Saudi Arabia has finally decided that Hajj this year will be performed only symbolically, and a “very limited number” of believers from among those already residing in the kingdom will be allowed to perform Hajj. So this is going to be the first time in the known history that no foreigners will be able to travel to the holy land to attend the annual religious pilgrimage.
The decision has, of course, been taken in view of the coronavirus pandemic that continues to threaten human lives across the globe. Saudi Arabia itself has one of the highest rates of the coronavirus infections in the Middle East and ranks at 15 across the world, with more than 161,000 total confirmed cases and deaths in excess of 1,300. Thus, allowing a large number of people from almost all parts of the world to converge on the holy sites and then fan out across the world after performing the religious obligation would be akin to endangering human lives and countering the global efforts being made to contain the spread of the lethal virus.
The decision to restrict the Hajj pilgrimage to locals and foreign residents of Saudi Arabia goes in line with the saying of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him): “If you hear of an outbreak of plague in a land, do not enter it; and if the plague breaks out in a place while you are in it, do not leave that place.” This sacred saying of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) preaches the importance of travel bans and quarantine in areas affected by an epidemic as a way to mitigate its spread, and shows that protecting one’s life and those of others is far loftier a consideration than fulfilling a religious obligation.
Last year, around two million believers had travelled to Makkah and Madina to perform Hajj and visit revered sites. How many will be allowed this year is yet to be decided by the Saudi authorities. However, even with only locals allowed, the numbers are going to be a challenge for the authorities to deal with, as ensuring social distancing, in particular, will not be easy. The authorities will have to put in a great effort to arrange for and ensure a safe Hajj.