Attended annually by two to three million people from all over the world, the Hajj ritual is the fifth pillar of Islam required of Muslims who are able physically and financially to perform it at least once in their lifetime. This ritual has taken place every year since the days of the prophet Mohamed. Yet, this religious practice has undergone a number of transformations throughout its history.

Today, the Hajj represents not only the fulfilment of a religious tenet, but also a very lucrative commercial industry for Saudi Arabia and the multitude of companies and travel agencies involved. The millions of Muslims who converge on Mecca during the Hajj season running from the 8thto 12thof the Islamic lunar month of Dhu Lhijjah spend billions of dollars in Hajj services for accommodation, food, transport, and, of course, shopping!

Despite the hardships and risks they may encounter on the way, Muslims have always set out on the journey to Mecca taking different routes and using different modes of transport. In the past, when there was no air travel, Muslim pilgrims traveled on steam boats or over land, spending months and even years on the journey. Today, thanks to air travel, the number of pilgrims has skyrocketed, reaching unprecedented proportions in the last few years. Thanks also to the ongoing infrastructure expansion and renovation projects such as the expansion of the Holy Mosque, and other megaprojects involving the building of roads, ports, and hotels, Mecca is now able to accommodate many more pilgrims every year.

“Proclaim to men the pilgrimage: they will come to thee on foot and on every lean camel, coming from every remote path.” Quran, 22:27

Viewed from a religious angle, the Hajj is indeed an opportunity for Muslims from all over the world to meet and share their commitment to God through the rituals they observe for five consecutive days in Mecca. The experience promotes their sense of togetherness and brotherhood, and enhances their sense of belonging to a unified Umma(nation of Islam). There are, however, no follow up studies on whether this experience improves pilgrims’ righteousness, piety, and/or good conduct. Many Western Orientalists have been fascinated by this Islamic ritual, and some, such as Paul Cart, Charles Doutti, and Joseph Bates, have even undertaken the experience in disguise and have written ethnographic travelogues.

Most of the anthropological accounts of the Hajj focus mainly on the performance of the rites. They have also addressed topics such as ritual transformation over time, sacred cities and homelands, travel and religious imagination, religious identity, and the sense of belonging. (Eickelman & Piscatori 1990; Fischer & Abedi 1990; Delaney 1990; Werbner 1998). Yet, few accounts, except for perhaps some media reports, dwell on the economic side of the Hajj and the fact that it brings in massive revenues for the oil-rich kingdom of Saudi-Arabia. Moroccan anthropologist Abdellah Hammoudi was one of the rare scholars who spoke about the bureaucratic monopolization of the Hajj by Saudi Arabia and how religion itself has been commercialized into a profitable business. His book, A Season in Mecca: Narrative of a Pilgrimage,poignantly delves into the politics of Hajj through detailed observations of its rituals and practices.

The increasing demand for luxury Hajj packages and VIP services during the Hajj season has emptied the ritual of its most important aspects of simplicity and rigid asceticism. Mecca and its historical environs where the prophet Mohamed and his companions lived, fought, and worshiped now have been invaded by luxury hotels and skyscrapers which have made the city look more like Las Vegas than a place of worship. The Kaaba, the holy monument around which Muslims perform a ritual involving circumambulation, looks like a tiny black spot within the outlandish jungle of steel and concrete that surrounds it.

The most profound message of Islam — equality among all Muslims – which is manifest in the Hajj by all pilgrims wearing a simple, unstitched piece of cloth, is now shattered by the existence of VIP luxury hotels for the rich and other lesser hotels for those who cannot afford the luxury ones. This disparity has created a sort of class system within the walls of al-Haram al-Makki (the walls surrounding the Holy Mosque and the Kaaba) where only divine peace and unworldly aspirations are supposed to be felt and expressed. The spirit of capitalism, embodied in materialism and lavish consumerism, has slowly but steadily crept into the holiest place for Muslims, destroying its religious and historical essence which previously had been preserved.

Muslim Hajj: From Religious Ritual to Lucrative Business. Mecca

Without a doubt, the Hajj has become a very lucrative industry that enlarges the Saudi economy by an estimated $16.5 billion per year, representing about three percent of Saudi Arabia’s GDP. The average pilgrim pays around $4,500 to cover the expenses of accommodation, airfare, food, and transport. This huge amount of money pumped annually into the Saudi treasury was repeatedly questioned by Muslims following the tragic stampedes of 1990, 1994, 1998, 2001, 2003, 2004, and 2005 that claimed the lives of thousands of pilgrims. In 2015, according to Saudi authorities, more than 760 pilgrims were suffocated or crushed in the deadliest stampede in the history of the Hajj; the number is said to have been 2,000 according to other sources. Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy and position on a number of regional issues has also generated a lot of controversy over the Hajj and how its revenues are used in wars instead of investing them for the benefit of poorer Muslim countries.

Today, with Saudi Arabia’s war on Yemen and its alleged destabilizing interventions in other Arab countries’ domestic affairs (Qatar, Tunisia, Lebanon, etc.), as well as its generous support of the current U.S. administration, many activists have launched calls to boycott the Hajj. “If the money is used to plot against the stability of other Arab states or if it ends up in Donald Trump’s pockets, why then should we be part of this ‘conspiracy’ by inflating the Saudi treasury?,” advocates of the Hajj boycott have asked.

The association of “Imams and Religious Leaders” in Tunisia released an unprecedented statement a few weeks ago calling upon Tunisians to boycott the pilgrimage, and urging would-be pilgrims to spend their money on disadvantaged groups and poor people in the country. The secretary general of the association, Fadil Achour, told that this call for a boycott comes in response to the high prices and rise in taxes by Saudi Arabia, which, according to him, “spends Muslims’ money on wars against its neighbors rather than creating development opportunities.”

Saudi Arabia was also heavily criticized with respect to its position on the refugee crisis. While Europe and Canada, for example, have received thousands of war refugees from Syria, Iraq, and other conflict zones, Saudi Arabia’s borders remained firmly closed to Muslim asylum seekers. Mecca and Medina belong to all Muslims, many Muslims argue, and the revenues reaped from the Hajj and Umrah should be directed to the benefit of needy Muslims wherever they might be.

With globalization and Western cultural and economic hegemony, the Hajj, which formerly was a purely religious ritual, has been contaminated by the politics of the market economy and made subject to the law of supply and demand. The rich kingdom of Saudi Arabia annually reaps massive profits from pilgrims, most of whom come from countries that are still grappling with basic life needs such as education, healthcare, food, electricity, and clean water.

With the increasing social problems that have caused social unrest in countries such as Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, Algeria, and others, is the Hajj a priority today, especially that from the very beginning it was conditioned upon physical and financial ability? Is it morally acceptable to spend at least $5,000 in your Hajj journey while your next-door neighbor cannot afford to buy medicine for his dying child? In 2017, Moroccan pilgrims spent in the aggregate $16 million on the Hajj. This raises the question of how well these funds are managed and how much the Moroccan economy benefits.