Hajj 2015: Reflections on the Mina Stampede

Muhammad Hudhud, JHU:

May those who died be at peace, and may their families and friends find solace and rest in the Grace of God. 

What seemed like one of the worst tragedies in Makkah was followed by one of the deadliest in about a quarter-century. Just days before the annual Hajj, one of the many cranes dedicated to expanding Makkah’s Grand Mosque fell on its east side, killing over 100 and injuring a couple hundred more. Saudi state media reported inclement weather as the main contributor, with heavy wind gusts and thunderstorms. A required pilgrimage to Makkah for all physically and financially able Muslims, the Hajj is a once in a life time opportunity (sometimes more) for worshippers to fulfill the rights and obligations enjoined upon them by the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) over 1400 years ago.

But for many this year, their Hajj was stopped short during a stampede in Mina. A few miles out of Makkah, a stampede transpired on a street leading to the multi-leveled Jamarat Bridge, where pilgrims were to go throw stones at pillars, a symbolic gesture of stoning the devil, as one of the final rites of Hajj (see infographic). An official Saudi statement tallied 769 deaths, with over 800 injured. Iran claimed one of the largest shares of deaths, blasting the Saudi government for mishandling the Hajj and claiming that the number of deaths was actually much higher.

Saudi and other Arab media outlets have claimed that rather than poor planning on the government’s end, some pilgrims did not follow their allotted times to go to Jamarat, and instead went early, as their tents were close to the ritual site. The stampede then took place when a group going to the site collided with another group returning.

The fact of the matter is that tragically, stampedes happen all over the world, and Hajj has not been an exception. Wired Magazine Articles Editor Adam Rogers likens the stampede to a ‘fluid dynamics problem,’ explaining different scenarios and where problems may potentially arise. Therefore, the Hajj, with about two million participants every year converging on Makkah, requires the utmost logistical finesse and close surveillance. For perspective, the government deployed about 100,000 in security alone. The Saudi government is not new to massive crowd-control and security, as it has spent over $303 billion since 1992 expanding the Grand Mosque and making it safer.

Like any tragedy of this scale, politics will come into play. Whether or not the Iranians are correct in their assessment of the true number of deaths, their strained relations with the Saudis was even more apparent after the incident. Saudi authorities announced an investigation into the incident, while Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al-Sheikh responded to international criticism with the claim that “Many are envious of the kingdom for its religion, leadership, economy and the cohesion of its members, and for the great blessings it has experienced, unlike many other countries.”

So long as diatribes, claimed to be in the interests of a nation, are hurled back and forth, the lives of those lost will continually be drowned out in political discourse. The larger the number, the greater the potential for pressure on the other. The dehumanization—the diminishing of a human life to a number does little to assuage the families of those who died. I am not an idealist by any means, however the instability of the Middle East, coupled with adjacent nation states frequently blasting each other does little to contribute peace. Hajj season is when Muslims from every part of the world converge to worship and celebrate together. The people who died should not be a stage for any state or authority to prop itself up on, to save face or to accuse. Rather, they should be remembered and honored as those who sought God and returned to Him.

(Image Source: http://wamc.org/post/stampede-strikes-hajj-pilgrimage-near-mecca-killing-hundreds#stream/0)

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