Islamic perspective

Haj in social perspective

This year (circa 2000) I received an invitation from the Minister of Haj, Government of Saudi Arabia Syed Iyad Madani to perform Haj as his personal guest and I siezed this rare opportunity to go for the pilgrimage. Syed Iyad is not only a thorough gentleman but also a person of very open mind and liberal disposition.

It was a great pleasure to meet him and discuss matters pertaining to Haj. He had invited some 10 Muslim scholars from all over the world to hold consultations with them as to what should be done on the occasion of the Haj to project its social significance. There were scholars from Nigeria, Sudan, India, Pakistan, Malaysia and Turkey. We all performed Haj together with Syed Iyad Madani. This invitation to perform Haj from the Government of Saudi Arabia was all the more gratifying to me as it came soon after an assault on me by the followers of the Bohra high priest Syedna Muhammad Burhanuddin. The attackers also had ransacked my house and office destroying everything they could lay their hands on.

Haj is one of the five pillars of Islam and is obligatory for Muslims once in life, specially those who can afford it. Thus the Qur’an says, and pilgrimage to the House (Bayt Allah in Mecca) is a duty which men owe to Allah "whoever can find a way to it". (3:97) All Muslims, whatever sect they belong to, consider it obligatory to perform Haj once in life. It is interesting to note that it is obligatory both on men as well as women. Women too have been performing Haj coming from all over the world, from far and near, journeying through land and ocean. There is complete equality between men and women in all-religious obligations Ð be it praying, fasting, giving zakat or performing Haj. Women have not been exempted from any of these obligations. We see during Haj as many women as men all dressed in white, a unique sight.

It is also important to note for those who oppose entry of women to mosques that here in the two most sacred mosques of Islam i.e. Bayt Alla and Masjidun Nabi in Madina, men and women not only pray together in these Mosques but stand shoulder to shoulder and in one line. Not only that thousands of women pray, along with men, on the roadside as even in these two largest Mosques of the world there is no sufficient space for all pilgrims to pray. On all roads leading to Bayt al-Haram in Mecca one sees thousands and thousands of men and women praying on the roads.

I had performed `Umrah earlier (two years before) but to go to Mecca and Madina during the time of Haj is a unique experience indeed. It is quite an experience to see hundreds of thousands of Muslims from all over the world gathered there. One sees bewildering diversity of the Muslim world in Mecca during the time of Haj. There are Muslims practically from all countries of the world. There were Muslims from 158 countries, the Minister of Haj told us on the day of Haj. The diversity is indeed bewildering. There are dark black Muslims, there are Muslims with light black colour, wheatish colour and with white skin too. There are Muslims speaking numerous languages, European, African and Asian. Even in announcements several languages are used officially Ð English, French, Persian, Urdu, Hindi, Indonesian, Bengali and others.

Unity in diversity

And there is great sense of unity among this rich diversity. All are created by Allah and hence they are all equal. The Qur’an says "We have honoured children of Adam" (17:70). This is clear and ringing declaration of dignity of human beings and this declaration was made more than fourteen hundred years ago when all sorts of discrimination were practised. We practice these discriminations even today despite our tremendous scientific, technological and social progress. Of course there are people belonging to different racial, ethnic, national, tribal and linguistic groups but that should not be a basis of any discrimination whatsoever. These differences are for identification, nothing more. The Qur’an states precisely this when it declares, "O humankind, surely We have created you from a male and a female, and made you tribes and families that you may know each other (li ta`arafu). Surely the noblest of you with Allah is the most dutiful of you" (13:49).

And significantly enough the Quran describes different colours and languages as signs of Allah. It says, "And of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your tongues and colours. Surely there are signs in this for the learned" (22:30). Thus colour of the skin or ones language should not be the basis of any discrimination between human beings. Quite to the contrary the Qur’an treats these colours and languages as "signs of Allah" which should be equally respected. Thus black colour should be as respected as the white as both are creations of Allah and both are His signs. And only the most just is most pious and it is most pious who is most honoured in the eyes of Allah. It is only taqwa (piety or God consciousness or being most just) which should be basis of discrimination in the eyes of Allah, noting else at all.

One actually sees this during the Haj. All are equal there whatever colour or language group they belong to or whatever country they come from. They are all creatures of Allah and His servants. Significantly all hajis are referred to in official parlance as dyufullah (i.e. guests of Allah). They come to Baytullah (House of Allah) as His guests and all guests should be equally respectable. King Fahad now refers to himself as Khadim al-Haramayn (the servant of two holy Mosques). It is very heartening to see a sea of humanity of all dressed in white unstitched sheet of cloth as if as innocent as just born. The white is indicative of complete innocence. One who comes for Haj rids himself/herself of all sins and resolves not to commit sins any more. All clad in white rich or poor have same status.

