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Saudi Arabia does not own the Hajj. It belongs to all Muslims

The first post-pandemic Hajj saw a transformation of this key religious ritual into a weapon of a Saudi nationalist project
Worshippers perform the farewell tawaf (circumambulation) in the holy Saudi city of Mecca marking the end of this year's Hajj on 11 July, 2022 (AFP)

As the sacred Hajj season comes to a close for the world’s nearly two billion Muslims, and as the Islamic lunar year of 1443 comes to an end, it is time to take stock of the first post-pandemic international Hajj.

This year’s Hajj booking fiasco is yet another illustration of everything that’s wrong with the modern Saudi state and the international order that ensures its political and economic legitimacy. 

Saudi Arabia is behaving as though it has a proprietary claim to Islam’s fifth pillar

The annual Hajj pilgrimage represents one of the Five Pillars of Islam that requires financially and physically capable Muslims to make the trip to Mecca once in a lifetime in remembrance of the sacrifices of the Prophet Abraham and his family. 

But this year has seen dramatic changes to how Hajj services are made available to international pilgrims in a way that signals the Saudi state’s desire to gain global control over the annual Hajj process.

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In doing so, Saudi Arabia is behaving as though it has a proprietary claim to Islam’s fifth pillar.

Weaponising the Hajj

This year, with scarcely four weeks to go before the Hajj, the Saudi Hajj ministry upended the traditional system of using overseas travel agencies which used to organise often carefully tailored Hajj packages with experienced tour guides. In the name of cracking down on fraud, the Saudi government has instituted a centralised system called "Motawif".

This government agency’s work has, in turn, been outsourced to an Indian-owned travel agency with little experience of organising the Hajj. However, as Middle East Eye has uncovered, it does boast links with the Indian prime minister whose ruling party, the BJP, is characterised by its fierce and often deadly hostility towards India’s Muslims.

One may speculate that the fingerprints of the ambitious Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) are visible on this year’s Hajj process.

Given the prince’s reputation for ruthlessly seeking complete control over all arms of the state, it would seem perfectly plausible that he would centralise control over the modern Saudi state’s most unique selling point and reorient the project for his personal gain. 

But an ironic consequence of the modern Saudi state’s attempts to control the Hajj with an iron fist is that it is transforming this key religious ritual into a weapon of a Saudi nationalist project.

In the process, the Saudis are effectively claiming complete ownership of the Hajj, rather than recognising their custodial role with respect to the two Holy Mosques which belong to the global Muslim community (ummah) as a whole, and not to any newly established state. 

It is worth remembering that Saudi Arabia did not even exist 100 years ago (it was established in 1932), whereas Islam and the Islamic ummah are ideas that can claim the allegiance of Muslims going back nearly 1,500 years.

The Saudis are thereby forcing the modern ideology of nationalism on a core pillar of the Islamic faith and claiming ownership of something that they have no right to, something which transcends the concerns of the Muslims of any single modern state. 

The need to reform

The Hajj does not belong to any state or individual, notwithstanding the behaviour of modern Saudi authorities. Rather, the Hajj is the joint responsibility of all the world’s Muslims, and it should be administered in a way that is in keeping with the wishes of a majority of them. 

The modern Saudi state’s attempts to control the Hajj is transforming a key religious ritual into a weapon in a Saudi nationalist project

The Hajj should be conducted democratically through a consultation of Muslims around the globe.

Elected representatives of Muslims from all the world’s countries should have the means to convey the wishes of their Muslim populations to the rest of the ummah. In this sense, the Hajj is yet another reason why Muslims should seek to bring about representative and consultative forms of government.

The current pathologies of authoritarianism in the Muslim world - even in some purported democracies - illustrate the depths of reform that are necessary to allow Muslim states to be properly representative of their Muslim populations' interests.

It’s unlikely that anything about the Hajj will change in the near term. Saudi Arabia is a recognised unit in the current international order built on the principle of the sovereign nation-state. This is regardless of whether a state has a representative government or is an absolutist autocracy like Saudi Arabia. 

Indeed, the world’s dependence on hydrocarbons ensures that states like Saudi Arabia will continue to be enriched and strengthened by the current global order.

Mina 2022
Thousands of Muslim pilgrims make their way across the valley of Mina, near Mecca in western Saudi Arabia, to perform the "stoning of the devil" ritual on 9 July 2022 (AFP)

With MBS likely to be the next king, it seems the only option available to people concerned about the Saudi state’s monopolisation of and profiteering from the Hajj is to articulate discontent and put forward imaginative alternatives to the current status quo. 

'Reimagining the Hajj'

This, of course, has already been suggested by the leading scholar of the Hajj, Robert Bianchi, who for years has been advocating a reimagining of the Hajj. In that spirit, I would propose reintroducing the once tried, but subsequently abandoned, placing of the management of the Hajj in the hands of an international coalition of Muslim states. 

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As Bianchi notes, this was once a role played by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in partnership with Saudi Arabia in whose lands the Holy Sites happen to be located.

Crucially such an organisation must have mechanisms that limit the pressure brought to bear on it by powerful states like Saudi Arabia. For example, a country like Saudi Arabia should not be able to outvote a country with eight times its population like Indonesia

In principle, the Hajj should not be left to the whims of an autocratic state. Nor, indeed, should it be left in the hands of any single democracy. Rather, the Hajj should be conducted with reference to Muslims from all parts of the globe.

The Saudi Hajj ministry should not really exist except as a conduit for expressing the global Muslim ummah’s wishes for how the Hajj should be conducted. Saudi Arabia does not own the Hajj, they enjoy the extraordinary privilege of serving God’s guests visiting Mecca from all four corners of the globe. 

Instead of a single ministry in the kingdom calling all the shots on how to conduct the Hajj, the process of Hajj ought to be globally consultative.

Such a project would start creating lateral institutional relations between large Muslim populations around the world in a way that could aspire to eventually rival the hegemony that the nation-state has on the modern Muslim imagination. But it would also give the global Muslim community a greater say in the conducting of one of their faith’s most important annual rituals.

Communal unity

These ideas may not seem realistic aspirations to many observers. But that does not matter if enough people can begin to share such an aspiration.

Muslims can find within the idea of the Hajj a path to a global sense of communal unity

The Hajj is a spectacular annual expression of millions of Muslims of their commitment to the ultimate manifestation of unity and unicity: God. 

Muslims can find within the idea of the Hajj a path to a global sense of communal unity. That ummatic unity is ultimately about thinking beyond our increasingly obsolete notions of nationalism and the nation-state. 

The question is whether or not Muslims can be imaginative enough to see beyond these modern colonial constructs. Only if we collectively imagine a different world is it possible for us to bring it about.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Usaama al-Azami is Departmental Lecturer in Contemporary Islamic Studies at the University of Oxford. He holds a PhD in modern Islamic political thought from Princeton University and is a seminary-trained Islamic theologian.
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