After two years' hiatus due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Saudi Arabia has reopened the Hajj pilgrimage for the rest of the world with some conditions in the current year. Muslims across the world eagerly wait for the annual pilgrimage, to be performed by them at the holy mosque of Masjid al-Haram in Makkah and the nearby mount Arafah, Saudi Arabia. Many Islamic scholars have explained the Hajj as the 'annual march past' of Muslims around the Kabah, the 'annual world moot at Arafah and Muzdalifah' and the 'annual camping and social dinners at the plateau of Mina' to demonstrate and keep alive the spirit of the unity of Ummah.
Hajj takes place during the month of Dhul Hijjah, the twelfth or final month in the Islamic lunar calendar. This year, formal rituals of Hajj will take place from July 7 to July 12, subject to the appearance of the moon. A total of one million pilgrims will be allowed this year to perform the Hajj subject to being fully vaccinated and not above 65 years. Quotas for Hajj pilgrims in different countries have also been allocated according to the size of Muslim populations. Indonesia gets the highest allocation of 100,051 followed by Pakistan (81,132), India (79,237) and Bangladesh (57,585).
As less than half of the total pilgrims in 2019 were allowed to perform Hajj this year, the county-wise quotas have also been curtailed significantly. Before the pandemic, it was in 2019 when 1.85 million pilgrims from the rest of the world performed Hajj. The number of local pilgrims was 0.64 million of which 0.42 million were non-Saudi or other nationalities residing in Saudi Arabia. Thus, the gross figure for pilgrims was recorded at 2.48 million (2,489,406, to be accurate) in 2019 of which 126,923 were from Bangladesh.
Of the total 57,585 pilgrims from Bangladesh, 53,585 are going to perform Hajj under private management. The rest will go under government management. A debate has, however, sparked in some media circles including social media on government-sponsored Hajj pilgrims. A total of 279 people are going to Hajj under the banner of the Hajj assistance team which includes some government officials and employees, physicians and nurses and others. The government is bearing the total expense which is estimated at around Tk 200 million.
Some have raised the question of whether this kind of financing to perform Hajj is compatible with the Islamic principle of Hajj. Being one of the five sacred pillars of Islam, Hajj is obligatory once in a life to every adult Muslim on the condition that he or she is physically and psychologically fit to perform the rituals of Hajj and also has the necessary resources to bear the expenses. Shortage of any of the three prerequisites usually makes Hajj non-obligatory. Moreover, the resource, money to be precise, has to be earned and accumulated legally by a Muslim himself following the Islamic guidelines.
In the light of basic principles, some argued that the government is not liable to sponsor or finance a pilgrim to perform the Hajj if he or she is not financially solvent to do so. There are also counterarguments, however. Any solvent Muslim, who had already performed Hajj, may finance another Muslim who does not have the financial ability to perform the pilgrimage. Thus, it is not quite beyond the accepted norm to get the government sponsorship to perform Hajj.
It is to be noted that the money spent by the government from the exchequer for some pilgrims is not the government money per se. Money deposited in the state treasury is a combination of tax collected and loans taken from the citizens as well as foreign loans and aid. Thus it is the public money, or tax money, actually owned by the country's citizens. Now, the government as an elected or selected representative of the citizens is empowered to collect and transparently spend the money.
In this connection, sending some government staff to assist the Bangladeshi pilgrims as well as allow them to perform the Hajj is probably not wrong provided that the whole exercise has been done transparently and with accountability. Though the government has unveiled the name and identity of the selected members of the Hajj assistance team, it is not clear what the criteria of the selection are.
Critics also said that every year some pilgrims lodge a series of complaints against some Hajj agencies due to irregularities and mismanagements in Saudi Arabia. There is also an allegation against the Hajj assistance team as many pilgrims did not get any help when required. Instead, a number of the team members were busy serving VIP protocols. Thus, the effectiveness of the team has come under question.
Nevertheless, no one can deny the necessity of an official assistance team selected by the government to do some work during the Hajj. Their scope of work is also defined and they are responsible to do so.
Muslims believe that those who are able to travel and perform Hajj have ultimately received the divine blessings to do so. That's why the pilgrims are termed as 'guests of Allah.' Thus, some argue that it is better not to criticise those who are going to perform the pilgrimage no matter whether they are financed by themselves or others.
To avoid controversy over performance of the members of the official team sent to look after the pilgrims, it is important to prepare a detailed report on the activities of the team and unveil it at the end of the Hajj. Feedback from the pilgrims should also be taken. This kind of reporting will bring greater transparency and help to establish accountability for the state-financed Hajj team.