It’s that time of the year again when Muslims from all across the world are preparing for one of the single most essential experiences in life — hajj.
Performing hajj is a pillar of Islam that all Muslims are expected to fulfill at least once in their lifetime. It is a pilgrimage to Mecca, the holiest city in Islam, in the last month of the Islamic year (Dhul Hijjah). This year, after the moon was sighted in Saudi Arabia, hajj started on Monday, June 26. Eid al-Adha will be celebrated on June 28.
COVID-19 changed hajj. From the minimal number of pilgrims allowed to enter Mecca during the height of the pandemic in 2020 and 2021 to last year’s ill-fated registration platform, Muslims are trying their best to keep up with all the adjustments.
These changes have significantly impacted pilgrims and small businesses.
In June 2022, Saudi Arabia’s Hajj Ministry introduced the now-suspended online portal Motawif to welcome more international pilgrims post-COVID-19. Motawif was a “full-service portal that enabled pilgrims from Europe, America, and Australia to register for the hajj season,” according to the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah via a press release. But for many pilgrims, Motawif was a nightmare that lacked organization, efficiency, and reliability.
Horror stories abound from last year’s system failure. According to news reports, people who paid didn’t receive plane tickets, were paired in rooms with the opposite sex, and were stranded without trained tour guides.
This year, Saudi Arabia introduced another online registration platform for Hajj 2023 called Nusuk to facilitate the hajj trip for all international and domestic pilgrims. The changes in the new system require pilgrims to apply on the website for different services to attend hajj. “The information isn’t clear. It’s three different groups. One is providing you with a hotel, one is providing you with transportation, one is providing you with guidance for the actual rites itself,” Imam Suleiman Hamed, co-founder of Hajj Pros, a Black-owned company based in Atlanta, GA told Sapelo Square.
“After the Corona epidemic, Saudi Arabia found an opportunity to gain more control over the hajj industry. Historically they didn’t make the bulk of the money; companies like Hajj Pros made the money. Nusuk is a website for pilgrims to register through a Saudi-based system for hajj. Long story short, it’s terrible. The system doesn’t work. It’s been a disaster.”
He continued, “This system has travelers all around the world. Companies worldwide, not just small companies like Hajj Pros, cannot directly engage American Muslims, or Western Muslims, to register for hajj. That’s the primary impact. We cannot directly register and guide Muslim American pilgrims as we did in the past.”
Hajj Pros is one of the many once-approved travel agencies that used to provide services for hajj. It is known by Muslims across the country for offering both hajj services and umrah packages, all while removing barriers for American Muslims in several ways.
“Since COVID, the Saudi government has instilled rules that regulate companies and who comes in and out of the country to gain more government control,” said Imam Hamed. “Private companies like us cannot provide hajj packages and only umrah packages.”
As you can imagine, attending hajj may seem like more of a difficulty for many Muslims now that more rules and regulations are implemented. Many are traveling, minus the trusted companies that offer direct communication, experienced customer support, and overall peace of mind.
Dr. Aminah Al Deen, Islamic World Studies Department Chair emeritus at DePaul University, attended hajj as a semi-diplomat. She told Sapelo Square, “Travel agencies provided a wonderful opportunity for small businesses. They are now under siege with these new plans. What also worries me is people previously buying tickets through travel companies which were put in crowded camps or hotels. They were left at the mercy of the tour group leader. People often don’t know what the trip entails and must endure difficult conditions.”
“When you have millions of people coming to a space, that you have to keep in groups, you have to keep up with them,” Dr. Al Deen continued. “Someone trustworthy has to be in charge.”
Imam Hamed said, “The hope is this is the last year for this new system. We’re optimistic they will return to the previous system that allowed experienced guides to continue providing a pleasant worship experience. That’s what it’s supposed to be.”
Ruqayyah Taylor is a junior journalism major and English minor, from Norristown, PA. She is a first-generation college student currently studying at Howard University. Her love for journalism began in high school, working with her school newspaper. Fast forward to now, her passion for writing stories is deeper than ever. She hopes to give back to others in need by becoming a valuable voice and an advocate for underrepresented communities. She aims for her writing to be a means of expression that uplifts people, challenges stereotypes, and creates awareness of numerous prevalent issues in society today. When it comes to her writing, she lives by this quote by the amazing Ida B. Wells: “There must always be a remedy for wrong and injustice, if we only know how to find it.”