control over the pilgrims to prevent any mobilization around support for Gaza.”

As roughly 4,500 Palestinians in Israel are anticipated to attend Mecca each year, Saudi Arabia has pressured Jordan to naturalize their citizenship to travel without restrictions. Hence, after much bargaining, a Jordanian temporary passport became a tool to satisfy Palestinian-Muslims’ right to worship. Currently, pilgrims departing from the Gaza City of Rafah and the West Bank to Mecca are traveling through Jordan and Egypt respectively, seeking to exceed 1.5 million.

Inevitably, hardships were brought upon the millions of travelers. “One of the greatest inconveniences in our lives as Palestinians in Gaza is that we have to spend more than 20 hours traveling from Gaza to Cairo. Our colleagues in the second regiment took a full 24 hours to reach the airport,” exclaimed Fathia al-Hassanat, a woman from South Gaza. Yet, al-Hassanat describes her emotions as “indescribable” – having been lucky enough to win a place at the Hajj from this year’s lottery.

Al-Hassanat’s excitement derives from Saudi Arabia’s electronic draw system which randomly selects applying individuals to attend the event, aiming to limit population flow and increase mobility during the days of Hajj.

Fortunately, the system’s reliance on luck has brought surprises to many. Ahmed Abu al-Kass, a father of five, “cried out of joy” after “receive[ing] a phone call informing me[him] that my[his] name was accepted.” Al-Kass comments on great financial burdens brought by family responsibilities and economic conditions in the Gaza Strip, calling his opportunity to attend the ritual a “dream.”

Samah al-Shurafa, a cancer patient, was delighted to see her name on the lottery ticket after failing twice to win the fortune. Al-Shurafa is among many to share the same emotions. “I was relieved when I arrived at the Al-Masjid Al-Haram and saw the Kaaba,” corroborates Rabeia al-Raghi, a Moroccan woman attending Hajj.

In reflection of the participant’s enthusiasm and reverence to God, Algerian pilgrim Ibrahim al-Hadhari prays for Palestine to “be free and liberate[d] and their land to be like other nations, to live in peace and not always to have war.”

Muslims arriving in Mecca on June 11, 2024 holding umbrellas under intense heat waves (AFP-JIJI)

However, practical concerns about heat spikes might be hindering the religious experience. Considering the 2,000 people who suffered from severe heat stress last year, this week’s 44 degrees Celsius blaze leaves an enduring challenge for participants and officials.

Regardless, participants are expected to move to the Mountain of Arafat by Friday to gather spiritual stones, nurturing their voices for harmony and kindness.

Written by Julia Jiang

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