What were they thinking on the haj?

Muslim pilgrims arrive at the plain of Arafat, near Mecca, 18 Dec 2007So what exactly were more than two million Muslim pilgrims doing on the plain of Arafat outside Mecca on the afternoon of December 18, also known as the 9th of Dhul Hijja? I was there too, among them, so I should know, shouldn’t I? I must have seen many thousands of them close up on the haj this year, looked into their faces and tried to guess what they were thinking.

The conventional wisdom is that they were praying, at least the ones who were staying still and not engaged in the more mundane tasks of life, such as setting up tents, fetching water for their families, or waiting to get a free breakfast from the charity container truck. Activities of that kind accounted for quite a proportion of the total, especially people walking, walking by the tens of thousands, walking to explore, walking to find better places to sit, walking to find lost friends and relatives or just walking because it was a change from sitting, where they might be buffeted by the feet and bags of passing pedestrians, or asphyxiated by the exhaust of giant buses, or Pilgrims sit at Jabal al-Rahman, the Mount of Mercy, at the centre of the plain of Arafat, near Mecca, 18 Dec 2007troubled by the accumulating piles of rubbish as people threw down orange peel, biscuit wrappers, milk cartons and discarded flipflops. Of those who were sitting, quite a number were chatting with their friends and neighbours and, judging by the snippets of conversation I overheard, much of the talk was of the basic logistics of surviving the day. How far is it to Mohamed’s tent? Which lavatories do you think are the best? How much are the bananas?

Now there were some people praying, or at least going through the motions of praying. Maybe their eyes were closed or their hands were cupped in that distinctive manner, or their lips were moving silently, or they were rocking rhythmically from side to side. If you found someone with the time to talk, they would invariably tell you that they had prayed and that this was one of their reasons for being there. I might add that they were talking about personal prayers, to Muslims something quite distinct from the formal prayers which they say five times a day at set times. In the formal prayers you can’t slip inMuslim pilgrims pray on the plain of Arafat near Mecca, 18 Dec 2007 one for your sick grandmother. That’s a separate operation, with distinct rules. Most of the pilgrims spent at least five hours on the plain, about the minimum to qualify as a certified haji. But interestingly, prayer on the plain is not obligatory. The best explanation I heard came from a Sudanese carpenter who had performed the pilgrimage many times. He said that prayer on the plain on that particular day was especially effective, so it was wise to take advantage of the opportunity. That seems to be a view close to the traditional consensus.

I bring all this up because it illustrates the problems facing a journalist trying to say what is going on in the minds of others, especially in the minds of millions of people. There’s a natural tendency to go for the easy option – ‘millions of people spent the afternoon in prayer’. That gives a very misleading impression of people on their knees, silent, for hours on end. There’s also a tendency for someone brought up in Europe, as I was, to impose the norms of their culture onto others.

Muslim pilgrims arrive at the plain of Arafat, near Mecca, 18 Dec 2007But the haj is unlike anything I am aware of that would be familiar to Europeans or Americans. It is essentially an elaborate performance, a series of acts and spoken words spread over many days which, taken together, fulfill a religious obligation. If the pilgrim omits one of the acts, his pilgrimage is incomplete and God might not accept it as valid. Enthusiasm in the evangelical sense is not part of the package. I did see some people who were highly emotional – the men who wept when they touched the Kaaba, for example. But there were many others – frustratingly many, from the point of view of a journalist seeking colourful language – who seemed to have a rather humdrum dutiful approach to their hajj. The most common answer to the question ‘Why are you making the pilgrimage?’ was ‘Because it is a religious duty’. Few said anything emotional, mystical or inspirational. Asked what the highlight or the ‘best part’ had been, many mentioned logistical aspects, such as the new crowd control measures, which made it easier to move around.

“Sarko the American” does Godtalk French-style

President Sarkozy attends a ceremony at Saint John Lateran Basilica in Rome, 20 Dec 2007Nicolas Sarkozy likes to talk about religion in public life, even though many French don’t think it has any role there. He never misses the opportunity to tell religious leaders how important faith is as a moral guide for modern societies. Every now and then, he goes public with it in a provocative way. He could not have been more provocative than he was on Thursday when he met Pope Benedict XVI and was inducted as the honorary canon of the Basilica of Saint John Lateran (a centuries-old tradition for French heads of state). He delivered a long speech praising faith’s role in public life and urging believers in general and Catholics in particular to play a more active role in French public debates.

