Rakhshanda Jalil writes on culture, literature and society. She has published over 15 books, including the much-acclaimed book on Delhi's lesser-known monuments called 'Invisible Delhi' and a well-received collection of short stories, called 'Release & Other Stories' (Harper Collins, 2011). She blogs at www.hindustaniawaaz-rakhshanda.blogspot.com. Her Ph D is on the Progressive Writers' Movement.
I am a guest of Allah - one of three million people who have gathered in the Baitullah, or the Home of Allah in Mecca. I am one of the thousands who move round and round in an eternal tawaaf of the Kaaba. I am but one of the three million supplicants who have come for the annual Haj from distant corners of the Muslim world. I am a speck in the vast sea of humanity that mills around the Haram shareef, spilling on to the roads and pavements offering namaaz at any available spot when the muezzin gives his call to prayer and thousands upon thousands bend their heads in absolute prostration. Here, in Mecca all roads lead to the Kaaba, and all around me are signs and symbols of the universality of Islam as well as its plurality.
Having set off from our home a week before the Haj, every step we have taken, every step that has brought us closer to this spot where we now find ourselves has been marked with excitement and a fearful joy. Fearful because we can barely comprehend that sinners that we are, we have been invited to God's Own House, to this Cupola of Islam. Surely greater barakat awaits us, for having been singled out for this privilege already carries the fragrance of Allah's blessings. Surely, better things lie in store. Surely, rahmat and maghferat will be ours. Ameen.
The Brill Dictionary of Religion describes 'pilgrimage' as 'time-honoured migrations to outlying sacred places. This phenomenon of religious mobility is attested among peoples of ancient times... This devotional journeying is underlain by the belief that the local presence of a deity, a hero, or a saint in this specific place makes transcendence in immanence especially effective and available to experience, and thereby especially efficacious for one's own concerns.' From the point of view of cultural history, pilgrimage is a symbolic movement incorporating both bodily relocation and heightened piety. However, in Islam there is no fixed age by when the pilgrimage must be undertaken; most Muslims therefore postpone it for their old age, or at least did till very recently. This accounted for older people afflicted by disease and infirmity forming the great bulk of the pilgrim traffic. Not so now; in fact, all around me I see as many young as old.
The Kaaba, which is the focal point of the Haj rituals and also the center of day-to-day devotions of Muslims around the globe, is a powerful symbol of Muslim unity. It attracts Muslims, quite literally, like a magnet. Iqbal, the visionary Urdu poet, describing the Kaaba in the most vivid colours in his evocative mathnawi, 'Rumuz-i-Bekhudi', says the rite of pilgrimage engenders a feeling of brotherhood amongst Muslims who meet in Mecca and Medina for a common purpose and in common worship. Dressed alike in the ahram, the millions who descend upon Mecca during Haj, forsake their everyday, material selves when they shed their everyday clothes and clad in the two pieces of white unstitched cloth they are united in a common purpose.
Tonight, on the eighth day of the Zul-al Hijjah, we shall leave for Mina, then on to Arafat and Muzadalifa and back to Mecca by the 10th day for the remaining rituals of the Haj. A significant part of our time will henceforth be spent in Medina. The Masjid al Nabawi or the Prophet's Mosque in Medina is one of the two Harmain Sharifain, or the two sanctuaries of Islam, the other being in Mecca. A hadees asserts the Prophet as having said, 'One prayer in this my Mosque is more efficacious than a thousand in other places, save only the Masjid al-Haram.'
As with pilgrimages the world over, the educated and relatively well to do Muslims always have a different experience of the Haj than the poor and the illiterate. However, kudos to the Haj Committee of India and the Consul General, Faiz Ahmad Kidwai, at Jeddah who strive, year after year, to make this experience as trouble-free as possible for all pilgrims regardless of rich or poor, educated or illiterate, well-connected or otherwise. It must be remembered that India sends the third largest number of pilgrims (the first being Indonesia followed by Pakistan). This year approx 1,25,000 Indian Hajis have come through the Haj Committee of India and another 45,000 through Private Tour Operators (PTOs). Pouring into Jeddah and Medina through 429 flights (the shipping route having long been discontinued the air route is the only available option for all Indian Hajis), they display a mind-boggling diversity. Almost 90% of them are first-time travelers; their needs and requirements are naturally very specialized.
The Consul General assisted by a Haj Consul and 536 officials ranging from coordinators, doctors, paramedics and a range of officers attempt to cater to their diverse needs in a mammoth operation that requires 24x7 vigilance and equal parts of diligence and ingenuity. A bit like a modern-day Khalifa Haroon Rashid, Faiz Kidwai is known to patrol the streets and go out to get a first-hand sense of the Hajis' problems, no matter how trivial. Whether it is sending an ambulance with a paramedic or ensuring that the cooking facilities (incidentally, the poorer among the Indian Hajis insist on carrying their own groceries from home and cooking their daily food) are in order, it is heartening to see the good work being done by the Indian mission. This year, the Indian Hajis will travel from Mina to Arafat and Muzdalifa by train; this mammoth operation will cut down time on travel and also ensure smooth flow of traffic between these holy sites allowing the Hajis to spend more time on actual prayer and less on the logistics of travel. This year's train travel has removed the approx. 33,000 bus trips not to mention the countless hours of waiting in the sun.
As I prepare for the actual rites of Haj that begin today, I seek forgiveness for any sins of omission and commission that I may have committed over the years. And may you, gentle readers, be blessed by Allah.