The Hajj in Perspective: A Conversation with David Long

Published: September 20, 2015

Share Article

Related Experts

Related Posts

Related Special Sections

Editor’s Note:

This week marks the beginning of the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage of Muslims to holy sites in Saudi Arabia that is considered to be one of the basic duties of the Islamic faith. The spectacle of millions of Muslims collecting in the holy places of the Kingdom over the span of a handful of days, beginning on Tuesday, comes as Saudi Arabia confronts changes and challenges internally and in the region. Since the last Hajj there is a new king and leadership, and a military campaign in next-door Yemen. Meanwhile, defense and security crises rage in Iraq and Syria and the relationship and response to Iran has grown more complex with the completion of an international agreement on its nuclear program. Nevertheless millions of pilgrims continue to arrive for this year’s Hajj to fulfill a sacred obligation.

To usher in this year’s Hajj we are pleased to present an interview with Dr. David E. Long. This is a reprint of a conversation SUSRIS had with Dr. Long in 2005, but it remains an important contribution to the materials available to give context and background to the Hajj. For more on the Hajj we suggest you read Dr. Long’s essay “The Hajj and Its Impact on Saudi Arabia and the Muslim World.” Also see our Special Section on Hajj 2015, launched today.

A career foreign service officer before retiring to become a consultant on Middle East affairs, Dr. David Long is author of numerous books on the Middle East and his “Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” is among the definitive texts on the subject.

This SUSRIS exclusive interview originally appeared in SUSRIS on January 23, 2005.


[A classic – previously published]

The Hajj in Perspective: A Conversation with David Long

[SUSRIS] Thank you, Dr. Long for taking time today to talk with us about the Hajj. What is the Hajj and why do people do it?

david-long[Dr. David E. Long] The Hajj is one of the five pillars or the foundation of Islam and therefore it is the obligation of everyone who is physically and financially able to do so to make the Hajj once in their lifetimes. Pilgrimages to Makkah actually predate Islam, but the Hajj is considered by all Muslims to be divinely inspired by God as set down in the Qur’an and the Sunna. It is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, the others being: the profession of faith – “there is no God but God and Mohammed is the messenger of God”; Zakat or charity; prayer five times a day, and fasting during Ramadan. The rites are based on the instructions Muhammad gave in his Farewell Hajj just before he died. They have remained virtually unchanged to this day

[SUSRIS] What role has Saudi Arabia played in hosting the pilgrims?

[Dr. Long] That is a fascinating question. There was great fear when the Saudis took Makkah and annexed the Hijaz that they would do things that were not in line with the established practices. The fear first arose when the puritanical Islamic revival movement of Muhammed Ibn Abu Wahhab spread from Najd throughout Arabia, beginning in the 18th century.

Ibn Abu Wahhab preached that all sorts of innovations had been introduced into Islam since the time of Mohammed; his reform movement was basically a movement to get back to the original Islam. The centerpiece of his reform movement was Tawhid, or monotheism. The religious establishment who ran the Hajj feared that if the people followed the reform movement, it would cost them both economically and influence they held with the people. For example, one of the things that the movement called for was banning the practice of seeking intercession with God through Muslim saints by making pilgrimages to their tombs – very lucrative for those who controlled the tombs. Mohammed Ibn Abu Wahhab considered intercession heretical as it denigrated the sovereignty and omnipotence of God.

But when the Al Sauds annexed the Hijaz and took over the administration of the Hajj in 1925-1926, it soon became apparent that the fears were unfounded. From that time to this, the Saudi regime has gone all out to make sure it was available to all those who were able to attend. As a token of this responsibility, King Fahd assumed the title Khatim al-Haramain (Custodian of the Two Holy Places, i.e. Makkah and al-Madinah).

The job has not always been easy. Not only are the administrative tasks of providing services to over two million pilgrims enormous, but there have been all sorts or political divisions and problems that posed dilemmas for the Saudis.

For example, during the period of Nasserism and secular Arab nationalism there were many people who wanted to use the Hajj as a platform for political protest and the Saudis absolutely forbade that. They said it was not a time for politics; the Hajj was purely religious and they wanted to keep it that way. They would not allow protest over secular political issues — even if they agreed with them — that they did not feel were legitimately in the context of religious celebration.

After the 1979 revolution, Iranian provocateurs stirred up trouble at the Hajj. It was partly religious but it was mostly political. It was an attempt to undermine the Islamic world’s acceptance of Saudi custodianship, to undermine their reputation for running Hajj. But it backfired; it did not work, in fact, just the opposite. On the whole, I think that the record of the Saudis has been fairly good in terms of their striving to help people meet the obligation to come to the Hajj without being subjected to political protest.

