Flood of Muslim pilgrims stones devil in final Haj ritual
16 October, 2013
MINA: Hundreds of thousands of Muslims converged on Mina valley in Saudi Arabia Tuesday to join a symbolic stoning of the devil, the final stage of Haj.
The occasion coincides with the first day of Eidul Azha. Although the numbers this year are down to less than half the 3.2 million who attended last year's Haj, the crowds of faithful managed to transform the Mina valley, just outside the holy city of Makkah, into a vast sea of white as they flocked from all directions towards the place of stoning. An endless torrent of pilgrims, dressed in the ihram, cried "Allahu Akbar" as they hurled pebbles they had collected overnight nearby Muzdalifah at concrete pillars representing the devil.
After pausing to say prayers, they then moved along the massive concrete structure constructed by Saudi authorities to avoid deadly incidents. Hundreds of police guarding the multi-storey building struggled at times to keep the crowd under control but those performing the ritual reported a less chaotic experience than in past years. "The crowd this year was smaller and as a result the movement was smoother," said Shiraz Khorshid from Pakistan.
"My experience was very nice and arrangements were excellent at all facilities," said Khorshid, a 35-year-old lecturer at a training institute in eastern Saudi Arabia. "This year is certainly better than last year especially with regards to traffic jams and easy movement. We were able to use the train for the first time," said Turkey al-Ashwal from Yemen, who had also performed the Haj last year.
Saudi Arabia this year slashed the numbers of pilgrims from abroad by 21 percent and reduced the number of permits for domestic pilgrims by more than half, allowing a total of 1.5 million pilgrims, including 1.38 million foreigners from 188 countries. The kingdom cut the quotas over fears of infections from the MERS respiratory virus and because of massive projects to expand the capacity of the Grand Mosque in Makkah. Health authorities have insisted that no cases of MERS or any other epidemic has been detected among pilgrims.
The stoning rituals continue until Friday but pilgrims in a hurry can complete it a day early. The ritual is an emulation of Prophet Ibrahim's (AS) stoning of the devil at three spots where he appeared trying to dissuade him from obeying God's order to sacrifice his son, Ismail (AS). The pilgrims had been on the move since early Sunday when the annual Haj began. They left Makkah to Mina where then climbed Mount Arafat on Monday for the high point of the Haj.
After spending the day at Mount Arafat in prayer and reflection, pilgrims Monday evening travelled on to Muzdalifah to collect stones and to stay the night. Early Tuesday they continued to Mina in groups, with leaders carrying their countries' flags and banners.
A group of Syrians were seen carrying the rebels' flag while a number of Egyptians raised their four fingers, a sign of support for deposed President Mohamed Morsi, though no protests were staged. The stoning of the devil used to mark the most dangerous phase of Haj for Saudi authorities as it was marred by deadly stampedes in the past as well as fires in tent camps. In past years, however, tents have been fire-proofed while gas canisters and cooking are banned in the camps. The stoning area has been expanded to avoid overcrowding.
Road blocks were set up on all roads leading to Makkah and people who did not carry official permits were turned back. This year, security patrols are deployed in remote and deserted roads to block illegals. As turmoil continues to hit most of the Arab world, Interior Minister Prince Mohamed bin Nayef Wednesday warned Muslim pilgrims against exploiting the Haj for political purposes. "The kingdom is taking all possibilities seriously especially that Saudi Arabia has recently been the target of a violent terrorist campaign that did not exclude holy sites," the minister had said.
That was a reference to al Qaeda attacks that rocked the kingdom between 2003 and 2006, prompting a relentless crackdown by authorities, which he oversaw. "Haj is not a place for political disputes and sectarian differences," he said.
Although Riyadh issues such a warning at every pilgrimage, this year it was indirectly linked to reports that members of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood have been urging pilgrims to express their support for the group after President Mohamed Morsi was ousted in July. The oil-rich kingdom strongly backed Morsi's ouster, immediately pledging millions in aid to the new government.
The kingdom has mobilised 95,000 members of the security forces, in addition to troops supporting the Defence Ministry, the national guard and intelligence, according to the interior minister.