As this year's Hajj pilgrimage ends, Muslims leaders need to re-examine a rite in the exercise of which 244 people were trampled to death last Sunday. This was not the first time that Mecca pilgrims have died in big numbers. Some 6,000 pilgrims have died, many in violent incidents, during the Hajj in and around Mecca since 1980.
Unlike the five daily prayers and the month of fasting at Ramadan, the Hajj is not a mandatory obligation on all Muslims. Only those who can prove that they are musta'tee (solvent) are expected to perform it.
To qualify as musta'tee an individual would have to fulfill a number of conditions. He must be well-to-do, though not necessarily wealthy, have no debts, be sure that he can provide for the subsistence of his family for a year, and be in robust health. More importantly he must be free of "the burden of sins" for which he has not repented and/or made amends. Before leaving for the pilgrimage he must also make sure that seven of his neighbors in each of the four directions from his house are cared for and not in dire straits.
Now, however, anyone who can afford the fare to Mecca can apply to become a pilgrim. The number of pilgrims has risen from an estimated 82,000 in 1954 to over two million this year. Many go to Mecca to profit from tax-free shops that sell Western luxury goods often unavailable in other Muslim countries. Each Hajj season, the business generates some $4.5 billion for Mecca and Medina.
In the 1980s the Saudi authorities imposed quotas to limit the number of pilgrims to around two million. This created a black market for places in the waiting lists established by Muslim governments. In Iran, for example, the wait could take 12 years. Thus some people register as candidates for the pilgrimage and then sell their turn to others, for up to $10,000.
In recent years dying in Mecca has emerged as a fashion among some Muslims. Old and terminally ill people are persuaded by their mullahs that anyone who dies in Mecca will go straight to paradise. (This week there were 272 such deaths.) This, of course, is in violation of the rules for the pilgrimage.
There is worse. Many people, especially from Southeast Asia and Africa, use the Hajj as a cover for entering Saudi Arabia as illegal immigrants. The Saudi Interior Ministry estimates the number of these "stay-behinds" at over one million since 1980.
The pilgrimage is also a cover for drug smuggling. According to Saudi estimates, 70% of drugs brought into the kingdom is smuggled during the Hajj when customs officials are physically incapable of checking every arrival.
Militants have also used the Hajj to spread their hate messages, raise funds, and recruit terrorists and "martyrs." In 1979 a group of terrorists seized control of the Kaaba and fought a week-long gun-battle with the security forces. Over 1000 people, including pilgrims caught in the crossfire, perished. In 1987 Ayatollah Khomeini dispatched a battalion of his Revolutionary Guards dressed up as mullahs to Mecca, where they clashed with the Saudi National Guard. Hundreds, mostly pilgrims, died.
There are no official figures, but the number of those queuing up to go to Mecca is estimated at 130 million, or 1% of the world's total Muslim population. With the current ceiling it would take 65 years before all those on the waiting list can realize their dream. Although most Muslim economies are either stagnant or in decline, experts believe that by the year 2020, the number of candidates for Hajj could top 300 million.
So what is to be done? Part of the answer was given by the late Tunku Abdul-Rahman, who gave up his position as Malaysia's prime minister to head the Organization of the Islamic Conference in 1970. In 1971 he created a commission to review the Hajj, among other issues of contemporary Islam. The commission made a number of proposals.
The first was to impose rules to establish who is qualified to become a pilgrim. The estimate at the time was that 60% of those who did Hajj each year lacked the qualifications demanded by the Islamic canon.
The second proposal was to revive the tradition of substitution, under which believers who qualify for Hajj could donate the cost of the journey to charity and stay at home while benefiting from the blessings that the pilgrimage is supposed to bestow. Similarly, the commission proposed that rather than killing millions of sheep and camels on a single day and then burying their carcasses in the deserts around Mecca, the pilgrims should give the money to the hungry poor in their homelands.
The third proposal was more revolutionary -- to spread the pilgrimage from a single day in the lunar month of Dhul-Hajja to all its 29 days so that smaller numbers of pilgrims could perform the rites at any given time. At present, few pilgrims have any chance of even seeing the central shrine of Islam, the Kaaba, let alone touching it, as a two-million-strong crowd moves around it on a single day.
The proposals were pushed aside by Muslim political leaders fearful of the mullahs, the muftis and the then newly emerging fundamentalist militant groups. It is time to revive some of those ideas and go further. The pilgrimage could be spread throughout the 365 days of each solar calendar year. The reason is that the supposedly fixed Hajj date is not fixed at all. The calendar in use is a lunar one in which a year is nine days short of the solar year. Every 10 years the season in which Hajj takes place changes. And in a time-span of just over 40 years all the 365 days of the solar calendar would have coincided with the culminating point of the Hajj.
To Muslim fundamentalists the issue of Hajj is taboo, never to be discussed except in flattering terms. But this was not always the case. Three decades ago Islam was not as closed, as frightened of self-examination, as it is today. There is no reason that today's Muslims should not review all aspects of the rite, not only to avoid further tragedies but also to make sure it is not sued as a cover for political propaganda, terrorist recruitment, drug smuggling and human trafficking.
Over 1,000 years ago the Persian poet Nasser Khosrow hailed a visit to the Kaaba as "seeing a new life." Unless urgent reforms are carried out, for many Muslims, the pilgrimage could mean seeing violent death.
Mr. Taheri is author of 10 books on the Middle East and the Islamic world.