Problems and inequities now besetting the performance of Hajj

Developing Just Leadership

Zafar Bangash

Rabi' al-Thani 22, 1437 2016-02-01

Islamic Movement

by Zafar Bangash

Later this month, the Ummah will gather at the Haram to perform the Hajj. ZAFAR BANGASH, Director of the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought, discusses the greatest of journeys a Muslim can undertake.

Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Makkah, is the most intense and demanding of all Islamic obligations. It involves hijrah (migration from one’s place of abode), jihad (struggle with one’s nafs) and specific acts of worship that are physically and mentally demanding. In keeping with tradition, an estimated two million Muslims from every part of the world are expected to converge on Makkah this year to re-enact the drama that was first performed by Ibrahim, Ismail and Muhammad, upon them all be peace, all of them Allah’s messengers, in one of the most moving acts of ibadah.

Hajj is supposed to be a journey in obedience, struggle, self-purification and submission. It is also a journey undertaken to meet and to greet fellow Muslims from around the world and to share their experiences of suffering, reflection and contemplation. Most Muslims, however, will be unable to do any of this, even if they want to, because of restrictions imposed by the House of Saud, controllers of the affairs of Hajj and occupiers of the Haramain. There has been a deliberate attempt to empty Hajj of its true content by ritualising it, and thereby trivialising it. This is done by imposing physical impediments in order to embroil Muslims in personal problems so that they will have little time for the truly spiritual and divine aspects of Hajj. For most Muslims Hajj becomes largely a mechanical exercise.

The conceptual problem is more difficult to overcome because this has been drilled into the minds of Muslims through decades of indoctrination. The problem, however, is not confined to Saudi Arabia alone; in other parts of the world also there is great emphasis on the rituals of Hajj: i.e. how to perform various acts, with little or no understanding imparted about their significance, spiritual, political or whatever. While the hows of Hajj are important, the whys are equally so. By ignoring them, the hujjaj come away none the wiser for having performed their Hajj. If rituals were all that was required, why would Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala require Muslims to undertake an arduous journey, travelling thousands of miles, leaving kith and kin behind for several weeks in a specific month of the year? The ritualistic aspects of Hajj are supplemented by another equally bizarre attitude: indulgence in a shopping spree to acquire the latest electronic gadgets, as well as beads and prayer-mats manufactured in Korea, China or Japan. This reduces Hajj to an "Islamic Christmas". Such a Hajj is not very different from the Hajj performed at the time of jahiliyya before the advent of Islam.

The Muslims’ troubles start with the Saudi regime’s standing practice of arranging Hajj on the wrong day. This is a deliberate act of disobedience to the divine command, in order to deprive Muslims of the blessings of Hajj and to demean this great experience. In Islam, both time and place are important parts of the correct performance of Islamic obligations. Just as maghrib salah(performed daily) cannot be offered even a minute before sunset, similarly Hajj (once a year) cannot be performed except on the ninth day of Dhul-Hijjah. Yet for decades the Saudi regime has forced Muslims to perform Hajj a day early, thereby depriving us of the great barakah of this most spiritual journey in the life of a Muslim (this year the ninth of Dhul Hijjah actually falls on February 22, based on the moonsighting criterion, but the Saudis have already announced that the Hajj will be performed on February 21). The Saudis have been guilty of this practice for many years, but because of the poor state of the Ummah there is little pressure on them to rectify this grave deviation from the Qur’anic command and the Prophet’s Sunnah (the Qur’an states clearly that the sighting of the hilal [crescent] should be used to determine the date of Hajj [2:189], yet the Saudis set the date of Hajj quite arbitrarily).

This is only one aspect of the problem, although it is one of the most serious. There are many more, which have been foisted upon Muslims by the House of Saud since they established the kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932. One is the requirement of a visa for Hajj, again contradicting the Qur’anic command that Hajj should be open to all those who have the means to perform it (Qur’an 3:97). Another is the arbitrary restriction on the number of persons who can perform Hajj from each country: one percent of the total population. The Saudis have thus made it impossible for most Muslims to perform Hajj at all. Assuming a total Muslim population of one billion, a Muslim would have to live for a thousand years to get an opportunity to perform what is a very important religious obligation. In the field of bid’ah (religious innovations), the Saudis are guilty of a the biggest bid’ah of them all.

