In early June 2022, Saudi Arabia announced a hajj “lottery” for Western pilgrims that made it mandatory for people from Europe, the Americas, and Australia to apply for visas through a random draw by the Saudi government. supported website. This new website also offered custom and GDP packages while trying to replace the services that tour agencies have been offering for decades.
This year, an estimated 1 million people will perform the hadj, which is considered one of the five pillars in Islam. Under the lottery, only 50,000 permits were allowed from these 50 countries, compared to 25,000 for British Muslims alone in previous years.
The resulting chaos left both pilgrims and travel agencies frustrated. Many Muslims who have already made their plans have found that they cannot re-discuss under the new plan due to, among other things, dysfunctional websites. Several among those who were able to arrive in Saudi Arabia found that the hotel rooms they paid for were no longer available or had been double booked.
The impact extends beyond individual pilgrims. Tourist agencies may lose thousands of dollars in revenue per prospective pilgrim. The cost of hajj packages has been rising around the world for many years. For pilgrims leaving the United States, travel can range from US $ 12,000 to $ 20,000. Eliminating travel agents who act as middlemen can help reduce these costs. But under the new system, the money will be channeled to the Saudi government, which aims to reduce its dependence on oil revenues through an increase in tourism activities. This has sparked an ongoing debate over the commercialization of the hadj under Saudi influence.
While Saudi Arabia tried to eliminate Western tour agencies that were profiting from hadj, their own offerings set out “silver”, “gold” and “platinum” packages, boasting “luxury services”, five-star accommodation in Mecca and Medina, and “Superior campsites equipped with excellent facilities and modern furniture.”
The current changes to the Hajj system are just one example of centuries of economy mingling with tradition. In general, pilgrims try to follow the hajj rituals in the order of the Prophet Muhammad’s own last pilgrimage before his death. Those rituals emphasize the purification of the soul, the release of worldly worries, and the rejection of status distinctions among Muslims, symbolized by the wearing of the white garments worn by all pilgrims. Pilgrims still wear these clothes in service of these purposes, but they also travel to the various sites in luxury high-speed trains and buses.
Also in the past, the commercial, technological and secular aspects of the hadj have been the subject of much debate as to whether it changes the spiritual nature of the pilgrimage. As a scholar of pilgrimages, rituals and Islam, I know that the focus on trade and profits was part of the long history of the hadj.
Early roots of trade and commerce
Across religious traditions, pilgrimages have always had a commercial component. From pilgrimage caravans and markets growing around religious sites to the gifts of relics and souvenirs, religion and commerce are deeply connected.
The hadj is no different. As FE Peters, a leading scholar of Islamic studies, noted in his 1994 significant study of the hajj, the Qur’an itself acknowledges that Muslims were allowed to trade around the pilgrimage: Verse 2: 198 in the Qur’an says, “There no one is blaming you for seeking the grace of your Lord during this journey. ” Quranic commentaries explained this verse as meaning that Islam allows commercial activities before and after the days of Hajj rituals.
As Islam spread, so did trade. While the narrow set of ritual acts of hadj remained, the total pilgrimage experience was shaped by business. For centuries, large overseas caravan routes traveled through Damascus, Cairo, and Baghdad, with merchants attaching themselves to these caravans.
Traders targeted the pilgrims as consumers, and many pilgrims traded themselves to pay their way. Since the trip overland for the hajj trip can take up to two years, pilgrims traded fruits, wine, silk, rugs and other items. They bought goods such as coffee and pearls for their return journey.
A changing world, a changing hadj
The evolution of technology and ways of traveling inevitably brought new economic considerations into the organization of the hadj. The invention of the steamship was central to the development of mass pilgrimages to Mecca in the 19th century – the total number of pilgrims per year increased from an estimated 112,000 participants in 1831 to about 300,000 in 1910.
European shipping companies controlled major pilgrimage routes, connecting hajj with imperial business opportunities. In 1886, the British government enlisted the famous Thomas Cook & Son, the original package holiday entrepreneurs, to become official travel agents of the hadj.
The use of a lucrative tourism company to regulate the hajj may have seemed like a new development, but agents and intermediaries have been central to the process for centuries. The “mutawwifin”, the hereditary guilds of pilgrim guides, gave pilgrims guidance in carrying out the rituals of the hadj and were central in Mecca’s government and its economy.
Over the centuries, these local guides have developed contacts in foreign lands and encouraged Muslims to carry out the pilgrimage. In addition to linguistic and ritual guidance, the mutawwifin would also arrange meals, accommodation and tents – in ways similar to contemporary tour operators.
The modern era
The steamship was just one technological innovation that transformed the hajj landscape into a more commercial enterprise. At the beginning of the 20th century, Sultan Abdul Hamid II of the Ottoman Empire was a staunch supporter of the construction of the Hejaz railway, which was intended to establish a connection between Istanbul, the capital of the Ottoman Empire, and the holy cities. of Mecca and Medina.
Proponents of her case have been working to make the actual transcript of this statement available online.
The establishment of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932 and the eventual replacement of shipping and rail by air transport further transformed the nature of the hadj. The new Saudi state heeded the doctrine of Wahhabism, an Islamic reform movement that emerged in the 1700s that rejected all forms of innovation outside the Koran and the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad in his time.
Despite this condemnation of innovation, the Saudi government oversaw decades of commercial development of the hajj, which encouraged the tourism atmosphere and made significant profits from the obligatory pilgrimage.
Trade or politics?
While the hadj has historically been linked to trade, pilgrims have recently expressed dissatisfaction with the open emphasis on the tourist experience and the feeling that it is now diminishing the spiritual nature of the pilgrimage.
Indeed, commercial income from the hadj remains a controversial and even a political topic. In 2018, Yusuf al Qaradawi, a prominent Muslim Brotherhood clergyman in Qatar, issued a fatwa asking to limit spending on pilgrimages. “To see how Muslims feed hungry people, treat the sick and shelter the homeless is considered by Allah better than spending money on the hadj and umrah every year,” he declared. This statement was seen as an attempt to undermine Saudi Arabia by discouraging Muslims from carrying out the pilgrimage as the revenue goes to the government.
Al Qaradawi’s fatwa has drawn anger from certain circles as all Muslims who are financially and physically capable should try to complete the hadj regardless of any geopolitical sentiment towards Saudi Arabia. Yet there is no doubt that the current hadj has diverted attention to the question of whether the business of hadj remains in line with the original grant to “seek abundance” during the pilgrimage to Islam’s holiest sites.