As we hear news of more than seven hundred dead in Mecca, one can predict two kinds of reactions: there will be regret, of course, about the huge loss of life; but there will also be a barely concealed critique of the faith, which will be held responsible for causing such fanaticism as to lead to stampedes on a regular basis. This latter argument is especially visible in the readers’ comments under news articles on the tragedy. ‘Countrynewsman’, for example, notes in his comments on an LA Times story that ‘It is tragic, but an example of religious fanaticism…’.
From the historian’s point of view, this reaction is not new. We have plenty of European descriptions, from the nineteenth century onwards, of the ‘fanaticism’ that grips the Hajjis (pilgrims) from the moment they reach the Holy Land. To European observers, the shrill chants of ‘Labaig’ (I’m here), or the overabundance of emotion amongst pilgrims (with many of them crying freely), or the ritual of ‘stoning the devil’ must have appeared extraordinary.
Yet, when one thinks from the pilgrim’s perspective, these strong emotional reactions appear perfectly understandable. After all, the Hajj in the nineteenth century was a very difficult journey that only a few fortunate ones could afford to make. People saved their entire lives to make the trip and, on their return, were accorded a privileged status within their communities. In several regions, Hajjis drew scenes from the pilgrimage on the walls of their homes, or hung ‘Hajj certificates’ on their walls, to claim an elevated status. In fact, Hajjis often came back to their villages or towns having been completely transformed as individuals, with a deeper understanding of the faith and of the Muslim world. 1
With the onset of air travel the pilgrimage has, of course, changed beyond recognition. Whereas Mecca received only about quarter of a million pilgrims during some particularly good years at the end of the nineteenth century, it now receives nearly one and a half million Hajjis annually. The numbers have also swelled up because several governments not only arrange special flights for the pilgrims, but also provide subsidies to those who would not be able to afford the trip on their own. 2
To be fair, the Saudi government has been making constant investments into Mecca over the last few decades in order to deal with the growing numbers. From the Saudi state’s point of view, ensuring a good Hajj every year is essential if it is to claim leadership of the Muslim world. That these stampedes continue to happen despite regular improvements to safety shows the extent to which the pilgrimage has grown in the last few decades.
While stampedes and other accidents have become more frequent, the death toll in Mecca in fact appears to have diminished considerably when we make a comparison with the nineteenth century. During this earlier period most of the mortality was caused by cholera, which broke out with great frequency from the 1860s onwards. In fact, the disease was so pervasive in Mecca that the holy city began to be seen as the nodal point from which cholera epidemics spread out into European territories. Thankfully, the disease stopped claiming lives of pilgrims from the early twentieth century onwards. Sadly, despite this, Mecca continues to be in the news for its huge death tolls.
Saurabh Mishra is Lecturer in History at the University of Sheffield. His doctoral thesis was on the Hajj from South Asia, which was published as a monograph entitled Pilgrimage,Politics and Pestilence: The Haj from the Indian Subcontinent, 1860-1920 (Oxford, 2011).
Image: The Grand Mosque during night prayers in Mecca, 2009. ©Al Jazeera English via Flickr
- Colonial records talk about pilgrims becoming ‘politicised’ (or ‘radicalised’, if we want to use the latest terminology). Such concerns continue to be raised even today. ↩
- The question of subsidies has been a huge political issue in several countries, especially in India, where right-wing Hindu sections create a controversy over it during almost every Hajj season. ↩