Now that’s on the political side. The administrative problems the Saudis have had to encounter have in many ways been even more daunting. In the beginning, the Saudi Government was far less advanced than the former Hijazi government and not capable of administering such a huge task. What they came up with, I think, was pretty ingenious: a public utility concept — my term not theirs – similar to public utilities in the United States. The Hajj is administered primarily by the private sector but it is closely regulated by the government, which even collects the fees from the Hajjis and remits it to the private Hajj service sector to insure that the pilgrims are being fairly treated. Had the government tried to nationalize Hajj administration, there would likely have been chaos. But instead, they allowed private guilds (somewhat like guilds in medieval Europe) that had been guiding pilgrims for centuries, to continue to administer the Hajj but under strict supervision.

Click for larger map

Click for larger map

The principal guild consists of mutawwiffin (sing. mutawwif). They are sort of like family-run religious tour guide companies, if you will. Collectively, the mutawwiffin are responsible for pilgrims from every country in the world. For example, there is a mutawwif responsible for all the pilgrims coming from the United States. Closely associated with the mutawwifin are the Wukala’ (sing Wakil), or Agents. Located in the port city of Jiddah, they are responsible for meeting pilgrims arriving by air or sea, seeing them safely off to Makkah and seeing them off on the return trip home. (With the creation of an all-weather road system, an increasing number once again travel overland by car or bus.)

There is another guild in Makkah, the Zamazimah (sing. Zamzami). Historically, their task was to provide pilgrims with the holy water of Zamzam, a well inside the Haram Mosque. That has become a major undertaking with the great increase in numbers. Can you imagine when you have two million people who want to drink Zamzam water that’s a pretty big task? They do that, but their skill has expanded and that is why they are called Zamazimah. In fact they bottle Zamzam water — the real Zamzam water — send it all over the world. It is a non-profit foundation to raise money for worthy causes.

Finally, to meet, guide and see off the Hajjis that visit al-Madinah, the guild of Adilla (sing. Dalil) are located in al-Madinah where they meet, guide and see off the Hajjis that visit that city.

Compare the Hajj to a city of two million people. Over two million people attend the Hajj each year. Think about it – providing transportation, sanitation, health care, food, and drink. What happens if somebody gets lost and speaks an uncommon language? There are some pilgrims in their 60s and 70s who have saved up for a lifetime to make the Hajj. The chances of a medical emergency among this group are high, particularly in the summer months when the temperature can reach 135 degrees Fahrenheit, and they are usually outside or living in a tent. Throughout the area, the government has installed high overhead sprinklers to lower the chances of heat stroke. These are not conditions on the magnitude of the South Asia tsunami, but they must be dealt with on a yearly basis. It is truly a mind-boggling task.


[SUSRIS] Your analogy of a population, an overnight collection, of two million people, equivalent to a US metropolitan region is interesting. Can you give us a sense of the magnitude of the event?

[Dr. Long] I think that puts it in the right perspective. When you have that many people, there are bound to be glitches here and there. What is amazing is that there aren’t more. For example, let’s talk about transportation. Let me walk you through the Hajj.

When pilgrims near Makkah, whether by air, land or sea, they must enter a ritual state of purification called Ihram. It includes wearing Hajj garments — women do not wear veils – and refraining from cutting hair or nails, or having sex. Those in Ihram are easily recognizable by the garments they wear – two seamless pieces of white terry cloth for men and a long white robe for women. Women do not wear veils.

Upon reaching Makkah, one goes to the great Haram Mosque. The first rite is the Tawaf, the seven-fold circumambulation of the Kaaba, the dark stone cubic building in the center of the main mosque area. One then takes a drink of holy Zamzam water and then makes seven one way trips between Safa and Marwah, which are two little hills that are now incorporated into the mosque complex. That commemorates when Hagar was frantically looking for water for her infant son, Isma’il. In response, according to Islamic tradition, God struck open a rock and out came the water of Zamzam.

The logistics of moving the pilgrims through these rites are not particularly difficult. They are done ad seriatim as people arrive, not all at the same time. Afterwards, all the pilgrims travel east of Makkah to the Plain of Arafat. The choicest place to be is a small hill called the Mount of Mercy, but as all two million arrive, a tent city to accommodate them, replete with shops, first aid stations, fire stations, sanitations facilities, communications and transportation, stretches for miles across the plain.

It is at the Plain of Arafat that the Hajj culminates at sunset on Standing Day, the ninth day of the Muslim lunar month of Thul-Hijjah (which occurs eleven days earlier each year on the solar calendar – this year on January 20). Everyone – all two million plus– must say prayers at Arafat at sunset on that day else the Hajj is forfeited.

