WITH the Islamic month of Shawwal drawing to a close, a key decision confronts the Muslim world: how to proceed with Haj, which is due to start at the end of July. While the Saudi government has not taken a decision yet on whether or not the pilgrimage will go ahead, some Muslim states have announced that they will not be sending hajis this year due to the coronavirus threat. Among these are Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. Of course, the challenge is considerable. Last year, around two million believers made their way to the holy places to perform the annual pilgrimage. Enforcing the SOPs health professionals recommend — especially with regard to social distancing — is next to impossible given the massive number of pilgrims. As it is, the Saudi health authorities put in a huge effort to ensure pilgrims arrive and stay healthy during Haj. With Covid-19 now posing a serious challenge to global health systems, the risks involved with allowing even a limited number of hajis will be considerable, especially when the pilgrims fan out across the world after Haj.

The decision is not easy, but the Saudi government should announce its policy soon for the sake of clarity. Instead of allowing large numbers of people from across the world, perhaps a solution can be found by only allowing a small, symbolic number of locals to perform the key rituals in Makkah, Arafat, Mina, etc so that the religious obligation is fulfilled. Allowing a large number of believers to congregate may complicate the situation further. And even if Saudi Arabia decides to proceed as usual, each Muslim country, including Pakistan, must assess the risks to its own citizens before allowing them to undertake the pilgrimage this year. Perhaps if ulema from different countries and schools of thought are consulted, and the advice of health professionals is kept in view, a solution can be found for the pilgrimage to symbolically go ahead, and ensure that Muslims’ lives are not threatened by Covid-19.

Published in Dawn, June 15th, 2020

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