Stoning the Devil: Ritual Turned Tragedy

Commentator Anisa Mehdi traveled to Mecca several times while making a documentary film about the hajj — the annual Muslim pilgrimage to the holy city. She explains the stoning ritual at the center of Thursday's deadly stampede and says the devil has found an opportunity to work in the crowds at the hajj.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

There was a tragedy in Saudi Arabia today. Hundreds of people were killed in a stampede as they were participating in one of the rituals of the hajj, the pilgrimage. Apparently, some people in the crowd brought their baggage with them; others tripped over it and stumbled. And in the crush, at least 345 people were killed and hundreds more injured. The Saudi government has tried to ease the crowding to prevent this kind of disaster. In past years, pilgrims have also been killed during the same ritual. As commentator Anisa Mehdi explains, it involves throwing stones at three pillars that represent the devil.

ANISA MEHDI:

The devil is alive and well, it seems, at the place where Muslim pilgrims symbolically stone Satan during the hajj. My profound condolences to the families of the dead. I've been there during the hajj and remember being pushed and shoved and the fear of falling.

This particular ritual goes back to the biblical story where God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son. This is to be a show of faith for Abraham. In the Islamic tradition, as Abraham dutifully walks his son toward the altar, Satan appears and Satan says something like, `What are you? Nuts? What kind of god asks his servant to kill his son?' And Abraham throws stones at the devil to shoo him away, and the devil comes back. Abraham throws stones again, and even a third time. This is the trial that pilgrims re-enact; they throw stones at three pillars that stand in for Satan.

This ritual is all about resisting evil. In the story, Abraham proceeds to the altar with his son, and then God provides a ram to substitute for the son and the test is over. Abraham passed, and his son lives to father a great nation.

There are only a few days to complete the rites of the hajj. You need to circle the Kaaba in Mecca seven times. You need to run back and forth between two hills seven times. You need to leave Mecca and go to the valley of Arafat, and after that, you throw the stones. But now there are millions of pilgrims trying to accomplish what only hundreds or thousands used to do in that same amount of time, and that is where Satan slips in the door.

According to tradition, the stoning ritual needs to happen by a certain time. And pilgrims are so eager to do it that they surge forth like a tsunami, putting thousands at risk to make it to the finish and be the best in God's eyes. This selfishness is Satan's work. And today, people panicked; pushing, shoving, suffocating, dying. And so the sons and daughters of Abraham were sacrificed.

The devil is, indeed, at work among the pilgrims. People are hot, hungry, sick of the crowds. It's hard to relax, to keep your cool and take your time. Over two million people traveled to Mecca this year to express their faith and take on God's challenge. So it's ironic--Isn't it?--that while people perform this life-affirming religious ritual, Satan sees an opening and sneaks in. Where we brutishly, blindly uphold tradition, we surrender our common sense, common courtesy and the common good.

SIEGEL: Anisa Mehdi is a documentary filmmaker. She's based in Maplewood, New Jersey.

MICHELE NORRIS (Host): This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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