A pilgrimage turns to tragedy as scorching heat causes 1,300 people to die during the Hajj

Performing the five days of the Hajj is a profoundly spiritual and physically demanding task. But this sacred journey turned deadly for many this year as temperatures soared beyond 124 degrees in Saudi Arabia’s holiest city of Mecca. Faisal Kutty, professor at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles, speaks with host Marco Werman about what made this Hajj fatal for many pilgrims.

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The Hajj is a deeply spiritual ritual that every Muslim has to perform at least once in their life. But as temperatures reached 124 degrees in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, many died. 

Saudi officials now say more than 1,300 people died on this year’s pilgrimage.

Officials attributed many of the deaths to heat stress and walking “long distances under direct sunlight, without adequate shelter or comfort.” They also blamed “unauthorized” trips by pilgrims who lacked the visas the Saudi government requires. 

Faisal Kutty, a professor at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles, spoke with host Marco Werman about the reasons for this high number of deaths.

Marco Werman: The Hajj is supposed to be a sort of “equalizer” among Muslims. People dress simply and follow a similar route. But when Muslims plan their pilgrimage, some can pay for five-star packages with air-conditioned buses and hotel suites, while others can’t, right?
Faisal Kutty: Typically, if you’re a registered Hajji, then the government does provide air conditioning tends to everyone and also air-conditioned buses. But I think in this case, from what we understand, there were a lot of tour operators sending people there without registration. So they wouldn’t have access to those air-conditioned tents or busses. From what I understand, there were approximately 400,000 people, according to the Saudi government statements, that were actually unregistered.
Muslim pilgrims gather at the top of the rocky hill known as the Mountain of Mercy, on the Plain of Arafat, during the annual Hajj pilgrimage, near the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, June 15, 2024.Rafiq Maqbool/ AP
How does a pilgrim to Mecca actually get registered? Is it happening through these tour operators or some other means?
In the past, you know, the only way to go to Saudi Arabia was with a Hajj visa or an Umrah visa and possibly a business visa. But now, since Saudi Arabia has become more open, there are tourist visas and visitor visas being issued. And the understanding is they’re just touring the country, they’re not participating in this very strenuous pilgrimage, right. They won’t have buses, so they’re walking. For your listeners, Hajj entails a lot of walking; we’re talking about if you don’t have a bus, and you’re talking about miles. You know, on the first day after, you do seven times around the Kaaba, which is that black cubic structure, seven times counterclockwise. The distance just around that Kaaba could be very short if you’re very close to the Kaaba, but if you’re one of the 2 million who are on the outside, you could be walking miles there, Okay. Then you go five miles from there to Mina on the same day. And you also have to do, before that, seven times Safa and more over the two mountains as you’re walking there and those are great distances. Then, after that, you have another seven miles.
Muslim pilgrims pray on the rocky hill known as the Mountain of Mercy, on the Plain of Arafat, during the annual Hajj pilgrimage, near the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, June 27, 2023.Amr Nabil/AP
That is a lot of walking in a lot of heat. Official registration, though, sounds like it doesn’t necessarily entail care. It just gets you into Saudi Arabia for the Hajj. Is that correct?
Exactly. You kind of are sneaking in, or you are sneaking in using another visa. I think the Saudi government and other jurisdictions are going to have to police and see what happened here and what fell through the cracks. And I think in some of the Muslim countries from where a large number of deaths were suffered, people have been fired up, and there are investigations launched in Egypt. A large number of tour operators have been suspended because they may have offered people, hey, we can take you there, you don’t need to get a Hajj visa necessarily. You can come here as a visitor. You know, the Hajj visa, you have to apply. There are quotas for each country, etc. Well, let’s just work around it; let’s just apply for a visitor visa. We just pretend that we’re going to visit Saudi Arabia and then once you get in there, then we’ll just sneak in and do the Hajj. And then a certain number of deaths is going to be inevitable because you have 2 million people gathering in the heat. And, you know, the rules of Hajj is, if you’re not financially in a position to do so, or if you’re not physically healthwise in a position to do so, you shouldn’t be doing it. But unfortunately, a lot of the people who are doing the Hajj, or many of the people who do, they’re not in the best of health. But, you know, for them, it’s a spiritual thing. And they’re like, you know, I need to do this, and I have to do this. And so they do it.
Muslim pilgrims cast stones at pillars in the symbolic stoning of the devil, the last rite of the annual hajj, as it rains in Mina, near the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, June 17, 2024.Rafiq Maqbool/ AP
I wanted to ask you about the economic pressure to do the Hajj. You mentioned that many of those who perished were from Egypt. Egypt’s currency is in freefall, and many pilgrims who’ve been saving for decades to travel to Mecca decided they just couldn’t wait any longer. Did the currency fluctuations and sheer inflation play a role?
Especially people from the developing world have been saving for their entire life. Actually, you’ll see some bank accounts in Muslim countries, will have savings accounts for for my house, savings accounts for my car, and savings accounts for my Hajj. Right. They saved their entire life to do this. And I think what’s necessary here is the religious leadership needs to step up and basically remind people that God is a forgiving God. You don’t need to necessarily put your life in jeopardy. I mean, God will understand, right? I mean, I think maybe the religious leadership needs to really communicate with people who are in this kind of dire straits, and they’re stretching their financial limits. But also, from a health perspective, there are other ways that you can seek forgiveness from God. You don’t necessarily need to do this.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. AP contributed to this report.

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