A Mecca for pilgrims
The Muslim Hajj is one of the most striking manifestations of religious faith and unity in the world today and the origins and meaning of its many rituals have been the subject of debate by Muslim and Western secular scholars. Doing the Hajj is a duty for every able-bodied Muslim at least once in their lifetime and, although some two million have been performing it each year since the early 1980s (the result of modern transport and Saudi infrastructure), they form a small minority of the world’s billion Muslims.
The main rites of the Hajj last a five-day period starting from the eighth day of the Islamic lunar month of Dhul-Hijja, so the rite occurs some 11 days earlier each year. Currently, it’s a winter phenomenon, but, within a few years, it will move into the hot summer months, stretching faith and human endurance to their furthest.
The pivotal element upon which the rite rests is the Kaaba. Simple and unpretentious against the grandiosity of the mosque, this large cube-shaped structure (its name probably derives from the ancient Greek for cube, kubo – ed.) houses a black stone which centuries of veneration through kissing and touching has worn hollow.
The Kaaba and the black stone are a magical site which was seen as the centre of the world in pre-Islamic Arabia and where God’s presence is most felt on earth, which is why this is the place to make your requests to God: here He might listen to you. “The Kaaba is the heart of Islam and to imagine that you are seeing this place where the Prophet was, one day, with all his followers touches your heart immediately,” one Egyptian pilgrim said to me.
Islamic tradition says the Kaaba was built by Ibrahim (Abraham) and his son Ismail (Ishmael), who, in the Islamic version of Semitic monotheism, is regarded as the genealogical father of the Arabs (while Judaism emphasises Abraham’s other son Isaac as the father of the Jews).
Muslims regard the house that Abraham built as the first temple to the one true God, and all the Hajj rituals are linked to this patriarch. Safa wa Marwa is the point where Abraham’s servant-wife Hagar – the Egyptian mother of Ismail – was left on her own with her young child and, while searching desperately for food and shelter, she came upon the well of Zamzam. The walking between the two points inside the mosque symbolizes that her frantic search which God brought to a happy end.
But while secular and Muslim historians agree that the Kaaba in Mecca was the centre of pre-Islamic Arabian cults, Muslim tradition itself notes the obvious point that veneration of the stone is reminiscent of the idolatry Islam stridently opposes. In fact, on one infamous occasion, the Caliph Omar is said to have addressed the object saying: “I know you are only a stone and can do neither good nor ill, and if I had not seen the Prophet kiss you I would not do so.”
Gerald Hawting, a British historian of early Islam, says that, from an early period, Muslim theologians puzzling over the meaning of Hajj saw in the rite the ultimate test of faith. “In comparison with things like prayer and fasting which are susceptible to rational explanation, the rites of the Hajj seem devoid of obvious meaning,” he says. Key Muslim thinkers concluded that “the rites have to be done because they are part of God’s law, that God tests our obedience by commanding us to do things which we cannot understand or see any aesthetic value in”. Which seemed fair enough to me.
A common theme among Muslim scholars has been to attribute mystical, symbolic meanings to the rituals according to which the circumambulation is seen as mirroring the universal order set by a divine mover, God. “The planets revolve around the sun, each in a separate orbit, with specific speed. In the same way, the Kaaba which God made the first sanctuary for mankind is located at the centre of the earth,” writes Egyptian scholar Abdel-Hakam al-Sa’idi on popular Islamic website Islamonline.
A certain Meccan sufi says Hajj is a symbolic example of the continuity and change that the Islamic view of the world sees in the order of things. “The constant – the Kaaba – gives you unity and continuity, the variable – walking around it – gives you change and diversity. The two create a balance, an equilibrium,” he told me during a meeting at his stunning self-designed home in Jeddah, built in a traditional Hejazi style.
