View of part of the Fujairah Corniche and the Hajar Mountains in the Background

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Should the UAE Urge Postponement of Pilgrim Plans for Hajj Due to Swine Flu?

Frail Urged to Skip Hajj
At the end of last month (30 June 2009), international health experts recommended that children, pregnant women, the elderly and those with chronic diseases should cancel their plans to go on the annual Hajj (حج) pilgrimage to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in order to prevent them catching the H1N1 virus (swine flu).

Bahrainis Shelving Hajj Plans
Now (6 July 2009), all Bahrainis have been urged by the head of their Hajj Medical Committee to abandon their pilgrimage plans in 2009, after four new cases of swine flu surfaced this week.

Government Decision
Should the UAE authorities decree or discourage Muslims from making the pilgrimage this year (25-29 November 2009) or is it best left as a decision for each pilgrim and the visa authorities in the KSA?

Is it too much of a health hazard to have 3 million pilgrims from many countries of the world converging en masse in Mecca and Medina, let alone the logistics of the quarantine procedures that would have to be established in the event of a high Hajj infection?

Does the magnitude of the health risk suggest that it is best for governments around the world to make rulings on this matter rather than leaving it to individuals to decide?

Would the pilgrims be also putting their own people at risk by going to the Hajj in good health and returning home with the infection?

Diseases have raged throughout history raising these important issues many times before. Medical science and prevention measures have improved enormously but David Edwin Long notes that the world cholera epidemic of 1865 began at the Hajj, with an estimated 15,000 of 90,000 Hajjis dying; 60,000 in Egypt subsequently died; and by the time the disease had spread to Europe and on to New York six months later, over 200,000 had died in large cities alone. (David Edwin Long, The Hajj Today New York: State University of NY Press, 1979, 69)

Denial of the Faith?
Would the abandonment of pilgrimage plans be a denial of submission to the goodness and protection of Allah who promises blessings to Hajj pilgrims? (Quran 9:28)

Would the severe reduction of pilgrims diminish the sense of solidarity that the Hajj creates?

Would a mass canceling of travel plans declare to the world that disease has won over divine protection?

It would certainly be a dent to the Saudi economy which, even a few years ago, was reaping well over US$1.5 billion each year from the Hajj, with a substantial proportion of this income being earned on the rental of rooms to pilgrims.

It should be noted that the Saudi government has been doing all that it can to keep the Hajj disease-free. Seed Magazine reports, “Over the years it [the KSA] has taken seriously the threat posed by emerging infectious diseases like avian flu, SARS, and Ebola, none of which has a vaccine to immunize against it. When the Ebola virus killed 170 Ugandans in 2001, Saudi Arabia banned all pilgrims from that country until the extent of the threat became clear.”

Quranic Concessions
While the Quran says (Quran 3:97) that making the Hajj is a “duty men owe to God” and is incumbent on everyone, it is not obligatory for children, the sick, and those who are unable to bear the expenses for the Hajj.

It might be a logical and sensible suggestion to infer from this that the possibility of succumbing to disease because of the potential for a pandemic is a holy and valid reason not to make the pilgrimage. Furthermore, the Quran is realistic about pitfalls and hurdles that might thwart the plans of the pilgrim when it says, “Complete the Hajj or Umra in the service of God, but if you are prevented…” (Quran 2:196)

If You are Prevented
There are Quranic requirements and suggestions for those unable or those who decide not to make the pilgrimage but there are a number of creative things that national and local communities could schedule to make up for what is lost—special observances, communal and online meetings and encouraging people to undertake a Virtual Hajj.

What Do You Think?
Calling off the Hajj should be a government decision, a personal decision or a matter decided by KSA visa authorities in accordance with the incidents of swine flu and level of prevention measures in the pilgrim’s country?

When on Hajj, Wear a Facemask, Seed Magazine.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Hajjis praying at the Grand Mosque in Mecca.