By Basit Mahmood
Millions of Muslims are unable to attend the Hajj in Saudi Arabia this month. This is the second year that the annual pilgrimage has been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic – and British businesses are feeling the impact, too.
Hajj, which this year is between 18 and 22 July, is one of the five pillars of Islam and obligatory for every Muslim in their lifetime, provided they are physically fit and financially capable.
In 2019, the last pilgrimage before the pandemic, about two million Muslims from across the globe took part in the pilgrimage. This figure also included an estimated 25,000 British Muslims.
This year however, Saudi authorities have announced that only 60,000 people are allowed to attend — and only those who are vaccinated and live in the kingdom. Saudi also announced that women could register for the pilgrimage without the need of a male guardian.
The decision to cap the number is one that will have an emotional and spiritual impact on Muslims in the UK, with many hoping to attend this year having missed out in 2020. Hajj matters not just to the pilgrims but also to the Saudi authorities, for whom it is not only a huge source of revenue but also one that allows the Saudi state to showcase its custodianship of the two holy mosques, Al Masjid Al Haram in Mecca and the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina.
Dr Carool Kersten, a historian of Islam at King’s College London, says its vital for the Saudi state to demonstrate that Hajj can still take place, even if limited in capacity, so that it can retain the prestige attached to being host.
“It’s basically a continuation of the Saudi policy from last year with slightly less severe restrictions. I think its very important for the Saudi government to be able to demonstrate, also for historical records for the future, that the Hajj has not been cancelled due to the Covid situation, that even with limited numbers they can make sure the Hajj continued.”
Dr Kersten also recognises the emotional toll the decision to limit the Hajj will take on those who were hoping to attend.
“The frustrations will not be diminished. It’s going to be very interesting to watch once the pandemic is more or less under control,” he says. “How will [the Saudi state] compensate and accommodate probably two million people who have not been able to go for the past two years based on how visas are distributed?”
Dr Kersten also highlights the economic importance of Hajj to Saudi, despite recent events by the authorities to diversify its economy as oil revenues fall. The annual pilgrimage has become, to some extent, and indispensable source of revenue.
“Don’t underestimate the economic factor involved”, he says. “Even an oil-rich country like Saudi Arabia also makes up close to 10 or even 15 per cent of the GDP from all economic activities attached to the Hajj, hospitality, transport, daily consumption and with diminishing oil returns the Hajj has become a more important source of revenue for the Saudi government so there’s also very hard pragmatic considerations.”
Throughout history, the Hajj has played a pivotal role in the lives of Muslims. Dr Kersten believes that at a time of increased communications, hastened by the advent of social media, the Hajj has played an important role in fostering an ever-closer bond among Muslims across the world.
“I think that makes the Hajj increasingly important to Muslims, who view it as the thing that connects them all and offers additional incentive in becoming part of that,” he says.
Yet it’s not just those who wanted to attend the pilgrimage who are feeling the impact of a more limited Hajj. UK businesses that sell Hajj packages have also been affected. One such business is al-Haram Travel in east London.
Ali Haider, who works at al-Haram, says that some of the people who wanted to go but then discovered that they could not were “hurt emotionally”. He says: “Till the month of April, there was no announcement from the Saudi government side. At the last moment they announced that only 60,000 people will perform Hajj this year.”
Ali says people had been ringing his company every day to find out when they would be allowed to go, yet the business had suffered, with the company having to return money to those who had paid in the hope they would be allowed to attend.
“Lots of companies have shut their shutters, many companies have not been able to survive this pandemic because there is no business,” he adds.
Shazia Khan went on pilgrimage before the pandemic and would have liked to have gone again, but she understands the decision to limit numbers. “I know there’s a lot of negativity towards the way it’s been arranged but what we have to understand is that there are people from all walks of life and backgrounds, different upbringings, who attend the Hajj,” she adds.
“When you go for Hajj you’re not just in your hotel and to the mosque and back, there’s certain rituals that you do and you’re mixing with people.”
However, she adds: “They’ve not stopped the pilgrimage. Does it make a difference who goes as long as the pilgrimage is continuing? Symbolically it’s important for Hajj to continue. I tend to follow it because it’s one of the best times of the year for me and my entire house follows it. We can’t be there but spiritually we partake in it as well by doing good deeds.”