All clad in white is also indicative of asceticism. Today many of our sins are committed as we are in race for consuming more and more. Capitalisim, in fact, survives on promoting consumerism. It is based on Epicureanism. The House of God is also a House of peace (sakinat al-qalb) and there can be no peace as long as we are outdoing each other in consumption of material goods. Quran of course does not approve of renunciation of the world. It encourages people to eat and drink what is halal (permissible). Thus the Quran says, "O you who believe, forbid not the good things which Allah has made lawful for you and exceed not the limits" (5:87). This is the right philosophy - to consume what is halal but not to exceed limits, to maintain balance. The conflict arises when some people want to commit excess and accumulate much more than others and deprive others of their just share. To take away others' share unjustly is the basis of violent conflicts in the world.

The Quran, therefore, advises people to spend in the way of Allah what is in excess of ones need (what Quran calls `afw' 2:219) and similarly it condemns accumulation of wealth when it says, "And those who hoard up gold and silver and spend it not in Allah's way announce to them a painful chastisement" (9:34). Thus ihram (the white unstitched cloth is a symbol of purity, of restraint in consumption, of consuming what is halalan tayyibah (permissible and pure), non accumulation and avoidance of greed.

Ihram - a matter of great responsibility

The word ihram itself is indicative of restraint, prohibition and taboo. It is not merely wearing a plain sheet of white cloth, it amounts to refraining from all that is forbidden. While wearing ihram one cannot even kill a fly. One has to strictly observe non-violence and this is not merely in symbolical but in substantial sense.

In the state of ihram one cannot kill even a fly and even after shedding ihram one cannot kill any one unjustly and one who as performed Haj must strictly refrain from killing anyone unjustly. Thus wearing of ihram is a matter of great responsibility. If this responsibility is discharged there will be no conflict and bloodshed in the world.

A Muslim is one who established peace (literal meaning of the word Muslim) in the world and the one who puts on ihram adds to this responsibility. Thus wearing ihram must make a Muslim just and non-violent in his/her actions. He/she must restrain himself/herself from all that is not halal. The word halal comes from hall which means opening a knot. If we do only what is halal all our knots will open and the life will be smooth.

It is true white is symbol of purity and innocence but it in no way is indicative of superiority over black. Lest one mistakes superiority of white over black let me stress here that main part of Haj consists of circumambulating around hajar al-aswad - a black stone and sa`ay i.e. running seven times between Safa and Marwa which is in commemoration of running of a black Ethiopian slave woman.

Thus a great part of Haj consists of white clad people circumambulating around a black stone and running in commemoration of a black slave woman Hajar! Thus white goes round the black, a black stone and a black woman. Neither white is superior to black nor black over white; neither man is superior over woman nor woman over man in the eyes of Allah. All are His creation and hence equally honourable. One should not miss this lesson from Haj.

Bound by truth and justice

The main formula of Haj which one keeps on repeating after putting on ihram is "Allahumma labbayk, labbayk Allahumma labbayk" i.e. here I am at your service O Allah, here I am at your service. One goes right up to Ka`ba calling this out repeatedly. May be many hajis do not really understand the significance of what they are repeating in Arabic. But one who understands knows that he/she is dedicating himself/herself to Allah and one will not do anything which is violative of Allah’s will. Allah desires truth and justice and He himself is embodiment of Truth and Justice.

Thus a haji once puts on ihram remains bound by truth and justice and shall do nothing which violates the canons of truth and justice. Falsehood and acts of injustice will be haram for him for ever. He will be dedicated to the cause of truth and justice alone as he has repeatedly said after putting on ihram "I am at your service O Allah I am at your service".

Sa`ay in Haj, which is its very important part, is indicative of dynamism of life, tireless efforts for securing what is needed to live and not to sit quietly for a miracle to happen. Hajar who was thirsty and found no sign of water around her did not sit quietly in a corner and prayed for a miracle but ran around in search of water and found it. Thus sa`ay is symbolic of ceaseless efforts in life. I hope the hajis understand the significance of these manasik (rituals) they perform. Pertaining to Safa and Marwa Ali Shari`ati, a noted Islamic scholar, makes an important point:

"During Sa`y repeat a back and forth action seven times. The figure 7 is odd not even so that your Sa`y ends up in Safa and not at the point where you began! Seven times! Seven, a symbolic figure represents always, all your life to Marwa. Start at Safa which means pure love for others. Your designation is Marwa (muruwwah) which means an ideal of manhood, a sense of honour, generosity and forgiveness toward others! Who are the others? Those who are trying with you!" - (Dr.Ali Shariati, Haj, tr. Ali Behzad, p-44).

