The Hajj pilgrimage, an obligate part of traditional Islam, happens from the eighth to the 13th day of Dhu al-Hijjah, the last month of the lunar Islamic calendar (In 2021, that means July 17 to 22). Observant Muslims will travel to the Kaaba, a sacred site in the city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. In Mecca, there are then days of ritual, often performed in immense crowds.

The tradition is ancient, at least dating back to the 600s but held to be much older. Every orthodox Muslim is required to attend Hajj at least once in their lifetime, and many participate every year. In 2019, 2.5 million Muslims were counted in attendance. In 2020, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and before vaccines were developed, Saudi Arabia capped attendance at 10,000 for public protection and allowed only Saudi citizens to participate.

This year, Saudi Arabia is considering opening Hajj to all again, but with a stringent requirement – attendees must be vaccinated against COVID-19.

“The COVID-19 vaccine is mandatory for those willing to come to the Hajj and will be one of the main conditions [for receiving a permit to come],” Saudi newspaper Okaz reported, citing a circular signed by the health minister.

Even if pilgrims come from within Saudi Arabia this year, the vaccine will be a firm requirement to enter Mecca. Health Minister Tawfiq Al Rabiah called vaccination “the main condition for participation” and “compulsory.”

Saudi Arabia begin vaccination programs on December 17, 2020, distributing the Moderna, Pfizer, and AstraZeneca vaccines under emergency use authorizations, one of the first countries to do so. As of the end of January, more than 300,000 doses have been given to people, a number close to equaling the kingdom’s total infections.

No firm decision has been made yet as to whether or not foreign pilgrims will be allowed into Mecca for the Hajj and holy days, but it can be safely assumed that vaccination will be a very firm requirement for those coming from abroad. Officials are looking to history as they try to make a decision; Hajj and Mecca have both been closed due to plague multiple times throughout history. The last time before 2020 was in 1858, when a cholera epidemic was the cause.

Photo: Muslim pilgrims in Al Haram Mosque Makkah performing Tawaf during the 2020 Hajj. People are six feet apart because of COVID-19 social distancing requirements. Credit: Leo Morgan /