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This July in Saudi Arabia, Islam’s holiest site will miss the massive circumambulatory spectacle around the Kaaba each year. Occurring during one of the most sacred periods of each Islamic year—the 12th month of Dhul Hijjah—the Hajj pilgrimage was drastically limited to just a thousand pilgrims in 2020 due to the coronavirus.
Saudi Arabia’s decision was a blow to millions of Muslims, for whom the Hajj is a spiritual climax and a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Most have saved their whole lives just to make the journey, one marked by heightened levels of spirituality and sacrifice.
As profound emptiness greets the Kaaba this year, we trace what the Hajj has been like for pilgrims before air travel, along with the sacred Hajj rituals that have stood the test of time.
Before the age of airplanes, the Hajj involved levels of difficulty and sacrifice that are unknown today. Pilgrims from Southeast Asia left their families to spend arduous months at sea. Sickness and hunger often plagued the overcrowded ships bound for Mecca.
From the first half of the 19th century to the 1970s, Singapore’s free port and openness to migration made it a popular departure point for many kapal haji. Muslims across the region flocked to Singapore, and the island became the pilgrimage hub of Southeast Asia.
In Singapore, pilgrims sought work and often slept on the streets of Kampong Glam, hoping to earn enough to board a ship bound for Jeddah. Pilgrim brokers, boarding houses, and stores selling goods for the Hajj converged and thrived here, preparing pilgrims for their journey. The Javanese even used to call Bussorah Street in Kampong Glam “Kampong Kaji” (from Kampong Haji, or the Hajj Village).
Many pilgrims to Singapore came from the colonial Dutch East Indies. Wary that the cultural and intellectual exchanges in Mecca might stir anticolonial sentiment, the Dutch controlled the Hajj with restrictive policies. These included a special passport for pilgrims traveling to Mecca and proof of sufficient funds to undertake the Hajj and support their families back home. Pilgrims often traveled via Singapore to avoid such restrictions.
Pilgrims from Malaysia, Brunei, Cambodia and even the Philippines and China made up the diverse, sea-borne communities that set sail from Singapore or smaller ports along the way.
From Singapore, most kapal haji headed up the Straits of Malacca. Stopping at Port Klang in Malaysia to collect more pilgrims, they journeyed onwards to Jeddah.
Today’s Hajj by the numbers
Advances in travel have made it easier for Muslims all over the globe to embark on the Hajj, with most foreign pilgrims to Mecca arriving by plane today.
Over the past decade, more than twice as many overseas pilgrims than domestic pilgrims (from Saudi Arabia) traveled to Mecca.
Total pilgrims over last 10 years (1431H - 1440H)
After World War II, pilgrim numbers surged due to postwar economic prosperity and improvements to modern aircraft. Special chartered flights and prearranged travel packages for the Hajj emerged, making the journey quicker and more convenient.
Saudi Arabia introduced a quota system in 1988 to manage the rising influx of pilgrims, giving out one pilgrimage visa for every 1,000 Muslims in each country. Indonesia, home to 12.7 percent of the world’s Muslims, sends around 200,000 pilgrims to the Hajj each year.
Asians make up the largest group of foreign pilgrims, taking up 64 percent of flight bookings to airports around Mecca in 2019—a 5 percent growth from the previous year.
Pilgrims by region (1440H)
What is the Kaaba?
In a demonstration of unity and equality, Muslims from all over meet at Islam’s holiest site, what they believe to be the centre of the world: the Kaaba, a stone structure draped in black silk.
Here at the heart of the Masjid al-Haram (the Grand Mosque) in Mecca, pilgrims perform the first rites of the obligatory Hajj pilgrimage, an intense spiritual journey meant to cleanse the soul and bring believers closer to God.
The Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam. Its origins can be traced to ancient times, when Prophet Ibrahim received a divine command to build the Kaaba. The specific rites carried out by Muslims today retrace Prophet Muhammad’s steps centuries later in 632 AD, when he led a large group of his followers in the first—and his last—official Hajj.
A step-by-step guide to the Hajj
The Hajj begins on the eighth of Dhul Hijjah and lasts around five to six days. Pilgrims have to be in a state of purity before performing the Hajj, which is as much a spiritual journey as a physical one. There are several essential rituals to perform before and during the Hajj. Otherwise, pilgrimages might be invalid or require compensation in the form of animal sacrifice.
Dreaming of the Hajj
At the current rate of 3 million pilgrims each year, it would take at least 581 years for all of the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims at present to perform the Hajj. Many Muslims will never achieve their dream of undertaking the Hajj during their lifetimes.
Although the pilgrimage is not meant to be burdensome, the increasing cost of Hajj visas and all-inclusive packages have made it especially prohibitive for the poor—as well as those from lower income countries. Experiences of the Hajj further vary depending on what one can afford. Wealthier pilgrims can pay to stay at five-star hotels overlooking the Kaaba, whereas others have to travel greater distances to pray at the Grand Mosque.
Observers say that the commercialisation of Mecca—particularly the development of high-rise luxury buildings—has not only put inequality among pillgrims in sharp relief but also come at the expense of Islam’s cultural heritage.
In a bid to accommodate the expected 30 million pilgrims each year by 2030, Saudi Arabia has spent billions to expand the holy sites and establish better airports, roads, lodging and other amenities. The state has cleared out old and treasured areas in the process, such as the houses of Khadijah (Prophet Muhammad’s first wife) and of Prophet Muhammad’s companion Abu Bakr, the first Islamic caliph.
Although these changes cater to the rising number of pilgrims and their comfort during the Hajj, the destruction of historic sites and the Hajj’s growing price tag have nonetheless tainted what is meant to be a deeply humbling spiritual experience.
Despite these changes, one thing remains sure. To answer God’s call, Muslims will continue to cross lands and seas to stand in the presence of the Kaaba, following in the sacred footsteps of the prophets and pilgrims before them.
Story by Zafirah Mohamed Zein
Design by Avel Chee and Joceline Kuswanto
Code by Siti Aishah
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Disclaimer: Our stories have been researched and fact-checked to the best of our abilities. Should you spot mistakes, inaccuracies, or have queries about our sources, please drop us an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
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