Just as the number of Nigerian Pilgrims who died while performing this year’s hajj as a result of the stampede continued to increase while several others still declared missing, the Amir Hajj for Osun State Muslims Pilgrim Welfare Board, Zikrulahi Olakunle Hassan, who also doubles as Chairman of the State Pilgrims Board as well as Chairman of the Forum of Chairmen and Secretaries of the Pilgrims Welfare Boards in the country, in this interview with JIMOH BABATUNDE, said the issue of timing for the stoning should be looked into. Excerpts.
On this year’s hajj operations
This year’s hajj is unique in number of ways. One, it is a hajj where the pilgrims went through severe weather condition. The temperature at a time rose to almost 50 degree celsius. It was very hot. There was also severe heat in Madinah.
When we got to Arafah and Mina, it was also heat all the way.
The second remarkable thing about this hajj is the unfortunate number of deaths recorded. The first tragic incidence was the falling of the crane at the Holy Kaaba, It was a blow as over 100 people died.
That was the first incident that got many people scared, but as Muslims that we are, it did not stop people from going to the Kaaba. Immediately, the area it happened was cordoned off, people continued with their acts of worship. People were not deterred or frightened by death, they moved on.
The truth as people died, Janazah prayers were held after every salat in Haram and that did not keep people away. So the good and positive side of it is that people still have the yearnings to pray there despite the unfortunate incident.
Another incident was the stampede that happened on the way to Jamarat , where pilgrims throw stones after leaving Arafah and Muzadlifah in the morning. That incident was also baffling, because it also put people on their toes and frightening too, but again, it happened around past nine in the morning. Immediately after it happened, people still had the strong desire to go and perform their rituals.
What I am saying is that as unexpected and monumental the incidences were, they did not prevent people from performing their acts of worship.
I think these are the issues we should all look at in order to prevent a repeat of such incidences with a forum coming out to present the position of Muslims.
As we speak today, there are people who are still missing and those issues of missing people are issues that we will need also to resolve I am saying so because Saudi is not a place where rituals are practiced and so there is no basis for suspecting that people had been taken for ritual purpose; it does not happen there.
Again, Saudi is a place where you have light everywhere, so dead bodies would not have been hidden anywhere for any purpose. Certainly not. So, why are people missing? These are issues we need to resolve.
And because there were no enough mortuaries for corpses and there was no preservation method of preserving bodies, that was why after some changes on the bodies, people could not recognise them again, and yet the person is not receiving medical attention in any hospital, hence they declared them missing.
However, it is more reassuring that you have somebody who is dead than to say the person is missing.
On number of Osun pilgrims involved
We were lucky that we returned with all the pilgrims we took from Osun state as nobody died either naturally or through accidents that occurred. But I should be concerned as there are other Nigerian pilgrims and Muslims from all over the world that died.
I will say we were lucky not because of our expertise or carefulness, but because Allah in His mercy spared our lives in Osun State.
On how to prevent re-occurrence of the Jamarah incident
I don’t want to be forceful about this, we have no choice in the matter or have control over it. The cranes encircled the entire place and it was difficult for anyone to say one particular place was safe or not.
So, if you look at such situations, our choices were very minimal, the only choice you had was to possibly stay in your hotel, but again, we also know people die in their sleep.
In fairness to them, as Muslim Ummah all over the world grow, every Muslim’s desire to go to there must be allowed to come to pass. They needed to expand the place and that was why those machines were there. They gave themselves some targets and in doing so reduced 20% across board on pilgrims from all over the world. If you look at it, Nigerian Muslims still need more seats.
It will interest you to know that we are number five in the entire world in terms of Muslims going to perform hajj; no Arab nation comes close to us in term of allocation of pilgrims every year. The first is Indonesia; they have the largest number of contingent, as they have the highest number of Muslims in the world. Then India followed by Pakistan, Bangladesh and then Nigeria. So, if they doubled the allocation to us, it will still not be adequate like every other country too, but they reduced the allocation to allow us to be able to use the available space pending when construction work will be suspended and also to achieve the time frame they have set for themselves.
Some have argued that why can’t they just stop construction during the pilgrimage, but it might interest you to know that immediately after the hajj, some people are also there performing Umurah. So, it is a house like a typical hospital that is never closed. So, people worship in Haram 24 hours all through the year.
So, in a way the situation was almost beyond them as people scrambled to get visa to answer the call of Allah. The crane has to be there so that work will go on.
What we learnt was that in two years time they would have done substantial work and construction will stop. But what is going to happen is that in another ten years time, the yearning for more allocation will also be there. And also we can not prevent natural occurrence, I think with what they told us , if the crane had been stationary, instead of it moving, perhaps the damage would not occurred.
But, I think they need to do more of an engineering effort to prevent such disaster. We know natural occurrence is not preventable like thunder storm, but I think there are ways to make the machines more secured and in the event that such happened, the damaged will be minimal.
Now, on the Jamarah case, I think again, it will be more reasonable for us to look at a time when we know that the crowd could be less on the road. The issue of what happened was about the crowd and over rowdiness.
I am sure some Muslims would want to die in Makkah, but certainly, not that way. I don’t know of anybody that will want to be killed in a stampede or die in pains as that. I think what we need to do and I am sure we work on that at our own level here in Nigeria is to look at the possibility of throwing stones at a time when the crowd is less.
Statistically, there are times when the crowd are more and used to be after the morning prayer of Subhi. When we left Muzdalifah, we went back to the tent in Mina before going for the stoning later in the day. In that way, the crowd was less.
On the early return of Osun State pilgrims from Saudi this year
We had the support of our air carrier, Med view Airline, I must say the airline as headed by Alhaji Muneer Bankole is classically efficient. They were classical in their movement. We had an agreement which they kept to, even much more than 100%. I remember Med-view was ready the first day that once we got back to Makkah, everybody gets ready to return home.
On our side, we got our pilgrims ready by getting their minds prepared as their major luggage have been shifted away from Makkah even before we left for Mina . So, we got ready but let me say we had an agreement with Med-view Airline and they were up to the task.
On expectations from the board in subsequent hajj operations
If I have my way, I will want a hajj where my pilgrims spend one week in Madinah, one week before we go to Mina for hajj proper and the third day after our arrival we move back home.
But, there are areas we want to improve upon. I look forward to a situation where pilgrims will travel without having to carry any food and where we will be able to secure a caterer that can make available what they will want to eat.
This year, we were able to provide breakfast and dinner for our pilgrims, though it was not subsidized, we factored it into the cost of the hajj. We got a caterer there who provided the food, but I must say that we need more local content in the food that will make the pilgrims not miss home.
Our plan is to increase the meal from two to three so that our pilgrims will not have reason to travel carrying food to Saudi during hajj.
I will also want a situation we give more enlightenment on hajj rites. What we did there was not enough. We discovered that most of the pilgrims cannot recite the Quran well. All in all, we give thanks to Allah.