With the start Tuesday evening of the three-day Feast of Sacrifice (Eid al-Adha), Muslim pilgrims from all corners of the globe have gathered in Mecca, the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad and the epicenter of Islamic devotion. However, the looming climate crisis has propelled temperatures in Mecca to reach as high as a scorching 115°F, posing challenges and risks for the pilgrims.
Yet, for Abdul al-Assad,48, the sweltering heat only intensifies the significance of his pilgrimage, enhancing the spiritual experience. In an interview with a French news agency, al-Assad said that enduring these conditions adds excitement and symbolism to the fulfillment of this sacred duty. "By overcoming the obstacles, we come to truly appreciate the essence of the pilgrimage as Prophet Muhammad intended," he said.
The relentless impact of global warming has heightened the desert climate of Saudi Arabia, surpassing even the scorching temperatures of antiquity during the era of the Prophet Muhammad some 1,400 years ago. Over the past four decades, the oil-rich kingdom has experienced a troubling rise of over 36°F in average summer temperatures, attributed to the forces of climate change.
Alarming projections indicate that, by the end of this century, summer temperatures reaching 122°F could become an annual occurrence. Karim Eljandi, a renowned researcher at the Middle East Institute in Washington, warns that alongside rising temperatures humidity is also expected to increase, further exacerbating the intolerable future climate conditions.
Within the expanse of the Al-Haram Mosque, revered as the pinnacle of Islamic devotion and noted as the largest sacred structure globally, strategically placed water sprayers bring relief to the devoted masses, offering a cooling mist amidst their pilgrimage. Seekers of solace, draped in traditional white attire, seek refuge from the scorching sun, finding respite in the shaded entrances of hotels and shopping centers until the sacred call to prayer beckons them forth.
A vast network of over 32,000 medical professionals stands ready to offer swift assistance to those affected by heatstroke or any other ailments, ensuring prompt care for all in need. Complimentary water bottles are distributed to anyone seeking refreshment. Resourceful pilgrims shield themselves from the scorching sun with umbrellas, while others carry their prayer rugs overhead for added protection.
"The intensity of the heat is unparalleled, reminiscent of the flames of hell," confided Nibal Muhammad, a 70-year-old Syrian pilgrim from Canada, who admitted that after he completes the religious objective of his cross-Atlantic trip, he yearns to feel the cool Canadian breeze once more.
To safeguard the well-being of laborers, Saudi Arabia has implemented a prohibition on outdoor work from noon to 3 p.m. during the scorching months of June to September. The Gulf region's climate is renowned for its extreme nature, prompting the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to caution that certain areas could become uninhabitable by the century's end due to escalating temperatures.
Despite the prevailing warnings and inherent risks, there exist individuals undeterred by the circumstances. "The intensity of the heat poses no obstacle for me, as my heart is filled with unwavering faith," Bodhi, an Indonesian pilgrim, told AFP.
The hajj in Mecca begins with Muslim pilgrims circling the Kaaba counter-clockwise seven times while reciting prayers. Then they walk between two hills in a reenactment of Hagar's search for water for her son, Ismail, a story that occurs in different forms in Muslim, Christian and Jewish traditions.
Saudi Arabia, with its focus on tourism and diversifying its revenue sources beyond oil, invests around $12 billion annually. Infrastructure and transportation projects are underway in Mecca and Medina, the second holiest city for Muslims, to accommodate the growing number of visitors.
On the following day, pilgrims embark on a journey to Mount Arafat, located approximately 12 miles east of Mecca, a significant site where the Prophet Muhammad delivered his last sermon. With heartfelt prayers, they seek divine mercy and forgiveness for their transgressions, considering this moment to be the pinnacle of their spiritual pilgrimage.
Despite the intense heat, pilgrims like Ahlam Sai from Tunisia find solace in the significance of the hajj. "Enduring the challenging conditions is part of the hajj journey, and the reward lies in completing the sacred obligation," he told AFP while resting in the shade of the revered Al-Haram Mosque.