Another important aspect of Haj is to go to `Arafat where one prays whole day on 9th of Zulhijjah, a day before Eid al-Adhah. Arafat means knowledge; Mecca to Arafat is a journey to knowledge. Haj is a constant movement. All manasik (rituals) involve constant movement, be it tawaf (circumambulation), be it Sa`ay (running between Safa and Marwa) or be it moving from Mecca to Arafat, Arafat to Mash`ar, to Mina, to Mecca. Life is a constant movement, life is never static. Life is a constant struggle, is a journey to knowledge. A haji in his movement from Mecca to Arafat undertakes a journey to seek knowledge, knowledge through prayer ( Rabbi zidni `ilman - O Sustainer increase me in knowledge!). Knowledge is light - nur. A haji prays whole day in Arafat and leaves Arafat soon after sunset - as if running from darkness, darkness of ignorace. He goes around Jabal-e-Rehmah in Arafat - the Mountain of Mercy.

Sermon that should be written in letters of gold

It was on this Mountain that the Holy Prophet (PBUH) delivered his last sermon, a sermon which should be written in letters of gold. It was in this sermon that the Prophet told Muslims not to think Arab is superior to Ajam, all have been created by Allah and all are equal; only the most righteous is most honoured in the eyes of Allah, not Arab or Ajami, white or black. He also exhorted his followers from here to treat women fairly, to respect their rights, to be just to them. It was revolutionary message for the world then. Men still have to learn to be just to women.

The knowledge imparted by the Prophet on Jabal al-Rehmah was revolutionary by any standard. It was a charter of human rights given to humanity hundreds of years ago. Rights and freedom come from knowledge. Knowledge is the very foundation of consciousness and freedom comes from consciousness. One goes from Arafat to Mash`ar. Mash`ar is derived from shu`ur - consciousness. Thus a haji travels from Arafat to Mash`ar - from knowledge to consciousness.

From there the haji comes to Mina - a place of faith, love and sacrifice. It is in Mina that he absolves from all evil by stoning the Satan and sacrificing in the way of Allah. Stoning Satan is done in Mina and is an important part of Haj rituals. One cannot acquire goodness without throwing away what is evil within oneself. Satan - an embodiment of evil - must be rejected, must be thrown out from within. As long as there are traces of evil within Haj cannot be complete.

Rejection thus is as important as acquisition. Life cannot be complete without rejection as it is incomplete without acquisition. Acquisition of knowledge is not possible without rejection of ignorance. In Mina a haji thus finally gets rid of all evils - small or big or of in between. Thus the hajis stone the great Satan, the middle one and the smaller one. All must be hit, all must be rejected.

It is again in Mina that a sacrificial animal is slaughtered. Not that Allah needs our sacrifice, not that blood and flesh of animal reaches Allah. Thus the Quran says, "Nor their flesh, nor their blood, reaches Allah, but to Him is acceptable taqwa (righteousness, observance of duty) on your part. Thus has He made them subservient to you, that you may magnify Allah for guiding you right. And give good news to those who do good (to others)" (22:37).

One has to kill ones own ego

Thus it is very clear that sacrifice of animal is not needed by Allah but it is the spirit of sacrifice, righteousness and observance of duty which is important. It is symbolic of the fact that one cannot get rid of evil without sacrifice. Thus it is significant that both - stoning the Satan and sacrifice of animal - is done at Mina. One must realise that one cannot really get rid of evil without sacrifice in the way of Allah; it is not sacrifice of animal per se which matters but it is the resolve to dedicate oneself totally for the sake of Allah which is important.

The word li tukabbirullaha (to magnify Allah) is very seminal in the verse. One must sacrifice in order to accept the Greatness of Allah. And it is no easy thig to do. One has to kill ones own ego, has to control ones desires, has to give up what is in excess of ones personal needs, one has to accept in its true spirit that "every one on earth passes away and there endures for ever the person of thy Lord, the Lord of glory and honour" (55:26-27). That is real sacrifice.

Thus Haj comes to an end at Mina with sacrifice of an animal and stoning of three Satans as far as the rituals are concerned. But there begins for the haji a new journey, a new effort to be reborn, to glorify Allah and to lead a new life, a life full of sacrifices, full of movement, full of struggle, to rid this world of all injustices, all violations of human dignity as Allah has imparted honour and dignity to all children of Adam.

