The Saudi Arabian government is limiting this year’s hajj to Saudi residents only, NPR reported. The revered pilgrimage to Mecca is a vital component of practicing Islam, but will be off-limits to Muslims from other countries due to fears of spreading the coronavirus. The hajj is the fifth of The Five Pillars of Islam.
In efforts to slow the spread of coronavirus, the Saudi Arabian government is limiting Muslims’ annual pilgrimage to Mecca, known as the hajj, this year. “Officials announced in a statement that the pilgrimage, which is set to begin at the end of July, will be ‘very limited’ in size and restricted to Saudi residents only,” the NPR article said. “The Ministry of Hajj and Umrah cited the lack of an available vaccine and the risks of crowded gatherings. The hajj is one of Islam’s most important religious requirements as well as a major source of revenue for Saudi Arabia.”
NPR even cited a report from Statista stating that 2.5 million Muslims made the pilgrimage last year. So what makes the hajj such a vital part of Islam?
The Fifth Pillar
The Islamic faith is centered around The Five Pillars, or core beliefs or practices of Islam. The first pillar is a profession of faith, or “shahada.” The second pillar is “salat,” the practice of praying five times daily while facing Mecca. The third pillar, “zakat,” is the paying of alms, similar to tithing. The fourth pillar is fasting during the month of Ramadan, a practice called “sawm.” The fifth pillar is “hajj,” making a pilgrimage to the Islamic holy land of Mecca. It’s required that every Muslim that is able to makes the trek at least once in their lifetime.
“In many ways, [hajj] is the most complicated of the pillars, and has a combination of pre-Islamic, Qur’anic, and post-Qur’anic elements to it,” said Dr. Martyn Oliver, Senior Professorial Lecturer at American University. “While only mentioned some 14 times throughout the whole of the Qur’an, the context of many of these verses suggest that the contours and traditions of the pilgrimage were well known to the Qur’an’s early audience. And indeed, it was pilgrimage to the Kaaba in Mecca that had made this Arabian town a central place of religious activity during pre-Islamic times.”
The Old and the New
Dr. Oliver said that one passage of the Qur’an, sura 2, describes the locations of Safa and Marwa and shows how pre-Islamic history and Islam, an Abrahamic religion, can be integrated together.
“Safa and Marwa are two hills near Mecca, between which it was said Hagar [the mother of Abraham’s son Ishmael] ran in search of water for her infant,” he said. “This verse seems to assure pilgrims that this act—ostensibly practiced by the pagans—was likewise of monotheistic origin. In this way, the Qur’an fuses together pre-Islamic ritual practice with a thoroughly Abrahamic interpretive scheme.”
The fusion of a pre-religious practice with a modern religious practice extends to other religions as well. Christians, for example, celebrate Christmas on December 25th, owing to Rome’s Saturnalia feast, which honored the winter solstice on the same day with gift-giving, candle-lighting, singing, and the decorating of houses.
“Multiple accounts of Islamic history tell of Muḥammad’s own pilgrimages to Mecca in the years before his death,” Dr. Oliver said. “That evidence, combined with the established customs, became the foundation for the hajj as we know it today. As with all the other pillars, the details of this ritual practice are left vague in the Qur’an, but especially in the case of the hajj there is a clear and well-known established custom to which would-be pilgrims could refer for their own practice.”
Dr. Martyn Oliver contributed to this article. Dr. Oliver is a Senior Professorial Lecturer at American University, where he also serves as the director of the Undergraduate Religious Studies and Arab World Studies programs. He received his BA in Religion from the University of Puget Sound and his PhD in Religion and Literature from Boston University.