THIS is a first-hand account of the journey undertaken by Muslims to Mecca for Haj and is presented in the form of a diary. Haj is a sacred pilgrimage for Muslims all over the world. It is a divine command for those who undertake the journey to Mecca once in their lifetime and who have sufficient resources to meet the exigencies of the journey and maintain their family back home. But if a person is unable to undertake the journey despite possessing the means, he can appoint a substitute to undertake the pilgrimage on his behalf and the former receives the blessings attendant upon the pilgrimage.
The essay gives an account of a quintessentially Muslim journey. Written in a disarming style by scholar-journalist Munshi Amir Ahmad Alawi (1879-1952), the text is presented as a roznamcha or daily diary, for a safair-i-sa’adat or ‘propitious journey’ is both a song of lamentation and a song of triumph. He not only focuses on the soul-stirring effects of his first Haj, but also gives the ‘feel’ of the period and catches the anomalies of Saudi life which tormented him, especially the malpractices, monopolies and misdeeds that had crept in the name of commerce. During his journey, he finds that his co-passengers are varied in characteristics and nature, humble or arrogant, charming or sinister, righteous or satanic. Yet his dialogues with them are verbally rich as he is able to keep pace with their mind and desires. As a witness to their attributes and activities, this account has considerable posthumous significance.
It seeks to locate briefly the place of Haj in Islam, describes some of the well-known customs, rituals and practices associated with it and uncovers on the strength of the existing narratives what it means when the first group of Haj begins leaving for home, taking care to perform the tawaf or farewell as their final ritual act. Before the advent of planes, automobiles and air-condiditoners, the journey was tough to say the least. Nonetheless, the Hajis trivialised the dangers and inconveniences in the knowledge that they would soon enter the kingdom of God and stand before the granite block enveloped in its black veil.
Towards the end of this essay, the geo-political situation of Hijaz – the strip of land hugging the eastern coast of the Red Sea and containing the holy sites of Mecca and Medina – reveals the battle for political ascendancy of the House of Saud or the royal family of Saudi Arabia.
In the early times, pilgrimage to these holy sites necessitated a sea voyage as the overland caravan route ran through an inhospitable desert and barren mountainous ranges. The Haj is therefore a symbolic movement incorporating both bodily relocation and heightened piety. The Encyclopaedia of Religion identifies the classic three-stage form of the rite of passage of time – separation (the start of the journey), the liminal stage (the journey itself, the stay at the shrine and the encounter with the sacred) and re-aggregation (homecoming). It is not the only factor working for cultural unity and social mobility in the Islamic world but an important one, perhaps the most important one.
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