“Change happens with reference to a fixed point, like the planets and atoms. We are part of this: so where is our part as human beings? This is the Kaaba, a central point and the closer we get the more we are pulled by its gravity. So we do tawaf. The Kaaba is a timeless point. All are one at this point, symbolising the house of God and Mecca and the Kaaba are the heart of the Muslim world.”
Sufis also see in Hajj an act of purification, like the blood of the body returning to its vital organs – the hajj circuit of Mecca – before heading back out into the body of the world. In fact, Islamic tradition has a hadith, or saying of the Prophet, which goes that “he who performs Hajj voluntarily and without moral blemish has gone back to the day his mother gave birth to him”. Hajj is spiritual rebirth.
But Hajj is also ripe for other interpretations and many throughout the ages have seen in this gathering of Muslims in the universal Islamic city of Mecca a forum for revolutionary action. Of course, the Saudi authorities insist the Hajj should be solely a religious affair but, in modern times, there have been number of occasions when Muslims used it to vent political grievances against the United States and Israel.
The vast army of police involved in the Hajj’s organisation includes a special “anti-protest” force to stop pilgrims staging political demonstrations – Iranians have tried this on numerous occasions since the 1979 revolution. That same year, the Grand Mosque was the scene of a dramatic takeover by an armed group opposed to the Saudi royal family. That did not happen during Hajj, but the Saudi royals must shudder at the thought that it ever does.
The booklets the Saudis hand out in various languages to arriving pilgrims stress that the event is simply about doing things as the Prophet said they should be done in order to win God’s favour. Similarly, officials at the Lourdes pilgrimage try to downplay the miraculous curative potential of the site, although their main custom comes from pilgrims seeking healing of some sort or another.
The issue of what the Saudis projected and promoted as the meaning and intention of the pilgrimage struck me constantly for its contradiction with the point of the pilgrimage for most of the pilgrims. When the pilgrims threw the stones at the pillars of Jamarat, they were striking the Devil himself and the only symbolism in the act was that perhaps the pillar-Devil represented a bad husband or wife or perhaps politician.
The official theology of Saudi Arabia is a rational, no-frills Sunni orthodoxy that, of course, frowns on these superstitious beliefs and practices. As the Minister of Pilgrimage Affairs Iyad Madani put it, most logically, at a press conference: “It’s a symbolic act to get rid of sins and confront weaknesses”. In vain would the Saudi religious police try to force the mass of world Muslims to conform to their view of proper behaviour. They stood beside of the Kaaba to stop worshippers stroking it in veneration, but were having little success.
As I was walking round inside the mosque on my first tawaf (I did the first of the seven outside the saha), I found myself poked in the back by a stick. “Lower!” they snapped, I think, because my robe was pulled high, showing my legs. I came across an American Muslim in the Jeddah hotel where I was staying who seemed more preoccupied with the heresies of the masses than anything else.
“Yeah, it’s something amazing to see people from different countries of the earth come together for one purpose,” he said when I asked him what he thought about the spectacle in general. “It really touched me to see a long line of people in wheelchairs, the old and the pregnant. But,” he added, “you see inside the mosque people doing bida’ (unorthodox innovative acts), like clinging on to the Place of Abraham (a point inside the saha just metres from the Kaaba).”
“Innovators, polytheists, Shi’ites, Sufis.” It sounded like a list of crimes hurled at political show trials against enemies of the regime, any regime.
Although the ideal of Islamic pilgrimage is that all differences are eroded in this temporary Utopian state which is out of time, in effect they are very much there. The Arab pilgrims stand out simply because they speak the chosen language of the Message but also the chosen language of the bureaucracy. They share culture and understanding with the Saudis.
Despite this, Asian pilgrims dominate numerically, specifically Indonesians, Malaysians and Filipinos, and Indians and Pakistanis. Their shared language with their Saudi hosts is more often English rather than Arabic which, as a born English speaker immersed in the world of Arabic came to me as a bit of a shock, though it is only logical of course. The disdain that might creep in through lack of linguistic harmony is confirmed by the cultural practices of the Asians. They don’t do things like the Saudis. These were just suspicions I had, but they were confirmed by the events that followed when the pilgrimage later turned to tragedy for some.
