New Restrictions on Hajj Force Charlotte Muslims to Change Plans
New restrictions on the Islamic pilgrimage known as Hajj mean that Charlotte Muslims who had planned on traveling to Mecca in early July won’t be going.
A series of new restrictions announced between April and June by the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Hajj and Umrah have disappointed Muslims around the world.
“I was let down and I was shocked at the same time,” said Hannah Tamimi, a member of the Muslim Community Center in Charlotte. “The ministry has basically canceled Hajj guides and told us we have to navigate Hajj through an online portal,” she said. “It’s been traditionally done this way for Muslims in the west for so many years.”
This year Hajj is scheduled for July 7-12. After making plans for several years, Tamimi thought 2022 was the year she was finally going to be able to participate. But a few weeks before she was supposed to leave, the Saudi government canceled travel plans for hundreds of thousands of Muslims.
Before COVID-19, about two million Muslims participated in Hajj annually. This year, a lottery determined one million participants.
Hajj is an annual pilgrimage to Mecca, the birthplace of Muhammad and the holiest city in Islam. It consists of several rituals that symbolize concepts of the Islamic faith. As one of the five pillars of Islam, Hajj is required once in a Muslim’s lifetime if he or she is financially and physically able. Pilgrims spend five days in prayer and ritual, including walking seven times between the mountains of Safa and Marwa, spending a night in the plain of Muzdalifah, and walking counter-clockwise around the Kaaba — the holiest shrine in Islam.
Before 2021, women performing Hajj required a male guardian. Beginning last year, women were allowed to perform Hajj among a group of women, without a male guardian.
Hajj Guides Out of Business
Abdool Khan, imam at the Muslim Education Center in Charlotte, was once a Hajj guide in Chicago. He sees this year’s changes as both good and bad.
“There is some good in that and some difficulty for people who might not know about how to proceed with Hajj,” Khan said. “People have been using Hajj guides for years and over the years you learn Hajj with your group, perform Hajj with them, then come back with that group. So the problem with that system is that there has been a lot of price inflation among these groups.”
Muslims save for years to attend Hajj, often accumulating tens of thousands of dollars for the experience. The cost of a guide sometimes becomes burdensome for people who just want to perform one of the five pillars of Islam, Khan said. By eliminating guides, the Saudi government is cutting out the middle man, he said.
“The flip side of getting rid of the guides is that you now have to go through a system that not too many people know. This is difficult for people not savvy in traveling, as you have to navigate this voyage on your own,” Khan said.
New Restrictions on People Over 65
Another obstacle this year is that people over the age of 65 are not permitted to participate. “This means people who have been waiting their whole life to go to Hajj have been denied,” Tamimi said. She is puzzled why the government would make the change just a few weeks before the event.
Other new Hajj restrictions include the lottery system, proof of COVID-19 vaccination, and a negative COVID test 72 hours before departure. Priority is given to people who have not previously performed Hajj.
Physical and Mental Preparation — ‘Not a Vacation’
Tamimi explained that the journey is not a vacation, and Hajj pilgrims need to be physically and mentally prepared. Pilgrims are required to pray for long periods of time, walk extensively in excruciating heat, stay in tents in the desert, and do specific physical and spiritual rituals at each stage.
Men are required to wear a white cloth garment called an ihram, Tamimi said, which is intended to place all men at the same level. Dress codes for women are more flexible.
Attending Hajj is not only a spiritual journey but a way to reconnect with yourself, Tamimi said. “You lose sight of what’s really important in life, so going to Hajj helps reconnect with what’s really important.”
Celebrating in the United States
In the United States, Muslims often observe the climax of the Hajj with Eid al-Adha, or the Festival of Sacrifice. Muslims go to their mosque and join in prayer, and the tradition is to sacrifice a cow, sheep and goat for meat to feed the poor, friends and family.
While Tamimi’s trip to Mecca was canceled, she still plans to celebrate in Charlotte with her family.
“Celebrating Hajj in the United States is a perfect opportunity to get children ready for the five pillars of Islam,” said Tamimi. Charlotte’s Muslim Community Center conducted a Hajj simulation on March 26.
“With kids, we would have small parties to teach them about Hajj,” she said. “We would build a simulation of the Kaaba, the different stops they would make in Mecca and even set up tents. At the end, the children sacrifice a stuffed animal like a lamb.”
Palmer Magri is a student in the James L. Knight School of Communication at Queens University of Charlotte, which provides the news service in support of local community news. Her summer work is supported by the James E. Rogers Research Program.