Sacrifice at Mina is a beginning of sacrifices no end, to lead a life of sacrifice so that humanity may thrive in peace and dignity. All clad in white ihram of purity and innocence all through ones life. The visible ihram of white sheet of cloth may be removed at the end of Haj but removal of this ihram is in fact beginning of wearing an invisible ihram of innocence and purity all through the life. This invisible ihram is no mere ritual, it is solid foundation of life. It is only this ihram which will remove all strife, all conflict, all violence and bloodshed from this earth. Wearing this ihram would mean prohibiting for oneself all forms of injustices, all forms of falsehood, all forms of violence and all forms of greed. Without wearing such permanent invisible ihram Haj cannot be complete.

Here I would also like to make certain observations about the management of Haj. Any objective observer of the Haj scene will agree that maximum efforts are made by the government to facilitate performance of Haj. This year more than two million people from 158 countries came for performing Haj. It is not an easy operation to manage such a huge gathering. It gives rise to several problems of which the problem of housing them and transporting them from Mecca to Arafat and Mina and back to Mecca is not an easy job. Major accidents can and do take place often resulting in loss of life of hundreds of people. Two years ago some hajis tried to cook at Mina in their tent and due to stormy wind the fire spread resulting in loss of several lives. There is always danger of people getting killed due to stampede. Every one is eager to reach certain places and perform the appointed rituals. It can easily cause stampede.

Percentage of literate Hajis on the rise

The Government of Saudi Arabia has, therefore, set up an institute of Haj studies. Several social scientists - sociologists, anthropologists and natural scientists like engineers, transport specialists and others from different countries of the world are employed in this institute. Along with other problems they also study the composition of hajis - urban and rural, literate and illiterate. We were told by an anthropologist Prof. Abu Bakr teaching in the Jeddah University that the studies of the institute show that due to increased trend of urbanisation in the Islamic world the number of rural hajis is dwindling and urban hajis is going up. The percentage of literate hajis is also on the increase.

The institute also has been studying the problems of transportation of hajis. Traffic jams have become one of the worst problems during Haj. It takes hours and hours to travel to Mina which is just a few kilometres from Mecca - it is almost a suburb of Mecca today. There is proposal to go for transport through railway. It is, however, only a proposal yet. Adequate number of buses and cars are not available to transport such a huge number of people. Thus thousands of people track down the distance on foot even in hot summer. Transport through railway thus could be a great boon for the hajis.

Also in Mina hajis have to stay for three days and large number of tents have to be provided for temporary stay. After the devastating fire at Mina three years ago now the Institute of Haj Studies has suggested fireproof material for the tents. Mina is known as the city of tents. One sees tents as far as one can see. The Government is also thinking of constructing permanent structures but the `Ulama do not agree. They were earlier not agreeable to even plant trees in that area. Gradually they were persuaded to issue fatwa in favour of planting trees which makes the climate more bearable. In Arafat the government has also provided gentle water sprinklers at the suggestion of the Institute of Haj Studies. One feels quite fresh while walking under gentle touch of water shower in Arafat.

At the suggestion of the Institute Haj Studies the slaughtering of sacrifice animals has been modernised. A most modern computerised slaughterhouse has been constructed and the animals meant for sacrifice are slaughtered there in away from the public eye. Earlier the animals were slaughtered publicly by the Hajis themselves causing several problems. The cost of animal to be sacrificed is accepted through computerised collection centres and the concerned haji is informed as soon as the animal allocated to him is sacrificed. The flesh is put in cold storage and it is sent to the poor in several Muslim countries soon after all the animals are sacrificed.

Saudi Arabia is experiencing today a frantic effort at modernisation. Mecca and Madina, the two holiest cities of Islamic world today look like any other modern city - concrete buildings, skyscrapers, flyovers, shopping malls and what you have with traffic jams thrown in. Outside the Haram in Mecca one feels as if one is in any European city. The modernisation at a fast pace is having its impact on religious and cultural life as well.

Today one can see cable T.V. in Saudi Arabia everywhere including in Mecca and Madina. One can see serials showing women scantily clad. On one hand there is imposition of purdah and on the other visibility of scantily clad women in T.V.serials. It is bound to have its impact on Saudi women watching these serials. These serials also show singing dancing etc. Also modern education is being disseminated both among men and women.

One should not labour under the stereotype that only religious education is available in Saudi Arabia. More than six universities are imparting modern education and English is becoming a popular language. During Haj also announcements are made, as noted above, in more than six languages – Arabic, English, French, Persian, Urdu, Hindi and Indonesian. More languages will be added.

All this is bound to change attitudes. I met many people in Saudi Arabia who are quite open minded and with whom you can have dialogue about religious and other issues in a very cordial atmosphere. Official religion is of course enforced but the limitations are on the increase. When my father performed Haj. the shurta - the police - used to be there on the road to whip anyone who did not pray after azan (call for prayer). Today one does not see any member of the shurta enforcing this.

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