Hundreds of Muslims look forward to spiritual pilgrimage to Mecca
Heathrow airport hums with anticipation as British faithful prepare for Hajj
Sheikh Abul Barakat Mishkat Hasan prepared to leave for his 18th Hajj late last week, accompanied by hundreds of other British Muslims at London's Heathrow airport.
The manager of the Hajj and Umrah Tours works with his father Sheikh Abul Kamal Moudood to organise pilgrimages for the faithful.
They are both imams and experienced scholars with decades of Hajj experience, and have been guiding pilgrims for almost 30 years between them. The younger Sheikh Abul graduated from the Islamic University of Madinah Munawwarah and has lived in Saudi Arabia.
Known to all as Abul Hasan, he said he was looking forward to the spiritual journey afresh. “The pilgrimage is a life-changing experience for me,” he said. “It is believed that when you complete it in the correct way, you come back as a newborn baby with forgiveness and a fresh start. I see it as [providing] complete spiritual fulfilment and nourishment [for] the soul.”
This year, many like Abul Hasan will be returning to Saudi Arabia for Hajj, but for others it will be their first pilgrimage to Mecca. All those at Heathrow shared the mood of anticipation.
Abul’s sister, Adilah Hasan who was also flying to Jeddah, said: “This is only my second time of completing Hajj. It’s not always easy to come back year after year because it is expensive but it’s a life-changing experience, it gives me hope for the future.”
Hajj is a sacred and holy experience for many Muslims, however in previous years the pilgrimage has been scarred by tragedy, with hundreds of people dying in massive stampedes.
In 2015, a stampede caused the highest number of fatalities at the pilgrimage since 1990, with more than 750 dead and 900 injured, although some believe the real figures were much higher.
The Saudi authorities' preparation for the 2015 Hajj was questioned by some countries, particularly by Iran. Four hundred Iranians lost their lives that year.
Saudi Arabia has spent billions of dollars on improving the safety of transport and infrastructure to prevent such tragedies in the future. The authorities have also introduced e-bracelets and surveillance cameras. The e-bracelets provide ID information about each pilgrim including their name, passport number, any medical conditions they have, which tour company they are with and where they are staying.They will also provide information to pilgrims such as prayer times.
Mr Hasan said: “I think a lot has been done to make the pilgrimage a safer place for people. The problem is that people from all over the world come, people from developing and developed countries, and due to language problems and difficulties with reading signs they don’t know which way to follow. So you can get a thousand people walking in the wrong direction which can create bottlenecks; that was the cause for some of the fatalities in previous years.
“But I think they have done enough to make it safer. There are people working 365 days a year to make it better. The infrastructure is very strong and things like the electronic wristbands make it safer too.”
The Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca is a once in a lifetime experience for millions of Muslims and although official figures suggest about two and a half million Muslims will embark on pilgrimage this year, Abul suggests the true figure could reach up to four million.