Every year millions of Muslims converge to Mecca to perform Hajj (pilgrimage), one of the five pillars of Islam. Is this year's Hajj season being threatened by the A/H1N1 or Swine Flu virus? Bloggers commenting on the region weigh in.
At CrossRoads Arabia, John Burgess explains:
A Saudi researcher in Shariah law find that there is precedent to ban Umrah pilgrims (those who undertake the non-obligatory, ‘lesser’ pilgrimage) who come from areas beset with the A/H1N1 or swine flu virus. I suspect that this opinion is being floated now in anticipation of the Haj, which will take place in late November. The Haj is obligatory, in that every Muslim is required to perform the pilgrimage at least once in his/her life, if feasible.
Similar concerns were raised a few years ago, when bird flu (H5N1) was threatening. One Saudi scholar called for Haj to be canceled if there were a severe outbreak, but that proposal was shot down by others. The argument was that Haj had never been canceled on public health grounds and that to do so would be counter to Islam. Rather, those who are ill are morally obliged to not perform Haj.
Communicable diseases and Haj are historical companions. There are many records of outbreaks of disease, from plague to cholera, killing thousands in Mecca, Madinah, and Jeddah over the years. Only toward the end of the 19th C. did strictly enforced quarantines [210-page PDF] work to stop the spread of diseases out of the region, back to the homes of the pilgrims. Quarantines and strict enforcement of medical screening can protect pilgrims and that might be enough. Only time will tell. Swine flu, as bird flu before it, may turn out to be a non-issue. If it does not, however, it good that people are starting to think about it now.
The Middle East Institute's Editor's Blog adds:
This is getting stranger and stranger. The Grand Mufti of Egypt is suggesting Muslim scholars issue a collective fatwa [religious edict] to postpone the hajj due to swine flu. Arabic version is here. Keep in mind — I know I keep repeating it — there have been no cases in Egypt. In fact, according to WHO's rundown as of yesterday, the only cases confirmed in the entire Middle East are in Israel (seven cases). And WHO says, “WHO is not recommending travel restrictions related to the outbreak of the influenza A(H1N1) virus.” Oh, yes, and another thing: the hajj isn't until November. Am I missing something here? Has the hajj ever been postponed for health reasons, in all of Islamic history? I don't know, but I expect you'd need at least one infected person to justify it. (Not only are there no cases in the Middle East, except Israel, but none in Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan — well, anywhere Muslim.)