Sunday, November 11, 2012

What meaning has Hajj in the age of capitalism?

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Jahanzeb Hussain 05 November 2012

Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam and is obligatory upon all those Muslims who are physically fit and financially endowed to make a journey to Makkah at least once in their lifetime. While I have never been able to see Hajj to be anything beyond a mere ritual, I am aware that this journey could be of a great deal of importance when it comes to the spirituality of a believer.

Every person has their own temperament and how Hajj might effect that temperament varies from person to person. Despite this, I still do not see Hajj as anything more than a ritual which is merely physical, or is at least treated as just a physical practice without any connection to the realm of spirituality or to a deeper understanding of self and existence.

Like every other Islamic pillar of faith, Hajj has also become a formality of the physical practice of religion and rests on no appreciation of religion beyond that. Thus, as I have witnessed in real life, you can wake up in the morning and go to your office which happens to be in some government ministry or service and demand bribes so that the paperwork which is submitted by some working person to have for example water connection to his house can move on. Then you can take an afternoon break and go for daily prayers. In fact, you might also be fasting during the month of Ramadan while you are busy with that work routine.

Such examples are abundant across the Muslim world where some of the most corrupt government officials also happen to be the most religious on surface. Their religiosity does not go any deeper than that – it stays on their face in the shape of beards, turbans, rosary, and a Quran on their office desks. What I meant to say about religious practices in Islam becoming nothing more than a physical ritual is precisely demonstrated by the above example: Corruption and much worse goes on and on, especially by some of the most pious looking people, because religion has no meaning beyond such thoughtless repetitive actions or outward demeanor.

In such a case, appearance of religiosity can go along perfectly well alongside every other sin that exists in the book, since the true meaning of the religion, its teachings and the reasons behind these rituals are not taken into account. This is not necessarily because religion is manipulated or is used as a token though this certainly is the case on many occasions. What is also true is that these people are not impostors and conscious of it; they honestly believe or have come to internalize that, as long as they can zealously perform daily prayers, fast during Ramazan or go to Hajj, their daily, yearly or lifelong sins can be forgiven respectively, regardless of what kind of actions their everyday life is made up of.

It is also natural to expect such behavior in a society where the moral and essential teachings of religion are dismissed because inwardness and personal transformation have no value since it is the outward actions that are looked at by a judgmental and voyeur society. Before one dies and appears before God to be judged, he or she has to constantly be judged and judge others in this lifetime based on outward actions and appearances. The equivalent of this in Western societies is charity: Even the most criminal of capitalist corporations have a charity foundation through which they transfer crumbs from their table to whom they otherwise ruthlessly exploit every passing second. Their belief is also the same – either honest or cynical – that occasional actions such as donating a few cents to the poor are redemptive. Similar to their Muslim counterparts, their daily practices and what they entail is looked over because structural requirements.

The Hajj has been debased in more ways than one. Historically, the Hajj was carried out by a handful of people every year and most of the pilgrims were Muslim notables, scholars, and politicians. The guardianship of the Kabah, historically, has belonged to a single tribe which allowed that tribe to attain a prime position of power in terms of politics and social standing, both locally and beyond. The right to host the pilgrims and the claim to the guardianship of the Kabah is lucrative in many domains and the struggle to the claim is a notion of power rather than love for the religion.

The importance of pilgrimage to Makkah and who controls the Kabah is something that goes back hundreds of years before the coming of Islam. After the death of the Prophet, the civil war that broke out between Muslims on the question of who was the succeed the Prophet had for its roots a conscious power struggle by the most powerful and rich clans of Omar and Usman in order to take control of the holiest site in Islam. Notwithstanding the transformative and egalitarian nature of Islam, Prophet Mohammad and his teachings were unable to change some of the fundamental features and impulses of the Arabian society, which continue to this day. What ensued after His death was a far cry from what he wanted Makkah to be – a sanctuary where one would even forgive the murderer of one’s father.

Modern Makkah also reflects some of the most egoistic and greedy traits of human life that the Prophet and his religion wanted to eliminate, especially in very house of Islam. Ever since the creation of Saudi Arabia in 1932 after the conquest of that land by Abdul-Aziz Ibn Saud, the holy sites of Islam have started to lose their cultural integrity and the Hajj has increasingly become a capitalist venture. Spirituality has gone out of the window to be replaced by consumerism. Every aspect of Hajj has become an opportunity to make money and to promote business and state hegemony. The class divide at the pilgrimage is also blatant. This circus takes place every year under the watchful eyes of the Saudi religious and political authorities, embodied by the satanic clock tower which hovers above the Kabah.

Saudi Arabia receives around 3 million pilgrims per year which brings billions of dollars in revenue for the Saudi state since pilgrims have to pay for services they receive at Hajj. The payment for these services such as tents, water, mattresses, air conditioning, and security has to be made prior to making the Hajj. By default, therefore, the access to Hajj becomes exclusive to those who have the ability to pay for these services.

It is reasonable to demand that these services should be made available for free or for a much lower cost so that lower income people can carry out the Hajj without putting themselves under undue financial pressure, especially when one takes into account the wealth the Saudi state already has thanks to petrol revenues. However, this is not the case. In fact, the cost of Hajj keeps increasing every year. One might react and say that it is understandable that Saudi Arabia demands money for Hajj given the sheer scale of the pilgrimage and logistical challenge it poses every year. But this claim can be easily countered when looking at another Islamic gathering which takes place in Karbala, Iraq every year. Chehlom or the Fortieth Day is marked by Shia Muslims in remembrance of Imam Hussain – the grandson of the Prophet and the son of Imam Ali – and his martyrdom.

