Two million Muslims gather in Saudi Arabia this week for the Haj as the annual pilgrimage becomes increasingly hi-tech with apps to help the faithful navigate Islam’s holiest sites.
MECCA, Saudi Arabia: This year the Haj comes with the ultra-conservative kingdom witnessing an unprecedented pace of change, finally ending a ban on women driving while remaining firm in the face of any dissent.
One of the five pillars of the world’s fastest-growing religion, the Haj is expected to draw two million people from around the globe this year.
By Thursday (Aug 16), more than 1.6 million people had already arrived in Saudi Arabia for the pilgrimage, which runs from Sunday to Friday.
Thousands could be seen arriving in Mecca, with groups from different countries wearing distinct colours to set them apart.
Some pilgrims pushed their elderly relatives on wheelchairs while others stopped to call family members back home on video chat or buy ice cream as temperatures soared above 40 degrees Celsius.
Pilgrims then perform rituals around the Kaaba and on the Mount Arafat plain east of Mecca.
The Haj ends with Eid al-Adha, a three-day feast which starts with the “stoning of the devil”.
Eid al-Adha also includes the slaughter of sheep, with the meat distributed to Muslims in need. The ritual symbolises Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, Ishmael, on the order of God.
The Haj presents the Saudi authorities with major logistical challenges.
The Pew Research Center says the number of Muslims in the world is expected to rise from 1.8 billion in 2015 to three billion in 2060.
This year, the Saudis have launched a “smart Haj” initiative, with apps to help pilgrims with everything from travel plans to medical care.
Asefny, for example, is an app launched by Saudi Arabia’s Red Crescent to help pilgrims request emergency medical attention.
Authorities are able to locate those in need through the app.
The Saudi Haj ministry also runs the Manasikana app, which provides translation for pilgrims who do not speak Arabic or English.