The young hearts at Mecca
A sea of white ihram-clad people grouped together at the departure gates of Muscat International Airport indicates the beginning of the yearly hajj pilgrimage.
On observation, one notices the sober faces of the pilgrims, inaudible prayers outlined by the movement of their lips and a general aura of decorum. On a closer look, one also notices that most of these pilgrims are young and perhaps in their thirties, begging the question, weren’t pilgrimages once the quest of the older souls who set out on a spiritual journey to remit their past sins and honour the fifth and final pillar of Islam?
Over the past decade, there has been a significant change in the average age of the pilgrim. They are mostly youths belonging to the age bracket of 25- 35 years. According to statistics provided by the Ministry of Awqaf and Religious Affairs in the sultanate, the highest number of pilgrims heading for the hajj this year belongs to the age group of 30- 45 years. This age bracket accounts for over 40.9 per cent of the pilgrims this year in the sultanate’s allocated quota of 14,000 faithfuls.
Abdul Aziz al Ghafri, deputy president of the hajj delegation in 2018, said that there has been a ‘noticeably younger crowd over the past five years’. Earlier in March, the Ministry of Awqaf and Religious Affairs announced that out of the 27,059 people who registered for hajj via the appointed e-system, the indices pointed out that the highest number of applications - 48 per cent - was from the age category 30-45 years and the lowest number - ten per cent - was from the age category above 60 years old.
“This trend is going to continue as the demography of Oman consists of more younger people,” said Ghafri, adding, “The older generations have mostly completed their hajj ritual and that is why there is space for the younger ones to go ahead with their pilgrimage.” That being said, he also points out that foremost priority is given to people with terminal illnesses, people who undertake hajj on behalf of deceased family members and first timers. “We expect a higher percentage of youths next year too… almost touching 45 per cent,” said Ghafri, who has been monitoring the pilgrimage numbers for over a decade now.
One of the foremost reasons for the shift in Oman’s hajj demographic towards the youth is the increase in awareness – through media and literature- among the younger generation about the importance of hajj. Older family members who have performed the hajj also encourage young adults to perform hajj at an early age when there is ‘strength in their bones’. Every year, over 3mn pilgrims head to the holy city of Mecca to perform hajj making it the world’s largest pilgrimage.
The experience can be strenuous too, testing endurance and faith. Pilgrims from all over the world camp in tents in the valley of Mina to perform the symbolic stoning of the devil, trek to the hillsides of Arafat and walk around the Kaaba several times in a procession along with hundreds of thousands of other devotees. The transformation that takes place within the human soul while standing in front of the Kaaba is life changing, say many experienced pilgrims.
Jamal al Balushi, proprietor at AlJazeera Hajj and Umrah tours, said that out of 30 people registered for the tour with him this year, only one person is a senior citizen. The rest are all young individuals between the ages of 30 to 40.
Easy accessibility and good incomes aside, Balushi feels that there is also an ‘increased level of faith and understanding among the youth today’. Nasser al Jahdhami, a student in his early twenties who left for his hajj a couple of days ago, reflects this sentiment. He said, “It is good to go when you are young and in good health because you need energy to perform hajj in the right way.” Referring to the uncertainties of life, Jahdhami advises his peers, “Don’t postpone the pilgrimage till it is too late. Instead of vacationing in London or Thailand, save money and go for hajj.”
Another young pilgrim, Nausheen Inamdar, who is in her late twenties and undertaking the hajj this year with her parents, believes that ‘no prayer is unanswered before the Kaaba’. “The pilgrimage gives you a clean slate; it is almost like being a new-born and renewing your life. You come with the zeal to become a better person and lead a better life.”