Belgians head to Mecca in droves

  • The great Muslim pilgrimage began on Sunday.
  • Because of the coronavirus outbreak, exceptional security and health-related measures have been taken.
  • Thousands of Belgians have made the trip.

 

Nearly two million Muslims have been gathering since Sunday for the Hajj, the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. The media coverage of the annual ritual has become somewhat of a ritual itself, as journalists who are often unfamiliar with Islam attempt to describe the influx of people in the Valley of Mina. So just who are the Belgian pilgrims, and how do they arrange their trip?

 

As they do with every country, the Saudi Arabians establish quotas to limit the number of pilgrims and ensure greater security. This year, authorities reduced the number of visas issued to religious travelers by 20%, due to major construction work aimed at accommodating greater numbers in Mecca, but also because of the threats posed by the corona virus, a deadly respiratory infection.

 

It has been impossible, however, to obtain the exact Belgian quota, as the embassy refuses to release such figures. If, as is widely accepted, Saudi Arabia provides authorization to 1,000 pilgrims per million inhabitants, the number for Belgium would be in the region of 10,000. In practice, the average annual number of pilgrims from the Kingdom is thought to be around 4,000 believers.

 

It is mainly couples who go, according to the Belgian Islamic Cultural Center Centre. The fifth pillar of Islam must be undertaken by able-bodied Muslims once in their lives. Children can accompany their parents, but given the price of the pilgrimage – between €3,000 and €5,000 per head when booking through an approved agency – it is actually quite unusual for whole families to make the trip.

 

For the last few years, Saudi Arabia has been keen to exert even more control over the organization of the huge event. It is now forbidden for any pilgrim to travel alone and bypass an approved agency. In cases where the organizers do not come to Belgium to verify that their rules are being respected, agencies must provide them with numerous assurances (e.g. a license and proof of the ability to print its own tickets). The manager of one of these agencies, Ramada Tours, notes the “enormous effort” put forth by Saudi Arabia in this area: “In the past, people went to see the local butcher who knew something about it and gave them a hand. Today, the Saudi ministry forces every pilgrim to go through an official agency. Of course, there is always abuse of the system, but they’re doing everything they can to stamp it out.”

 

While the pilgrimage in and of itself only lasts five days, the travel industry representative explains that people who invest in such a voyage usually depart for a month. During that time period they have the opportunity to take part in the ‘major pilgrimage’ and ‘minor pilgrimage’, which they would not have had the chance to do during Ramadan. This two-pronged option, known as Umrat al-tammatu, requires the offering of a sacrifice.

 

It is also referred to as the ‘pilgrimage of pleasure’ in the Koran, which allows couples to have sexual relations in between the two journeys, something that is forbidden during the traditional ritual. The reason for this is that the pilgrimage must be followed to the letter in order to cleanse believers of their sins and to purify them. The behavior of the pilgrim must be irreproachable: sex is prohibited, as are insults.

 

The four obligatory actions of the fifth pillar must also be respected, namely: making clear one’s intention to embark on the pilgrimage, walking seven times around the Ka’bah (called “circumambulation”), walking between the As-Safa and Al-Marwah hills, and for the end of the Hajj pilgrimage, being present at Mount Arafat from morning till sunset.

 

ELODIE BLOGIE

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