While Saudi Arabia receives around 3 million people, Iraq hosted almost 18 million Shia pilgrims in 2009 in two days. Contrary to Saudi Arabia, Iraq does not demand payment for pilgrimage even though it is a war-torn country, while Saudi Arabia is the largest exporter of oil in the world. What this shows is that a decimated country like Iraq, which can hardly provide security for its own citizens, can stage one of the largest – if not the largest – human gathering in the world and provide them with free shelter and food, while a wealthy petro-state like Saudi Arabia feels that it is necessary to make money out of a religious obligation.

Unlike Iraq, Saudi Arabia has also placed quotas on each country and the maximum number of pilgrims they can send every year. There is an entire industry that has been created around Hajj as well. For example, Hajj is a tour which is organized by tour and holiday operators just as their regular tours and deals. There is no difference between a normal week-long holiday tour and the Hajj when it comes to the business logic behind it because capital reduces everything down to the same fine line. Similarly, advertisement companies also make large profits because such a gathering of people provides a perfect occasion to advertise your products and services.

Modern Hajj cannot be complete without shopping. The clock tower is not only a hotel but it also has a shopping mall, where the pious can quickly revert to their real state of being by spending money on Gucci, Prada, Swatch, and gold. The parallel existence of religious practice and every other debased worldly practice that I described earlier in the essay are present at the Hajj, too.

The Kabah is literally surrounded by dichotomous centers that embody gluttony, greed, exhibition and selfishness. A pilgrim is lurked by the constant presence of these things. Once inside the mosque that houses the Kabah, a pilgrim is continuously reminded, psychologically and by its physical presence, that there is another force out there which is more luring, fruitful and one which gives you immediate rewards. And once inside those centers such as five-star hotels and shopping malls, one is constantly reminded that purification and salvation is just a step away, and that it is OK to be such a social creature as long as forgiveness is right around the corner and one can always have access to it.

Spending enormous amounts of money on self-glorification and self-exhibition by buying luxury goods goes simultaneously with praising the Almighty, and that, too, in comfort: Those who can afford to pay thousands of dollars per night for a room in the clock tower can ensure for themselves utmost opulence. In fact, the clock tower advertisement sells its room as ‘Divine Stay.’ Before the pious reach heaven thanks to their Hajj, they might as well stay in God’s company while on earth. If to reach God in the afterlife is through Hajj, then it seems that to reach Him in this life is through money. The internet connection in these places is called ‘Holy Internet.’ Maybe it is a hotline to God. A part from the clock tower, the Kabah is surrounded by other five-star hotels, which shows that class differences are well and alive. So much for the much talked about Muslim solidarity. One thing, though, that has be stated is this: The meaning of Hajj is lost if you to the Makkah and stay in a five-star hotel.

The hideous clock tower represents a plague that has taken over Makkah. It represents capitalism and technology, which negates the traditional and cultural aspects on that city. The Saudi authorities are technocratic and rabid capitalists who also believe in the cult of technology as modernity and progress.

As a result, the historic remains of early Islam and of the Ottoman era have been completely razed. Makkah now looks like a city which belongs to a people who have no history, identity, and culture. All the buildings associated with the life of the Prophet have been destroyed. The house of Hazrat Khadija who was the first wife of the Prophet was destroyed, only to be replaced by a block of … toilets.

The house of Hazrat Abu Bakr who was the first Caliph was also destroyed; the Hilton hotel stands over it today. In early 2002, a few hundred feet from the Abdul Aziz gate, King Fahd demolished an ochre-colored Ottoman fortress that had been built in 1781 on Mt. Bulbul, one of the five hills that overlooked the Kabah, to guard Makkah from tribal raids. The dilapidated fortress was a modest presence that blended in with its natural surroundings. Its destruction soured relations between Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

M. Istemihan Talay, then the Turkish minister of culture, described it as “no different from the pulling down of the Buddha monuments in Afghanistan.” The last vestiges of the Ottoman history are also being decimated, while in Madinah the tomb of Imam Hasan, Imam Ali and Hazrat Fatima was destroyed in 1925. There is a McDonald’s and Burger King near the Kabah and the same neon lights that light up strip clubs and casinos in Las Vegas light up the ‘Allahu Akbar’ sign on the clock tower. The construction around the Kabah is still going on and the plan is to make Makkah a ‘smart city.’ What that means is that the expansion of the Kabah will be technologically determined. It would not be surprising that in the next 20 years the Kabah will resemble some sort of a space ship. It is also important to add that the contract for the construction has been given to the Saudi BinLaden Group

I already highlighted what I think are the reasons for the fiasco that the Hajj has become. What I would like to add to it is how the Saudis win the consent of Muslims for these projects and what gives them cultural hegemony. Muslim societies suffer from a low self-esteem, identity crisis and a inferiority complex vis-à-vis the West. In this context, when they see the development around the Hajj, they see it as advancement and an entry of Islam in the modern world side by side of the technologically advanced West. Sadly, they have a blind-spot which they opt to ignore because they need something to stick on it and believe in. They want to imitate the West in order to feel worthy. The price to pay for it is one’s own identity and Islam’s history. Secondly, the Saudis have a cultural hegemony since they are the guardians of the Kabah. As a result, it is common in places like Pakistan for example to believe that the Saudis are holy and perfect and that their version of Islam is the purest. The consequence of this belief is there to see.

Its accuracy is debated but the Prophet supposedly predicted that one of the signs of the end times will be when tall buildings are built around the Kabah and the time ticks down on it. The clock tower is that building. It perhaps is also the Dajal or the Anti-Christ who is said to have one eye only and is the most corrupted influence in the world. The clock tower is a supreme mark of capitalism, a system which also has one eye and one perspective: Money. 

 * The writer, a 22-year old student based in Vancouver, is the editor of Collateral Damage Magazine.