The next day was the traditional tour of the holy sites made by the Interior Minister Nayef before a news conference in the evening at Arafat, the huge plain in the mountains outside Mecca where the pilgrims spend the first two days of the Hajj. First, we saw a parade of some 5,000 troops, including anti-terrorist forces in black balaclavas, elite special forces and crowd control personnel as they marched past Nayef at Arafat.
Nayef was on his best form – later on we were kept waiting in a large hall for about two hours before he eventually arrived. But he sat alone, at a long distance on a large podium, so that with his headdress and robes on, we could hardly see him at all. It was intended to intimidate, a suspicion born out by the fact that when it came to questions he was gruff and curt. He was in a bad mood. So there were no stunning soundbites, just scraps here and there about security forces being on their guard like any year. “We are ready for anything that could happen”; “We always say there is no guarantee that nothing could happen, but we trust the security forces to be able to do their job”.
Earlier the month a captured “militant”, to use news agency parlance, who was shown on state television said he had been taken to a training camp outside Mecca. But Nayef flatly denied any such camps existed. “We have no camps for training or terrorism today or yesterday,” he said. So that was that. We were then fed on a large buffet dinner in the open air before being taken back to Jeddah.
Amid all this concern about al-Qa’ida and terrorists, the real danger was perhaps being forgotten, the danger inherent in any gathering of some two million people. Safety. In 2003, 14 people were trampled to death on the third day of the Hajj, and there were similar incidents in 1998 and 2001 that killed at least 158 people. The worst of all was in 1990, when 1,426 pilgrims were crushed to death in a tunnel stampede.
On every occasion, the trouble was at the Jamarat, where pilgrims flock above and below a bridge where there are the three pillars representing where the Devil appeared to Abrahim. The pilgrimage affairs minister Madani was asked about this at the dinner on the grass at Arafat after Nayef’s priggish performance. “Any gathering of people of this size in a limited geographical area could lead to problems but we have plans to prevent this,” he said.
According to the Meccan sufi, the best-laid crowd control plans had been obstructed by the reluctance of the authorities to stop pilgrims coming in cars to the Jamarat area, as well as the insistence of the Wahhabi religious establishment on everyone performing rites at certain specific times. Following Wahhabi religious teaching, Saudi clerics say the stone-throwing should take place in the afternoon of the third day, as booklets handed out to pilgrims advise.
The sufi said the problem was that there could be an estimated 50,000 cars at the same time in one location. “Seventy-five percent of the pilgrims throw stones in 25 percent of the available time and that’s because of the particular insistence of one school,” he said. “Now they (government) want to increase the capacity of Jamarat, but then you create problems at the next stage. They always work on the space side, expanding roads and tunnels, but there are two factors: time and space,” he said.
Newspapers were backing his views. The daily al-Watan wrote that week about the dangers of “hotel pilgrimage” and fancy cars, as the rich and influential from many countries rent luxury tents with comforts such as caviar and imported grass near Mount Arafat.
On the first day, pilgrims stream out from Mecca to the plain of Arafat for the following day’s event known as waqfet Arafat (the standing at Arafat). This is where pilgrims commemorate the Prophet Mohammad’s farewell sermon 14 centuries ago. Though hundreds of thousands would come on 20,000 buses in a massive logistical operation, many come on foot tracing the Prophet’s path through the mountain passes. Many Egyptians and Algerians had got there early to avoid the crowds and get settled in.
Arafat consists of a massive tented village that the Saudi authorities throw up every year to lodge the pilgrims according to nationality – something that seems to run against the spirit of the occasion. Before heading there, we again donned the white robes of ihram which we would be wearing for the next four days, since our Hajj would be ending on Monday.