In the past there was also the problem of utilisation of the meat of sacrificial animals. Under pressure from the Ummah, such meat is no longer wasted. Most sacrificial meat is now preserved, packaged and sent to areas of the world where there is famine or need. This is how the meat should be used, but it was not done until about 12 or 13 years ago. Before that, bulldozers used to bury the meat in huge pits, a senseless act of waste.

The exorbitant prices charged for various goods and services by the Saudis and their hangers-on is another violation of the ethos of Hajj. Hajj is supposed to be a spiritual journey towards the Creator: for most Muslims it turns into an arduous struggle against the idiosyncracies of an incompetent regime and its minions, and a never-ending struggle to keep thieves off their hard-earned cash. Hajj has now been priced out of the reach of the overwhelming majority of Muslims; there is no correlation between standards of living in the Ummah and the costs associated with Hajj.

In recent years the Saudi regime has introduced another policy, again aimed at gouging the hujjaj. It is no longer possible for an individual to buy a ticket, get a visa and go to Makkah for Hajj. He or she must be attached to a group before setting out on the journey, and the group must be registered with an agent approved by the Saudi regime. At first glance, this appears to be merely an administrative matter; in reality its effects are sinister. Over the years, as increasing numbers of Muslims from around the world settled in Makkah and Madinah, their relatives and friends had the opportunity to stay with them at the time of Hajj. No more: the Saudi regime requires everyone to pay their accommodation fees upfront, so that their minions in the kingdom who control hotels and apartment buildings get their take regardless of whether a haji stays with them or not. Most hotels and apartment-blocks in Makkah and Madinah are owned by members of the House of Saud or their favourite tribal chiefs. Thus the hujjaj have to pay exorbitant fees for their accommodation.

There are many other difficulties as well. For instance, travel agents and others offering Hajj packages in North America or Europe promise all kinds of services. Once in Saudi Arabia, these tour-operators have no control over conditions because whatever service is provided comes from local operators. The North American and European operators might be sincere in what they say, but they do not control services in Makkah and Madinah, so there is little they can do when problems arise.

There, everyone is at the mercy of the local Saudi operators, who are hardened by years of mistreating hujjaj. They have no conception of time or punctuality, for instance; to them, time is irrelevant. Consider this example: they announce that the bus taking hujjaj from Makkah to Madinah (or vice versa) will depart at 8 am. Everybody is ready at the appointed time but the bus may or may not arrive at the announced time, depending on the mood of the operating group and the bus-driver. Sometimes the bus that was supposed to show up at 8 in the morning does not arrive until 6 or 7 in the evening. The hujjaj are left waiting, unable to perform their salah in Masjid al-Haram or Masjid an-Nabawi, or attend to other needs.

Such problems are common at the time of Hajj. Only a few countries have overcome them by taking control of services for their hujjaj. Islamic Iran, Malaysia and Indonesia are considered among the best-organized. In Iran’s case, it is the Islamic state that arranges all services; Indonesia and Malaysia have Hajj organisations that are well-run and able to look after the needs of their hujjaj. Even Indian pilgrims are beginning to get a better service because Hajj groups from there are better organised than most Muslim countries’ Hajj groups.

One of the saddest problems at Hajj is the great disparities that have appeared among the different levels of services offered to hujjaj, based on the price charged for each type of service. Now one can perform a super deluxe Hajj with all amenities provided. It is like a spiritual holiday in five-star hotels, with room service, round-the-clock beverages and the occasional trip to theHaram, appropriately facilitated by the hotel’s shuttle-bus service, to attend to one’s spiritual needs. The only time one then rubs shoulders with the rest of the Ummah is either in the Haramor at Arafat and Muzdalifah. Muzdalifah is now is the only real leveller: there are no tents, air-conditioned or otherwise; everyone spends the night in the open with dust and dirt blowing into his or her mouth and nose. No doubt in due course the court ulama will come up with a ‘fatwa’ that allows special facilities for the effete snobs who want to avoid spending even a single night in the open, as is normal practice for many in the Ummah.

Bearing all this in mind, are we Muslims really justified in complaining to Allah about His not helping us out of our terrible plight?

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