Swarms of black grasshoppers (locusts) – as many as 30,000 – have turned the Islamic world upside down.
Five times a day, Muslims around the world turn to face the Arabic city of Mecca (Makkah in Arabic), located in the Hejazi region of the Arabian Peninsula. Followers of the prophet Muhammad turn in the direction known as qiblah (quibla or kiblah) to perform the salat – daily ritual prayer.
Mecca (Makkah in Arabic) is the holiest of all Muslim cities. It is located in the Ṣirāt Mountains, about 325 miles inland from the coast of the Red Sea.
Mecca is worshipped as the birthplace of Muhammad. All devout Muslims aspire to make a pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca at least once during their lifetimes. Millions of devout Muslims travel there each year and only Muslims are allowed to enter the sacred city.
The Great Mosque of Mecca (Al-Haram Mosque) – also known as “the Forbidden Mosque”, “the Holy Mosque” or “the Sacred Mosque” – is the largest Islamic temple in the world. It also happens to be the second-largest building in the world.
In the center of the Great Mosque of Mecca is a large black cubic structure trimmed in gold called the Kaaba. It is said to house a large meteorite that has metaphysical or divine properties. The inner open courtyard of the Great Mosque is surrounded by covered prayer areas.
Typically, the Grand Mosque is packed with devout Muslims whose religion calls for them to walk seven times around the Kaaba in a counterclockwise direction. This practice is called Tawaf.
The Judaic equivalent of the Great Mosque of Mecca is the Tabernacle and Holy of Holies.
A huge swarm of locusts, cockroaches, and crickets descended on Mecca during the second week of January 2019. Local residents say they have never witnessed anything like this. The unprecedented infestation is being called a plague.
City leaders have dispatched 22 teams of 138 sanitation workers to kill the pesky bugs by spraying insecticides and clearing them away with push-brooms. An official statement published in Al-Araby (The New Arab) attempted to defuse the disconcerting situation:
“We have harnessed all efforts available to speed up the eradication of the insects in the interest of the safety and comfort of guests to God’s house.”
The sanitation teams are concentrating on “breeding and gathering sites” as they labor to rid residents and visitors of the aerial bombardment.
One scientific explanation given for the incredible insect hoards was issued in December 2018 by the Desert Locust Bulletin which stated that the culprit was recent rains:
“Favorable ecological conditions and extensive breeding caused a Desert Locust outbreak to develop in the winter breeding areas along the Red Sea coast in Sudan and Eritrea during December.”
Abdulwhab Soror (64) is a local resident. He gave a first-hand report of his experience:
“On Saturday night I was praying at the Holy Mosque and the insects were everywhere. The mosque was drawing them in, not only in the yards but even around the Kabba. I’ve been living in Makkah my whole life, I’ve never witnessed something like this before.”
According to Dr. Jacky Judas, manager and scientific adviser of terrestrial biodiversity at the WWF and Emirates Nature, she has never seen the likes of this:
“This is the first time for me to see this species in big numbers. I am not surprised that people are saying the same. I have never seen this species in these big numbers.
“It could be an incident where one captive breeding has escaped and spread in big numbers, otherwise maybe there has been specific conditions that favour their development and breeding, but I don’t know what that would be.”
A single locust can consume its weight in food each day (about two grams) and lay waste to crops as well as uncultivated regions. However, the insects are a good source of protein and many cultures look upon them as a delicacy.
Locusts neither sting nor bite. Experts believe they do not transmit diseases to humans. They are simply an unsightly nuisance.
The skies over Saudi Arabia and Madagascar have also been blackened by thick clouds of flying insects.
Locusts have put in seasonal visitations since 2010. In 2012, the unwanted swarms were termed an annual plague.
Locusts are mentioned only twice in the Muslim holy book, the Quran. (The Christian Bible cites the pestilent grasshoppers 36 times.)
One verse reminds unbelievers that they will face difficult times when they are resurrected:
“They will come out of the graves with downcast eyes like an expanding swarm of locusts.”
– Quran chapter 54, verse 7 of al-Qamar (The Moon)
The other reference talks about the bad things that happen to unbelievers, notably the Egyptian Pharaoh (ruler):
“So We sent on them the flood, locusts, weevils, frogs, and blood as (a succession of) obvious signs. Yet they remained arrogant, being criminally sinful people.”
– Quran chapter 7, verses 132-133 of sūrat l-aʿrāf (The Heights)