Islamic scholar Michael Wolfe on the Hajj stampede
(CNN) -- A stampede at the Hajj in Saudi Arabia on Monday killed 35 Muslim pilgrims, a civil defense chief said. The deaths occurred during the ritual of the symbolic "Stoning of Satan" that was performed by more than 2 million Muslims on a desert plain at Mina outside Mecca.
Michael Majid Wolfe is an Islamic scholar and the author of "One Thousand Roads to Mecca: Ten Centuries of Travelers Writing About the Muslim Pilgrimage."
CNN moderator: What effect has the stampede had on the pilgrimage?
Michael Wolfe: As far as I know, I can only detect among those who know about it a sadness. The Hajj area is many square miles. The accident occurred in a small part of the Hajj area. Many people won't know this happened until they watch it on television or read it in the local paper.
CNN moderator: The stampede that occurred at this year's Hajj is tragic but not an isolated incident. Accidents are perhaps inevitable given the sheer crush of humanity there. But, in Koranic terms, is there a special significance in a death that occurs during the Hajj? Are the souls of such victims received differently into heaven?
Wolfe: A Muslim who dies on Hajj holds in his or her heart the notion that they've died on sacred ground. In Muslim tradition, this means they have an immediate access to paradise. To die on sacred ground is a blessing. This softens the suffering and the pain of the families of these people.
CNN moderator: The Saudi authorities have been widely praised in recent years for improvements in logistics and crowd control at the Hajj. What more can they do to prevent incidents such as this stampede from occurring in the future?
Wolfe: I am not a crowd control expert, but I think breaking up the crowd into smaller units and having them proceed unit by unit might help. Most of the difficulty seems to center around the Jammarat -- the area where the stoning takes place. Hopefully the experts will be able to concentrate on this area now that there is no doubt about where the problem spot is. The trick with the Jammarat crowd is never to pick up anything you drop. If you drop something, leave it. Keep moving forward. Unfortunately people stop to pick up what they drop. Sometimes then they get into a crush. So education plays a part here, too.
Question from chat room: Roughly, how many Muslims participate in the Hajj?
Wolfe: This year according to your statistics and the Saudi authority, about 2.7 million people. They come from 160 different countries. If you walk among the crowds here, you hear so many different languages and see so many different faces, skin color, height, weight, shapes of limbs. And you understand that Islam is a world religion.
Question from chat room: Is conversion to Islam popular?
Wolfe: It seems to be. I'm not a population expert, but I notice in the U.S., where I live, Islam has added about 2 million people to its numbers in the last 15 years. And it is called the fastest growing religion in the world. Conversion is particularly interesting in the Western world, where again, in the U.S., over half of the Muslims were born there and about 35 percent are African-American, who have become Muslim in the last 50 years. It's a very easy process, and there are so many shared concepts between Islam, Christianity and Judaism that conversion is a relatively simple affair.
Question from chat room: Have you seen a more organized worship anywhere in the world?
Wolfe: No. I have not. This is one of the images that sticks with me most powerfully about the Hajj. The idea of praying five times a day all over the world is a very orderly idea. To see this idea enacted by almost 3 million people in one space at the same time is awesome. When the prayer takes place in Mecca with this many people it's so quiet you can hear clothing rustle as the people change their postures. It is a stunning event. Also, to realize that while they are praying hundreds of millions of people around the world are also praying-- it just makes it that much more powerful.
Question from chat room: Is there any plan to build a proper public transport (i.e., light rail transit, subway, etc.) in Mecca and Medina?
Wolfe: That's a good question. About half of all pilgrims now walk from Arafat back to Mina, the longest part of the journey. Even 10 years ago that number was only 10 percent. The pilgrims themselves are getting tired of trucks and buses and cars. There was an experiment with a light rail train 25 years ago. It was a very small monorail. You can still see the lines if you look very hard for them in Mina. So far, that idea has not been developed. The best thing is to walk -- in my opinion. But I hope there is more investigation of this question.
CNN moderator: According to Islam, all Muslims are one community, or umma. But, as with Christianity and other faiths, there are various branches of Islam as well, with different interpretations of the religion -- ranging from Sufism to the Islamic interpretation of the Taleban in Afghanistan. Is there an effort by Islamic scholars and clerics to perhaps move toward reconciling various branches, in an effort to strengthen the faith and its propagation even further? Or is there room in a "big tent" for all interpretations?
Wolfe: Both. There is an enormous literature in the Islamic tradition, very lively, including many points of view. At the same time there is a strong tendency to give other people their due and their point of view, even if it isn't your own. People are people. Sometimes they argue. Most people would like to get along, and this is true of Muslims, too.
CNN moderator: When Islam speaks of "jihad," there are various interpretations of that phrase. Most people regard it as "holy war" -- but according to the Koran, it can also mean "opposition" or "resistance." Should such a term be taken to mean violent struggle? Or is there room in Islam for the kind of nonviolent struggle as practiced by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.?
Wolfe: Yes, there is plenty of room in Islam for the later. Jihad, if you had to attach one English word to define it, you would use the word struggle. From the earliest days in Islam, there have been two kinds of jihad. One is called the greater jihad, and the other is the lesser jihad. The greater jihad, or struggle, is the struggle against one's own ego: greed, selfishness. The lesser jihad is the struggle in defense of one's beliefs. When Mohammed returned to Mecca and conquered his homeland and the war of 10 years had ended, he told his people that the lesser jihad was over. And the greater jihad had begun. This is a word that is too often misused by non-Muslims and by Muslims.
CNN moderator: Do you have any final thoughts to share with us today?
Wolfe: The Hajj is an event that Muslims make once in a lifetime if they are able. From the outside it may look chaotic. From the inside, this is a very quiet crowd of people pursuing a spiritual event, in a sacred geography. It means a lot to each one of them. The Hajj may be on television, but it takes place in the hearts of the believers.
CNN moderator: Thank you for joining us today
Wolfe: Thank you, and it's always a pleasure.
Michaelf Wolfe joined the chat room via telephone from Jeddah, and CNN.com provided a typist. The above is an edited transcript of the interview on Monday, March 05, 2001, at noon EST..
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