Amir Ahmed Alwai wrote Safar-I-Sadaat in Urdu based on his daily accounts of his Haj experience. He undertook the Haj journey that spanned more than four months, beginning January 31, 1929. This book is its English version. The objective evidently is to make it accessible to a wider audience. One of the negative offshoots of the British colonial rule has been the damage native languages suffered on account of the dominance of English, which virtually became a global lingua franca, so to say. And Urdu is among the worst victims. The irony of it all is that the most vehement of the critics of imperialism are also the most committed champions of English. This translated work can well be seen as an attempt to demonstrate that native languages are indeed a reservoir of vital sources of historical and other information and are as effective a medium as English to tell the human story.
Quite enlightening is the 69-page introduction which provides an incisive analysis of the contemporary literature on Haj experiences, apart from giving a detailed account of Alwai's life, career, antecedents, and, more importantly, the socio-historical importance of the region he belongs to. Marked by profound scholarship and intellectual richness, this piece bears the unmistakable imprint of Mushirul Hasan, who has a towering presence among contemporary historians, thanks not just to his several volumes of scholarly work but also to his creation of a new genre of historiography on modern India by employing varying methodologies. There is also an interesting chapter by J.S. Kadri, titled ‘My experience in Hajj in 1916', which provides a comparative perspective on such empirical accounts of Haj pilgrimage.
It is to the credit of the author that he has given day-to-day account of his travel, meticulously recording his experience and encounters, on some occasions in excruciating detail. As is to be expected, the narrative runs into five/six pages on days that were eventful, while it is brief — containing in some cases not more than 50 words — on other days. His diary notings carry fascinating insights into cultural, political, and economic aspects of contemporary life. They also reveal his own view on several global issues of tremendous significance.
What was the status of women in the Arab world of those times? While commenting on his celebration of Id in Mecca on March 12, he says he found Arab women in Western attire, while the young were roaming without the veil. Another interesting account is the role muallims (guides) played in making Hajj arrangements — he found them irresponsible and exploitative. This is documented during his visit to Medina. He writes: “May my countrymen have the foresight to stay clear of those muallims who are not present in Mecca during the time of the Hajj and leave their clients to fend for themselves!”
The author talks about an incident on February 13 in which how a British sergeant assaulted the Bengali hajjis who constituted a sizable section of 1200-strong contingent in his ship. He was enraged to see his fellow hajjis humiliated, but what is intriguing is the way he reflects on this episode. He notes: “Had they been Punjabis or Afghans, this ill-tempered Englishman would have got his just deserts.” This observation is suggestive of the fact that Muslims of the time had their own perceptions of Muslims of other regions. Afghans or Punjbis are seen in this instance as more aggressive and having a stronger sense of self-respect as opposed to Bengali Muslims, but this was long before the Mukti Bahini came on the scene in East Pakistan, where Punjabi Muslims suffered humiliation at the hands of Bengali Muslims during the Bangladesh war. Overall, this lucidly written diary is an indispensable source for students of comparative religion and Indian history.
JOURNEY TO THE HOLY LAND - A Pilgrim's Diary: By Amir Ahmad Alawi; Translated and with an introduction by Mushirul Hasan and Rakhshanda Jalil; Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 650.
Keywords: Haj Pilgrimage