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Islam's annual pilgrimage to Mecca changing with the times

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 15 2013 8:23 p.m. MDT

Muslim pilgrims pray on a rocky hill called the Mountain of Mercy on the Plain of Arafat near the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Thursday, Oct. 25, 2012. Saudi authorities say around 3.4 million pilgrims — some 1.7 million of them from abroad — have arrived in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina for this year's pilgrimage. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

Hassan Ammar, ASSOCIATED PRESS

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An estimated 2 million faithful Muslims have converged on Saudi Arabia this week to observe the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca — an event that all Muslims who are financially and physically able should do once in their lifetime.

But reports on this year's pilgrimage point out that the usual financial and physical limitations aren't the only obstacles keeping some Muslims from around the world from observing one of the five pillars of Islam.

This year, an outbreak of a deadly respiratory virus and construction in Mecca reduced the numbers of adherents by 1 million from last year, the Associated Press reported.

"Saudi authorities sharply cut back on visas for groups such as the elderly, pregnant women and those with chronic illnesses as a precaution against a new respiratory virus related to SARS that has killed more than 50 people in the kingdom this past year," the AP story stated. "The Saudi health minister, Abdullah al-Rabiah, said late Saturday that no cases of the coronavirus infection have been detected among pilgrims.

"Further visa restrictions were imposed because of massive construction projects underway in Mecca."

The Economist noted that modern transportation has made it easier for Muslims to make the trek to Mecca from anywhere in the world — but that has also introduced its own set of problems in observing hajj.

The Saudi government controls the number of hajj visas issued to a given country. Renovations to the main mosque so it can accommodate more people was one of the reasons the numbers were restricted this year.

"Next year the renovations should mean more visas once again," the Economist reported. "But the growing number of Muslims, and growing prosperity in many Muslim countries, means the backlog is likely to grow: South Africa recently announced that citizens on the waiting list may face another six years before they get a slot."

The story mentioned a few other modern innovations that make the pilgrimage tolerable with the crushing crowds and oppressive heat, when the observance happens during summer months.

But those modern amenities such as five-star hotels, spas and mobile apps that explain the daily rituals one must fulfill while in Mecca have their drawbacks, lamented Doha Shata in the Arab News.

"As with any annual event that grows over time, hajj has become a complex, carefully choreographed ritual that leaves little wriggle room to include some of the simple traditions of the past," Shata wrote.

He quotes several old-timers who recalled the pilgrimage during simpler times when only tens of thousands made the trip.

One tradition, called Gais, involved women and children who stayed behind in Mecca to bake pastries, wear costumes and celebrate while the men trekked to the holy sites.

"The modern world has affected the custom of Gais, especially since older neighborhoods have been replaced by hotels near the Grand Mosque,” one (Mecca) resident told Shata. “However, some surviving older neighborhoods continue with Gais.”

Email: mbrown@deseretnews.com

Twitter: @deseretbrown

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