The spirituality of the Muslim pilgrimage is being ruined by skyscrapers and traffic jams around the holy site, while rising costs mean it is a ritual that only the rich can afford
The four-faced Mecca clock tower: a concrete jungle now dominates the skyline of the holy sites. Photograph: Amr Abdallah Dalsh/REUTERS
Today I have completed my hajj – the annual pilgrimage that brings together millions of people in the holy city of Mecca. I am extremely worried that hajj may have lost its true spiritual meaning. I may have attained a personal triumph for completing the rituals but the economic, environmental and human cost is staggering. I lament the speed of change that is sweeping this city, obliterating history and heritage in its path.
Hajj is a spiritual journey of each and every pilgrim that merges into the journey of the masses. It is the coming together of every nation that makes hajj so special. It is personal yet collective. I came here with a clear focus: to centre God in my life. I would make a pledge to live a more conscientious life. I would care for my fellow human beings as I care for myself. Hajj is about an individual and collective renewal of the faith.
But when I look around I see the concrete jungle dominating the skyline and imposing itself over the house of God – the Ka’bah – and I feel betrayed by the custodians of the holy sites. If I want to see skyscrapers I can take a quick trip to the Docklands in London. I did not come here to be shown another city of tall buildings, just like Las Vegas or New York. In these places I find no spirituality. I am pretty certain God does not want his holy site to be desecrated in this fashion either.
The cost of hajj has trebled over the last five years, making the pilgrimage unaffordable for ordinary people. The new high-rise five-star hotels surrounding the Ka’bah are available to those who can afford them. I noticed this year that hajj has already become a ritual for the super rich. The poorer people are being priced out by the unfair and disproportionate price hike. The essence of hajj lies in creating equality between all people by putting on two unstitched white pieces of cloth. This instantly eliminates social and economic inequality. The current trend is making equality a distant dream. I came to hajj to give up material pursuits but materialism is here in full force. There is no spirituality in this.
Hajj for me is an invitation from God to visit his house. The infrastructure around the house of God is being built without any serious environmental consideration. Cars, gas-guzzling jeeps and diesel-operated buses are crowding the surrounding area. Making Mecca car-free should be at the forefront of public transport infrastructure strategy. People spend a lot of time stuck in the traffic jams; I spent half of my time waiting for my bus to take me to the holy site. I would have rather spent that time in the house of God in meditation, reflection and prayers. I found no spirituality in traffic jams.
In Mina, Muzdalifah and Arafat, the three most important places that form the pilgrim path, there are more plastic bottles, wraps and bags strewn around than many cities produce in a year. The curse of plastic has serious ecological consequences that will outlive all the pilgrims here in Mecca. The environmental damage caused by people littering these sites is in direct contradiction to the teachings of Islam. There are billboard messages reminding pilgrims that “Cleanliness is part of faith”, yet most simply ignore these words of wisdom. The hajj authority must takes serious steps to curb littering by introducing hefty fines for pilgrims and tour operators. They should ban plastic. Pilgrimage is about reconnecting with our humble origins and our ultimate destination. Being careless about the environment is the antithesis of spirituality.
At this rate, hajj soon will become a materialistic ritual, a showground for the super rich to display their wealth and nobility. I badly miss the hajj that reconnects me with the prophet Abraham and helps me to centre God in my life.