Muslim pilgrims hurled stones at the “stoning of the devil” ritual marking the start of the Eid al-Adha holiday on Saturday, as this year’s expanded Hajj pilgrimage was drawing to a close.
From dawn, small groups of worshipers crossed the Mina Valley, near Mecca, in western Saudi Arabia, to throw stones at three concrete walls depicting Satan.
The ritual is an emulation of Abraham’s stoning of the devil in the three places where Satan is said to have tried to dissuade him from obeying God’s command to sacrifice his son, Ishmael.
The stoning ritual in recent years has led to deadly stampedes, as millions of participants converge on a confined space.
The Hajj, generally one of the largest annual religious gatherings in the world, is among the five pillars of Islam and must be performed by all Muslims with means at least once in their lives.
In 2019, some 2.5 million Muslims from all over the world participated.
But that number dwindled to just a few thousand in 2020 and 60,000 in 2021, all of them Saudi citizens or residents, as the kingdom tried to mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This year, participation was limited to 1 million fully vaccinated worshipers. Authorities said Friday nearly 900,000 people attended, nearly 780,000 of them from abroad.
Organizing the pilgrimage is a matter of prestige and a powerful source of political legitimacy for the Saudi rulers, the custodians of Islam’s holiest sites.
The exclusion of foreign pilgrims for the past two years had caused deep disappointment among Muslims around the world, who normally save for years to participate.
The Hajj, which costs at least $5,000 per person, and the umrah pilgrimages that take place at other times of the year are a major driver of Saudi Arabia’s tourism industry.
In normal times, they generate around $12 billion annually, keeping the economy going in Mecca.
viruses and heat
After the stoning ritual, pilgrims return to the Great Mosque of Mecca to perform a final “tawaf,” or walk around the Kaaba, the cubical structure that is the focal point of Islam.
Eid al-Adha, the festival of sacrifice that begins on Saturday, marks the end of the Hajj.
Muslims around the world buy sacrificial cattle to commemorate Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his son to show obedience to Allah.
On Friday, huge crowds of robed Muslim pilgrims prayed on Mount Arafat, the highlight of the annual pilgrimage.
Groups of worshipers, many with umbrellas to shield them from the fierce sun, recited verses from the Koran on the rocky outcrop where the Prophet Muhammad is believed to have delivered his final sermon.
After sunset, they walked the short distance to Muzdalifah, where they slept under the stars before performing the stoning ritual.
The large crowds have raised fears of COVID spreading, especially after many pilgrims remained maskless, despite claims by Saudi authorities that masks would be mandatory.
The Hajj has been held against the backdrop of a resurgence of cases in the region, with some Gulf countries tightening restrictions to control outbreaks.
All participants had to present proof of vaccination and negative PCR tests.
Since the start of the pandemic, Saudi Arabia has registered more than 795,000 cases of coronavirus, more than 9,000 of them fatal. Some 67 million doses of vaccines have been administered in the country of more than 34 million people.
The Hajj, whose time is determined by the lunar Islamic calendar, can be physically taxing even in ideal conditions, but this year’s worshipers faced an additional challenge: scorching sun and temperatures that soared to 44 degrees Celsius.