How Saudi authorities averted recurrence of 2015 Hajj fatalities

Muslim pilgrims circle counterclockwise Islam's holiest shrine, the Kaaba, at the Grand Mosque in the Saudi holy city of Mecca, during the 2015 Hajj. AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH

Muslim pilgrims circle counterclockwise Islam’s holiest shrine, the Kaaba, at the Grand Mosque in the Saudi holy city of Mecca, during the 2015 Hajj. AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH

Several Nigerian Muslim families wore melancholic looks around this time, last year. The sad experience was occasioned by the twin tragedies recorded in the holy city of Makkah, almost in quick succession. Consequently, there was a sudden increase in the number of widows, widowers, orphans and others with various dimensions of bereavement among Muslims across the world and Nigeria was not an exception. One of the two tragedies was the crane crash recorded in the open prayer ground of the Grand Mosque known as the Holy Ka’bah while the other concerns the numerous fatalities of the pebble casting rite at the Jamaraat.

There were both name-calling and blame-apportioning and the Saudi Hajj authorities were brazen and horrendous in “enlightening” the world about the “true story” of the tragedies. Notwithstanding, the two incidents of fatalities and almost irreparable casualties continued to earn the Saudi Hajj authorities pen-bashing and tongue-lacerations for a long time thereafter. It may be stated for the record that the present writer did not equivocate in interrogating the Saudi stance as he lent his voice to the international discourse generated in that regard by contributing several articles published in some of the leading outlets in Nigeria and overseas.

Almost instantaneously, the Saudi Hajj authorities remorsefully began to address the various issues emerging from the comments and debates attracted by the accidents. Now that the 2016 hajj rites have been concluded without a recurrence of the last year’s tragedy at the Jamaraat, it behoves a critical mind to ask, what were the measures involved?

Four main measures may be enumerated among several others minor ones. One of such measures was strict implementation by the Saudi authorities of the departmentalization of the hi-tech Jamaraat Bridge into six levels to ensure smooth flow of pilgrims for the pebble-casting rite, in a manner that has no potential to facilitate overcrowding or stampedes.

The strength of this measure lies in the dispersal of several thousands of pilgrims at various levels of the Jamaraat Bridge for the purpose of connecting them to the roads and streets that lead easily to their destinations, after the performance of the rite. This arrangement is not really a new measure. Effective implementation was rather the missing link in previous hajj operations. Another measure was the enhanced level of monitoring involved in the scheduling for movement to Jamaraat. Again, the measure is not new altogether. Rather, the degree of efficacy offered by the measure this year was essentially an instrumentality of the enhanced quality in the performance of the Saudi Hajj coordinators technically called “mutawwifun”. The heart of the argument here is that there had always been some degree of nonchalance in the handling of the Jamaraat schedule by both the Saudi Hajj coordinators and state hajj officials from various countries, even though there also had always been some exceptions.

Three, and most importan, the elaborate re-engineering of hajj operations by the Saudi authorities in a fashion that altered the landscape of rites especially with regard to the status of each ritual performed at specific sanctuaries. This is where Saudi Arabia recently did the most impressive job and offered the most creative interventions in consonance with the available body of Islamic jurisprudential provisions.

As regards the Jamaraat-related safety and security measures taken by the Saudi Hajj authorities, it should be noted that that is really where Saudi Arabia deserves plaudits for performing up to global expectations. The Saudi Ministry of Hajj and Umrah has embarked on an aggressive campaign of various orientations and directed its organs such as the establishments for Hajj coordination to implement fully all the measures targeted at facilitating an accident-free pebble casting at the Jamaraat. The present writer has the honour of being charged with the responsibility of translating from Arabic to English some of the highly sophisticated instruments developed for that purpose. The outcome of this year’s hajj operations, with regard to Saudi performance, may arguably be a testimony to the efficacy of such instruments. Having been so critical of the perceived deficiencies in the Saudi performance in the year that witnessed huge fatalities, the present writer deems it fair enough to expose some of the strengths that have now supplanted the weaknesses of the recent past. Hence the rationale for what follows.

