The diary of a Saudi man, currently living in the United Kingdom, where the Religious Police no longer trouble him for the moment.

In Memory of the lives of 15 Makkah Schoolgirls, lost when their school burnt down on Monday, 11th March, 2002. The Religious Police would not allow them to leave the building, nor allow the Firemen to enter.

Saturday, January 07, 2006


On a sombre note, this year's annual Hajj pilgrimage has been marred by the collapse of a hotel in Makkah, with the death toll currently at 76. May God have mercy on their souls.

The Hajj is one of the five Pillars of Islam, a pilgrimage that is an annual event, and an obligation for every able-bodied Muslim to undertake at least once in their life. It is a very spiritual occasion for all concerned, visiting the central sites of our religion in the company of fellow-pilgrims from around the world.

Unfortunately, it is often accompanied by tragedy.
In 2004, 251 were killed and 254 were injured during a stampede.
In 1998, 118 were trampled to death in one incident.
In 1997, 343 were killed and 1500 injured as the result of a fire in a tent city.
In 1994, a stampede killed 270.
In 1990, a stampede inside a pedestrian tunnel killed 1426

All of these incidents were related directly or indirectly to the large numbers involved, and the relatively small area thru which they travel. This year, there will be an estimated two million pilgrims in the Makkah area, an extremely small city. At various times the pilgrims are going to the central Mosque and circling the Kaaba, walking between the two hills of Safa and Marwah, or, the most dangerous part, converging to throw stones at 3 pillars in Mina. There are extensive tunnels and underpasses to handle the crowds, but stampedes and crushes are unfortunately inevitable, whatever measures are taken.

What our various "Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques" Kings, or religious establishment, never seem to consider, is whether this annual pilgrimage can continue to be viable in its present form. Probably because it's a fundamental pillar of our religion, it seems to be a taboo subject, it just never seems to get discussed.

Back in the early centuries, when there were only tens or hundreds of thousands of Muslims, it wasn't an issue. All of them could make, had they been able, the pilgrimage once or several times in their lifetime. The major inhibitor was the journey time - weeks of camel travel from the outlying areas of Muslim habitation. Difficult transport was pretty much the situation until the last century, when the Ottoman Turks built their railway all the way down into Arabia.

But things are different now. Queues of 747's fly into Jeddah's North Terminal, disgorging hundreds at a time, at a cost and a journey time that is a fraction of what it was. And even though Muslim populations are on average amongst the poorest in the world, gradually increasing living standards coupled with decreasing air travel costs make it more and more possible.

I presume someone, somewhere, has done the basic arithmetic. The current Muslim population is 1.6 billion. Even assuming no population growth, then at that date in the future when they can all afford the airfare, and generously assuming a 70-year lifespan, during 60 of which they can travel, and assuming that each Muslim makes the trip only once in their lifetime (the better-off currently do it several times), then that would generate

26.7 million pilgrims each year

That compares to approximately two million at the moment. Ok it wouldn't happen this decade, or the next, but I've made some very favorable assumptions about life expectancy and population growth.

In fact it wouldn't happen at all, because no matter how many tunnels and overpasses we build, we simply won't get a crowd the size of half the population of England into an area the size of London's West End, and converging onto stone some pillars in an area the size of Piccadilly Circus. It's just not physically possible.

So at some point in the not-too-distant-future, someone is going to have to make a decision:

- Do we waive the requirement on every able-bodied Muslim to perform Hajj once in their lifetime?

- do we make it a regular (say monthly) rather than annual event?

- both?

This brings us to two issues.

- The Hajj obligation is right there in the Quran, no if's or but's.

- A recognised leader of the religion needs to be able to reintepret it, or modify it, or something. And we don't have one of those. As Pope Benedict himself said recently (and if you get the chance, read the whole thing, thanks nahncee) in discussion with some scholars.

....in the Islamic tradition, God has given His word to Mohammed, but it's an eternal word. It's not Mohammed's word. It's there for eternity the way it is. There's no possibility of adapting it or interpreting it, whereas in Christianity, and Judaism, the dynamism's completely different, that God has worked through His creatures. And so, it is not just the word of God, it's the word of Isaiah, not just the word of God, but the word of Mark. He's used His human creatures, and inspired them to speak His word to the world, and therefore by establishing a Church in which he gives authority to His followers to carry on the tradition and interpret it, there's an inner logic to the Christian Bible, which permits it and requires it to be adapted and applied to new situations....

....and this is from a Catholic point of view, there's no one to interpret the Koran officially. The Catholic Church has an official interpretor, which is the Holy Father with the bishops.

Well, we can all argue the theology of that from now till Doomsday, but the fact is that the Pope, if he so chooses, can make things change within a substantial portion of the Christian Church. Whereas we have no "Pope", in fact no one comparable.

However, whilst not an immediate problem, it won't go away. We can't just ignore it like the invention of musical instruments, and stick to our tambourines. Sooner or later, someone will need to make a decision.

But it won't be me. So I'll shut up for now.

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