The Hajj Harvest :: By Todd Strandberg

Millions of Muslims from around the world gather annually in Mecca to perform Hajj – the sacred Muslim pilgrimage. Hajj is a mandatory religious duty that must be carried out at least once in their lifetime by all adult Muslims who are physically and financially capable of undertaking the journey and supporting their family during their absence from home.

At Mina, the pilgrims perform the symbolic Stoning of the Devil by throwing seven stones from sunrise to sunset at three pillars, known as Jamrat al-Aqabah. These pillars are said to represent Satan. Pilgrims climb ramps to the multi-leveled Jamaraat Bridge, from which they can throw their pebbles at the Jamarat.

The Hajj has a long history of pilgrims dying in large numbers from events related to the stoning of the devil ritual. Here are a few examples:

  • 2 July 1990: A stampede or crush inside a pedestrian tunnel (Al-Ma’aisim tunnel) leading out from Mecca towards Mina and the Plains of Arafat led to the deaths of 1,426 pilgrims, many of them of Malaysian, Indonesian, and Pakistani origin.
  • 23 May 1994: A stampede killed at least 270 pilgrims at the Stoning of the Devil ritual.
  • 9 April 1998: At least 118 pilgrims were trampled to death and 180 injured in an incident on Jamaraat Bridge.
  • 5 March 2001: 35 pilgrims were trampled to death in a stampede during the Stoning of the Devil ritual.
  • 11 February 2003: The Stoning of the Devil ritual claimed 14 pilgrims’ lives.
  • 1 February 2004: 251 pilgrims were killed and another 244 injured in a stampede during the stoning ritual in Mina.
  • 22 January 2005: A stampede through the stoning ritual in Mina led to the killing of three pilgrims.
  • 12 January 2006: A stampede or crush during the Stoning of the Devil on the last day of the Hajj in Mina killed at least 346 pilgrims and injured at least 289 more. The incident occurred shortly after 13:00 local time when a busload of travelers arrived together at the eastern access ramps to the Jamaraat Bridge. This caused pilgrims to trip, rapidly resulting in a lethal crowd collapse. An estimated two million people were performing the ritual at the time.
  • 24 September 2015: At least 2,236] pilgrims were killed during a crush and stampede. The Saudi government has yet to release an official report. An Associated Press (AP) report compiled from official reports and statements totaled the deaths to be at least 1,470, over 700 more than the figures from Saudi authorities and the worst toll so far in Mecca. The AP later updated its estimate to 2,411 pilgrims killed.

Another common problem with the Hajj is the outbreak of fire. Here are four historic events that stand out from history:

  • December 1975: An exploding gas cylinder caused a fire in a tent colony and resulted in the deaths of 200 pilgrims.
  • 15 April 1997: 343 pilgrims were killed and 1,500 injured in a tent fire. The tents are now fireproof.
  • 13 February 2002: Forty Hajj pilgrims from the UAE died when the bus they were traveling in collided head-on with a truck in Saudi Arabia’s Al Ihsa province.
  • 1 November 2011: Two pilgrims, a wife and husband, died in a coach fire. There were two coaches in the convoy, and a person in the second coach noticed smoke billowing from the coach in front. He radioed the driver to stop. Everybody evacuated the coach, and as the last two were getting out, the coach suffered three explosions.

Normally, air travel is one of the safest means of transportation. If you are a Hajj pilgrim, your chances of being involved in a plane crash will see a dramatic rise:

  • 22 January 1973: A Royal Jordanian Boeing 707 crashed at Kano, Nigeria, killing 176 Hajj pilgrims returning from Mecca.
  • 4 December 1974: Martinair Flight 138 crashed near Colombo, Sri Lanka, killing all 191 people aboard – 182 Indonesian hajj pilgrims bound for Mecca and 9 crew members.
  • 15 November 1978: Icelandic Airlines Loftleiðir HF Flight LL 001 crashed at Colombo, Sri Lanka, killing 175 (mostly Indonesian) Muslim pilgrims returning from the Hajj and 8 crew members.
  • 26 November 1979: Pakistan International Airlines Flight 740 had an in-flight fire and crashed after takeoff from the old Jeddah International Airport, killing all 156 on board the Boeing 707.
  • 19 August 1980: Saudia Flight 163 had a cargo compartment fire shortly after take-off from Riyadh airport. All 287 passengers and 14 crew on board the Lockheed L-1011-200 TriStar, registration HZ-AHK, died after the aircraft made an emergency landing.
  • 11 July 1991: Nigeria Airways Flight 2120 (operated by Nationair) was a chartered passenger flight from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to Sokoto, Nigeria, which had an in-flight fire and crashed shortly after takeoff from King Abdulaziz International Airport, killing all 247 Hajj pilgrims and 14 crew members on board the DC-8.
  • 7 April 1999: Turkish Airlines Flight 5904 was a flight from Adana, Turkey, to Jeddah. The plane was supposed to pick up returning pilgrims but crashed shortly after takeoff. All 6 occupants on board, who were crew members, were killed.

Despite numerous measures to make the Hajj safer, pilgrims continue to die by the hundreds. In 2004, the stoning of the devil pillars was replaced by long walls, with catch basins below to collect the pebbles. Many of the hallways were expanded several times in size. Several new ramps were added to relieve any congestion. Even with the new safety features, thousands of people still die every few years. For this current calendar year, the death count is already above 1,000.

No other religion on planet Earth has gatherings that cause more deaths. A large group of people gather at the Vatican each Easter and Christmas to hear the Pope speak. Generally, everyone walks away unharmed. If there was some minor event that caused a few Christians to be injured, it would be major world news. The Hajj can have a couple hundred people die in a stampede, and authorities would consider it a good year.

With over 10,000 pilgrims having died over the past 20 years, it would seem to be a logical move to end the stoning of the devil ritual. Since Satan is the god of this world, throwing rocks at a pillar that represents him is not going to stop him. The Bible says submission to God is the only way to combat the devil.

“In whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them” (2 Corinthians 4:40).

“Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you. Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts, ye double minded” (James 4:7-8).