At least 769 people died in a crushing stampede at the annual Hajj at Mecca last month. Various voices elsewhere in the Muslim world, most strongly spoken by the Iranian government, have accused the Saudi authorities of negligence. Meanwhile, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, the nation’s highest official of religious law, defended the authorities saying the stampede was “beyond human control”. Including the collapse of a crane earlier in this year’s Hajj season, which killed 109 people, there have been a succession of disastrous events over recent years during this season of pilgrimage which have cost several thousand pilgrims their lives.
The Hajj is “the pilgrimage that every able adult Muslim should undertake to Mecca at least once in his or her life”. It is one of the five duties of a good Muslim and, as a spiritual duty might most closely equate to a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, to a well-known Cathedral, or to a place of spiritual retreat that a Christian might undertake. Every year more than two million make the main Hajj to Mecca as they travel from all around the world to participate in this unique and special experience for the faithful Muslim. The Hajj always takes place on the same days during the last month of the Muslim calendar, and it therefore places huge stresses upon the resources of the city of Mecca and the nation of Saudi Arabia.
The Hajj involves a number of rituals including walking seven times counter-clockwise around the Kaaba, the central symbol of Islam; drinking from the well of Zamzam, believed by Muslims to be the water source that Hagar was shown in the desert when she and her son Ishmael were thirsting; and a symbolic stoning of three pillars representing Satan, at the Jamarat Bridge in Mina, a district of Mecca. During this latter ritual crowds flow along the bridge past the three pillars which are shaped as walls. They throw stones at these pillars and the stones then fall down through holes below the wall to prevent an accumulation of stones preventing others from their participation. It was during this ritual as two columns of people merged onto the bridge that the stampede and crush occurred, resulting in the deaths and injuries to so many participants.
Many of us in the evangelical tradition find ourselves puzzled by the enthusiasm of so many who, assuming they can afford it, make this journey. We may similarly be amazed at the crowds that throng to a special Hindu festival in India or endeavor to see a Pope on the occasion of his visit to their land. Even though many may make a journey to the Holy Land or specifically to Jerusalem we recognize with Abraham that we are looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God, which is the Heavenly Jerusalem. We are on a spiritual pilgrimage and not a physical one to a shrine or monument.
We are probably also shocked by remarks of a senior Muslim leader that seem somewhat callous. How can someone say that events like this are beyond human control? The Saudi authorities have invested huge sums in infrastructure and safety measures to ensure that the events of past years were not repeated. They even replaced the stone pillars representing the devil with stone walls giving more space for passing pilgrims to throw their stones accurately. Many other measures could be taken to ensure that free-flowing masses of people do not collide and crush one another. While the queue or the line, so beloved by patient Anglo-Saxon societies is rarely found in other parts of the world, the snaking barrier systems used for border controls, entrance to public buildings and fun-fair rides, are easily implementable elsewhere. And for a Muslim authority adept at issuing rulings over Islamic Sharia, when Qu’ran and tradition have nothing to say about the modern world, it would surely be easy to make the Hajj into a year-round possibility like the Umrah, or lesser pilgrimage to Mecca. This would reduce the huge numbers traveling to Saudi Arabia for the one specific annual season. Hajj is not like the Christian Christmas and Easter which can be celebrated anywhere.
The statement beyond human control, as used by a Muslim Imam, surely reveals more about Islamic ideas of the will of God. According to Sharia a Muslim intending to do something should always add the words: Insha’Allah – If Allah wills it . This attitude has induced such fatalism into Islamic society. I remember a doctor telling me the story of sitting with a Tuareg mother in the West African Sahel and watching her baby slowly die in her arms because Allah willed it. A clinic was within reach, and resources for medical care were available, but the mother would never initiate an active pursuit of healing when prayer and the local marabout (Muslim holy man) were not providing a solution, because Allah willed the death of her child. The value of a human life will never be understood without the knowledge of the true God of creation, love and purpose.
The Arab world was a backwater in modern history with relatively little impact on the rest of the world until the discovery of the vast reserves of oil under the Arabian sands. The wealth derived from that resource coupled with resistance to the State of Israel propelled the Middle East into the consciousness of the Western world. However a hard look at the years of Arab history shows little historical contribution to the industrial and technological age. Despite the ancient Golden Age of Islam, half a millennium passed with very little contribution from the Muslim world while Western advance shaped the civilization of Christendom. Where in history are the Muslim inventors, industrialists, businessmen and philanthropists shaping our world. Modern wealth derived from oil has certainly had an impact, however as the last half century has revealed, that wealth has also had a huge impact in the realm of Islamic-inspired terrorism.
I would suggest that the attitude of Insha’Allah has induced the kind of historical passivism that results in things beyond human control. Works based on the fear of Allah will never be as effective as those rooted in the knowledge of an heavenly Father’s love and the resulting love for His creation.
 Saudi Mufti: Hajj stampede beyond human control – http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/09/saudi-grand-mufti-hajj-stampede-human-control-150926080554917.html – accessed 29th September 2015
 http://berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/essays/islamic-practices – accessed 27th September 2015
 Hebrews 11:10 & 12:22
 “And never say of anything, ‘I shall do such and such thing tomorrow. Except (with the saying): ‘If God wills!’ And remember your Lord when you forget…'” Qu’ran 18:23-24