Mass Pilgrimage and Safety Concerns: Lessons from the Largest Religious Gathering on Earth (I)

  May 27, 2021   Read time 3 min
Mass Pilgrimage and Safety Concerns: Lessons from the Largest Religious Gathering on Earth (I)
Arrangement and coordination of a mass pilgrimage constituted of almost three million people from different cultures is itself a herculean work. This is annually done by KSA and even the slightest error in harmony can bring havoc on the Kingdom. The several stampedes are horrible examples of this fact.

Hajj is the largest annually recurring mass movement event on earth. It attracts about 3 million pilgrims from all over the globe who assemble in Makkah over a one-week period. In the course of the pilgrims’ movements, there is mobbing and other disorder caused by overcrowding due to the compactness of the gathering, and the integration of vehicles and pedestrians. To comprehend this in more depth, the Hajj should be presented as a ‘closed system’ with a fluctuating number of pilgrims flowing through it at any time.

Religious movements and rites mainly follow from religious decree. Each pilgrim wants to keep to these strictly. In the Hajj, some rituals are mandatory (‘Fard’ – canonical law) as a religious duty, while others are only customary (‘Sunnah’).

Many groups of pilgrims, some nearly as large as a whole nation (Lebanon, Iran), follow homogeneously religious (Shia sect) traditional interpretations. Other movements are not liturgical but necessary in order to carry out the set rites. These factors place a burden on the Hajj; for example, it is customary (Sunnah) to go to the field of Arafat early in the morning, but it is mandatory (canonical law) to leave Arafat before sunset. Additionally, it is a mandatory duty to throw the seven pebbles onto the biggest devil (Jamrat Al-Aqabah) on the tenth day of the Hajj month, but it is only the custom to do this before noon. Therefore, most pilgrims wait at this venue in order to complete the ritual between sunrise and noon. A further example is Tawaf Al-ifada (circumambulation of the black cube, Kaaba), which must be offered to complete the Hajj (canonical Islamic law). Although no special time is designated, pilgrims like to accomplish it as soon as possible to follow the custom of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) who did this on the tenth day of the Hajj month.

Thus, the Hajj system consists of subsystems with different capabilities to cater for the mass of pilgrims. In the physical sector, these fluctuate between wide-open valleys – Arafat, for example – and narrow routes like the exit from Mina to Makkah. In the domain of canonical law, they vary from temporary and locally diffused actions (the shaving of the head after the Hajj, the sacrifice, ritual ablutions) to such as are exactly defined in time and/or space, for instance Tawaf (circumambulation of the black cube, Kaaba).

Mobbing in the flow of the Hajj occurs at the narrow passes in the system: at the places of the Tawaf and Sa’I (walking and running between the hills of Al-Safa and Al-Marwah) before the ninth day of the Hajj month when the pilgrims offer the Tawaf Al-Qudum (welcome circumambulation of the black cube) for Al-Umrah or Hajj, and additional Tawafs during their visit in Makkah; during the Nafra (Arafat to Muzdalifah), at its starting places – the pedestrian and vehicle bridges in front of Arafat, on the five newly constructed floors of the Jamarat bridges (Devil’s Bridge), and at its eastern entrance on the morning of the 10th, as well as in the afternoon of the 11th and 12th of the Hajj month, on the roads between Mina and Makkah on the 10th and 12th, and again from the 10th of the month at the places of Tawaf and Sa’I, when the pilgrims perform Tawaf AI-Wada (last circumambulation) and other Tawafs.

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