Al-Ahram Weekly Online   19 - 25 January 2006
Issue No. 778
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Yearning for past meaning

The annual season of ritual pilgrimage has become a pale reflection of the traditional spirit of the journey towards God it used to represent, writes Bashir Goth*

Hajj, or journey to the holy places, is the fifth pillar of Islam. It comes after the other obligatory Muslim rituals including the proclamation of faith, five sets of prayers a day, zakat (giving alms to the poor) and fasting during the holy month of Ramadan.

Unlike prayers and fasting, which are obligatory on every Muslim man and woman regardless of material possessions, the performance of hajj and zakat are wealth-related. Muslims are obliged to pay zakat only when they achieve a certain status in their worldly belongings, in terms of livestock, ornamental or commercial possessions. Hajj becomes obligatory on the Muslim when he or she can afford to pay their expenses on the hajj journey and secure provisions for their families enough to last until their return.

This is why Islam prescribes hajj as a ritual that has to be performed once in the lifetime of those who can afford it. In the old days when the world's transportational and material resources were limited, a person was lucky if he could afford to perform hajj once in his lifetime. It was rare to find someone who had made the trip twice.

Being a rare event in the life of the Muslim had made the hajj pillar a much sought after ritual and the title hajji a well-earned and genuine endeavour.

In the old days the hajj trip was a memorable event. As a child I remember a person who was seized by the hajj bug -- to use a modern parlance -- behaved differently. He was more virtuous in his behaviour, wore clean, wore mostly white clothes, became more charitable and kind to the downtrodden, and abandoned most of the small vices and addictions, such as smoking, Qat chewing and meaningless socialising. He used to be more attached to the mosque, kept company of religious scholars, strictly observed all prayers and other religious rituals and met all people with a cheerful face and ready smile.

One conspicuous feature of the hajj - bound people was their soft-heartedness, for they used to shed tears every time the name of the Prophet Mohamed was mentioned and every time they heard religious scholars talk about the rituals of hajj. The Ulema used to describe this as one's true and pure love for one's prophet and the holy places. In the old days, going to hajj was akin to falling in love. One had to be overtaken by the desire to be united with his beloved; in this case the holy mosques of Mecca with the invitation of God.

This overwhelming passion and attitude for the hajj was almost universal in the Islamic world as we can see in the following remarks of the 18th-century Indian scholar Shah Waliullah: "Sometimes when a man is overcome with the desire for his Lord and love surges powerfully in his breast and he looks around for the satisfaction of his inner urge it appears to him that the hajj alone is the means to it."

There were some individuals in our village such as Hajji Abdillahi Buuni and Hajji Manati who made the hajj trip on foot. They trekked mile upon mile of land, crossed mountains, valleys and endured sun, rains and harsh weather conditions to reach the Somali side of the Gulf of Aden where they took a boat to the Yemeni side of the coast and then resumed walking through the lifeless mountains of Yemen and the Arabian desert to reach Mecca. They took the same route after performing hajj.

Such people deserved the hajji title with distinction. The life of these people became somewhat heroic; and people always liked to hear their hajj journey story which prompted religious men to quote the Qur'anic verse: "And proclaim unto mankind the pilgrimage (the hajj ). They will come unto thee on foot and also on every lean camel; they will come from every deep ravine that they may witness things that are of benefit to them, and mention the name of Allah on appointed days over the beast of cattle that He hath bestowed upon them." (22: 27-29)

Most of the provisions these people possessed were foodstuff and a few coins but their best provision was their love for their God and their passion to fulfil their religious duties. Their insurance and their security was their taqwa (piety) as the Holy Qur'an says: "And take your provisions (for the journey of hajj ). Certainly the best of provisions is taqwa."

Upon returning from the holy places, the hajji used to come back to a spectacular festival with large crowds of friends and relatives waiting and women showering popcorn and candies upon him followed by a large feast.

With the exception of few, hajj constituted a turning point in the person's life. Not only in the person's behaviour but also in the attire and attitude to life. Once one earned the title hajji one was expected to meet the standards anticipated of hajji as a pious person and Good Samaritan. The hajji rarely relapsed to old habits or frivolous pursuits as has been clearly put by Sayed Abul Ala Maududi: "Together the piety and virtuousness, the incessant remembrance of God and the longing and love of Him pervading the mind of the pilgrim, all leave a firm impression on his mind which lasts for years to come."

While most of the hajj -bound people from other continents still struggle to make the lifetime journey with the same fervour, the same passion and the same difficulties, albeit less taxing than the situation was in the old days, there is a new phenomenon of a picnic-like hajj in the Arab Gulf countries. Due to economic affluence, proximity to the holy places and the lack of the quota system imposed by the Saudi Arabian authorities on other Muslim countries, many of the people in the region have the luxury of making the trip yearly without threatening lifelong savings or invoking overwhelming passion and yearning: no arduous preparation, no tearful goodbyes, no sweat and toil and sadly no change in attitude or lifestyle upon return.

It seems the whole ritual has been reduced to just hopping onto a plane or riding your latest luxurious SUV and heading for the holy places like going to a holiday resort. It is a trend that makes hajj more akin to showing prestige and flaunting wealth than fulfilling a religious duty. No doubt hajj still constitutes a watershed for believers who cannot afford but one trip in a lifetime to the holy places; true Prophet Muhamed's saying that, "a person who performs hajj properly 'will return as a newly born baby [free of all sins]'." They had to prolong their state of purity for the rest of their life. The hajj excursion clients, however, may not see the need to change as long as they can enjoy the luxury of diving into the pool of God's forgiveness on every hajj season and can also claim some bonuses on two or three umra trips during the year.

Viewing hajj as the most conspicuous form of equality between human beings before their lord, one may lament to notice that the only common denominator between the old, arduous and once-in-a-lifetime journey of hajj and the modern excursion trip is the timeless chanting of the talbiya : "Labbaik Allahumma Labbaik ... Here I am, O God, at thy service! Here I am, O God, at thy service and thou hast no partners. All praise, blessings, and sovereignty are Thine alone. Thou hast no partners," echoing through the corridors of the holy places.

* The writer is a veteran African journalist living and working in the Middle East.

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