My first trip to Saudi Arabia for the performance of Hajj was in 1995. Over the past thirteen years I have performed the holy pilgrimage a few times and so I can conveniently look back and record my observation in terms of the organization and performance of hajj including those developments that makes the performance of hajj today a strenuous exercise.
In 1995 the cost per pilgrim from Nigeria was N42,000.00 (forty two thousand naira) whereas in 2008 the cost averaged N500,000.00 (five hundred thousannaira). The exchange rate in 1995 was N22.00 to One Saudi Riyal but the rate in 2008 is about N40. Whereas there has been 81% increase in exchange rate the percentage increase in the cost of hajj is over 1000%.
The holy pilgrimage, hajj is the fifth and last pillar of the Islamic faith. The activities and rites of hajj can be traced to Prophets Abraham, Ismail, Adam and his wife Hauwa (May Allah's peace and blessings be upon them all).
In the last the last thirteen years, the city of Makkah has transformed in several ways. The bizarre display of opulence, increased trading activities, the increased number of pilgrims as well as the increasing inability of Saudi authorities to cope with the increasing number of pilgrims thereby increasing the strains and pains associated with the performance of hajj are issues which caught my attention . Infact it can be safely averred that certain decisions of the Saudi authorities such as erecting gigantic commercial edifices within the precincts of the Kabbah (the most sacred house in Islamic theology) with the attendant pains and strains on worshippers as they move towards the Kabbah is clearly an error. Perhaps some muslims are beginning to equate worship with "adornments of this world".
I experienced discomforts just as others as the inflicted pains and strains impacted negatively on our spirituality and the proper performance of our rites ÔÇô even salat was said in unclean street corners and on jam packed streets with anger flying in the air. The admonition of "wala rafasa wala fusuka wala jidala fil hajj' was tested several times by negative environmental and human forces..
It is becoming increasingly clear that the Saudi government requires external assistance from other muslim countries and organizations in order to be able to organize hajj that will inflict less pain on the faithfuls.
Kabbah & its Environs
In those days pilgrims were filled with expectations and anxiety as they approach the Kabbah . The sight of the Kabbah was unmistakable when you arrive there. The elegance and grandeur of the Kabbah clearly marked it out in its environment.
But today the case is different. The Kabbah is ambushed by buildings whose architecture and opulence assault your sensibilities. They are distractions and reminders of worldy possessions.
From the Reea Bahksh area to the Kabbah and from Al-Mansur street to the Kabbah one comes in contact with imposing commercial entities and edifices.
Closely related to these distractions it is unfortunate to observe that while worshippers struggled, shoved and pushed each other for space during prayer times, with some praying on the bridges, rocky hills and dirty street corners (about 300mtrs from the Kabbah) some of these buildings have permanently taken up space that could conveniently sit over 250,000 worshippers. Apart from one of then which makes provision for a praying arena on its first floor, no such provision is made by the other buildings despite the fact that they are sitting right in the backyard of the Kabbah.
As I have stated earlier, these gigantic structures house commercial shopping malls such as KFC, Emirates, The Museum, Rolex, hotels etc. The case of the jewelry shops with their overpowering allurements and adornments which arrest and distract the attention of faithfuls are also worthy of mention. There is a reckless display of opulence. It is doubtful if Islam supports such reckless display of opulence even if it is rightly stated that they are engaged in trading.
It is inconceivable that these malls can be built in such a way as to give the impression that commercial activities (including money changers, eateries, hotels) are more important than the Kabbah. The arena is always jam-packed by shoppers and it is always difficult for the earnest worshippers to have easy access to the Kabbah.
In other words, the entrances to the Kabbah are melting points of confusion as there is a constant and unending competition between worship and commerce. The principles behind the establishment of the commercial malls and that behind the establishment of the Kabbah (as recorded in the Quran) are diametrically opposed that one wonders if it is right to turn the entrances and backyard of the House of Allah to a "den of money changers, manipulators, hoteliers etc) صا
Inside the Kabbah a large proportion of pilgrims were busy taking photographs and engaged in some other forms of amusements even as they performed rites which have spiritual implications and importance. To them Kabbah was just another Disneyland or some live comedy. Where the police banned the use of cameras most of them used their mobile phones. The tragedy is that such pilgrims did not realize that they were going through physical as well as spiritual processes.
As part of the hajj rites, we move to Mina, Arafat, Muzdallifah. It is to the credit of the authorities in those places that water and public toilets were in abundance (almost every 100metres). These assisted in no small measure in improved hygiene and the reduction in the stress usually associated with such strenuous journey.
However, within the precincts of the Kabbah the toilets have virtually disappeared. Pilgrims either perform their ablution from their hostels/hotels or buy water from corner shops that litter the landscape.
From the two opposing sides of Reea Bakhsh and Al-Mansur (a journey of about 45 minutes) to the Kabbah there is no single place for ablution or water closet. Some pilgrims ended up defeacating in the public near the Kabbah and near the uncompleted sites. Indeed I arrived at the Kabbah at 10am for my first jumat service in the holy land and I had to make additional request to Allah to prevent my bowels from rioting. Thank God my prayer was answered. Where do I get a toilet and how do I get back inside the Kabbah. These were the thoughts going through my mind.
Indeed with so many eateries around the Kabbah one wonders if those who eat will not require water closets to complete the process. Even the proposed new Kabbah has only one slot each for male and female water closets.
Traffic Congestion and Pollution
The absence of public car parks, especially at holy sites, the indiscriminate parking of cars on the roads and the unending fight for right of way between vehicles and pilgrims was another source of unnecessary strain and stress.
It is unbelievable that pilgrims can stay in traffic for over six hours on the Arafat- Muzdallifah road; infact some spent the night inside their buses. The perennial traffic on the roads leading to the Kabbah during prayer times is avoidable. Why should all cars, including those of inhabitants of Makkah be on the road at these peak periods. Some of them even harass us with their old and KIA cars as we struggle to meander through the traffic. And just as you are trying to ensure your safety , the long buses and some caravan-like "jeeps" emit obnoxious and toxic carbons from their exhaust pipes. Indeed it was getting so serious that I was afraid I could suffer seriously in the cardiac area. However, they made me dizzy and suffered minor health problems which made me see our resident doctors
The Saudi Police and their Suzuki jeeps also contributed their own quota to the confusion through incessant and reckless blaring of sirens. These heightened tension and commotion. Only God knows the degree of damage that they have inflicted on the faithfuls.
It is my hope and prayer that the Saudi authorities will look into some of these issues and make amends where necessary so that those who really come to hajj for worship will not lose out in the contest between commerce and spirituality. Efforts should be made to make hajj less strenuous and painful. And this is achievable. Shopping malls should be taken away from holy sites to places where they will not interfere with worshippers who have come to the Kabbah for worship, to circumbulate the Kabbah and to meditate therein.
The Saudis are at liberty to create their own Oxford street and the likes but these should be sited in such a way as not to interfere with the worship of Allah. Afterall every other thing will perish and only His majesty will remain
Finally the Saudi authorities can also seek assistance from other countries with large population such as Indonesia, India etc on crowd control, traffic management and sundry matters.
Wallahu Alam. I am delighted to have performed the pilgrimage as a muslim but our hosts need to make it easier for us.
Thank you for having read this piece.
Taslim Anibaba (FCA) 14th December, 2008