Profiting from Hajj: Commodification of Spirituality


Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islamic practice. Every adult Muslim is required to perform hajj once in a lifetime if they can afford the journey. It is staged on the 8th to 13th days of Dhu’l Hijjah, the final month of the Islamic lunar calendar. The Saudi royal family – which calls itself the “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” – has been parasitically profiting from Hajj. Through the planned commodification of spiritual activities and the entrenchment of class divisions in the pilgrimage, the House of Saud has turned Hajj into a lucrative business.

Prophet Mohammed roughly foretold the marketization of Hajj in one of his hadiths: “Near the time of Judgement Day, the rich ones from amongst my people will perform Hajj for the sake of travel and holidays. The middle class will perform Hajj for commercial purposes, thereby transporting goods from here to there while bringing commercial goods from there to here. The scholars will perform Hajj for the sake of show and fame. The poor will perform Hajj for the purpose of begging.”

Ignoring the Poor

In 2015, two columns of Hajj pilgrims ran into each other in Mina on the first day of Id al-Adha. These columns collided because the police blocked off key roads. These roads are intended to manage congestion. At least a thousand pilgrims died in the ensuing stampede. Indications suggested that the authorities had closed the roads to facilitate VIP pilgrims.

The 2015 stampede was not an isolated incident. Hajj rituals have involved the punctual occurrence of stampedes in 1990, 1994, 1998, 2001, 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2006. These are a part of a structural defect in the Hajj system that leads to the marginalization of poor pilgrims. Apart from stampede, this defect manifests itself in the creation of inequalities in everyday acts of interaction.

In her book “In the Land of Invisible Women”, the British-American physician Qanta A. Ahmed writes that to some Saudi women “VIP Hajj meant…being waited on hand and foot and enjoying a sense of superiority over…dark-skinned maids from Mecca, poor women who had to work for a living and chose to make a few extra riyals in Hajj season.” Commenting on these racist sensibilities, Ahmed adds: “I felt disgusted. The entire point of Hajj was to remind Muslims of our equal status in the eyes of God and that only God determines if one Muslim is superior to another in matters of the purity of His believers’ hearts.”

Exclusionary Architecture

Today, the Kaaba cannot be seen from a distance because high-rise buildings and hotels – assigned for the rich wanting to enjoy a bird’s eye view of the site – have surrounded it. While the rich enjoy in their lavish quarters, poor pilgrims – mainly from Africa and South Asia – can be seen sitting, eating and sleeping adjacent to shopping complexes constructed near Kaaba. How did all this happen?

The Saudi authorities have been attempting to convert Mecca from just a religious capital where pilgrims visit it every year in specific times to a luxury city where people would come for commercial reasons. The religious aim would not be the only source of money for the Saudi monarchs. Khalid ibn Faisal Al Saud, Mecca’s ruler, declared that Mecca would be developed to be one of the most beautiful cities worldwide – an indirect way of legitimizing the neoliberal destruction of a holy area.

Rosie Bsheer argues: “In Mecca…urban redevelopment plans centered on the complete overhaul of the city’s physical, cultural, social, and economic landscape. The multi-billion dollar mega projects have been replacing historical sites, cultural landmarks, and private properties in the neighborhoods circling Mecca’s Grand Mosque. Petro-resources, circulated through Saudi Arabian banks in the form of loans to contractors and Mecca’s real estate market, will turn Central Mecca into a collection of mixed-use developments comprising upscale international hotels and short-term and permanent residences, as well as state-of-the-art commercial facilities and markets. The future of this area will thereby be completely detached from its intellectually, socially, and economically rich past.”

Royal family has issued licenses for the construction of 500 hotels near the Grand Mosque in Mecca. Clock Tower hotel, opened in 2010 by Fairmont group, is representative of the extent to which the logic of capitalism has seeped into Islam’s most sacred place. The majority of people staying in this hotel don’t even bother to go to the Grand Mosque and prefer to offer their prayer inside their air-conditioned glass rooms. Clock Tower’s location has also been declared by the Saudi monarchy as a premise of the Grand Mosque.

Clock Tower is a pivotal point in the Abraj Al Bait Complex. This project consists of hotels, malls and apartments, valuing $3 billion, with 15,000 housing units and 70,000 square meters of retail space. Mecca is fast becoming a “Vegas” for wealthy pilgrims, with a hotel that has four helipads, five floors for Saudi royalty, and 10,000 bedrooms on 45 levels, called Abraj Kudai. Along the western edge of the city, Jabal Omar Development has been constructed, a complex that will eventually accommodate 100,000 people in 26 luxury hotels – sitting on a large plinth of 4,000 shops and 500 restaurants, along with its own six-storey prayer hall.

Squandering Money on Wars

Hajj is a huge asset for the Saudi economy, bringing in about $12 billion annually, and may catch up with oil as the country’s main economic asset. Hajj revenues are expected to reach $150 billion in 2022, according to economic experts. Instead of using this money towards making Hajj a more egalitarian experience for all Muslims, the Saudi royal family has squandered the revenues on perpetrating massacres and wars in Muslim lands, such as the bombing of Yemen, the indirect attacks in Syria, Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, and Sudan.

In 2019, Libya’s Grand Mufti Sadiq al-Ghariani called for all Muslims to boycott the pilgrimage and went as far as stating that anyone who embarked on a second hajj was committing a sin, rather than a good deed. A year earlier, the association of “Imams and Religious Leaders” in Tunisia released a statement calling upon Tunisians to boycott the pilgrimage, and urging would-be pilgrims to spend their money on disadvantaged groups in the country. The secretary general of the association, Fadil Achour, told Al-Jazeera that Saudi Arabia “spends Muslims’ money on wars against its neighbors rather than creating development opportunities.” It is high time that the Saudi monarchy stop using Hajj earnings for waging wars against other countries and use that money for eliminating grotesque disparities in the pilgrimage.

Yanis Iqbal is a political commentator




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