The day at Arafat is the main event of the Hajj, and it is the day that precedes the Eid al-Adha, a holiday throughout the Islamic world when sacrificial meat is eaten in commemoration of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son (Ismail to Muslims, Isaac to the Jews). For the Hajjis though in Mecca, the first stoning of the Jamarat must take place before Eid prayers on the afternoon of the third day.
On the first night at Arafat, we headed down to the main mosque to speak to some pilgrims. As a journalist, the act of springing someone for a quote is rarely anything but deeply unsatisfying. Laying in wait for pilgrims was worse. The questions are cliched and the answers even more so. “What will you be praying for this year?” which we sometimes followed with, as an encouragement or prod in the right direction, “what with the war in Iraq and…”
Rarely would you get anything that veered away from standard responses and feelings that Muslims in the Middle East usually offer. For example, Ribhy Yaseen, a Palestinian: “I feel like any Muslim who comes to the house of God – we want God to give the Islamic nation success, to liberate our land from the Jews and to return the al-Aqsa mosque (in Jerusalem) to Muslims.”
Or Iraqi Qadir Khidr: “We hope God will give success to the Muslim people around the world and especially in our region” (though he did add: “We hope God will get us out of our crisis now like he got us out of the last one,” which I rather liked). That was among the Arabs though.
Some Africans prayed for peace but didn’t want to think about Palestine and Israel. “We are praying for peace. We don’t want all this confrontation between Israel and Palestine and all of that,” Sufyan from Ghana told us.
I wandered right into the huge mosque with our cameraman, since I was holding his wires and microphone and doing the questioning, where we were cursed by a Saudi. “May God curse all cameramen!” he hissed with Wahhabi disdain for ‘brazen images’ as he walked brusquely by.
Our cameraman, was irritated. “You’re meant to have a pure heart and intent for the days of the hajj, so he shouldn’t say things like that.” Which was true. Amongst ourselves, in the media group, we would joke everytime someone said something with a hint of immorality to it in one way or another “higg ya hagg!”—“Just do your hajj, O Hajji!” We all tried to be as helpful and decent to each other as we could, even though we were working for rival news media.
The morning of Arafat begins with pilgrims heading to a small rocky outcrop in the area called Jebal al-Rahma (Mount Mercy). It was at this spot, specifically, that the Prophet was meant to have given his farewell sermon. The morning at Jebel al-Rahma was, for me, the most pleasant moment of the Hajj and the occasion for which I will hold the fondest memory.
We must have risen at five in the morning in our pilgrim towels, then made our way the kilometre or so to the Mount. As the sun rose in the mountains surrounding the plains, it gradually became a blanket of white as pilgrims trekked to the top.
Since we had got there early, we climbed to the top without much trouble, though getting back down looked like it would be tricky. There was one main path up between the huge boulders and hundreds were now streaming up the outcrop. Many had slept here the night before.
People sat around and prayed in groups or alone, or chanted the Hajj refrain in Arabic: “O God, I am in Thy presence again, there is no presence like thine presence, to you is the praise, the power and domain, there is no equal to you,” a hypnotic chant which Western scholars say possibly has its origins in Bedouins whiling the time as they crossed the deserts in caravans in pre-Islamic days.
It reminded me of once when at dawn I had climbed up the mountain at Masada in the West Bank, where the Jews had died fighting off the Romans. In fact, much of the religious topography here was familiar: from the coastal metropolis of Jeddah to Mecca’s sacred Jerusalem in the mountain hinterland. Orientalist historians love these sorts of connections.
The beauty of the scene demanded a prayer, which five of us did, with the cameraman leading our group and us repeating after him, in the Muslim fashion. The essential vocal element of prayer is the Fatiha, the opening words of the Quran, which bears a resemblance to the Lord’s Prayer of Christianity.
“In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful/Praise be to God, the Lord of heaven and earth, the compassionate, the merciful, the master of the day of judgement/You we serve and in you we seek help/Lead us to the correct path, the path of those blessed, with whom you were not angry and who did not go astray. Amen.”
