Saudi Arabia Continually Striving For A Green Hajj
Nearly three million Muslims make Hajj annually. As one of the five pillars of Islam, the Hajj to Saudi Arabia is a mandatory religious duty of every physically and financially capable Muslim. Although this represents a once-in-a-lifetime event for most pilgrims, for Saudi Arabia it represents a groaning overload of environmental impact.
The pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, is the biggest annual pilgrimage in the world. It takes place between the 8th and the 13th days of Dhul-Hijjah, the 12th month of the Muslim lunar calendar. This year the Hajj dates occur from Oct. 2-7.
Arriving at the Grand Mosque
Upon arrival, pilgrims go immediately to the Grand Mosque. Inside is the Ka’aba, the most sacred shrine in Islam, built by Abraham and his son Ismail. It is in the direction of the Ka’aba that all Muslims face when performing their prayers. Once here, pilgrims perform “tawaf” by circling the Ka’aba seven times in counterclockwise direction.
As successive generations break the record number of pilgrims, Saudi Arabia has enlarged the facilities and capacities of the Grand Mosque complex. There are now three levels encircling the Ka’aba, and each floor can handle 750,000 people making tawaf. Nevertheless, because of the high numbers of people, just making one circuit can take hours.
Commemorating the Lives of Our Predecessors
Following tawaf, pilgrims perform another ritual called “sa’i.” This means walking or running seven times between the hills of Safa and Marwah, in commemoration of Abraham’s wife, Hajjar, searching for water for her son, Ismail, God’s peace be upon all three. In another welcome improvement, Saudi Arabia has built air-conditioned tunnels for this stage, with separate sections for walkers, runners, and disabled pilgrims.
A few miles east of Mecca, Hajj culminates on the Plain of Arafat. This is the spot where the Prophet Muhammad, God’s peace and blessings be upon him, delivered his final sermon. Three million pilgrims converge on this spot, swarming over the plain and the hills, arriving by all manner of transportation. Here, as well, Saudi Arabia has turned her green thumb to ease the environmental burden by building an excellent mass transit system to move amazing numbers of people to and from Arafat.
The Incredible Mecca Metro
The Mecca Metro is the first metro line in Saudi Arabia built to serve pilgrims. Four more lines are scheduled to begin construction in 2016. This line runs only for one week of the year. However, the Mecca Metro is critical for helping ease the heavy congestion during Hajj, as it handles crowds of around 90,000 people per hour. With 3,000 passengers per train, it moves 3 train convoys every 6 minutes!
Mt. Arafat, the “Mountain Of Mercy”
Arriving at Arafat, pilgrims spend the day here, praying, reading the Quran and making supplication to Allah. I personally long for this day, when I will, God willing, sit on the “Mountain of Mercy” reading the Prophet Muhammad’s speech and imagining his voice carrying down the hillside, out over the crowd.
“O People, just as you regard this month, this day, this city as Sacred, so regard the life and property of every Muslim as a sacred trust. Return the goods entrusted to you to their rightful owners. Hurt no one so that no one may hurt you. Remember that you will indeed meet your Lord, and that He will indeed reckon your deeds…”(read more)
After this momentous day, the pilgrims spend the night in the desert. I want to stay up all night, God willing, and watch the stars traverse the sky like they did 1,400 years ago, and feel the time fold up around me like the enfolding wings of an angel. I hope Allah will take my soul in that moment!
Improving Safety While Stoning Satan
Early in the morning the pilgrims go to Jamaraat. This is the site of the ritual of Stoning the Devil. During this ritual, pilgrims throw 7 tiny pebbles at each of 3 white pillars representing Satan. In 2004, turbulence in the crowd resulted in 251 pilgrims being killed and 244 injured. Immediately, Saudi Arabia replaced the three round pillars with wider, elliptical columns that allows more people at one time to take aim at them. After a stampede in 2006 killing 380 pilgrims and injuring 289, the Jamaraat pedestrian bridge was demolished and replaced with a wider, multilevel bridge. Environmental and safety needs of the pilgrims are a continual concern in Saudi Arabia.
After Jamaraat, pilgrims traditionally sacrifice an animal to symbolize the ram that Abraham sacrificed instead of his son. Nowadays, pilgrims purchase a “sacrifice voucher” in Mecca and the sacrifice is performed on their behalf at a centralized and carefully regulated location. Over half a million sacrificial animals are slaughtered in this location annually. The meat is immediately donated to charity, often distributed internationally.
After a final tawaf, the Hajj is over and the pilgrims leave Mecca. Many pilgrims extend their visit while in Saudi Arabia, going to Medina to visit the Mosque of the Prophet. This mosque is the second holiest site in Islam, and houses Muhammad’s tomb. Although not officially part of the Hajj, visiting Medina is a destination not to be missed by most Muslims.
Over 100 Million Plastic Bottles Discarded Annually
When the crowds finally disperse and go home, there is a huge mess to contend with. Over 100 million plastic bottles are discarded annually, as well as huge tons of garbage. Saudi Arabia is continually striving to make the Hajj greener, and pilgrims need to do their part, too. Fortunately, Muslims are more aware of their environmental impact on this beloved holy land, and are starting to find solutions.
For this purpose, the Green Guide to Hajj was launched by the Alliance of Religions and Conservation in November 2011. As a part of the Green Pilgrimage Network initiative, this guide encourages Muslims to reduce their impact, not just while in Saudi Arabia, but everywhere on the Earth.
Green Tips For Pilgrims To Saudi Arabia
The following is a list of useful tips and considerations I have compiled from common sense and also taking into consideration the tips offered in the Green Guide To Hajj:
• Use hotels with green practices and reuse your towel more than once. Keep your room clean and forego room service.
• Forego the television when in your room. Instead, spend more time praying in the Grand Mosque, as one prayer performed there holds the same value as performing 100,000 prayers at your home mosque.
• Turn off the lights and anything else consuming electricity when leaving a room.
• Limit air conditioning usage. If you must use it, try setting the thermostat to ten degrees (f) less than the outside temperature. Turn it off when leaving the room.
• Take care to limit water usage at all times.
• Use cloth bags for purchases instead of plastic.
• Consider purchasing fresh produce and food items from street markets instead of eating in restaurants.
• Don’t buy bottled water. Instead, carry your own aluminum or stainless steel water jug, preferably bought ahead from a thriftstore. Water from Zamzam well is free, take advantage of this blessing!
• Don’t buy plastic souvenirs, such as zikr or prayer beads — look for beads from stone, glass, or shell.
• Don’t buy polyester prayer rugs — like all plastics, polyesters are petroleum-based fabrics. Instead, look for silk, cotton, or rayon prayer rugs.
• Check labels for product origination and try to buy only products made within Saudi Arabia.
• Plant a tree when you return home to offset the carbon emissions of your air travel.
• Consider only going on Hajj once. Visas are limited and many are turned away every year. If you have money to help a first-time pilgrim make Hajj, consider doing that instead of going again.
A Packing List for Pilgrims
In the Quran, Allah covers the entire packing list for pilgrims with one word: “Righteousness.” Doing the right thing is paramount in Islam, whether it pertains to each one of us in particular, or to the entire environment in general. Observing the rules that God has established for us is the best definition of righteousness. It is also quite fascinating, for in so doing, God promises: “you shall observe Me.”
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