“There has probably never been a French president who defended his country’s Catholic heritage so vigorously,” the French Catholic daily La Croix wrote approvingly.

We’ve covered the visit and done a story on the reactions in France (which continued to roll in after our story ran). One typical reaction was Le Monde‘s front-page cartoon showing Sarkozy dressed as a bishop while George Bush, who has a cross and a U.S. flag with crosses instead of stars), tells Pope Benedict “I think this guy’s stealing my job.” The French almost instinctively contrast their reticence about bringing religion into politics to the way U.S. politicians display and debate their faith in public.

On the haj, be fit and bring sturdy sandals

Muslim pilgrims arrive at the Plain of Arafat, near Mecca, 18 Dec 2007If you’re going on the haj pilgrimage, be fit and bring a sturdy pair of sandals. As with any pilgrimage, walking long distances is hard to avoid. The alternative is to sit in endless traffic jams inhaling diesel fumes. I didn’t walk as much as the real pilgrims did on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, but when I fell asleep at 7 a.m. in a resthouse, I had been walking since 1.30 a.m.

The journey began at sunset on Tuesday, the peak of the pilgrimage. Pilgrims have to spend the afternoon in a confined area on the Plain of Arafat. ‘Being there’ is what counts. Clerics say private prayers said during this period are particularly effective . Some people slept in tents or just walked around, in as much as that was possible amid more than two million people, the heat and the rapidly accumulating rubbish.

As the sun went down, pilgrims dressed in loose white cloth pressed against the western limits of the confined area. Once it disappeared behind the rocky hills, they surged forward towards Mecca, like a liquid boiling over. We journalists took cars this time. As we approached Muzdalifa, the first station on the way back to Mecca, I could see that people had trekked into the rocky hills and were settling down to sleep a few hours in the rough. Our car took us to another guesthouse, where we had dinner, the usual boiled sheep and rice that Saudis seem to live on. Apart from breakfast, it’s the only dish we’ve eaten since our journey began on Monday.

Ex-atheist takes on religion bashers with new book on God

book coverThe “neo-atheists” in the best-seller lists over the past year or so are getting serious competition from the other side. The new book There Is A God is all the more challenging because it comes from a former atheist who is far better versed in the complex arguments at the core of this debate. And he has a major U.S. publisher to promote this story of how a leading atheist philosopher eventually changed his mind. Anthony Flew doesn’t like to call his story a conversion, but a lot of people will probably see in it a modern Saul-to-Paul experience.

Anthony Flew is a British philosopher, now 84, who provided modern atheists with some powerful arguments during his career. His approach was to take atheism as the default position until sufficient evidence for God appeared — he called it “the presumption of atheism” and compared it to the presumption of innocence in the law. In numerous books with titles such as God and Philosophy or Does God Exist?: A Believer and an Atheist Debate, he rejected the usual arguments for God’s existence with logic and style. His approach was a far cry from the “neo-atheists” who rail against caricatures and excesses of religion (and there are certainly enough around to take aim at!) but avoid asking the tough questions that science cannot answer.

When the news came in 2004 that he had come to doubt full-blown atheism and had shifted towards deism, many atheists wrote this off as nothing more than the sign that his mental faculties were fading. Flew insisted in a long interview that he had not started believing in the God presented in the main monotheisms and did not accept the idea of an afterlife. He believed, instead, in what he called Aristotle’s God, the First Cause that created the universe but played no further role in it. He said he had come to the conviction that some form of superior intelligence must have ignited the Big Bang and set up the laws of nature.

In God’s name — The Economist surveys religion in the world

The Economist cover, Nov. 3, 2007The Economist, which printed God’s obituary in its millennium issue, has produced a long and very interesting survey on religion and politics around the world in its latest issue. There’s also an editorial on the separation of church and state and an audio interview with the author John Micklethwait.

As the editor of one of the leading journals of the globalised world, it’s interesting to hear what he says about religion:

“Religion is a bulwark against globalisation for a lot of people. I think you see this particularly in the Islamic world,” he said. But there was also a positive side, which he said could be seen in the United States where so many people read Rick Warren’s book The Purpose-Driven Life. “They’re saying, look, here’s a lifestyle that helps you get the best out of globalisation. I think a long time ago, we made this sort of category mistake, which was to associate modernity with secularism. I think, really, modernity goes much better with pluralism.”