More than two million Muslims begin hajj pilgrimage

Erika Holt
August 20, 2018

When the pilgrim wakes for prayer time - five times daily in Islam - workers will sterilise the pod before handing it over to the next pilgrim.

The Hajj may draw two million people from around the globe this year.

The hajj presents the Saudi authorities with major logistical challenges, as Islam is now the world's fastest-growing religion, according to the Pew research centre.

Every able-bodied Muslim who has the means should perform the hajj at least once in their lifetime under a quota system. Women wear loose clothing, cover their hair and forgo makeup and nail polish to achieve a state of humility and spiritual purity. The ritual symbolises Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son, Ishmael, on the order of God.

Qatar has accused Saudi Arabia of blocking its citizens from attending this year's hajj because of the ongoing diplomatic feud. To perform the umrah, Muslims circle the Kaaba counter-clockwise seven times while reciting supplications to God, then walk between the two hills traveled by Hagar.

Before heading to Mecca, many pilgrims visit the city of Medina, where the Prophet Muhammad is buried and where he built his first mosque. Around the world, Muslims will mark the end of hajj with a celebration called Eid al-Adha.

The hajj presents Saudi authorities with vast logistical challenges.

Those on the hajj said they hoped for better relations across the Muslim world.

The last batch flew in to the country through a Fly Nass airline from Abuja, which conveyed five pilgrims from Kaduna State, 14 members of medical team and 171 others.

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Saudi Arabia, and the three other Arab countries, closed land, air and sea links with Qatar in June previous year, accusing it of funding terrorism, something Doha denies.

Saudi's General Overseer of Passports, Sulaiman Al-Yahya, said 18 individuals were being prosecuted for illegally transporting pilgrims without permits.

The 2018 pilgrimage comes amid a widening crackdown on political dissent in Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy aggressively pursuing a campaign to clean up its image as one of the world's most restrictive countries.

They have cut all ties with Qatar and banned all flights to and from Doha.

Saudi Arabia - the world's largest exporter of oil - and its allies accuse Qatar of cosying up to both Sunni Islamist extremists and Shiite Iran, Riyadh's greatest rival. Qatar denies the charges.

Available records indicated that out of 55,000 pilgrims booked for hajj by the Nigerian Hajj Commission, only 37,576 had so far been airlifted to Saudi Arabia, leaving 17,424 behind. So Hajj doesn't happen at the same time each year; it moves back around 10 days every year on the Gregorian calendar.

A crush in 2015 killed almost 800 pilgrims, according to Riyadh, although counts by countries of repatriated bodies showed over 2,000 may have died, more than 400 of them Iranians.

Although the kingdom's young de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has spearheaded the changes, religion remains a key force in Saudi Arabia.

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