How does it happen? Why do millions of Muslims continue to participate in dangerous Hajj rituals year after year knowing that the sheer size of the crowds sometimes leads to such calamities? Why don't local authorities have stricter safety measures to protect the pilgrims? The non-Muslim public always asks these questions after a tragedy occurs during Hajj. It's happened in the past, with higher death counts.
It's difficult to understand the spiritual high a pilgrim experiences during the Hajj. But having performed the Hajj (for the first time) last year with my husband, I am very familiar with the attitude required to do the Hajj, the location of the Jamarat (pillars), and how hard the Saudi government works to ensure the safety of pilgrims during the stoning rituals.
In preparing for the Hajj, my husband and I collected a mountain of information and advice on how to do it properly, what to expect, and how to deal with the crush of humanity. It's no easy task, performing this ancient, multi-part, mandatory pilgrimage along with two million-plus other Muslims from all over the world. It requires patience, love, smarts, and a "no fear" attitude.
One of the last rites of Hajj, stoning the pillars garners perhaps the most advice for any first-time pilgrim. As a woman, I was warned against doing it at all, because females can have a male companion do the stoning on their behalf if they choose. But, being young and spiritually enthusiastic, I was determined that I would do it myself.
Stoning the pillars is a symbolic way of stoning the devil. With each thumbnail-sized pebble (you throw seven at each one, and you do it once a day for two to three days), you are casting out temptation and hammering the devil for hounding you. It's a physical way to fight back and start afresh.
It's also an extremely intense situation with tens of thousands of pilgrims jostling for space so that their stones will hit the pillars. Inevitably, pilgrims nearest to the pillars sometimes get hit on the head. And you've got to be alert and quick, because pilgrims are maneuvering closer to each pillar as other groups are weaving their way out. My husband and I locked arms as we approached each pillar and kept as close as we could to each other when we whipped our stones at the pillars.
Stoning the pillar feels like pummeling the devil itself. Read more >>
The whole Hajj is the ultimate way of throwing your direct line to Allah, of achieving a spiritually transcendent state, of fulfilling your promise to Allah, of starting over. And stoning the pillars is perhaps the most physically satisfying way of doing all that. It is a daunting ritual, especially as you make your approach amongst the throngs. But I, like most other pilgrims, adopted a "no fear" attitude. I wasn't scared for my life. I was going to do this, and that was it.
Logistically, the layout of the area round the pillars is designed to be as safe as possible, keeping in mind the sheer enormity of the numbers who stream through. There's a wide path that feeds into a footbridge--approximately equivalent to an eight-lane divided highway leading to the pillars. As you get closer, you can choose to approach from the upper or lower level. The pillars--which actually are three free-standing stone walls about 50 feet wide--rise from the lower level through an opening to the top level, and are spaced a couple of hundred yards apart.
The Saudi police line the way and keep the crowd moving. There is a barrier separating the two directions of traffic, and the police try to ensure that people don't linger in prayer or backtrack. It's the ultimate rush of movement, and you've got to be quick and watchful of everything around you. Paramedics stand by to intervene.
Our first day was the rush I was warned about. On our approach, we went for the top level and were smashed up against other pilgrims on the footbridge, all shuffling along with tiny steps toward the pillars. When we got close, we were caught up in the fierceness of emotion, but people moved in and out as best they could. Leaving also was precarious, as we were unavoidably pushed by the swell from behind. But everyone made their way through, and there were minimal injuries.
There's an Ahadith (verified sayings and practices of The Prophet Muhammad) that says if you die during the Hajj, you go straight to Heaven. (Of course, you don't try to die!) When pilgrims prepare to go to Mecca, they are told to ask forgiveness of anyone they've wronged and get their life in order in case they don't return. It's why Muslims are advised to do the Hajj when they're debt-free.
Tragedies like what happened in this year's Hajj will continue to happen from time to time. We all try our best, but it's a difficult task, and the threat of a stampede is there anytime a huge crowd gathers in a tight space. When you do Hajj, you put yourself in Allah's hands. No fear. It's the way to go.