I was overwhelmed with an aura of joy and nostalgia, when sometime last year, September precisely, I was gifted with a Hajj slot by the Marketing guru and Chief Executive Officer, DICOLI Nigeria Limited, Alhaji Kayode Awobadejo, during a Quranic competition he organised to celebrate his 60th birthday anniversary. Friends, associates and well-wishers who were present at the occasion were also very happy, extending hands of fellowship. For me, it was emotional, considering the fact that I am still recuperating from an auto crash five years ago, that almost claimed my lower limbs. It was also a moment of excitement for many of my colleagues who only got to know that I had not performed Hajj, despite writing about the excellence, prerequisites and preparation for Hajj on this column on a yearly basis for three consecutive years. Let me also say it here that I had been a “guest of Allah” in His two holiest Mosques in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia once, albeit for Umrah (lesser pilgrimage). It is however the dream of every Muslim to perform Hajj, the fifth pillar of Islam once in his lifetime.
The planning for Hajj 2020 began in February. While working hard to also raise money so that my spouse and I could travel together, I had started making consultations on the travel agency to employ for the exercise. There were options of going either with the public or private company and luckily for me, my sponsor gave me the freedom of choice. All he wanted for me was Hajj Mabrur, meaning, a successful pilgrimage. My indecision then made my registration for the Hajj pending, when so many intending pilgrims had started the process. In fact, Lagos, which has had numerous awards, including the most disciplined state in 2019 under then Amirul Hajj Hon AbdulHakeem AbdulLateef, had already sold over 1500 forms, out of the 2500 allocated by National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) to it. In essence, many Muslim faithful were at the time determined that nothing would stop their dreams of performing this year’s pilgrimage.
Suddenly, the Coronavirus pandemic, which originated from Wuhan, China, hit Nigeria from the blues, days after the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia recorded its index cases in mid-February. What started like a child’s play engulfed the country, affecting social life, shattering hopes and dashing plans. Religious activities across the world were greatly affected. Schools were shut, businesses closed; the fallout on the society was just dire. Though, cases were being recorded almost daily across the country, there were high expectations that the spread of the pandemic would be tamed before the holy month of Ramadan. Alas, it appeared the battle had just started. Muslim faithful observed the holy month of Ramadan under lockdown, which affected major acts of worship and programmes scheduled for the month by both individuals and organisations. The beautiful city of Makkah that is a beehive of Islamic activities went to sleep and for the first time in recent years, the grand mosques, like other religious centres across the world, were under lockdown. To cap it all, no I’tikaf (seclusion during the last 10 days of Ramadan in mosques) and the Eid-ul-Fitr prayer was observed at home with family members by most Muslims amid lull, a departure from the norm.
By then, I became so worried like many other intending pilgrims, particularly seeing how the holy sanctuaries in Makkah and Madinah were absolutely deserted and heavily controlled by the state. So, I kept on praying as I was enveloped in anxiety that my opportunity to perform my very first Hajj in 2020 is fast becoming unrealistic. All eyes were on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, who has been hosting no fewer than 2.5 million Muslims from different parts of the world successfully during the yearly Hajj.
The newly appointed NAHCON Chairman/Chief Executive Officer (CEO), who assumed office in February, Barrister Zikirullahi Hassan was also putting up efforts to ensure things come out positively. He has been in consistent touch with the Kingdom officials including the ministry of Health, liaising with investors and stakeholders. He was also not sure of what the outcome would be but the preparations for the 2020 Hajj didn’t stop. Many intending pilgrims were encouraged to make deposits. He gave the assurance that if the Hajj would hold, there would be adequate welfare package for the Nigerian contingent.
As the Hajj period drew nearer, however, speculations were rife. In fact, there were reports, just last week, that the 2020 Hajj has been cancelled but the Saudi government later dismissed it, saying they were yet to decide. As an avid observer, I had assumed that the Kingdom would not cancel the Hajj outrightly due to COVID-19 even though there were times in history that Hajj were cancelled. Considering the economic effects of the cancellation, I had thought that the Hajj 2020 would hold but the Kingdom would reduce the number of participating countries as a strategy to monitor and control the pilgrims. For instance, Nigeria might get 5000 or less slots as against the 95,000 who performed Hajj in 2019. This could probably be the reason NAHCON had encouraged intending pilgrims to make deposit ahead. While all these were ongoing, some countries like South African, Indonesia and a host of others had concluded on not partaking in this year’s Hajj due to the daily rising cases of the pandemic across the world, including the host country, Saudi Arabia, which as at Wednesday, June 24, had 167,267 COVID-19 cases with 1,387 deaths and 112, 797 recoveries.
The moment finally came early this week, Saudi Arabia announced its cancellation of international pilgrimage but said it would allow only the nationals from different countries already residing in Saudi Arabia for this year’s Hajj. The Health Minister Dr. Tawfiq Al-Rabiah, at a press conference in Riyadh, said, “Only people residing in the Kingdom, who are under 65 years of age and who do not have chronic diseases will be allowed to perform Hajj this year. The pilgrims number could be limited to less or more than 1,000 to protect public health in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic. They will get tested before arriving to the holy sites and will be subject to self-isolation after performing Hajj.”
When this announcement was made, it threw most intending pilgrims, myself inclusive, including Hajj/travel agencies, into disappointment. On a personal ground, it is pitiable and discomfiting, but the Saudi government has taken a very wise decision. It is in concert with the hadith (traditions) of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) who said, “Whenever you hear of an epidemic, do not travel to the affected place, and those already in the place should not travel out to other (unaffected) places.” Hence, it is a bold step in the right direction. We can only pray Allah for quick intervention regarding the pandemic and help us keep those that will perform the Hajj rites this year, safe. May Allah, in His infinite Mercy, spare our lives till and beyond next year, for the Hajj 2021.
Rasheed Abubakar writes for Muslim News Nigeria
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