Saudi Arabian authorities have urged domestic and foreign pilgrims to postpone their Hajj and Umrah plans for this year, if possible, due to ongoing expansion work at Makkah's Grand Mosque.
The Arab News yesterday called this an 'unprecedented move aimed at preventing congestion and stampedes and ensuring safety of the guests of God' during the Hajj exercise coming up in October.
Last week, Daily Trust reported Saudi government's decision to reduce the number of foreign pilgrims by 20 percent and domestic pilgrims by 50 percent this year.
Arab News said Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Asheikh has backed the measure, saying it was taken in public interest.
In a series of announcements through the Holy Qur'an television channel, which is aired from Makkah, the government advised pilgrims intending to perform Hajj and Umrah this year to postpone their plans to reduce congestion at the Grand Mosque.
"By making this announcement our government is not preventing anybody from Hajj, but asking them to postpone in order to avoid congestion and help first-time Hajis to perform their religious duties without difficulties," Saeed Al-Qurashi, a member of the Hajj & Umrah Committee at Makkah Chamber of Commerce and Industry, told Arab News.
He said the mataf (the circumambulation area around the Holy Kaaba) could hold now only 39,000 faithful per hour, suggesting an influx of a large number of pilgrims could cause congestion inside the mosque.
"Once the mataf expansion is completed, it can accommodate more than 130,000 pilgrims per hour. So, it would be better for our brethren to come for Hajj next year or after two years, when they will be able to perform their rituals with ease," he explained.
Hatem Qadi, deputy Haj minister and spokesman of the ministry, emphasized the need for reducing the number of foreign and domestic pilgrims this year.
"The period for cutting the number of pilgrims will not exceed two years," he said. The ongoing expansion work at the two holy mosques are aimed at accommodating more pilgrims in the coming years, he pointed out.
Qadi cited the grand mufti's statement on the issue saying the government took the decision because it was essential. "The ongoing expansion is for the benefit of pilgrims," the mufti said.
Mohammed Noor Rahman Sheikh, Indian consul for Hajj, said his country would send more than 170,000 pilgrims this year. "We have been informed about the government's plan to cut the number of foreign pilgrims by 20 percent," he told Arab News.
After an emergency meeting with the chief executive officers of all state's pilgrim's welfare boards, agencies and some Hajj stakeholders on Friday, the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) said old timers would not be considered for this year's Hajj following the 20 per cent reduction of slots to countries.
Going by the measure Nigeria's Hajj seats dropped by 19, 000 from 95,000 to 76, 000.
"We have agreed with all the chief executive officers of the states' pilgrims welfare boards, agencies and commissions that these reductions should apply to all those who have been to Hajj in the past. This means that only fist timers from Nigeria who have never had the opportunity to go to Hajj would be allowed to go," chairman of the commission, Malam Musa Bello, said after the meeting
Independent Hajj Reporters, a civil society organisation, has also called on state governments not to sponsor pilgrims to Hajj this year so as to cushion the effect resulting from the 20 percent cuts of seat.
Its National coordinator Ibrahim Mohammed, in a statement, noted that if state governments withdraw sponsorship, it will complement NAHCON's ban on old timers.
Meanwhile, Muslim clerics have reacted differently to the Saudi move. The Director, Islamic Science House of Nigeria (Daarul Ulumil Islamiyya fi-Naijiria, DUIN), Dr. Rafee Busayree Al-Ijebuwi, urged intending pilgrims to exercise patience with the decision, saying it was because, "Saudi authorities care a lot for pilgrims."
Chief Imam of Al-Mustoffiyya Islamic Society of Nigeria, Ustaz Maisuna Muhammad Mustapha, however, faulted the decision, saying the expansion work is not enough reason to deny Muslims the right to perform one of the five pillars of Islam.
"Is the circumambulation arena included? What about Saa'yi spot? If the two spots are not affected, why not reduce and maintain the number the spot can conveniently contain? Arafat, Mina and Muzdalifah need no expansion.
He said there was no record of postponing Hajj or Umrah. He recalled that even when Prophet Muhammad (SAW) postponed Umrah during the Treaty of Hudaibiyya, it was in order to make peace. "Anything like this renovation that would lead to the present situation of postponement or restriction should not have been allowed to occur. The postponement is strange," Ustaz Maisuna said.
But Chief Imam of Nawair-Ud-Deen Society of Nigeria, Abuja branch, Dr. Nurain T. Dindi, said the Saudi authority's action is in order. "I want to agree with the decision in the interest of welfare of pilgrims," he said.
The Director and Imam of Al-Habibiyah Islamic Society of Nigeria, Sheik Fuad Adeyemi, on his part said the Saudi authority's decision may have been taken in the interest of Muslims and should be seen as such.