This year’s scaled down hajj is about to start, as pilgrims started arriving in Mecca. Because of the global pandemic, Saudi authorities have reduced the size and scope of this year’s service.
Evry year, the hajj, which begins on Wednesday, draws about 2.5 million people from around the world for five days of intense worship.
However, between 1,000 and 10,000 people already residing in the kingdom will be allowed to perform the pilgrimage this year. Two-thirds of those pilgrims will be from among foreign residents in Saudi Arabia and one-third will be Saudi citizens.
Interestingly, the Saudi government will also take care of the expenses of all pilgrims this year, providing them with meals, hotel accommodation, transportation and health care.
Saudi Arabia has never canceled the hajj in the nearly 90 years since the country was founded.
However, for the first time in Saudi history, no pilgrims from abroad were permitted to take part in the hajj due to concerns about the coronavirus and overcrowding. It’s a stark departure from previous years, when some 2 million pilgrims from more than 160 countries flocked to Mecca for the spiritual rituals, mostly from across Asia and Africa.
Although the hajj often draws all age groups, pilgrims this year were required to be between the ages of 20 and 50, and in good health. The hajj is required of all able-bodied Muslims once in a lifetime.
This year, international media were not given permission to cover the hajj from Mecca.
Also this year, pilgrims must wear face masks and will only be able to drink holy water from the Zamzam well in Mecca that has been prepackaged in plastic bottles. Pebbles for casting away evil that are usually picked up by pilgrims along hajj routes will be sterilized and bagged before being distributed to the pilgrims.
Pilgrims are also bringing their own prayer rugs and will be required to pray at a distance from one another, rather than packed shoulder-to-shoulder.
In an interview with AP, Fatin Daud, a 25-year-old Malaysian who is studying Arabic in Saudi Arabia, said she was among the select few whose application for hajj was approved.
After her selection, Saudi Health Ministry officials came to her home and tested her for the COVID-19 virus. She was then given an electronic bracelet that monitors her movements, and told to quarantine for several days at home.
After that, Daud was moved to a hotel in Mecca, where she remains in self-isolation, still wearing the electronic wristband. A large box of food is delivered to her hotel room three times a day as she prepares to begin the hajj.
“It was unbelievable. It felt surreal because I was not expecting to get it,” she said of her excitement when she found out she was selected. Daud said she’s praying for the end of COVID-19 and for unity among Muslims around the world.
“I am confident that safety measures are being taken and that the only thing that we need to do as pilgrims is follow instructions, and try our best to support each other,” she said.
While self-isolating has been emotionally challenging, Daud said she is part of a group of about 10 Malaysian and Singaporean pilgrims connecting online and sharing tips and religious exercises to keep busy.