Saudi Arabia appears set to allow Aitekaf to resume at the Grand Mosque in Mecca and the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina after a two-year ban imposed under Covid-19 restrictions. The news came as Saudi leaders met to discuss plans for Ramazan, which will start in about a week. People will still need a permit to practice Aitekaf. Permits can be applied for online and will only be issued under “specific conditions and defined criteria”. Reports in Saudi media estimated that around 100,000 people would perform Aitekaf at Islam’s two holiest mosques during the last 10 days of Ramazan. The ritual requires participants to spend all of their time in prayer and meditation, with minimal contact allowed with other people outside of these activities.
The reinstatement of permission to perform Aitekaf is linked to Saudi efforts to bring some normality to daily life in the kingdom. Most Covid-19 restrictions have already been lifted in recent weeks, including testing and quarantine requirements for vaccinated tourists. Meanwhile, mask requirements have been relaxed to cover only enclosed spaces, meaning Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages will be largely mask-free – unless restrictions are reimposed. However, the most important restrictions, such as the strict visa restrictions which prohibited anyone from abroad from performing Hajj in 2020, were removed several months earlier.
Saudi authorities reportedly fought to remove the restrictions soon after they were imposed, largely because Hajj, Umrah and religious tourism in general are not just about faith or altruism. Pilgrimages alone brought in around $12 billion a year before the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Pilgrimages are also a source of considerable soft power and influence across the Muslim world for the Saudi government, while the successes and failures in running the Hajj have often been used by Western analysts to reflect on the quality and to the effectiveness of the leaders of the time.
Now that restrictions are mostly a thing of the past, Ramazan – a peak pilgrimage month – will provide insight into how Hajj will be handled in the post-Covid era, while also giving Riyadh plenty of time to resolve any issues. long before that. Hajj of the year, which will also be aggravated by the scorching July heat in Saudi Arabia.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 25and2022.
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