Between three and four million Muslims from around the globe are currently flocking to Holy Mecca in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to perform Hajj. Although one of the five fundamental pillars of Islam – Muslims are required to go once in their lifetime – it is an obligation only for those that can afford it, and so cannot be financed by debt. Next week, the Hajj season is wrapped up with the celebration of Eid ul-Adha: four holy days when Muslims who remained at home, celebrate the event by visiting friends and family in addition to distributing money, food, and clothes to those who are much less fortunate. “Eid” is Arabic for festivity, and “Adha” is derived from the Arabic word for sacrifice in reference to Prophet Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his son at God’s request.
The current number of pilgrims is presumably the maximum which can be accommodated at this time due to logistical constraints; it is determined by the Hajj organizers and overseers. The mere act of applying for the Hajj visa is considered to be an announcement of the individual’s decision to make a u-turn, since going to Hajj signifies asking for God’s forgiveness, repenting for past ills, and willingness to start over with a clean slate.
“Winning” the visa to go to Hajj is the most valuable prize in a Muslim’s lifetime, since we are talking about 4 million “winners” annually out of 1.6 billion of potential Muslim hopefuls (children would not normally apply). There is a sense of excitement in the air in the weeks that precede the Hajj season, with applicants waiting anxiously for “the verdict”, to find out if they will be among the “chosen ones”. This would be the most important phone call in their lifetime; it beats hearing about the birth of the first child or possibly winning the Nobel Prize!
The uncertainty of making the trip does not stop applicants from going through the motions of preparing themselves through buying the necessary clothing and other items such as prayer books. Friends and relatives usually know that so and so is applying to go to Hajj. They congratulate the candidates for having the intention and the interest and pray for them to “win” the visa.
At the beginning of the Twentieth Century applicants to Hajj used to be in their sixties; they waited until they accumulated the money for the long trip, which used to take 3 months since they travelled by land and sea from various parts of the Middle East and the Muslim world to Mecca. In contrast, nowadays the applicants could be twenty years old thanks to rising religious awareness as well as the speed of transportation which are both motivating young people to seek out an early chance to comply with one of Islam’s five fundamental pillars. Unfortunately young people in Muslim majority countries have a slim chance since priority is given to seniors above 45 years of age, whereas Muslims who live in the West, for instance, enjoy a better chance of being granted the visa due to country allotted quotas. People who hold dual citizenships take advantage of this fact, in what could be termed “Hajj arbitrage”, that is to say applying for the Hajj visa using the passport with the better chance.
Of course there are some Muslims who are not strict adherents of their religion. They practice their religion as a tradition that they were born into and grew up with. They may apply to go to Hajj in order to avoid criticism(peer pressure) or as an “insurance” to go to heaven; however their numbers cannot be significant since the trip is not easy. It requires a decent sum of money and a good deal of preparation in terms of studying the rituals to be performed, which the “Hajj guide” in their home country will be responsible for teaching them. Among this group, the females might be a large majority, since going to Hajj requires life-changing decisions such as wearing hijab “head cover” and dressing modestly, which for some women represents a restriction in terms of getting employment or keeping their existing jobs, and it may reveal what they might consider to be a private aspect of their life, particularly if they live in a country where Muslims are not the majority.
In contrast, for some Muslims who can afford it, going to Hajj becomes an addiction They continue to apply year after year, with the same euphoria and eagerness that people experience when they long to visit loved ones – God (SWT) and the Prophet Muhammad (PBU) in this case. Some even resort to paying a very high price to buy the visa, as discussed in an earlier posting last year on this website about the commercialization of Hajj.
Finally, going to Hajj is believed to be an antidote against poverty in addition to being a key to comfort in the afterlife.