Hajj without Afzal Mian

It was in 2013 that my husband and I decided to go for hajj. We had both performed umrah in our previous lives and it seemed most logical to experience the largest gathering of faithful, especially at an age when all mental faculties are working and limbs properly functional. I was interested in exploring how it felt to be there. My last trip was during the 1980s with my mother, a journey we undertook because I was desperate to find my inner balance – which I thought I had lost. I had read a book on the Bolivian revolution. One particular incident in which the Bolivian military had mercilessly beaten the rebels – whose average age was about 16 – and then marched over them, left me feeling shattered. What if I was also abandoned like that? My soul struggled to breathe. My inner balance depended upon restoring faith in the divine being who is present and functional in distributing mercy. Irrespective of what people believe in, their respective version of the divine is part of a necessary mythology that helps many survive through everyday burdens and ordinary chores.

God is great as there were good friends who warned us against things we must avoid during the 12 days trip. We were warned about afzal mian whom every pilgrim must avoid if they want to embark upon a spiritual journey. You must not travel with it, duck if you see it coming in your direction and pretend you can’t hear – that is if you really can’t avoid it. It is quite crazy but you will come across afzal mian before you leave for hajj – during your travel either by air or sea, after you land in Saudi Arabia, when you enter compound of the kaaba, when you go to Mina for four days and many other places. Avoiding afzal mian will prove good for both your faith and sanity.

The scene during the flight was a reminder of how hajj had transformed from a spiritual experience into a competitive commercial exercise

Since I am sure I have managed to stoke your curiosity, let me introduce afzal mian, who is not a person but a phenomenon. This is the name of a process that many will force you to adopt before and during hajj in the name of earning brownie points to ensure a place in jannah (heaven). The minute you conceive of the idea of pilgrimage there are many who will immediately instruct you in ways to make your hajj -or the small activities that are part of it – afzal (superior or better) as compared to what millions of others would be doing. I am sure every pilgrim amongst millions present there would have received similar instructions. Imagine what a terribly over-crowded heaven it would be.

Just like your value appreciates the minute people know you are preparing for the civil service exams, many will begin to respect you as soon as they know of your plans for hajj. A family member, who had performed hajj a year before, informed me that my decision was not under my control as I was always the ‘chosen one’. Upon getting curious, I was told that those lucky ones perform hajj who, as spirits, had agreed to do so. So, I was going for hajj not because I had consciously planned it but due to the fact that millions of light years ago my soul had opted for it. One wonders why other souls didn’t raise their hands back then. As per this formula it was not my conscious foray into a search for love and desire!


The sense of superiority does not seem to help one transcend to a higher spiritual level but is restricted to boosting fat egos. A popular idea is that hajj is performed only by those ordained to do so. Surely it is a matter of luck to have the resources to travel, but no one has to date explained to me precisely what it is that makes an individual’s luck click in this case more than others. It certainly can’t be piety since a lot of racketeers, mega-criminal and deceitful people perform hajj on a regular basis. I know many in my life who are probably better human beings than I, but don’t have the opportunity or capacity to perform pilgrimage.

Many hajis (pilgrims) get over-burdened by their sense of superiority and were on a short fuse during the flight back from Medina. Snapping at stewardesses and reminding them of how afzal they were, many created a ruckus as they tried to find the direction of the Kaaba and a place to congregate for prayers in an airborne flight full of over 200 passengers. The scene during the return flight was a reminder of how hajj had transformed in the digital age from being a spiritual experience into a competitive commercial exercise. The spirituality and strength of faith and character that the activity is meant to produce is often lost. So it doesn’t matter if you are meant to keep your anger in check and learn patience through at least the three physically trying days in Mina. I remember the second evening when there was a problem with the kitchen stove of our camp and food was delayed – how the hajis raided the kitchen and threatened the management.

A woman among the throngs of faithful pilgrims
A woman among the throngs of faithful pilgrims

Essentially, hajj is a five-day affair (from 8-12 Zilhaj) during which you spend a few hours in Maidan-e-Arafat until afternoon, a time spent praying; a night in Muzdalafawhich is a huge ground where millions of pilgrims spend a night under the sky; stone symbols of Satan, slaughtering animal; and perform tawaf-e-ziyarah – which means circumambulating the Kaaba. There is of course the sunnah of spending four nights in Mina which over years has become mandatory probably because keeping the pilgrims at one place is logistically the most convenient arrangement.

Each one of the above activities is highly symbolic – with the social and political purpose of building a community of faithful who would gather every year from around the world and develop a bond on the basis of engaging in common religious activities at the same time. In fact, some of the pre-Islamic religious activities were regimented and adapted for building a bond. Circumambulation of the Kaaba seven times, touching and kissing of the Black Stone and drinking the water of Zam-zam happened for centuries before Islam. The Arab nomads prayed facing the Kaaba. In Arab mythology, the Kaaba was the tabernacle lowered as a sign of God’s forgiveness towards Adam and Eve. It was built several times and its shape altered through centuries to its current shape. Every year, there were four months dedicated by tribal Arabs to engage in a hajj-like activity. Similarly, fasting from sunrise to almost sunset was an old tradition.