With other microphones and notebooks, we asked a few people for some comments. God knows, some of them must have wondered what pilgrims were doing going around asking other pilgrims what they thought for the media. We must have come across as undercover agents. But the media wanted the coverage and the Saudi authorities wanted to oblige.
Negotiating our way down the mountain as the crowds swarmed upwards, we had the first sense of the kind of chaos that was to come. Down at the bottom, I noticed huge multilingual signposts from the Saudi authorities warning that the Prophet did not sanction prayer there, but once again the world’s Muslims didn’t seem to care what the Saudis thought.
A carnival atmosphere was filling this huge pilgrim city at Arafat which by mid-morning had come alive. Hawkers by the roadside sold everything from umbrellas, to keep off the sun, to prayer mats and prayer beads. Men were offering to take pictures of pilgrim groups for up to $12 a shot and enterprising teenagers were offering camel rides for around $3.
“It’s God that gives me my daily sustenance, but I get about 500 pilgrims taking a ride every day during the season,” one camel boy said shyly at being questioned about the time-honoured tradition of making money out of the pilgrims. But why should he, I thought.
By night time, pilgrims began moving on to the next stage – heading back down towards Mecca to an area known as Muzdalifa and the Jamarat at Mina. I was winging it in the sense that, as a first-time pilgrim, I really didn’t know what was coming next at any stage, something that gave the whole experience a magical aspect. I imagine it was like this for everyone there for the first time.
Everyone was in a group and learning as they went along about what the Hajj entails and the numerous booklets the authorities gave out were, in general, pretty useful. But I didn’t realize that that evening we would do midnight stoning of the pillars, then head into the mosque in Mecca for night tawaf and Safa wa Marwa, before heading back to the ministry’s lodge on the mountainside overlooking the Jamarat bridge.
It was a nice evening, cool and pleasant. We sat around inside a ministry compound, with waiters serving us big pots of Arabic coffee and tea, as we lounged around on cushions and chatted. The compound was full of small stone chips and people took the chance to gather stones for their trips to the pillars at Jamarat.
Apparently, we would need 49 in all: later that evening we would throw seven at the central pillar; sometime in the 24 hours after that, we would throw seven at each of the three pillars; and, in the following 24 hours, we would do the same again. The conversation flowed here and there. We got on to who the best ministers in Egypt were. Ahmed Rushdie, I suggested, an interior minister sacked after the conscript soldier riots of 1986 over poor pay, but which may have been encouraged by Rushdie’s enemies because of his clear moves on ending police brutality and corruption.
Later in the evening, we drove down to the ministry’s lodgings at Mina on the mountainside overlooking the Jamarat bridge over the three pillars, which lay in a narrow bottleneck at the end of a deep valley overlooking Mecca. Most of the pilgrims were housed in camps on a wide part of the valley floor before the bridge area.
As we drove down, we witnessed the astounding site of hundreds of thousands of pilgrims walking down the huge nightlit highway the Saudis had built for them. It must have been around midnight by now. We dumped our stuff in the rooms allocated for us and where we’d spend the next three days and nights, then got on a bus which took us down to the Jamarat bridge.
The pillars are located some 50 metres apart on the road under the bridge but rise up through special holes so that those on the bridge can throw stones at them from on top too. We were underneath at the central one and there was a modest crowd of maybe 500 people. It was an odd atmosphere, sort of celebratory and a big dangerous with stones flying everywhere.
Since people were circling the pillar from every side, anyone could easily overthrow and hit those standing opposite. But mostly you wouldn’t want to risk getting too close inside the group of people throwing and many timidly move up to the outer ring of the circle to throw their seven stones. “In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful” is the standard utterance when throwing each one, or perhaps “I seek God’s help from the devil.” Someone who got close to the pillar noticed that it had “USA” daubed on it near the base in blue writing.
