Saudi authorities have taken the threat from the coronavirus very seriously right from the beginning; and with good reason. For even with the strictest controls in place it is still number 15 in the world in terms of infected persons and one of the most vulnerable places in the Middle East. And it was no surprise that just as much of the country was under curfew for many weeks over the past few months, authorities also took the painful but necessary decision of closing down all sites of religious worship, including all important places in Makkah and Medina. But now that the lockdown has been lifted, and the time has come to decide about the Hajj, Saudi authorities have thought it wise not to allow any foreigners for the pilgrimage this year besides restricting local participation to 1,000 people only.
These are hard decisions, and many millions of Muslims across the world must feel very let down, but these are also very important decisions that need to be understood. By giving in to sentiments and going ahead as usual – last year approximately two million people of all sorts of nationalities, sects, etc, performed the pilgrimage – the only sure result is going to be spreading of the deadly virus throughout the ummah. Surely that is not going to serve any purpose at all. That is why, through our religion’s great history, similar steps have had to be taken a number of times. Muslim citizens of other countries and governments alike must now support the Saudis in their decision. The Hajj is difficult to manage in the best of times, and there are regular reports of unfortunate fires breaking out, or people dying from stampedes. And the threat of the coronavirus this year, even with such reduced numbers, is still going to make management very hard.
There is, however, a very important lesson in all this; not just for Muslims. So many of our committed brothers and sisters, a lot of whom must have been saving over a very long time for this opportunity, are unable to make the journey simply because this virus makes it impossible for even a few people to gather in one space at the same time. Yet there is a way that it can be controlled while the world’s ablest scientists work on a cure. And if all of us follow the most important SOPs (standard operating procedures) then there’s a good chance that we might help bring about better times by the time of the next Hajj.