To complete the Hajj is the pinnacle of Islamic worship, required once in the lifetime of every able-bodied Muslim who can afford the journey. In its 1,400-year history, the annual pilgrimage has been canceled dozens of times, by wars, political strife and pandemics. As I found out when I made the journey, it is a swirling sea of humanity: some 2.5 million visiting Mecca over a few days, from all over the world.
When the COVID crisis came, worship was suspended. But then something was attempted that would have once seemed impossible: carrying on the tradition, but under digitally monitored social distancing. The results were extraordinary.
A pilgrimage famous for its sheer enormity, ever-moving mêlée and sometimes life-threatening stampedes was this year turned into a choreographed event of balletic precision. Instead of the millions of ‘Guests of God’ from more than 180 nations, the Hajj was limited to 1,000 pilgrims, each chosen at random from an electronic dataset.
Only one third were Saudis, the majority being foreign residents in the Kingdom from overseas. A third were healthcare workers who had been involved in treating victims of COVID-19. Each was tested for the virus, then quarantined, tested again and then tagged with an electronic bracelet which, together with a dedicated app, was used to monitor their movements and health status.
When I made Hajj I periodically stopped to drink from the faucets of the holy Zamzam well. This time, the well was off limits — a clear COVID risk — but the water was instead served in sanitary containers. That part was easy enough. The 99-acre Grand Mosque is colossal — there were almost a million inside its walls when I made Hajj, and more than 1.5 million spilling into the surrounding courtyards. The complex has since been expanded and today can accommodate four million worshippers at once.
But among the most arduous ritual both opening and closing the Hajj comes in the Tawaf: seven times anti-clockwise around the black-clad Kaaba (the building that the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims pray towards five times a day). How to do this and avoid disease transmission? The answer was to have 3,500 workers sterilize the area and then ask the pilgrims to all walk at the same speed and at a one-and-a-half meter distance from each other. When videos of this went around the world, it made for some of the most hypnotic images of the Hajj in living memory; something at once medieval and modern.
Normally, accommodation is chaotic and crowded. At my Hajj I slept in a large tent with more than 60 other women in a ‘tent city’ which housed all 2.5 million pilgrims. This time, the Saudi government covered the costs for pilgrims, including hotel rooms, where they were served prepackaged meals. Their every socially distanced move was planned, and they were limited to groups of 20 with an assigned health leader. An age limit of 50 was imposed. This year, I would have been too old to make the cut.
Watching these scenes from New York, where I have been working as an intensive care doctor with COVID patients, brought back the point of pilgrimage. Yes, there are risks: a Saudi citizen returning from religious pilgrimages in Iran is thought to have introduced COVID to the Kingdom. So why bother with journeys of faith in a time of virus, you might ask, whether it’s to the local church or Mecca? Why not just watch it on TV? The answer is: because so often the whole point of faith is to go out of your way to worship God — to gather together with others. Watching a YouTube video is no alternative.
I was humbled to see the resilience and resourcefulness deployed to continue the Hajj. At a time when few of us are at liberty to gather and pray together as we once did — in a church, synagogue or mosque — there was something to be said for using whatever digital tools lie at our disposal to keep old traditions alive.