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Pilgrims gather for start of annual hajj pilgrimage

Environmentally-conscious worshipers eye green inspiration

Pilgrims walk and pray yesterday on Mount Arafat, also known as Jabal Al-Rahma (Mount of Mercy), southeast of the Saudi holy city of Makkah, on the eve of Arafat Day, which is the climax of the hajj pilgrimage. – AFP

MAKKAH: More than two million Muslims from around the world began the hajj pilgrimage at Islam’s holiest sites yesterday, a religious duty and an epic multi-stage journey. On the esplanade of Mecca’s Grand Mosque, the excitement was palpable as crowds from all four corners of the world gathered for a pilgrimage that all able Muslims are required to perform at least once in their lives. Tidjani Traore, a public service consultant from Benin, said he was on his 22nd pilgrimage at the age of 53. “Every time, there are new emotions,” he said. “There are new innovations for organizing and hosting the pilgrims. Now, for example, the tents are air-conditioned.”

Wearing the simple garb of the pilgrim, the faithful waited at dawn with their suitcases for buses to take them to Mina five kilometers to the east. There, hundreds of thousands will gather before setting off today at dawn to climb Mount Arafat, the pinnacle of the hajj. First, however, they must perform a ritual walk known as the tawaf seven times around the Kaaba, a black masonry cube wrapped in a heavy silk cloth embroidered in gold with Quranic verses at the center of Makkah’s Grand Mosque. The shrine is the point towards which Muslims around the world pray.

“I still have to finish the tawaf!” said a breathless Nour, 30, from Saudi Arabia as she rushed past without stopping. Sitting on a folding chair in the middle of the esplanade, Risvana cradled her six-month-old baby who is accompanying her on the pilgrimage. “I’ve planned everything for him,” said the young mother, pointing to a bottle of water in her bag.

Saudi authorities have mobilized vast resources including more than 100,000 security personnel to avoid a repeat of the stampede in 2015 in which nearly 2,300 people were killed. This year the colossal religious gathering comes with the Islamic State group under growing pressure having lost swathes of territory it controlled in Iraq and Syria. But the group continues to claim attacks in the Middle East and Europe.

The hajj is one of the world’s largest annual gatherings. Tens of thousands of air-conditioned tents have been set up in Mina to house pilgrims, and more than 700 Saudi cooks have been recruited to feed the faithful. On the esplanade of the Grand Mosque, authorities had placed misting fans to take the edge off the intense heat. On the eve of the first rites of the pilgrimage, the walkways thronged with people and the smell of musk wafted through the air.

Sitting in the shade of trees or reinforced concrete bridges, the faithful waited patiently for the next call to prayer. Others continued their march, protected by a prayer mat or a small umbrella on the head. Several times throughout the day, well-run teams of employees, mostly Asian, cleaned the esplanade with jets of water. As the hour for prayer arrived, a young woman sat at a table in an ice cream shop and prayed, her hands crossed on her knees. A few paces from the Kaaba, Egyptian pilgrim Fathiya Taha could not hide her joy. At 67 the oldest in her group, she sat in her wheelchair in Islam’s most holy spot. “I’ve been looking forward to this pilgrimage for four years,” she said.

For billions of Muslims who are physically and financially able, hajj is a mandatory act of worship. But the religious celebration also has a substantial impact on the environment. Environmentally aware worshippers say that should be reduced, while inspiring Muslims to adopt a greener lifestyle. “Hajj is all about living lightly and centering yourself around God,” 28-year-old pilgrim Shanza Ali told the Thomson Reuters Foundation from Makkah. “We make many journeys in our life, and we go to many places, but this is the only journey that’s physical, mental and spiritual,” said Ali, who is chair of UK-based group Muslim Climate Action.

She has found many similarities between hajj’s message of simplicity and being environmentally conscious, and has tried to minimize her own carbon footprint and waste during the pilgrimage, which lasts for at least six days and takes worshippers to a series of holy sites in Saudi Arabia. For Husna Ahmad, author of “The Green Guide for Hajj”, Muslims are doctrinally required to be stewards of the Earth.

Tackling climate change is no longer about preserving the planet for future generations as its effects are evident now, she said. The majority of Muslims live outside Saudi Arabia and could collectively influence the greening of the sacred rituals, she added. “Consumer power is something that people need to think about in terms of flights, what they take, what they wear, the rubbish they throw, plastic bottles and all those sorts of things. We have to be conscious of that,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Muslims need to move away from a fast, disposable society, she added, with hajj being the potential start of that journey. In recent years, Saudi Arabia has taken steps to green the hajj, such as setting quotas for pilgrim numbers and developing the Makkah metro system to limit pollution. The Saudi Green Building Forum, a Riyadh-based non-governmental group recognized by the United Nations, has recently been tasked with auditing green efforts in Madinah, the country’s second holy city where Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is buried and a site visited by millions of pilgrims.

Forum secretary-general Faisal Alfadl said his team will measure the green credentials of the holy cities of Makkah, Madinah and others against international guidelines on energy use, waste, water, transport and human well-being. People now realize it is politically and culturally incorrect not to respect the environment, said Alfadl. “We have moved forward,” he said, noting a shift in the public mood from desert Bedouins to city dwellers on the importance of protecting the environment, with the focus now on action rather than simply raising awareness.

Reviving traditional practices could help – for example, sharing water among pilgrims from a communal source, which was common before plastic bottles became ubiquitous. And the white marble stones surrounding the Kaaba in Makkah naturally prevent the heat-island effect found in other urban areas, Alfadl said.

Recycling may not be at the top of pilgrims’ minds, but Muslims have a duty to recognize the creator of the environment and reflect on Islamic teachings not to harm animals, waste water or cut down trees unnecessarily, said Fatima Ragie of Green Deen South Africa, a Muslim environmental network. Ragie, who completed hajj in 2009, urged greater efforts once the pilgrimage ends – for instance, ensuring food is not wasted when millions of animals are slaughtered, marking Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son and the start of the Eid holiday. More mosques and Muslim leaders should also speak up about climate change and the environment, she said.

From Bangladesh to North Africa, climate change is a reality for many Muslims, as floods and droughts fuel instability and conflict, said Nana Firman, who participated in the UN climate talks in Morocco last year for the Global Muslim Climate Network. “A lot of people feel like they don’t know what to do, so it’s really important that we engage (them),” she said.
Indonesia – which has the world’s largest Muslim population, according to the Pew Research Center – has launched initiatives, from a phone app showing pilgrims how to enjoy a green hajj, to offsetting carbon emissions from flights by planting trees, and limiting the number of times each person can undertake the pilgrimage, said Firman. She urged hajj pilgrims to “reflect and make a change in their lives when they go back, and care more for the environment”.

As Ali prepares herself to undertake the challenging pilgrimage in the Gulf heat with her husband and mother, the natural environment offers a way for her to draw closer to God. “I think just reflecting on the fact you’re with humanity, you see people from every corner of the world… That really makes you appreciate the idea that we’re all sharing the Earth together,” she said. – Agencies



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