Time for trains to help pilgrims perform the haj

(Photo: Pilgrims on the plains of Arafat, 7 Dec 2008/Saudi Press Agency)

Muslims taking part in the annual haj pilgrimage often say they have no words to describe the spiritual experience they have. Their practical struggles with the logistics are another thing altogether.

Many multi-billion-dollar improvements have been carried out over the past few years to improve safety for  pilgrims, expand the Grand Mosque and build tent cities in several areas where pilgrims have to stay for a day or more. The logistics of the haj are the main challenge that both pilgrims and the organizers face during the few days in which pilgrims are required to travel back and forth to several places to perform the rituals. There have been stampedes, fires and other accidents in the past as Muslims from around the world answered the call made by the Prophet Mohammad more than 1,400 years ago.

The benefits were clear at this year’s haj, in which over two million pilgrims have taken part without any major incident. There is still room for improvement, though, and my preference is for a train system to help pilgrims get around to perform the rituals tracking the Prophet’s steps.

So many pilgrims walk between the buses and trucks carrying fellow pilgrims to the different sites that both those on foot and those on wheels end up spending the same time to reach their destinations. Trains could solve such problems and also reduce the chance of accidents like those that often take place on the routes connecting cities around Mecca. (Photo: Pilgrims outside Mecca, 7 Dec 2008/Ahmed Jadallah)

Several developers, construction and logistics firms around the Gulf spring to mind when one imagines improvements that could also include more organised spaces to park buses and other vehicles once they offload their passengers at tent cities.

Thai haj pilgrims find airport chaos a test of faith

(Photo:Anti-government protesters at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport, 21 Nov 2008Kerek Wongsa)

David Fox of our Asia Desk in Singapore found this interesting faith story amid the protests at Bangkok’s international airport:

BANGKOK – Hundreds of Thai Muslims on a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Mecca were spending a third night sleeping rough at Bangkok’s international airport on Thursday, victims of anti-government protests that have paralysed air travel.

In interfaith dialogue, beware of Saudis bearing gifts?

Saudi King Abdullah at Mecca interfaith dialogue conference, 4 june 2008/Ho NewSaudi Arabia’s King Abdullah looks determined to get his proposal for an unprecedented Muslim- Christian-Jewish dialogue off the ground. A three-day conference in Mecca to discuss this ended with a soaring declaration of goodwill and benevolent intent. Saudi media reported that Muslim clerics from around the world had supported the call and confirmed that dialogue with other faiths was legitimate in Islam.

The official Saudi Press agency said the meeting recommended holding “conferences, forums and discussion groups between the followers of the prophetic messages and relevant civilisations, cultures and philosophies to which academics, media and religious leaders will be invited”. Given the gazillions Riyadh must be earning with oil at $140 a barrel, it may not be long before we see all sorts of petrodollar-funded “dialogue sessions” being held here and there.

Interfaith dialogue is a good thing, but the recent rising chorus of calls for more such talk hasn’t just emerged out of a vacuum. There is already a decades-long history of dialogue sessions that essentially exchanged pleasantries and generated warm feelings but did little to actually reduce misunderstanding and mistrust. The latest generation of initiatives — for example the Common Word consultations and the “Painful Verses” book we’ve blogged about here — takes the disappointment with earlier efforts as its starting point and aims to tackle the issues that earlier dialogues tended to avoid.

Interfaith talks on agenda in Mecca, Rome and London

Saudi King Abdullah (r) and former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, 4 June 2008/Ho NewThere were interesting words on interfaith dialogue from Mecca and Rome today and London yesterday. Efforts to improve contacts and understanding among the main monotheist religions have been gaining steam recently and we’re starting to see some concrete steps. But, as a meeting in Mecca showed, the road ahead could still be quite rocky.

The Mecca meeting, organised by the Saudi-based Muslim World League, is supposed to draw up guidelines for the inter-faith dialogue that Saudi King Abdullah says he wants with Christianity and Islam. “You are meeting here today to say to the world with pride that we are a fair, honest, humanitarian and moral voice, a voice for living together and dialogue,” the monarch said in a high-minded speech.

But former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of the few prominent Shi’ites at the conference, rained on his parade with broadsides against the United States and Israel. But he also said: “To have a dialogue with other religions we need to start talking among ourselves. The call needs to be directed at ourselves first of all, and all the sects need to agree on shared points. As a Muslim and a Shi’ite … I say the things we agree on are many.”

