Once a destination immersing Muslim pilgrims in the experience of a common faith, unity and equality, management of the Hajj today runs on the engine of commercialization, wiping out centuries of tradition.
Mecca
© The Cradle
The Hajj, a fundamental pillar of Islam, is slowly becoming inaccessible to millions of Muslims because of issues of cost and control in Saudi Arabia. Yet Iraqis manage a much larger annual pilgrimage with none of the fuss, and spades more hospitality.
Arab hospitality is said to be a legendary and integral part of the culture and customs, and can be defined as karam, or generosity. In the Arab context, the tenets of hospitality, such as welcoming and hosting a guest in one's abode, can be found in the traditions of the three Abrahamic faiths, but it is also rooted in pre-Islamic cultures and rituals associated with 'Bedouin Arab hospitality'.

For centuries, this was embedded and practiced in the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

However, over the past several decades, Islamic hospitality in Mecca has "exceeded its religious and social boundaries," and headed toward "the economic aspect of hospitality," which now characterizes the experience of Hajj pilgrimage.

New rules for the faithful

This year's Hajj will commence on 7 July and will see a significant increase in pilgrims - 1 million, including foreigners - compared to the restrictions put in place during the pandemic for pilgrims, with only 1,000 Saudis allowed in 2020, followed by 60,000 fully vaccinated citizens and residents through a lottery system the following year.

However, the number of Hajj pilgrims this year still pales in contrast to the pre-pandemic levels of 2.5 million participants from around the world, representing the rich and diverse ummah of the Islamic world undertaking a fundamental pillar of the faith.

Other changes this time will include new rules introduced this month by the kingdom's Ministry of Hajj, namely those affecting Muslims in the west, who must now apply for an e-visa through a government website, called Motawif.

The Saudi Press Agency reported that "pilgrims from Europe, America, and Australia can register electronically" for this year's Hajj season through an online portal which "includes various options of packages, support services, and a multi-lingual communication center around the clock, in addition to the possibility of issuing visas electronically, which will facilitate the pilgrims' endeavor to perform Hajj via easy and accessible procedures."

Faith in a lottery

Through bypassing traditional, established routes of using Hajj tour operators and agents, it is claimed the service will "reduce costs at competitive prices." Nevertheless, the move shocked and upset many Muslims whose literal journey of a lifetime has been affected by the new lottery system.

Aside from the expensive tiered pricing structure, with the basic 'Silver' starting at $5,986 and 'Platinum' beginning at $9,768, those who thought they were fortunate enough to get through the system have already reported technical issues, having paid up in full and none the wiser as to their visa status.

Commerce and capitalism

It's not just potential pilgrims who have been impacted, but Muslim travel agencies as well, with this sector expected to collapse as a result of the Saudi government skipping the once-vital intermediary or middle man.

Since 2006, it has been compulsory to book Hajj packages through licensed travel companies to provide transportation and designated lodging.

Yet, what we are witnessing today is the latest development in the commercialization of the Hajj, replete with the 'excessive capitalism' that has been taking place in recent decades amid the near total destruction of the ancient Islamic historical sites of the Hejaz.

... And politics, too

It is not just the demise of the spiritual aesthetics of the pilgrimage that has marred the Hajj, but also recent political controversies, such as the revelation that one of the investors in the Motawif portal has close ties to India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a hardline Hindu nationalist party that has been instrumental and complicit in inciting anti-Muslim hatred and implementing discriminatory policies.

Meanwhile, ahead of the pilgrimage, human rights groups launched a social media campaign, called 'Hajj is not safe,' alluding to accusations that the Saudi authorities have been luring dissident pilgrims from overseas, before detaining them and repatriating them to countries where their lives would be endangered.

A bygone era of hospitality

As previously mentioned, local Meccans have for centuries fulfilled the role of Arab host by welcoming pilgrims into their homes where they would be fed and sheltered, and treated as part of the family.

In some cases, the owner "would vacate most of the house, keeping only a room on the roof for himself and his family. This was before the advent of high-rise, luxury hotels that now adorn the holy city.

Unfortunately, these traditions are simply that - traditions of a bygone era. Today, pilgrims are required by law to stay at expensive hotels, adding to the obstacles already in place.

However, while the Saudi authorities may have forgotten about the importance of Arab hospitality in relation to the Hajj, these ideals are still present in neighboring Iraq, particularly during the annual Arbaeen pilgrimage commemorating the 40th day after the tragedy of Ashura in Karbala.

The Arbaeen pilgrimage was banned under the reign of Saddam Hussein, as it was frequently targeted by Takfiri extremists.

Nevertheless, it has been described as the largest annual religious pilgrimage, drawing in five times as many people as the Hajj.

This is largely due to it being more cost effective and hassle-free for the mostly Shia pilgrims, but it also illustrates that millions can still go on pilgrimage without the extortionate rates and policies.

A tradition still alive in Iraq

Recognized in 2019 by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, the provision of services and hospitality during Arbaeen has "deep roots in the Iraqi and Arab tradition of hospitality" and "is an immense display of charity through volunteering and social mobilization, and considered to be a defining element of Iraq's cultural identity."

Seeing it as their duty, a vast number of people "contribute their time and resources to providing the pilgrims with free services along the route" that include makeshift camps (mawkibs) and free overnight lodging in their homes.

During last year's procession, one popular British youtuber and a convert to Islam, Jay Palfrey documented his participation in the Arbaeen, describing it as "one of the greatest shows of human kindness, generosity and compassion you will ever witness".

Regrettably, the Hajj, which is a religious obligation, will become more difficult than ever for the average person, with profits before pilgrims as the clear priority.

However, as Iraq continues to show, it needn't be this way.

While it may be gradually receding from Saudi Arabia, where it matters the most, the tradition and culture of Arab hospitality is alive and well in Iraq.