Following prayers, everyone must travel back toward Makkah to another location, Mina for the beginning of the Eid al-Adha (The Great Feast of the Sacrifice), which is celebrated throughout the Muslim world. The trek is called the Rush (Nafrah), but it takes about 12 hours to get everyone there. Think about two million people leaving from the same place at the same time, and going to the same place. Think about the Super Bowl or a World Series game, and what kind of traffic jam that causes. Multiply that by twenty, but instead of going north, south, east and west think of them all going in the same direction and out of piety many of them want to walk. We’re talking about the biggest traffic jam ever.

So transportation, the problems they have to address are mind-boggling. They have everything from taxicabs to big buses that come down from Turkey and Central Asia with the Hajis living in them. Think of all the fender benders and that’s just one thing.


[SUSRIS]  And they are from all corners of the globe?

[Dr. Long] Yes, from all corners of the globe. And speaking over 100 languages or dialects and a large number of them up in years. But the gargantuan logistical task does not end there. During the Eid al Adha each family is supposed to sacrifice an animal. Of course many insist on a sheep, nothing smaller. For years, hundreds of thousands of sheep were slaughtered, and after families took what they could use, the rest was simply buried because of the lack of processing facilities for sheep sacrificed one day of the year. But the goal of the Eid is to give up something valuable, not blood sacrifice, and so now it is possible to purchase a sheep, have it slaughtered in the correct way and have the meat distributed worldwide to the needy. It is both practical and a suitable act of piety.

These are just some of the logistical problems that confront the Saudis. It is a Herculean job. One of the things that makes it all work is the attitude of the people. The Hajj is an incredibly and deeply joyous time — not the sort of the manufactured happiness of New Year’s Eve West where everyone goes out and tries to pretend they are having a great time. People from all over the Muslim world who attend are overflowing with good will.

One can feel it feel it even watching on Saudi television where it is broadcast. Watching the broadcast, one can hear a spontaneous chanting of the Talbiyyah, a ritual prayer repeated throughout the Hajj. First will come one or two voices, then a dozen, and then thousands are chanting it. Even for those not physically present, it is hard not to have chills run up and down your back

[SUSRIS] How does the role of Saudi Arabia as the custodian of the two holy places and the role as host for the pilgrimage effect the thinking of the people and government of Saudi Arabia?

[Dr. Long] The attitude toward the Hajj in Saudi Arabia may be somewhat analogous to being a Catholic living in Rome. You might take it for granted, but at the same time it permeates your whole life. Proximity to the Muslim holy places can indeed be taken for granted by Saudis, particularly those who live in Makkah and al-Madinah and nearby towns and cities. But on the other hand, Islam in all its dimensions is just a part of one’s daily life in a way that is difficult to duplicate in many other places throughout the Muslim world.

One of the issues now facing Saudis and others from the Gulf is that physically there are only so many people who can do this each year and they are about to max out. They have spent literally millions of dollars expanding the capacity of the holy cities and the holy mosques to accommodate these people. You remember when I said the two little hills that were incorporated into the complex — Safa and Marwah. You’ve seen pictures of the Prophet’s Mosque in Al-Madinah. These are huge places, and they can accommodate over a million people at the same time — that is just mind-boggling.

But still, the government has had to say to people who live in Saudi Arabia and neighboring states that they cannot go to the Hajj more than once every five years. Because there are so many people living in Saudi Arabia, there are three million people living in nearby Jeddah — what if they all showed up? It is a difficult dilemma for the government to limit local attendance at the holy places during the Hajj, but it must be done to make room for those attending for the first and perhaps last time in their lives.


[SUSRIS] A news report said this year’s visa quota for the Hajj was 1.2 million.

[Dr. Long] Yes they do limit visas. They have to. The people in the Arabian Peninsula don’t need a Hajj visa.

They have to do this in order to accommodate people because it is a religious obligation and they take it very seriously. Again that is another logistic problem they have to address. Security is the same way. As people found out back during the Arab nationalist era and as the Iranians discovered after the Islamic revolution, there is a backlash against people who try to use the Hajj for political purposes. This is a very holy celebration and anybody who tries to stir up trouble is subject to a backlash, a feeling against them.

[SUSRIS]  Does Saudi Arabia exercise any special place in the Islamic world since it is the home of the holy sites?

[Dr. Long] I think that it would be precise to say that Saudi Arabia feels a special responsibility to the rest of the Muslim world as the birthplace of Islam and the location of its two holiest places. They do place great importance on their relations with other Muslim states, and to increase good relations throughout the Muslim world they created the OIC [Organization of the Islamic Conference]. It is probably fair to say that they do exercise a special place in the Islamic world, but it is not an ‘imperial’ thing. They feel that as the keepers of the holy places and the birthplace of Islam they have to be concerned about the hearts and minds of Muslims. But that doesn’t translate into Saudi hegemony over anything because it wouldn’t be Saudi hegemony, it would be God’s hegemony over the world in an Islamic context.