Harvard haj study examines Mecca’s effect on Muslims

The Kaaba as seen from the first floor of the Grand Mosque sanctuary, 20 Dec 2007Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government has just published a study called “Estimating the Impact of the Haj: Religion and Tolerance in Islam’s Global Gathering.” The pilgrimage is often described as the highpoint of a Muslim’s religious life. Media reporting usually stresses the experiences of the people taking part in it. But what is the longer-term effect of participating in such a massive and moving pilgrimage? This study, based on data from over 1,600 applicants to Pakistan’s haj visa allocation lottery in 2006, had some interesting conclusions:

Our findings show that … the Haj has quite a remarkable effect in shaping the views of Pakistani pilgrims. It induces a shift from localized beliefs and practices towards global Islamic practice, increases tolerance, and leads to more favorable attitudes toward women. We find no evidence that by raising cohesion within the Muslim community, the Haj threatens non-Muslims. On the contrary, the Haj makes pilgrims more peacefully inclined, and increased tolerance extends to adherents of other religions.

The evidence suggests that these changes are more a result of exposure to and interaction with Hajis from around the world, rather than religious instruction or a changed social role of pilgrims upon return.

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.

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.

On the haj: circling the Kaaba in Mecca

The Kabaa, 24 Dec 2007“Now’s the moment to say special prayers, for your family or anyone else you want to pray for,” said my Lebanese companion Ahmed. As he spoke, we caught a first glimpse of the black cloth cover of the Kaaba through the arches of the King Abdul Aziz Gate into the Grand Mosque in Mecca. I tried to remember all the people who had asked for prayers and mentally checked off their names, just in case. We picked our way through the crowds, some in the plain white cloth worn by pilgrims, others in ordinary street wear, according to their status under the complicated rules of the haj pilgrimage.

The overwhelming impression was of dazzling white marble and of arches with white plaster crenellations receding into the distance. The Saudi government has spared no expense in making this mosque, built around the focal point of daily worship for hundreds of millions of Muslims, into a monument inspiring awe and wonder among the millions who visit every year — especially those here for the first time. But the austere simplicity of the Kaaba itself, a plain stone cubic building covered in black cloth and wrapped in Arabic writing in golden silk, makes an even greater impression on visitors. Many raise their arms as it looms into sight from the edge of the inner courtyard, as if to protect themselves from some mysterious power, or perhaps to absorb some of the blessings they think it radiates.

Muslim pilgrims wait for a bus outside the Grand Mosque in Mecca, 14 Dec. 2007We skipped down the marble steps into the courtyard and made our way towards the Kaaba, joining a crowd of several thousand performing the tawaf ritual – the counter-clockwise circumambulation of the Kaaba, the first part of the umra ceremony which pilgrims usually perform on arrival in Mecca. The tawaf ritual predates Islam, possibly by many hundreds of years, and its origins may be lost in the mists of time. Muslims associate the Kaaba with the prophet Ibrahim, the biblical Abraham, seen as the founder of a pure monotheism which slowly declined until revived in the 7th century by the prophet of Islam.

Muslim scholar questions Vatican understanding of Islam

Cardinal Jean-Louis TauranThe cautious Vatican reaction to the dialogue appeal from 138 Muslim scholars has prompted one of the signatories to question whether the top Catholic official for relations with Muslims understands Islam. More specifically, Aref Ali Nayed has asked how Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran can say that a serious theological dialogue with Muslims is not possible because they will not discuss the Koran in depth. This debate (discussed in an earlier post here) is dense and highly specialised. But it may be at this level that this unprecedented dialogue could take off or fail to ignite.

Nayed, a former professor at the Pontifical Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies (PISAI) in Rome and main spokesman for the 138 scholars, flatly refutes Tauran’s view. He says Muslims have always interpreted the Koran and studied it both historically and linguistically. Their methods were even the forerunners of the “historical-critical” method that Christians use with the Bible, he says. Protestants began applying this “higher criticism” to the Bible in the 18th century and Catholics accepted it only in 1943, making them latecomers to this exercise in Nayed’s view. I am no specialist on these details and will need to hear reactions from Christian theologians.

Readers interested in Nayed’s argument can read it on the website of Islamica magazine or read Cindy Wooden’s story for the Catholic News Service on it. I’ll just quote the crisp conclusion: