Hajj 2024: Technology, History, Significance & Key Takeaways from this most important day of the year for Muslims

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Robots, langauges, queries

Now, worshippers and pilgrims at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the holiest site in Islam, can access a smart robot for immediate answers to their religious questions. This innovative robot, which offers simultaneous interpretation in multiple languages, is part of Saudi Arabia’s effort to integrate advanced technology into services for Hajj pilgrims.

Hajj 2024: Technology, History, Significance & Key Takeaways from this most important day of the year for Muslims
Image from AFP

Over the years, providing answers to religious queries at Islam’s two holiest sites has evolved significantly. Traditionally, seated clerics offered fatwas, or religious edicts, directly to seekers. This service then transitioned to phone-based consultations before moving online. 

Technology to Protect Pilgrims from Heat

As the country heats up in the summer, temperatures are predicted to rise to 46°C. In this regard, Saudi Arabia Roads General Authority, Abdulaziz Al-Otaibi said roads absorb heat when exposed to sunlight and retain as much as 70°C once the sun sets. As a result, he added, the road begins to emit heat — leading to something known as a heat island phenomenon, reports Arab News.
Hence, pavements around holy sites are now being coated with cooling materials that absorb less solar radiation.

Hajj 2024: Technology, History, Significance & Key Takeaways from this most important day of the year for Muslims
Image from AFP

 “The material we have developed is most effective during sunny weather as it reflects the sun’s rays, which helps lower the temperature of the road by reducing heat absorption,” said Saudi Arabia Roads General Authority, Abdulaziz Al-Otaibi. This helps reduce heat build-up, keeping the road cooler and making it more pleasant for pedestrians, he told Arab News. He added that the Saudi Arabia government tested the road-cooling material for the first time last year and it was a success, Hence, the project is now expanding to areas in Mina, Arafat, and Muzdalifah. The road-cooling technology is part of Saudi Arabia’s ongoing efforts to enhance infrastructure and services for the millions of pilgrims who visit Mecca for their spiritual Hajj journey.

 Mina: The Heart of Hajj Pilgrimage Featuring High Tech Infrastructure and Sprawling Tent City

Mina, a small valley located approximately five kilometers to the east of the Grand Mosque in Makkah, is an integral site for the Hajj pilgrimage, the annual Islamic event attended by millions of pilgrims from around the globe. The valley is renowned for its pivotal role during the Hajj, particularly during the Days of Tashreeq, when pilgrims partake in the ritual of the Stoning of the Devil at the Jamarat. The landscape of Mina is dominated by vast arrays of white tents, specifically designed to accommodate the multitudes of pilgrims. These tents are fire-resistant and are equipped with essential amenities to ensure the safety and comfort of the pilgrims throughout their stay. 

Hajj 2024: Technology, History, Significance & Key Takeaways from this most important day of the year for Muslims
Image from AFP

This area, often referred to as the “Tent City,” spreads over an area with a capacity to accommodate more than 2.6 million people during the peak of the pilgrimage season. The infrastructure in Mina is a marvel of modern engineering and logistics, designed to handle the enormous influx of visitors smoothly and efficiently. The site includes extensive networks of roads, bridges, and tunnels to facilitate the movement of pilgrims between Mina, Mount Arafat, and Muzdalifah — all critical sites of the Hajj ritual.

One of the notable features of Mina is the Jamarat Bridge Complex, an architectural feat that enables pilgrims to perform the stoning ritual safely. The bridge has multiple levels and is equipped to handle hundreds of thousands of pilgrims simultaneously. The design and construction of the bridge reflect a deep commitment to the safety and well-being of the pilgrims, minimizing the risks of overcrowding that have led to tragedies in the past. 

The Mina valley also features advanced transport solutions, including the Mashaer Train, a light rail system that links the key sites of the Hajj. This train is crucial for the transport of pilgrims, especially given the physical demands of the pilgrimage and the extreme heat conditions typical during the Hajj season. Overall, Mina stands as a testament to the Saudi government’s dedication to facilitating a smooth and safe Hajj experience. Through continuous improvements and investments in infrastructure, Mina remains a central hub of spiritual activity and a symbol of Islamic unity during the Hajj.

 Technology Remains at the Heart of the Hajj

The hajj – the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, which Muslims are expected to make once in their lives if they are able – is expected to last for five days. 

Their visits, like those in generations past, will be enhanced, and even made possible, by modern technology. In recent years, the Saudi government has developed smartphone apps aimed at organizations of pilgrim groups. Pilgrims use apps themselves, with guides to help them find and pray at specific holy locations. And they document their journey, both physical and spiritual, on social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok. The country is rolling out smart cards for pilgrims to access hajj services and information, as well as make cashless payments. 

 Historical Context of Technology in Hajj

As technology has been at the heart of the hajj since the mid-1800s. Transportation and communications technologies have long been fundamental to governments’ management of the pilgrimage and to pilgrims’ spiritual experiences.

 Travel Technology

As far back as the 1850s, steamship technology made it possible for many more Muslims to make the pilgrimage even if they lived long distances from Mecca. According to scholar Eric Schewe, “European shipping lines sought Hajj pilgrims as passengers to supplement” the money they made from shipping commercial cargo through the Suez Canal. By dropping off pilgrims at Arabian ports along a route their ships were already traveling, merchants were able to make a little extra income around the time of the hajj. And the pilgrims appreciated the safety, speed, reliability and lower cost of steamship travel. As a result, they could reach the hajj more quickly and more cheaply than at any earlier period in history. From the 1880s to the 1930s, the number of pilgrims going on hajj each year quadrupled. While steamships helped those traveling by water, rail helped those coming by land – especially those from Russia, whose multi-leg journeys often included travel by train to Odessa, in today’s Ukraine, or another Black Sea port, where they crossed to Istanbul by steamship and then to Mecca via caravan.

 Communications Technology

The telegraph also played an important role in the hajj. The Ottoman government used its extensive telegraph network to govern and as a sign of independence from European powers; one key link was from the capital in Istanbul through Damascus, Syria, to Mecca. European consular officials, rail and steamship companies and even individual pilgrims used the telegraph system for hajj-related communications. 

Other communications technologies also affected the pilgrimage. Colonial powers with Muslim populations worried that the mass gathering of Muslims would lead to political unrest. They also worried about public health. The speed of rail and steam travel meant that pilgrims could bring infectious diseases home with them, as happened with the cholera epidemics that broke out regularly during the hajj in the 1800s.

Many governments introduced tracking regulations that relied on print technologies: The Dutch in 1825 began requiring pilgrims to get passports, while the French in 1892 began requiring Algerian pilgrims to have travel permits. The British government in 1886 gave travel agency Thomas Cook an exclusive contract for hajj travel from India, requiring pilgrims to pre-purchase tickets for each leg of the journey. Together, these regulations helped pilgrims get through the hajj safely. But they also worked to minimize its potential political and public health risks for the colonial powers that governed most of the world’s Muslim population.

 Into the Modern Era

The spread of commercial air travel starting in the 1940s changed hajj dynamics further: Flying was even faster, cheaper and safer than steamship travel. It offered to further open hajj participation to more Muslims, but created massive logistical, political and economic challenges as the number of pilgrims increased six or seven times between 1950 and 1980. 

New communications technologies further popularized the hajj. For example, radio stations covered the hajj, starting in the 1940s in Mandate Palestine, with pilgrim letters broadcast to listeners at home. Like earlier cinema newsreels, television from the 1960s showed viewers footage of pilgrims circumambulating or walking around the Kaaba, one of the key hajj rituals. This footage helped inspire them to want to go on hajj as well. Meanwhile, growing literacy rates allowed Muslims to read the increasing number of printed hajj guides helping them navigate lodging, eating and worship. Contemporary hajj travelogs recording pilgrims’ experiences are part of a classical genre of Middle Eastern travel literature, known in Arabic as the rihla or seyahatname; both terms describe books of travels that typically included pilgrimage. 

 Large Numbers of Travelers

Historically, a tiny minority of Muslims envisioned making the pilgrimage at any point in their lives. Even today, most Muslims will never be able to go on hajj, and most who do will go only once. But the global Muslim population numbers just over 2 billion, so even a small fraction of their total means a lot of people. The 2 million expected for this year’s hajj are still just 0.1% of the world’s Muslims population. With travel and communications eased, Mecca’s ability to handle all those visitors at once has become the major challenge. The stakes are high for the Saudi Ministry of Hajj and Umrah: It is expected to provide a safe, healthy and spiritually meaningful experience for all pilgrims, while avoiding any bad press for the host country. 

 The Fatwa Robot

Equipped with artificial intelligence, the robot provides instant guidance on religious issues and operates in 11 languages: Arabic, English, French, Russian, Persian, Turkish, Malay, Urdu, Chinese, Bengali, and Hausa. 

The robot, featuring, 

  • 21-inch touch screen, 
  • four wheels, 
  • a smart stop system, 
  • high-fidelity front and bottom cameras, 
  • and a sound system, 
  • moves smoothly throughout the Grand Mosque. 

Saudi Press Agency (SPA), reported that this guidance robot has quickly become popular among pilgrims, offering clear and accessible answers to their questions about rituals and other religious matters.

How to Apply for Hajj

Those who wish to perform Hajj must first apply for a permit through the official government website. For those traveling from abroad, it is recommended to go through a licensed travel agent, who will arrange a visa and travel. The travel agent will send your application form to the Saudi consulate.

Hajj 2024: Technology, History, Significance & Key Takeaways from this most important day of the year for Muslims
Infographics from Gulf News

 Security and Crowd Management

The Ministry of Interior uses tens of thousands of security personnel in Makkah and Madinah to ensure the safety of the pilgrims. With more than two million people expected to be carrying out the same rituals, crowd management is essential to stop people from being stuck in massive crowds or even trampled. For many years now, Saudi Arabia has used a variety of technology to manage crowds. Inside the Grand Mosque of Makkah complex is the Crowd Management Operation Room. This is filled with giant screens that show the movements of pilgrims, filmed by thousands of strategically placed cameras.

Highly trained medical staff and security officers are positioned across the entire Hajj area so they can spring into action if needed. They also share any and all developments they see with the control room. When certain areas are at capacity, officers on the ground are immediately notified and begin to redirect worshippers. The bridge leading to Jamrat Al Aqabah was one of the deadliest places in the Hajj due to stampedes until the Saudi government built a new bridge with five floors. One of the floors is dedicated to disabled pilgrims but the rest are used to spread out traffic and are closely monitored by the Crowd Management Operation Room.

 Hajj Apps and Information

The kingdom’s Ministry of Hajj and Umrah in December 2021 launched Nusuk, an electronic platform that provides services for domestic and international pilgrims in Saudi Arabia. Nusuk now offers more than 121 services to assist the arrival of pilgrims from all over the world. The app offers a user-friendly platform for international pilgrims to plan their visit to Makkah and Madinah. Nusuk is one of the initiatives of the Pilgrims Service Programme, launched by the Ministry of Hajj in partnership with the Saudi Tourism Authority, as a unified official platform that enables those wishing to perform Umrah or visit to secure visas and permits. Users can book for Umrah and to visit the Prophet Mohammad (P.B.U.H.) Mosque in Madinah through the portal. Nusuk also assists users in applying for an e-visa, as well as booking flights and hotel accommodation.

Hajj 2024: Technology, History, Significance & Key Takeaways from this most important day of the year for Muslims
Image from AFP

 The Significance of Hajj

More than 2 million Muslims from around the world are congregating in Saudi Arabia for this year’s Hajj, an obligatory Islamic duty. Each year, millions of Muslims travel to Makkah to perform Hajj, with many also heading farther north to the city of Madinah. All Muslims able to do so are required to make the Hajj pilgrimage to Makkah at least once in their lifetime. Hajj and the other four pillars of Islam form a foundation of life for Muslims. The annual pilgrimage to the holiest city in Islam takes place during Dhu Al Hijja, the last month of the Islamic calendar. The ritual literally translates as “to attend a journey”, and denotes both the outward act of physically traveling and the inward act of a person’s contemplation of their faith.

 What is the Hajj Pilgrimage?

The world’s largest annual pilgrimage, Hajj, requires the faithful to repeat a set of rituals first performed by the Prophet Mohammed (P.B.U.H.) centuries ago. The event is a deeply spiritual experience for Muslims, and one every Muslim aspires to take part in at some point in their life, if they are able to afford. 

Those who are unable to perform the pilgrimage for financial or health reasons are exempt. If they can afford it, Muslims can have someone perform Hajj on their behalf, with Sharia advising they finance someone who would otherwise be unable to attend.

 When is Hajj and How Long Does it Last?

This year, Hajj begins on Friday, June 14. The pilgrimage takes three days, but most pilgrims extend their stay by a week to pray in the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah.

 The Importance of Hajj

Hajj is a deeply spiritual experience for Muslims. The journey to Makkah may well be the first time many pilgrims will leave their countries or board planes. More than half of those performing Hajj visit from low-income countries, while 18 percent come from conflict-ridden states. According to the Sunnah, or the way of the Prophet Mohammad (P.B.U.H.).

 The History Behind Hajj

Though Hajj has been performed in its current form for more than 1,300 years, some of its elements go back to the time of the Prophet Ibrahim (P.B.U.H.) in 1813 BC. It is said Allah. The creator has ordered the Prophet Ibrahim (P.B.U.H.) to leave his wife, Hagar, and son, Ismail, alone in the desert of ancient Makkah. Hagar, desperately searching for water for Ismail, ran between two small hills, Al Safa and Al Marwa, seven times. When she returned to her son, she saw him scratching at the ground and it is said a miracle from Allah, the creator caused a spring to well up beneath them. Today, pilgrims pace between these two mountains as part of the rituals of Hajj in remembrance of that miracle. The site is now the Well of Zamzam.

Some time before Islam was introduced in 610 AD, the Kaaba became a site for pagan worship. Twenty years later, the Prophet Mohammed (P.B.U.H.) led his followers from Madinah to Mekkah where they destroyed the pagan idols. The Prophet Mohammed (P.B.U.H.) performed his first and only Hajj, with a large number of followers, in 632. Those accompanying the Prophet Mohammed (P.B.U.H.) observed his every move and these steps are performed in the same sequence today.

Steps of Hajj

Hajj 2024: Technology, History, Significance & Key Takeaways from this most important day of the year for Muslims
Infographics from Gulf News

 Day 1: The Day of Tarwiyah – Dhu Al Hijja 8

On this day, pilgrims begin their Hajj at the Kaaba. As they approach the Kaaba, pilgrims must circumambulate in an anticlockwise direction, meant to express the devotion of Muslims praying to one Allah, the creator. They must then perform Sa’ey, whereby Muslims re-enact the journey of Hagar, the Prophet Ibrahim’s (P.B.U.H.) wife, as she went between Al Safa and Al Marwa, looking for water for her son Ismail. Muslims walk between these two points. Pilgrims then depart for Mina, 5km away, where they recite prayers and spend the night in the valley where the Prophet Ibrahim (P.B.U.H.) stoned the devil as he tried to lead him astray.

 Day 2: The Day of Arafah – Dhu Al Hijja 9

Known as the day of Arafah – a pivotal day of Hajj. After the Fajr prayer in Mina, pilgrims make the journey to Mount Arafat, a 70-metre hill believed to be where the Prophet Mohammed (P.B.U.H.) gave his final sermon. Standing and praying on Mount Arafat is considered the peak of the pilgrimage. Descending from Mount Arafat, pilgrims make their way to Muzdalifah, to the south of Mina, to pray and collect pebbles to perform the last steps of Hajj. It is recommended that each worshiper collects 70 pebbles. The stoning of Jamrat Al Aqabah typically takes place after midnight.

 Day 3: Stoning Jamrat Al Aqabah and Eid Al Adha – Dhu Al Hijja 10

On this day, pilgrims must stone Jamrat Al Aqabah, the place where the devil is said to have appeared before the Prophet Ibrahim (P.B.U.H.). Here, pilgrims must throw seven pebbles one after the other while saying Allahu akbar (Allah is greatest) after each throw. The act mimics that of the Prophet Ibrahim (P.B.U.H.), who was told by the angel Gabriel to pelt the devil with stones. After the stoning, Eid Al Adha can be celebrated and the pilgrims’ sacrificial animal should be slaughtered. Then, men should either shave their heads or cut their hair, and women should cut the length of a fingertip from their hair.

 Three Days of Tashreeq: – Dhu Al Hijja 11 – 13

On these days, pilgrims tend to stay in Mina to stone the three sites of the devil each day to cement their intentions and in the hope that Allah, the creator will accept their Hajj. The first two days, Dhu Al Hijja 11 and 12, are mandatory while the 13th is not. After that is the final Tawaf Al Ifadha.

 Hajj Final Step: Tawaf Al Ifadha

Before leaving Makkah, pilgrims, now referred to as Hajjis, shed their white or black robes and don their finest clothes. Makkah becomes a kaleidoscope of color as pilgrims perform a farewell known as Tawaf Al Ifadha where they circumambulate the Kaaba one last time. This step is mandatory but pilgrims have up until the end of Dhu Al Hijja to perform it.

 How to Prepare for Hajj

Before setting off for Hajj, Muslims must first purify and declare their Niyyah, or intention, to Allah, the creator. Their Niyyah for Hajj should be sincere and for the sake of Allah, the creator only, not other worldly matters. Pilgrims must also enter what is known as a state of Ihram, whereby they prepare their bodies and mind for the rituals ahead. This requires them to recite an intention and adhere to a certain dress code.

 Essentials to Take with You

Stripping yourself of anything that could indicate your social standing is key to Hajj. While on pilgrimage, everybody, regardless of their financial or social status, is equal inAllah, the creator eyes. It is for this reason that a simple wardrobe has been prescribed to Muslims during this time. Men must wear two sets of white sheets, symbolizing purity, that do not contain stitches and have no seams. These sheets must be worn when they are in a state of Ihram while performing the Hajj rituals. Women must wear simple, long, modest dresses or abayas. Pilgrims should not be scented, perfumed or use any cosmetics while in the state of Ihram. 

 Where to Eat During Hajj

Over the centuries, Makkah has become a sprawling city with malls, restaurants, hospitals, and other facilities catering to residents and the influx of visitors the city hosts throughout the year. For millions of pilgrims, eating during Hajj can be a challenging prospect as some days the schedule does not allow for a trip back to the city. The ministry will monitor food for hygiene and to ensure there is enough. All tourist agencies, through which the bulk of pilgrims from abroad arrange their Hajj, provide all-inclusive packages with meals, transport, and accommodation. 

Key Questions and Takeaways

1. How has the introduction of the fatwa robot enhanced the Hajj experience for pilgrims?

The fatwa robot has revolutionized the Hajj experience by providing immediate, multilingual religious guidance through AI, enhancing accessibility and efficiency.

2. What role does the Nusuk app play in the management of Hajj for international pilgrims?

The Nusuk app facilitates seamless planning and booking for international pilgrims, offering services such as e-visas, flight, and accommodation reservations.

3. How has crowd management technology improved safety during the Hajj pilgrimage?

Advanced crowd management technology, including real-time monitoring and strategic redirection, significantly improves safety by preventing overcrowding and ensuring smooth pilgrim movement.

4. In what ways has the cooling pavement technology benefited Hajj pilgrims?

The cooling pavement technology reduces heat absorption, making the environment more comfortable and safer for pilgrims during extreme temperatures.

5. How have smart cards transformed the financial transactions for Hajj pilgrims?

Smart cards streamline financial transactions for Hajj pilgrims by enabling cashless payments, enhancing convenience and security.

One thought on

Hajj 2024: Technology, History, Significance & Key Takeaways from this most important day of the year for Muslims

  • Vasilii Zakharov

    I note that the Hajj 2024 demonstrates significant advances in integrating technology to enhance the pilgrim experience. The introduction of smart robots to answer religious questions and the use of multitasking applications highlight Saudi Arabia’s commitment to innovation. Road cooling technologies and smart cards for non-cash payments also contribute to the safety and comfort of pilgrims.

    Historically, Hajj has always been associated with technological innovations, from steamships and telegraphs in the 19th century to modern aviation and communication technologies. Today’s efforts to improve infrastructure and crowd management, such as the Mashaer Train and the multi-level Jamarat Bridge, demonstrate Saudi Arabia’s commitment to providing a safe and spiritually meaningful experience for millions of Muslims from around the world.

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