Hajj 2017

The annual pilgrimage done in the midst of a middle east crisis

Approximately two million devout Muslims from all over the world have converged at Mecca to begin the Hajj pilgrimage. Mecca is Islam's holiest site and the event itself is a religious duty for Muslims.

The ancient city with modern infrastructure marks the beginning of a memorable multistage journey. This year 2017 saw pilgrims arriving from Shiite Iran after hiatus due to a diplomatic fight between Iran and Sunni dominated Saudi-Arabia, rivals for geopolitical superiority.

Devout Muslims will walk around the Kaaba, a black rock with a distinctive cube shape. They will do a number of rites which trace the footsteps of Prophet Muhammad. Muslims believe that the rites they will perform also trace footsteps of prophet Ismail and Prophet Ibrahim. The latter is named Abraham in the Bible. The Kaaba metaphorically represents the house of God. It represents a single God in Islam. All observant Muslims face the black rock when they do their five daily prayers.

All Muslims are required to do Hajj at least once in their lifetime. The journey can be physically taxing. Pilgrims suffer as they wait long under the scorching sun so that they can achieve repentance and purification of spirit.

In recent years, the Hajj is done under the specter of Gulf countries reeling under a political crisis. It did not help matters that Islamic State terrorism has touched the region in Syria and Iraq.

The Saudi administration has engaged its considerable financial clout to mobilize resources so that stampedes do not happen this time around. In 2015, a particularly bad stampede led to the deaths of over 2,400 people. A total of 464 Iranians was among them. This catastrophe contributed to the deterioration of ties between Riyadh and Teheran. Iran exacerbated the already tense relations by executing a Shiite cleric. This resulted in a few Iranians attacking Saudi diplomatic missions in Teheran.

The pilgrimage is also affected by a diplomatic crisis between Qatar and the Saudi led Arab bloc. Qatar has been accused of supporting extremist groups. The Arab bloc has also accused Qatar for its relations with Iran. The Saudi led blockade of Qatar has prevented many Qataris from performing Hajj. Entry restrictions were later relaxed on the land border to facilitate pilgrimage.

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