Record Heat Challenges Hajj Pilgrims: Over 500 Deaths Reported Amidst Unprecedented Temperatures

Featured & Cover  Record Heat Challenges Hajj Pilgrims Over 500 Deaths Reported Amidst Unprecedented Temperatures

The Hajj, an obligatory pilgrimage for able Muslims, demands significant physical and spiritual commitment. This year’s pilgrimage saw temperatures in Mecca exceeding 115 degrees Fahrenheit, causing many to collapse and resulting in numerous deaths due to heat exhaustion.

The Hajj follows the lunar calendar, which means its timing varies each year. Despite this, a study indicates that Saudi Arabia is warming faster than other regions in the Northern Hemisphere. Ather Hussain, a British imam and Hajj guide with Bilal Tours, noted the unprecedented struggle among pilgrims due to the extreme heat. “It’s just really, really hard. I’ve never seen so many people struggle collectively at the same time, but at the same time, I saw people doing whatever they could to help,” Hussain told NPR from Saudi Arabia this week.

This year, over 1.8 million Muslims from around the globe participated in the Hajj, which concluded on Wednesday. The pilgrimage spans about five days but often involves weeks of travel, significant walking, physical exertion, and intense prayer.

Saudi Hajj authorities advised pilgrims to stay hydrated and avoid outdoor activities during peak heat hours. They also emphasized that walking to Mecca’s Grand Mosque, which houses Islam’s holiest site, the Kaaba, was not necessary for every prayer.

While the exact death toll remains unclear, a leaked hospital list revealed 550 deceased pilgrims, suggesting a severe impact of the scorching temperatures. Saudi Arabia, which offers free healthcare to pilgrims, reported nearly 3,000 heat-related treatments during the Hajj.

Among those affected was Taha Assayid, a 40-year-old Egyptian. He was hospitalized after spending hours in the sun trying to enter the mosque where Prophet Muhammad is believed to have delivered his final sermon. “I am a young man and was hospitalized, so just imagine what it was like for people in their 60s and over 70-years-old,” Assayid remarked.

Pilgrims often push themselves beyond necessary limits, having saved up their entire lives for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. However, moderation is a key aspect of faith and the Hajj. Hussain, who led a group of about 140 pilgrims this year, advised older participants to delegate some rituals to others. “That education … is definitely something we need to do more. We need to explain to our people that, ‘look, you don’t need to go to extreme circumstances,'” he said. Yet, the extreme heat affected everyone. “Even the locals, you know, it hit them as well. And if the locals are telling you that the Mecca is hot, then you know it’s hot,” Hussain added.

Despite the heat, moments of reflection and inner peace were found in prayers at the Kaaba and on the Day of Arafat. Hosting the Hajj is a prestigious duty for Saudi Arabia, which has faced criticism for past mishaps but has taken measures to prevent such accidents since a deadly stampede in 2015.

The increasing temperatures present ongoing challenges. A study published in the Journal of Travel Medicine by the King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Centre noted that during a hot summer in 1987, around 1,000 pilgrims died. Since then, Mecca’s temperatures have risen faster than other parts of the world.

To combat the heat, the Saudi government has planted more trees around Hajj sites, used heat-reflective pavement, and provided volunteers to distribute water, juice, and umbrellas. Pilgrims also walk under misting systems to stay cool. Egyptian pilgrim Ibrahim Omran, who has visited Mecca over 20 times, stated this was the hottest year he had experienced. He noted that many Egyptians walked everywhere and lacked hotel accommodations because they were on tourist visas instead of proper Hajj visas, a result of Egypt’s economic difficulties and inflated Hajj prices.

Omran emphasized the spiritual pull of Mecca but recognized the importance of safety. “I am not going to take risks and kill myself to perform the Hajj. I will do it legally and find the best official way to reach Saudi Arabia so I can find health care, and not expose myself to misery and suffering,” he said.

The Hajj is an expensive, physically taxing, and exhausting endeavor. However, for many, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with people from around the world, dressed in simple white robes, and engaging in prayer and repentance is an unparalleled experience. “I saw adversity, but I also saw the best of humanity,” Hussain reflected. “And I think that is the message of the Hajj: Help one another.”

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