Home NewsMiddle East The Hajj experience: Past, Present, Future

The Hajj experience: Past, Present, Future

by Luqmaan Rawat
 A photograph of the Ka’abah in Makkah in 1887 Photo Al Sayyid Abd al Ghaffar / Library of Congress/ The Atlantic 

Saudi Arabia – For centuries, Hajj has been a sacred journey undertaken by millions of Muslims worldwide, symbolising devotion, unity, and spiritual enlightenment. Over time, the experience of performing Hajj has undergone significant transformations, influenced by advancements in technology, infrastructure, and global connectivity. Comparing the pilgrimage of the past with the present reveals a fascinating narrative of change and continuity.

In the past, the journey to go for Hajj was a challenging endeavour. As Islam spread across Europe with the fall of the Persian and Roman empire, Muslims had to embark on lengthy and arduous journeys, traversing vast distances often on foot or by camel. Limited transportation options, scarce resources, and hazardous conditions posed formidable obstacles to those wishing to fulfil their religious duty. Today, modern air travel has reduced travel time, which used to take months either by land or by sea, to a few comfortable hours.


Going for Hajj in the past

Going for Hajj back in the 1900’s wasn’t a lengthy process as it is now, explained Razia Ballim. She and her husband went for Hajj back in 1996, a year after the South African Hajj And Umrah Council (SAHUC) was established. They were part of the last group of people who would ever travel without going through SAHUC first.

“Going for Hajj was less complicated than it is now. There was no need to put your name down on a list or go through SAHUC. We booked with Royal Tours. Got our tickets and visas and were on our way. The only thing we really had to worry about was finding our own accommodation and that kind of thing, but it was less restrictive.”


The journey to Mina and living conditions  

Those who arrive in the blessed lands early usually spend time in the blessed city of Madinah Tul Munawara. When Ballim went, it was as if she was walking in the same city that Nabi (SAW) walked, looking at the same buildings he (SAW) looked at. The city itself had an indescribable feeling as if nothing had changed.

“Walking through the city, the gullies were still there. It was as if you were walking in the old Madinah. The Madinah that Nabi (SAW) lived in. There were no paved roads. It just had this feeling that if you closed your eyes, you could almost believe that you were in that era again. There was that sense of spirituality around.”

As Hajj starts, pilgrims depart for Mina which is their homes for the 8th, 11th and 12th day of the month of Dhul Hijjah. Mina, described as the largest tent city in the world, is very much different today than it was 25 years ago. The tents are equipped with kitchens, bathrooms and Wudhu (ablution) stations. The tents themselves are made with Teflon-coated fibreglass cloth resistant to heat and are linked to each other via paved, illuminated and signposted corridors. Each tent is connected to a special cooling system.


“The tents in Mina were small. About twenty South African women used to sleep in one tent on either blankets, thin mats or thin mattresses. The men and women’s sections were separate, but we were still grouped by nationality. There were no kitchen facilities and stuff in the tents and Wudhu facilities were public and away from the tent.”

The tents in those days were made of cotton, which meant the tents could get very hot at times. However, there were containers all around the campsite filled with the blessed water of Zamzam and some were filled with Zamzam and dry ice, according to Ballim.


Arafat and pelting the Jamarat

At Muzdalifah, the pilgrims would gather pebbles for the next part of Hajj which is to pelt the Jamarat. Something which was not easy to do as there wasn’t much light available in those days. What we know as the Jamarat today is not how it used to be days long past. Now, there is the Jamarat Bridge which was designed to help with the large crowds.

“When we went, it was all level. There was no Jamarat Bridge, and the pillars were much smaller. People would sometimes get hit by others who were throwing stones and some people did get hurt. It was in a building like it is now.”


The Jamarat Bridge, which was constructed over a three-year period by more than 11 000 workers, is 950 metres long and has six floors, including the basement, with a height of 12 metres per floor. Each floor can absorb up to 120 000 pilgrims per hour. It has 12 entrances, 12 exit roads from four directions, two tunnels, 19 ramps, escalators, emergency exits, helipads, six service buildings, and an air-conditioning system with water sprinklers to cool the atmosphere and reduce the area’s temperature to 29°C. This wonder of engineering was not around in 1996 as it is today. Pilgrims back then entered from one side and exited from the other with no cooling system in place.


Makkah Al-Mukarramah

The blessed city of Makkah Al-Mukarramah has also changed in that time. The iconic Fairmont Makkah Clock Royal Tower and the huge hotels that surround Masjid al-Haram did not exist. Even the restaurants that people love so much were not present at that time.

“The clock tower wasn’t around, and the land surrounding Masjid al-Haram was not as congested as it is now. It was scenic and the Ka’bah was there with nothing to distract you, in a way, from its majestic and spiritual beauty. Makkah was also different as the only restaurants or take-aways one could find was owned by the locals. There weren’t any, to my memory, franchise restaurants around.”


Social media and communication 

Today, technology and widespread internet connectivity have transformed the way information is disseminated and received. When pilgrims land in Jeddah, in fact even before that, every step of their pilgrimage is documented. Sometimes while in front of the Ka’bah, a person has their phone out to take a selfie or make a video.

“In that time technology like this didn’t exist. There was only one way to get in touch with people quickly and it was through the extinct public phone. That was also not a very good option because there weren’t many around and as such, the lines were extremely long to even use one. On top of that, everyone was busy in some sort of ibabaat. There wasn’t anything to distract them or turn away their attention from Allah (SWT). 


The future of Hajj

With over 1.8 billion Muslims worldwide looking to perform the pilgrimage at least once in their lifetime, the age-old question of accommodating pilgrims from across the world is more pressing than ever before. In order to answer this question, the Saudi Arabian government is turning towards technology. In 2020, two Saudi Arabian researchers registered a patent to generate and store electricity gathered by walking pilgrims. In 2021 the Hajj saw disinfectant robots and app-based schedules to prevent crowding. By 2030, the Saudi Kingdom hopes to welcome 30 million Muslims to perform Hajj. Various plans are in place including upgrading the Haram Sharif as well as creating larger spaces for accommodation in Mina and Arafat. 

As time progresses, the experience of Hajj has evolved, adapting to the changing needs and aspirations of pilgrims. While the fundamental essence of the pilgrimage remains unchanged, technological advancements, improved accessibility, enhanced communication, and prioritised safety have revolutionised the journey. However, these advances should not distract one from their main objective, the reason for being in such a blessed land. These advances have been made to ensure that pilgrims are fully focused on the objective of Hajj, full focused on making the most of their time. As these changes continue, we must use them to full benefit to ensure every minute we get is spent in the remembrance of Allah (SWT).

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