My friend Khan is in Makkah for Hajj yet again. He says he was in Mina for Ramy al-Jamarat (Ritual Stoning of the Devil) when a tragic stampede claimed nearly a thousand lives this year. Besides those killed, more than 800 were reported injured. It was the deadliest day for the Hajj since more than 1,400 pilgrims suffocated in a crowded tunnel near Mecca in 1990, also on the day of the stoning of the devil ritual, according to a National Geographic report.
Even though Hajj is required only once in a lifetime, my pious friend Khan has far exceeded this requirement. He has been to Mecca for the annual pilgrimage every year for more than decade. He proudly announces his presence in Mecca and posts his Hajj pictures on Facebook as his Hajj count rises every year.
While I admire Khan's annual reaffirmation of faith, I also question whether he is contributing to the rising crowds and recurring tragedies in Makkah. Let me explain:
As the world's Muslim population has grown to nearly 2 billion people and the faithful enjoy rising incomes and easy access to air travel, there has been a tremendous increase in the number of people performing Hajj. The rituals associated with it require the presence of all of the pilgrims in a relatively small space within a short period of time. This requirement puts tremendous pressure on the Saudi government to ensure flawless movement of millions of pilgrims. There is very little margin for error. Even small errors of the administrators or poor judgment of only a few of the millions of pilgrims in this monumental exercise get amplified leading to major loss of life. This has become almost a regular feature of Hajj with tragic deaths.
The obvious include adding more capacity to handle more pilgrims and/or limiting the number of people permitted to perform Hajj each year.
1. Adding Capacity:
The Saudi government has been spending tens of billions of dollars to increase capacity at the Grand Mosque in Makkah, the tent city in Mina and the Jamarat where the stampede occurred as pilgrims prepared to throw pebbles at three pillars representing big, medium and small Satan. More levels have been added around the Grand Mosque for tawaf (circling around the Kaba). The height of the Jamarat has been increased and a multi-level structure built to accommodate more people simultaneously.
Mina Tent City
A large number of cranes visible in Makkah confirm the continuing massive construction projects undertaken by the Saudi government. In fact, the earlier deaths in the Grand Mosque occurred when one of the construction cranes crashed down on the people performing Tawaf around the Kaba.
2. Limit Pilgrims:
Since Hajj is required to be performed only once in a lifetime, it makes sense for the Saudi government to limit how often visas/permissions are granted to people to perform Hajj. In my view, the Saudis should impose once in five years restriction on issuance of Hajj visas.
In addition, the Saudis should enlist the help of religious leaders to persuade pilgrims to stagger the pebble-throwing ritual. Many pilgrims, particularly those from South Asia region, believe that they must follow the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) by doing Jamarat (pebble throwing) at zawal time, the time between Zuhr (high noon) and Asr (mid-afternoon). This limits the amount of time for this ritual to just a few hours. The religious leaders should issue fatwas (edicts) making it permissible to do Jamarat any time from sunrise to sunset. This will reduce the number of people present near the Jamarat and reduce the chances of tragic stampedes.
Crowd Control Examples:
Specific circumstances for each tragic incident at Hajj may vary but the underlying cause remains the same: Capacity overload with too many people in a single space at one time. There'll be more such incidents unless this underlying cause is addressed.
In more developed nations of the West, maximum capacities are posted for all venues. These are strictly enforced for safety reasons. The closest thing to Hajj crowds in California is Disneyland with maximum capacity of 65,000 people. When more than 65,000 people showed up for Disneyland's Diamond Jubilee celebration earlier this year, Disney management closed the park. When Eid crowd exceeded capacity at Santa Clara Convention Center last year, the city Fire Department ordered everyone out to enforce the fire code.
Urgent actions are needed to prevent more and bigger Hajj tragedies with increasing Muslim population and greater demand for Hajj. Increasing capacity alone will not work; the Saudis must also limit the number of people permittec to perform Hajj each year. These actions will make Hajj safe for all in future years.