Facilities for pilgrims
Facilities for pilgrims

Many would inquire if the toothpaste you used was scented or what kind of soap you used

The hajj is meant to infuse a sense of camaraderie since it breaks down differences of age, color, caste, gender and social status. The faithful abandon their different ways of dressing and wear (for men) two white sheets and (for women) a headscarf. From 8th to 10th Zilhaj, pilgrims are expected not to wear any perfume – which is a sign of abandoning luxury and worldly desires, especially in case of those who can afford it. In the heat of the Arabian desert, where one perspires profusely, perfume becomes a distinction between the rich and poor. Those who can afford such luxuries must abandon them so that everyone – particularly the powerful and the affluent – can mix with the less fortunate and experience physical discomfort. As in the case of fasting, abstaining from the use of perfume is about the abandonment of pride, power and ego. However, many of the pilgrims take the concept to a ridiculous degree. Many of the women in my camp in Mina were quick to admonish an old lady for applying medicine to her painful knee joint as it had a faint smell. Many would make it their duty to inquire if the toothpaste you just used was scented or what kind of soap you used to wash your hands. The voluntary and self-appointed moral and ethics police is often more discomforting than all the physical effort one undertakes.

During hajj I realized that given the state of mind of most pilgrims, certainly from the Subcontinent, a calculator should be declared a mandatory gadget perhaps to make lives of the pilgrims ferociously calculating sawab (spiritual reward) a bit easy. I am reminded of this conversation I had on the first day after return from Muzdalafa with another woman in my camp. She was curious if I had done the stoning and tawaaf-e-ziyara (circumambulation of the Kaaba). The latter can be done during the three days that Satan is stoned. Since I had postponed mine for the next day, she warned me about having missed the opportunity to amass 125,000 times the reward that I could have by doing tawaf on the first day. All this accumulation of spiritual rewards is meant to ensure your entry into heaven on the Day of Judgment. Watching this woman and many like her I wondered about the gauge of the bridge that believers are meant to cross to enter heaven. Would it not collapse under the weight of egos? The vanity of many pilgrims does not even allow them to see that this system of calculation is highly unjust. How can one begin to compare the total effort put in by those doing an elite hajj with the struggle of the materially less fortunate who undertake the journey with their life’s earnings, or stay in less comfortable camps, having to walk longer distances because they couldn’t buy their way into more expensive camps, or even sleep on the road where they are rudely nudged out of sleep by the Saudi shurta (policeman) to make way for his vehicle?

Pakistani pilgrims on the return flight from Hajj
Pakistani pilgrims on the return flight from Hajj

Today, hajj is a sophisticated and complex industry that, like the airline industry, depends on economic gradation. It is a very class-oriented venture in which the more money you pay the greater comfort and facility you will get. While the bulk consists of ordinary pilgrims, the lucrative bit for a tour operator (and the Saudis) is when we come to the elite packages. For instance, several Pakistani tour operators offer VIP and deluxe hajj packages. The deluxe is the most expensive and superior as it offers accommodation in one of the five star hotels adjacent to the Kaaba before and after the five days of hajj and a room with five beds and an attached bathroom in Mina. The VIP, on the other hand, has some minor differences of pre- and post-hajj accommodation, and a room with 10-20 sofa beds and shared bathroom facility. Both VIP and deluxe have the privilege of listening to media-savvy televangelists like Tariq Jameel or Aamir Liaquat. These men are precious marketing gimmicks for private tour operators. It helps them sell their superior packages because these figures are only part of the VIP and deluxe deals. The affluent upper-middle class, meanwhile, uses the opportunity to acquire greater arrogance in matters of faith.

Thus the most meaningful experience of spending the night in Muzdalafa – which is a lesson in humility – gets lost. This is where all pilgrims have to spend a night. No matter what an individual’s social status might be, no amount of power or money can find you comfortable space as the ground is full of millions of pilgrims (the exception is Saudi royalty and their guests). You might find space on the road, on litter or near the toilets. Perhaps that was one of the most peaceful nights I have spent in years – all with myself without the burden of myself.

The experience of Hajj is not quite the same for rich and poor
The experience of Hajj is not quite the same for rich and poor

But did the majority of people enjoy this nothingness or learn from the experience? Watching the pilgrims ferociously pelting the three pillars which symbolize Satan, the very next morning, will disabuse you of any notion of some spiritual change. The three pillars are spots where Abraham was tempted to disobey God’s command to sacrifice his son Ishmael. The passion displayed in pelting these stone pillars with stones collected from Muzadalafa is a scene worth watching. Had Satan been present there physically, the diabolical being would have bled to death a million times over. For many, faith is not a humbling experience but a source of vanity.

This arrogance is visible also amongst those that are in charge of the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina. The Saudi ruling elite seems to have gradually strangled a rich history to death. Centuries of awe and glamour of the Holy Kaaba seem to be drowning under towering concrete structures erected all around. Therefore, between the concrete and commercialism it is not surprising that one may not feel a change inside – even after performing hajj.

The commercial development of Mecca proceeds at a breakneck pace under the Saudis
The commercial development of Mecca proceeds at a breakneck pace under the Saudis

The Saudi ruling elite seems to have gradually strangled a rich history to death

I didn’t feel anything move inside me until I reached Medina. Many people have mentioned how Medina is gentler on the soul. Perhaps it is the stark change from a rugged Mecca to the oasis of Medina. I suddenly began to enjoy my prayers – it was no longer about rituals but a conversation had begun beyond fear of retribution or greed for any rewards.

And so I returned the next year to continue with the tête-à-tête.

My next visit was with a book – a biography of the Prophet (pbuh). It is based on a rare compilation of accounts and traditions from his time including translation of an Arab historian Abulfeda’s account discovered many years later from Spain. I spent my time in the Masjid-al-Haram in Mecca and Masjid-e-Nabawi in Medina walking through history. The sojourn helped me recreate and understand a life 1,400 years ago while being rooted in my present. The hajj  has been a worthwhile experience, not just in observing myself and fellow Muslims – and their anxieties about faith or the absence of it – but also understanding how faith is ultimately a personal matter linked with your soul. One formula cannot fit all.

Note: This article originally published here.