Saudi Hajj authorities hold that Islam is committed to the elimination of discomfort from human life. They argue that that explains why it seeks to protect the human soul against destruction and prevent the occurrence of anything capable of ruining it. They maintain that it is pursuant to such a rationale that Allah permits eating from a lifeless animal in the absence of food, given that such an exigency permits the prohibited so that the forbidden becomes permissible, owing to the constraint involved.

The Saudi Hajj authorities believe that the ever increasing population of pilgrims on an annual basis has culminated in the stampeded nature of Muna during the pebble casting rite on the ‘Id day (10th of Dhul-Hijjah) and the following three days of the same month, noting that this experience has led to injuries and fatalities.

They rationalize that there is an urgent need to embrace discomfort-eliminating provisions of Islam with regard to the rites involved. This necessitates an arrangement for a stay at Muzdalifa till midnight, as prescribed by the Holy Prophet Muhammad, before advancing to Muna for pebble casting. They argue that this provision has the potential to prevent stampede and exposure of pilgrims to excessive heat especially in the face of high temperature. As for those who remain in Muzdalifa till daybreak, they are advised to return to their tents in Muna, in order to avoid a stampede, and thereafter leave to for pebble casting in consonance with the schedule carefully and painstakingly prepared by the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah, in the interest of pilgrims.

Concerning pebble casting during the three days that follow the day of ‘Id, they observe that road and human congestion is normally occasioned by the insistence of most pilgrims to perform this rite immediately after mid day especially on the 12th of Dhul-Hijjah owing to most pilgrims’ wander-lust to perform the rite early in order to disperse before sunset. The Saudi Hajj coordinators find no strain in identifying this as one of the factors instrumental to several injuries and fatalities, as well as unbearable discomfort.

They are of the opinion that the Islamic Law does not favour the hurting and inconveniencing of mankind especially during acts of worship. This, they believe, makes mandatory the articulation of Shari’a provisions in that regard for the purpose of enlightening the pilgrims about such provisions in order to facilitate a gentle and tranquil observance of Hajj rites.

They rely on the fact that the Holy Prophet and all the prophets before him emphasized the virtue of protecting human soul against discomfort and destruction and the fact that the Almighty Allah enjoined this in the Qur’an where He says “Do not expose yourselves to destruction by your own hands”. The implication of this, in their estimation, is that any act or action contravening the protection of human soul is reprehensible.

Along this line, the Holy Prophet was reported as casting his pebbles after mid day, even though he did not prevent the observance of the rite at an earlier time of the day nor did he stipulate a terminal time for the rite. This accounts for the divergent nature of opinions in stipulating the timing for pebble casting, among jurists and leaders of Islamic theological thoughts. In specific terms, the Saudi Hajj authorities rely on Islamic jurisprudential provisions articulated below.

Imam Baqir favours pebble casting after sunrise while Atta’ and Tawuus whose opinion was favoured by Rafi’iyy and Isnawiyy among the Shafi’ites, permit its performance before mid day. Ibn Al-Jawziyy and Ibn ‘Aqeel, both of Hambalite orientation, favour the same position. However, Imam Abu Hanifah maintains that the time of pebble casting starts shortly before mid day and continues till dawn even though he has a second opinion to the effect that it is permissible to observe it before mid day. To Imam Shafi’iyy, the timing starts from mid day and extends till the sunset of the 13th of Dhul-Hijjah.

Given that the lives of pilgrims are a trust to Hajj coordinators, Saudi authorities enjoin them to equip pilgrims and their guides with these Shari’a provision in order to facilitate pilgrims’ comfort. It is instructive to note that is not the best to be closed-minded in the articulation of Hajj rules to pilgrims in a fashion capable of exposing them to danger, which is why it is permissible to embrace the most convenient of all the opinions offered in that connection. A superior argument is determined by the circumstances surrounding the experience involved. So, Muslims are enjoined to be promoters of glad-tidings and do not make Islam inconsiderable.

The Holy Prophet was known for his practice of embracing the most convenient of all issues.

Accordingly, the Saudi Hajj authorities promoted the fact that it is not mandatory to cast the pebble immediately after mid-day especially when the path is crowded and mammoth.

• Dr. Ahmad Rufai is Ag. Dean, Faculty of Education, Sokoto State University, Sokoto



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