So 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 troubled 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 in 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.
But 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.