[SUSRIS]  How does the Hajj fit into the changing security posture in the Kingdom – given the Al Qaeda attacks of recent years?

[Dr. Long] People should always be mindful of the security situation anywhere they go. But there are two other considerations here: one, any terrorist group that seeks legitimacy from some Muslim constituency would be foolish indeed to commit an act of violence at such a holy celebration. Those who have tried in past years have found it overwhelmingly counterproductive. One must assume that they seek to recruit followers and it is not going to win hearts and influence people to kill your own people during the holiest gathering of the year.

[SUSRIS]  Is there potential for some activity to embarrass the Saudis as the hosts.

[Dr. Long] There is always that potential but as the Iranians found out the odds that it would be totally counterproductive and backfiring are huge. The terrorists in Saudi Arabia have found out that the people turned against them when they started killing Muslims. One of the reasons they went for the Interior Ministry last month was to isolate them in the minds of people as the enemy rather than as Muslims.

Al-Qaeda is expounding a cause, but no matter how fanatical they might be, they cannot succeed by alienating the very people you are supposedly trying to protect from the outside enemy. There may be some organization with a kind of Jim Jones mentality that does something really irrational, but Al-Qaeda does not appear to me to be that irrational. They may be zealots but they think rationally. You can’t rule it out but I would find it incredible that they would be so stupid.


[SUSRIS]  So the security challenges are just the physical accommodation of over two million people.

[Dr. Long] Nothing of the magnitude of the Hajj is that simple, and of course, the Saudis are going to have to worry about political security. But Hajj administration is such a gigantic undertaking that they will have plenty of other, more mundane forms of security to worry about.

[SUSRIS]  What is it about the Hajj that people should understand? How should people put it in the context of world events?

[Dr. Long] There are many ways you can do that. The first that comes to mind is that the Hajj creates an opportunity for non Muslims and people who don’t know much about Islam — particularly those people who have a totally negative view of Muslims as terrorists and the other images that are prominently displayed in the media — that this is a gathering of 2 million faithful people in a joyous time in the 21st century. With all the strife and all the suffering going on in the world it is just absolutely amazing.

It shows as much as anything can, the collective heart of the largest religious group in the world — 1.2 billion people, more of them than anyone else. That in itself is not the lesson, the lesson is to get along in this world with anybody you need a sense of perspective. This is a great way of gaining perspective by looking at how so many people do an act of piety and religious obligation in an atmosphere of joy every year regardless of what’s going on in Iraq, or anywhere, and I think that would be a lesson to contemplate.

[SUSRIS]  That’s a great observation. Thank you, Dr. Long for sharing your insight on the Hajj with us today.



david-longDavid E. Long is a consultant on Middle East and Gulf affairs and international terrorism. He joined the U.S. Foreign Service in 1962 and served in Washington and abroad until 1993, with assignments in the Sudan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. His Washington assignments included Deputy Director of the State Department’s Office of Counter Terrorism for Regional Policy, a member of the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff, and Chief of the Near East Research Division in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research Bureau. He was also detailed to the Institute for National Strategic Studies of the National Defense University in Washington, 1991-92, and to the United States Coast Guard Academy, 1989-91, where he served as Visiting Professor of International Relations and in 1990-91 as Acting Head of the Humanities Department.

A native of Florida, he received an AB in history from Davidson College, an MA in political science from the University of North Carolina, an MA in international relations from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a Ph.D. in International Relations from the George Washington University.

In 1974 -1975, Dr. Long was an International Affairs Fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations and concurrently a Senior Fellow at the Georgetown University Center for Strategic and International Studies. While on leave of absence from the State Department, he was the first Executive Director of the Georgetown University Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, 1974-1975. In 1982-1983, he was a Senior Fellow of the Middle East Research Institute and Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania, and in 1987-1989, he was a Diplomat in Residence and Research Professor of International Affairs at Georgetown.

Dr. Long has been an adjunct professor at several Washington area universities, including Georgetown, George Washington and American Universities and the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. He has also lectured extensively in the United States and abroad on topics relating to the Islam, the Middle East and terrorism.

His publications include The Government and Politics of the Middle East and North Africa (co-editor with Bernard Reich, 4th ed. 2002), Gulf Security in the Twenty-First Century (co-editor with Christian Koch, 1998), The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (1997), The Anatomy of Terrorism (1990), The United States and Saudi Arabia: Ambivalent Allies (1985), Saudi Arabian Modernization (with John Shaw, 1982), The Hajj Today: A Survey of the Contemporary Makkah Pilgrimage (1979), Saudi Arabia (1976) and The Persian Gulf (1976, revised 1978).


READ MORE on this topic:

Logo SUSRIS 300