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What Silence At Islam’s Holiest Sites This Ramadan Means

For most of about 1.8 Muslims in the world, Ramadan is not just a period for upping piety: it has a cultural significance that typifies the concept of brotherhood in Islam.

Communal feasts, fuller congregations and increased acts of charity and kindness are ubiquitous during the holy month. And in some Middle Eastern countries, television soaps are specially created to air during the month.

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This Ramadan, however, communal feasts, congregations and soaps are all casualties of humanity’s war against a common, unseen enemy – COVID-19.

In fact, activities at the three holiest sites in Islam will be scaled down to the barest minimum.

Saudi Arabia government announced that Grand Mosque (the Masjid al-Haram) in Mecca and the Prophet’s Mosque (Masjid an-Nabawi) in Medina will not be opened to the public for Tarawih prayers during the month of Ramadan. A similar announcement by an Islamic council concerning Masjid Al Aqsa, the third holiest site in Islam located in Jerusalem.

The Saudi government said the Grand Mosque, Islam’s holiest site, will only be accessed by imams, muezzins, workers and security officials, who must also subject themselves to temperature test before entry.

An aerial view shows the Grand Mosque, deserted on the first day of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, in the Saudi holy city of Mecca, on April 24, 2020, during the novel coronavirus pandemic crisis. (Photo by BANDAR ALDANDANI / AFP)

Like more than 180 other countries in the world, Saudi Arabia is battling COVID-19 pandemic. As of April 27, 18,811 cases of the virus have been confirmed in the Kingdom with 144 fatalities.

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The country has also barred international flights, suspended year-round Umrah (lesser hajj) attended by about seven million people annually, shut down mosques, schools and malls.

The observance of tarawih – the congregational prayers said by Muslim in evenings during the month of Ramadan – by worshippers will take a hit. Its observance in the Grand Mosque is televised to millions of viewers around the world.

Imams at the Grand Mosque usually lead worshippers to observe of 20 Rakat (unit of Islamic prayer) and complete the recitation of the Holy Quran across the 29 or 30 days the fasting would last. But this year, Imams will only observe 10 Rakat and without thousands of worshippers around them.

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Moreover, hundreds of thousands of Muslims visit the Grand Mosque and the Prophet’s Mosque (the second holiest site in Islam) in Medina during the last 10 days of Ramadan for Umrah. That will not happen either this year.

It is unclear if the two holiest sites will be opened to the public before Hajj officially kicks off in late July. But the country’s hajj minister Mohammad Benten has been cautionary.

“But under the current circumstances, as we are talking about the global pandemic…the kingdom is keen to protect the health of Muslims and citizens and so we have asked our brother Muslims in all countries to wait before doing (Hajj) contracts until the situation is clear,” Benten said.

A picture taken on April 24, 2020, shows Saudi policemen standing guard next to the Kaaba in Mecca’s Grand Mosque, on the first day of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, amid unprecedented bans on family gatherings and mass prayers due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. (Photo by STR / AFP)

Apart from the religious implications of the closure of the mosques, Saudi stands to lose billions of dollars that accrue from religious tourism.

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The Kingdom welcomed a total of 7, 457, 663 pilgrims between September 11, 2018, and August 2, 2019, for Umrah (1440 AH), according to the Saudi Hajj Ministry. About 2.5 attended the 2019 Hajj held between August 9 and 13.

According to the Oxford Business Group, the Saudi economy earns about $12 billion from the pilgrimages, that is 20% of its non-oil GDP.

And while Saudi is opening up to non-religious visitors, Hajj and Umrah are expected to continue to draw a huge number of visitors, with Umrah alone expected to gross about 30 million visitors annually by 2030.

Both pilgrimages were expected to generate $150 billion and create over 100, 000 permanent Hajj-related jobs over five years, starting from 2018.

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If Hajj is eventually cancelled, available records show that it won’t be the first time in the over 1, 400-year history of the pilgrimage. In fact, cancelling it because of the pandemic has a strong Islamic footing. In Volume 7, Book 71 of Sahih Bukhari, Prophet Muhammad said: “If you hear of an outbreak of plague in a land, do not enter it; but if the plague breaks out in a place while you are in it, do not leave that place.”

Has the coronavirus pandemic thrown a spanner in the works? Yes for those who plan their Umrah to coincide with Ramadam. Maybe not for those planning to go on Hajj this year. But for now, we wait.

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