People were climbing on top of one another just to breathe.’
At temperatures pushing 50, more than a thousand Muslim pilgrims died – either crushed to death or suffocated – in a ‘crowding incident’ shortly after 9.00 local time on 24 September, the last day of this year’s Hajj.
Bodies of the barely living; remains of the already dead. Bare flesh, brown skin, white terry-towelling; dress code (male), dead or alive.
Minutes before, being with other people was very heaven.
Millions of pilgrims following the path of piety in the footsteps of the faithful: blessed is this way of all flesh, walking together to fulfil our bounden duty and service.
Then without warning the wave coming the other way and there are people drowning in other people: that’s what hell is.
Only a few make it over the high railings; many more manage to squat down and survive. Where everyone can do this, no one is trapped without air. But there are pockets – it’s a huge crowd with big pockets – in which this proves impossible.
And afterwards, the argument. Seeking to close down Iranian and African criticism ofSaudi officials in charge of the Hajj, the Grand Mufti declared that ‘as for the things humans cannot control, you are not blamed for them. Fate and destiny are inevitable.’
‘Tautology’ is Greek rather than Arabic or it could be his middle name: Saudi Arabia’s highest cleric has hereby pronounced that the inevitable…is inevitable.
But is there also an iota of insight in what he said (if not how he meant it)? Thestreaming millions, looking from afar like outpourings of a heavenly shredder, or a case-in-pointillism, have willingly entered into a situation where the volume of other people also entering into it means they must all but suspend their individual will.
Accordingly, as pilgrims become part of the righteous crowd, so the suspension of free will becomes the substantive part of righteousness – the path to piety.
Similarly, when the physical presence of so many other human beings prevents theexercise of free will on the part of individual pilgrims, the act of joining the procession and willing their bodies to fate becomes the sign of their wholly subservience – body and soul – to God’s will.
Body and soul are brought together in this single act of devotion; but to the exclusion ofpossibly our best feature.
While not for a moment suggesting that those who died during this year’s Hajj have got what they deserved, why feign surprise if such fatalism should end in fatality?