By Imam Dr. A. Rashied Omar
This year 2020CE/1441AH, for the first time in recent history, pilgrims (hujjaj) from outside of Saudi Arabia are unable to travel to perform the fifth and final pillar of Islam, the hajj. This was the situation as a result of a wise decision by the Saudi hajj authorities to limit the number of pilgrims performing the hajj this year to those ‘already residing in the country’ and to observe strict health protocols.
The Saudi decree had been preceded by an independent judgement from a number of international hajj bodies, including the South African Hajj and `Umrah Council (SAHUC) to cancel the 2020 hajj for their respective nationals in response to the contagious and deadly Coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic.
We commend the judicious decision to restrict the performance of hajj to very limited numbers this year in order to prevent the global spread of the contagious Coronavirus. In their compassionate response to the deadly Covid-19 pandemic the hajj authorities were guided by one of the supreme objectives of the Sharīʿah, technically known in Islamic ethico-legal theory as the Maqāsid al-Sharī‘ah. According to the classical formulation of this theory of Islamic ethics there are five essential aspects of collective human flourishing, namely: life, religion, intellect, family, and property. The chief of which is the preservation of life or hifz al-hayāt.
The Prophet Muhammad (may Allah’s everlasting peace and blessings be upon him) exemplified this supreme objective of Islam of preserving human life (hifz al-nafs). This is usefully illustrated in the following prophetic tradition (ḥadith) narrated by the illustrious companion Abdullah ibn `Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) who reported the following: I saw the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him), circling the Ka’bah and saying: “How pure you are and how pure is your fragrance! How great you are and how great is your sanctity! But by the one in whose hand is the soul of Muhammad, the sanctity of the believer is greater to Allah than your sanctity. His wealth and his blood are forbidden to you. And you are to assume nothing of him but good. (This hadith is recorded in the Sunan Ibn Mājah 3932).
Enunciated in the above prophetic tradition (hadith) is a critical ethical lesson for all of us: the sanctity and preservation of life is fundamental to what it means to be a believer. The wealth and blood of another life is forbidden for us to unjustly devour. In this life-affirming hadith we can see how our dīn upholds the virtue of ethical flourishing for all. The ethical lesson of this hadith is supported by a number of verses in the Qur’an (Q6:151; Q17:33; Q.25:68). The most striking iteration of this ethical principle is found in Surah al-Mā‘idah, Chapter 5, verse 32:
If anyone kills a single human being without just cause it shall be as though s/he had killed all of humankind; Whereas if anyone saves a life, it shall be as though s/he had saved the lives of all humankind (Q5:32)
We commiserate with the millions of prospective hujjāj who were unable to fulfill their noble intentions (niyyat) to undertake their obligatory journey of the hajj this year. We ask Allah, the Lord of Compassion, to reward these prospective hujjāj even more for their patience and forbearance and make du`a and pray that Allah, the Lord of All-Wisdom, will guide and inspire our medical researchers to find a vaccine and a cure for Covid-19. Allahumma Amīn.
Similar to all other acts of worship (`ibādah) the obligation for hajj is conditional on an individual Muslim fulfilling certain prerequisites technically known as the shurūt of the hajj. Because of the distinctive nature of hajj, which involves international travelling, the shurūt of the hajj are guided by theunique hajj requirements of istitā‘ah, which can literally be translated as ability. This prerequisite for hajj is derived from the most primary source of Islamic guidance, the Glorious Qur’an, in Surah Ali-`Imran, chapter 3, verse 97, in which Allah, the Most-High, proclaims:
And Pilgrimage to the House is a duty people owe to Allah, for those who are able to undertake the journey (Q3:97).
According to the renowned classical commentator of the Qur’an, Isma`il ibn Kathir (d. 1373) the above verse is one of the key evidences that established the hajj as one of the five basic pillars of Islam, about which there is consensus among all Muslims. Classical Muslim jurists have carefully considered istitā‘ah as a prerequisite for the obligation of the hajj and they have devised elaborate and disparate definitions of the concept and its components from an Islamic legal point of view. There is, however, consensus among Muslim jurists from all schools of Islamic law (madhāhib) that in addition to physical and financial ability, and means of transportation and the safety of the pilgrim’s life and possessions during the journey of hajj is one of the key components of istitā‘ah. In this regard, a number of jurists, including the contemporary Egyptian scholar, Sayyid Sabiq (d.2000), contend that if the pilgrim fears for their life as a result of a health pandemic (waba’) then the condition of istiṭā‘ah would not be fulfilled and thus the obligation for the performance of the hajj during that specific year would fall away.
Notwithstanding the above unequivocal legal reasoning and judgment (hukm), it is understandable that prospective pilgrims would feel disappointed. This is a natural emotion and I would venture to say a commendable sentiment from an Islamic theological perspective. It is my considered view that the prospective pilgrim’s emotion of sadness coupled with a rational appreciation for the justifiable reasons for their inability to undertake the journey of hajj this year is an essential part of a faithful believer’s disposition. We supplicate and make du`a that Allāh, the Lord of Compassion and Mercy, will allow those pilgrims prevented from performing their hajj this year and opportunity to do so next year, insha- Allāh.