For a Muslim hajj should be the trip of a lifetime. The chance to fulfil an obligatory pillar of Islam, to re-establish their relationship with God and to start their life afresh, writes Roshan Muhammed Salih.
And for millions of pilgrims embarking on the “difficult journey” this is what it will be. But for many others, it will also be a strangely unfulfilling experience, devoid of anything deeper than rituals, and even physically dangerous.
I have been lucky enough to have performed hajj twice in my life and both times I have had the opportunity to worship my Creator. So in one sense I don’t want to complain.
But despite the undoubted blessings I have experienced, I have also left Mecca both times thinking that the journey could have been a lot better if it weren’t for the Saudi authorities and those whose main aim is to make money from pilgrims.
Expensive and dangerous
Firstly, hajj is ridiculously expensive. A basic package from London will set you back around £3,000. In return you will get a no-frills charter flight which will probably be uncomfortable and late; you will have to wait hours on end for bus transfers; and your accommodation will be basic at best. Meanwhile, I am sure hajj tour operators are turning a handsome profit.
Secondly, there are simply far too many people performing the pilgrimage. And although the Saudi authorities have limited the numbers this year this is due to the extensive renovation work that is taking place in Mecca with the aim accommodating even more pilgrims in future years. And I suspect that has a lot to do with the fact that locals are making a lot of money each year from them.
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In any case, the millions who cram into Mecca and Mina can cause dangerous bottlenecks, especially in the Grand Mosque and during the stoning of the devil ritual. And let’s face it, the simple fact is that scores of pilgrims die unnecessarily on hajj every year.
Thirdly, the Saudis have turned Mecca, the holiest place in the Islamic world, into an American-style city with ugly high-rises and soulless freeways. The holy Kaaba is now overshadowed by an unspeakably ugly clock tower, testament to where the Saudis’ priorities lie.
Contrast the American-style mediocrity of Mecca today to the beautiful Islamic city which existed 100 years ago. But the traditional houses, souqs and the Islamic history have been bulldozed by the Saudis, to be replaced by their vacuous consumerist fantasies.
Fourthly, and perhaps most importantly, the Saudis have turned the hajj into a purely ritualistc experience devoid of the political and social connotations that it once had.
In bygone years the hajj used to be an opportunity for the ummah to meet and discuss their spiritual, economic and political affairs. To plan and to strategize about how to improve the lot of the Muslims.
During the hajj of 1825 the leader of the Chechen independence struggle, Imam Shamil, met with the leader of the Algerian independence movement, Shaikh Abdul Qadir al Jaziri, to learn from each others’ experiences and to appeal for support. I guess if they tried to do the same now they would be arrested, renditionned and would end up in some CIA torture cell.
Don’t get me wrong, if all you want to do is pray and do the hajj rituals, then you will have the opportunity to do that. But if you want to discuss the affairs of the ummah, especially during these momentous times when the Muslim world is in such turmoil, then you might get yourself into real trouble.
Last but not least, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the Saudis are openly promoting sectarianism on hajj. Just visit the bookshops in the shopping malls opposite the Grand Mosque and you will see hateful anti-Shia and anti-Sufi literature openly on sale. This is just a small example of the billions the Saudis spend promoting their narrow version of Islam at the expense of other interpretations.
To be fair, I should add that the Saudis have spent a lot of money over the years improving facilities for the hujjaj or pilgrims. These include extending the Grand Mosque in Mecca and the jamaraats (where the devils are stoned) to generally improving facilities in other areas where the hajj rituals take place.
That said, I would still like to see a Saudi crown prince queue up for half an hour for the privilege of using an unwashed toilet in Muzdalifah. Or to see an al-Saud take an 8 hour bus ride inching forward in the stifling heat during the few miles from Mecca to Mina.
Despite what I’ve just said I wish all this year’s pilgrims a hajj mabrur, or an accepted hajj. Sabr, or patience, is one of the greatest virtues that you can learn from hajj and its importance cannot be stressed enough.
But I still get the nagging feeling that the Saudi authorities and certain hajj operators are taking advantage of the pilgrims’ sabr in order to exploit them.