Here in the Middle East, and all around the Muslim world, the Haj season will soon be upon us. The Haj is the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. It’s one of the Five Pillars of Islam, along with the declaration of faith, daily prayers, charitable donations and the month of fasting.
Every Muslim is expected to perform the Haj at least once in a lifetime. Many who live in the Middle East do so more than once. For non-Muslims like me, it’s an event that goes on around us, but that we can never witness. Only Muslims are allowed into the two most holy cities of Islam – Mecca and Madinah.
Mecca is the epicenter of Islam. It was the Prophet Mohammed’s birthplace, a holy city and place of pilgrimage long before the birth of Islam. Tradition has it that the Prophet Abraham (Ibrahim to Muslims) established the shrine known as the Kaaba two thousand years before the Christian Era.
A few months ago I wrote about the Holy Month of Ramadan, the month of fasting. In contrast to Ramadan, which is a season of communal contemplation followed by the celebration of Eid-al-Fitr, the rituals of the Haj take place over a few days, as millions of pilgrims arrive in Mecca and visit the holy places in a prescribed order. The rituals of the Haj all reinforce the beliefs and behaviors of the faithful. Wikipedia provides an easily understood summary of the various rituals and their significance.
It’s an event of staggering complexity. Imagine a temporary city of four million souls springing up every year on the dusty plains around a city whose normal population is a third of that number. Getting them there, keeping them safe, fed, healthy and sheltered, especially in the blistering heat of the summer, is a year-round preoccupation both for the city and for the government of Saudi Arabia.
There is no airport near Mecca, so the multitude travels by bus and car to the city, and, until now, by foot thereafter. This year a new railway linking the holy places will ease some of the strain caused by the vast movement of people from one location to another. Many of the pilgrims are old and infirm. And some die from the effort. Muslims believe that those who pass away immediately after the completion of the Haj, because they are cleansed of their sins, will go straight to heaven.
It’s also inevitable that accidents happen. Every few years there are reports of deaths by crush injuries. The dust and pollution caused by the thousands of motor vehicles taking pilgrims to and from the holy places play havoc with the respiratory system. Returning pilgrims can take weeks to recover from coughs and chest infections picked up on the journey. It was a minor miracle that last year’s Haj passed off without a mass outbreak of swine flu.
Yet compared with even fifty years ago the Haj, though arduous enough, is an infinitely less perilous and physically debilitating experience than it was for pilgrims during most of the Islamic era. The Saudi government has invested billions of dollars in roads, walkways, tented cities, water supplies, health services and safety facilities, not to mention a massive development of the Grand Mosque that encloses the Kaaba.
In olden times pilgrims would take months to reach Mecca. Many would travel by foot from far-flung corners of the Islamic world such as Morocco, China and central Asia. Those who could afford it would come by ship to Jeddah, and make the rest of the journey by donkey or camel. They would travel though hostile regions, often in caravans for protection. Even the final leg of the journey once inside the Arabian peninsula was fraught with danger from marauding tribes who would think nothing of robbing the “guests of God”.
One of the best accounts of the Haj in the pre-modern era was written by John Keane, an Anglo-Irish adventurer who made the pilgrimage in the company of an Indian prince in 1877. Keane was one of a tiny band of Europeans who visited Mecca in the 19th Century - Sir Richard Burton, who translated Layla Alf Layla (1001 Arabian Nights) was another. He took a considerable risk by masquerading as a Muslim retainer of the prince and entering the holy cities. In fact, as he recounts in his book, Six Months in the Hijaz – Journeys to Makkah and Madinah, he almost lost his life in the process. Here’s his description of the Bedouin he encountered on the journey:
“All the bodies we came on were decapitated; showing that it was quite true that the Bedawi who follow in the wake of a pilgrim caravan cut off the heads and hands of all the stragglers they fall in with, both dying and dead… From what I have hitherto said about the Bedawi, his character will, I suspect, have impressed the reader unfavourably; but there really is much of the desert man to admire: his hospitality, and genuineness as a scoundrel, and above all his untiring energy and hardihood – qualities in which he differs so much from all other Easterns”
Of course, he describes what he experiences through the eyes of a Victorian Englishman, so many of his observations, if written today, would be damned as wickedly politically incorrect. But his account is a lively and detailed portrayal of a world little known to Westerners of the time, and not much better understood today.
My own encounters with the Haj are much less dramatic. When I arrived in Jeddah in the 1980’s the new airport, complete with a massive open-air terminal built specially for the Haj, had just opened. Every year Jeddah was flooded with pilgrims, dressed in their simple white robes. The build-up would, and still does, take many weeks. Flights into Jeddah would reach Heathrow frequencies for the final week before the festival, putting great strain on airlines, air traffic controllers and ground staff alike. Many pilgrims arrive in Mecca well in advance of the festival, and extend their once-in-a-lifetime trip by moving on to Madinah, where the Prophet is buried.
Although Ramadan is seen by many as an increasingly commercialized season, the pilgrimage has always been an economic lifeline, especially for the people of the Hejaz, the western region of Saudi Arabia. Before the discovery of oil, it was the main source of income for the region. In addition to the annual festival, pilgrims come to Mecca at all times of the year to perform the umrah, the ritual circumambulation of the Kaaba. Revenue from religious festivals sustained the local populations in a region with few natural resources.
I have met many people who have performed the Haj. All that I have spoken to tell me that it is an unforgettable spiritual experience. They describe a sense of being at the centre of the world, and the exhilaration of being among a vast multitude with a common belief and purpose, regardless of sect, race, school of thought and political persuasion. Above all, of being at peace, both with themselves and with God.
If that spirit could extend to the daily lives of people of all religious persuasions, the world would surely be a different place.