Pilgrims to Mecca: restrictions and complaints

Summary: sites in the holy places loved by pilgrims but regarded as idolatrous to be closed down. International concern ineffective. Contrast with MBS’s declared intentions.

Saudi Arabia attaches great importance to its responsibility for the custody of the holy places, above all Mecca and Medina. Muslims of all kinds visit them from all over the world, especially to perform the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage which Muslims are obliged to perform at least once (subject to various exceptions), but also throughout the year to perform the Umra or lesser pilgrimage, as an act of devotion.

This creates a dilemma for the Saudi regime. The Wahhabi tradition rigidly excludes acts which are regarded as idolatry, such as veneration of tombs of prophets and saints. Many tombs and shrines have been demolished; for example the reputed tomb of Eve in Jedda (Jedda means grandmother in Arabic) has been demolished at least twice, once in the 18th and once in the 20th century. But many of the pilgrims, not Wahhabis, are strongly attached to such tombs and shrines and expect to visit them as part of the pilgrimage.

As preparations begin for the Hajj, which this year will be in mid-August, the Saudi ministry of pilgrimage (Hajj and Umra) issued on 18 April an instruction to the travel agents who make arrangements for foreign pilgrims not to include in their programmes visits to Jabal Nur (the Mountain of Light), a steep hill just outside Mecca where according to tradition Muhammad received the first revelation of the Qur’an, on pain of a 5,000 riyal ($1,300) fine. The reasons given include practices of bid’a (innovation, heresy) and shirk (idolatry, polytheism), and also health and safety as pilgrims are said to have fallen on the rocky slopes.

There have been other similar reports. In February the Saudi press reported that four locations frequented by pilgrims in Taif, not far from Mecca, have been demolished, as being associated with practices against the teachings of the Qur’an and the traditions of Muhammad; they include two trees and a rock, and pictures have circulated of pilgrims in ihram (pilgrim costume) kissing and hugging them. A total of about 15 historical sites have reportedly been banned.

The bans have not been officially published, presumably to avoid controversy, but they have become well-known through the social media. One Islamic scholar reports emails from South Africa and UK asking whether the sites have really been banned. The Malaysian newspaper Tribun Kaltim has published the story with the text of the ministry instruction and a travel agency letter banning visits to cemeteries.

Grumbling among pilgrims is of course nothing new. The Times of India reports that pilgrims who have performed Hajj or Umra in the past three years will be charged an additional 2,000 riyals ($530) by the Saudi authorities “a big blow to over 60% of the selected pilgrims in Kerala.” Pilgrims are not organised, and are as a rule unable to make their complaints effective. That may be slightly different this year, first because of the growth of social media and secondly because of the readiness of pro-Qatar media to pick on any complaints against Saudi Arabia. The Doha-based The Peninsula for example reports complaints by returning pilgrims that they were prevented from bringing home holy water from the Zamzam spring or made to pay an exorbitant fee; a video of a Jordanian pilgrim pouring the water on the ground in protest is said to have gone viral.

The initiative taken by the Saudi Ministry is in line with traditional Wahhabi thinking and practice but appears to be contrary to MBS’s declared intention of returning to less intolerant religious practices which he claims existed before 1979.

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