The occasion was oddly inauspicious. Perhaps it was the location. It felt like standing at an ugly underpass in central Cairo. Grey concrete, huge pillars supporting a road above, stones, even the grey-brown of the mountainside. Earlier that evening the state Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Abdullah al-Sheikh, the descendent of Abdel-Wahhab (the father of Wahhabism), defended the teachings named after him. “This country was founded on this faith and, God willing, will stick to it,” he said in a sermon.
After that, at around 1 or 1.30 in the morning, we were taken into the heart of Mecca to the mosque for midnight tawaf and the Safa wil Marwa run that I hadn’t done before. It was quieter going round the Kaaba, but still there was a huge crowd and one was constantly trying to avoid being jabbed by an arm or rammed by a determined pilgrim heading on a new trajectory or having one’s foot trodden on.
In a spirit of martyrdom, perhaps, one utters non-stop praise and prayer to God and does not stop moving until the seventh wave is done. At that point, you quickly try to eject yourself from the swirling circle without more violence being done to you. The entering and the leaving are delicate processes involving moving forward, with the crowd but gradually moving outwards too.
Once I was out, I drank holy Zamzam water at the numerous taps around. Pilgrims would come by and fill whole bottles with the stuff which they would then take home with them to friend and family, believing in its curative powers. Then I went over to the Safa wa Marwa circuit.
I was with a colleague, my Sheikh for the occasion, who was much more informed about these affairs than I was. There is a special passageway that runs up the middle of the hall which allows those in wheelchairs to move unhindered by the crowds. My sheikh and many others decided this was a good way to complete each circuit quickly without having to negotiate the crowds all around.
I followed, protesting that this wasn’t an appropriate thing to do. I did two of the seven this way, then decided to suffer with the other pilgrims. At the completion of each circuit, the pilgrims look up towards a rocky outcrop inside the mosque, hold up their hands and say a prayer for Hajar. Such is the reverence with which her person is treated. It seemed touching to me, a former agnostic infatuation junkie, feeling the power to believe that this religious dispensation held for so many people.
Muslims hold this reverence too for Mary and Jesus. I used to think it was odd that Jesus was referred to in Arabic by the term “al-Masih,” or Messiah, which implies belief that he was the Messiah figure of the Jews. But I realized that this, in fact, concurs with the Muslim view that he was the awaited prophet of the Jews, and does not necessarily imply acceptance that he was the Son of God.
Still, Messiah figures are usually associated with the end of time and the day of judgement, which is why, I presume, few ever take them that seriously. In Islamic history, the “end of time” element is usually absent and, instead, they portray themselves as the bringers of a new order.
A native of the Hejaz called Mukhtar proclaimed that the Messiah was coming among Arabs and Persians in southern Iraq’s revolt in 686 AD against the Umayyad caliphs. Messiah figures (in the form of Imams) were behind the Fatimid dynasty that ruled from Egypt in the tenth century, and the Almohads who ruled in Spain and North Africa in the 12th century. There was the Messianic movement of the Mahdi which ruled in Sudan from 1881-98. And the 1979 mosque siege in Mecca was led by a warrior and his Messiah.
Historians have even noted that the Christians of the Levant appeared to believe that the Arab conquests were all about proclaiming a Messiah figure (and historians Patricia Crone and Michael Cook once memorably suggested that the warrior was Mohammad and the Messiah was the second caliph Omar).
Back to the Hajj. It was between 8 and 8.30 in the morning by the time I collapsed on to the mattress on the floor I was sleeping on at the ministry’s. We had been up for 24 hours and had only slept four hours the night before that. No on had had a proper shower in two days and we were wearing these white robes. Then, at 9.30, my colleague’s phone rang. There had been some accident down at the Jamarat, he said.
In the final instalment of Andy Scott’s Hajj story, read about how tragedy strikes for some pilgrims.
ãAndy Scott is a writer and journalist in the Middle East.
ã2004 K. Diab. Unless otherwise stated, all the content on this website is the copyright of Khaled Diab.