Amir Ahmad Alawi set out on the hajj pilgrimage from Lucknow exactly 80 years ago and maintained a personal account of all that he witnessed on the journey. As another hajj season comes around, his narrative takes on both a topical and timeless appeal…

In late winter of the year 1929, a gentleman from Kakori, a qasbah near Lucknow, decided to set out on the long hajj pilgrimage. Consumed with a burning desire to see the two holiest shrines of the Muslim world, the Baitul Muqaddas, the Holiest of Homes, in Medina and the Haram Sharif at Mecca, he embarked upon a journey of faith that would take him out of the small, protected world he had known, across the seas to another world that he had only dreamt of visiting some day. Like Believers the world over, he believed that the hajj was not merely one of the five pillars of Islam and the duty of every Muslim man and woman to perform at least once in their lifetime, he knew that it was also a spiritual journey, one that could, if he was among the fortunate few, lead to spiritual evolution and salvation. The man was Amir Ahmad Alawi.

We have told his story in our new book — Journey to a Holy Land: A Pilgrim's Diary (published by OUP). It is a story that is both topical and timeless. As the hajj season dawns upon us yet again, Alawi's account, written exactly 80 years ago — in 1929 — makes fascinating reading. It tells us about many things — about the centrality of hajj in the life of a Muslim, about the universality of Islam despite the plurality of those who practise it, and the human aspect of this quintessentially religious experience; it talks with equal candour of the malpractices, monopolies and misdeeds that had crept into this annual exercise in the name of traffic and commerce. More importantly, Alawi's account tells us of the bitter battles for power waged by the Nejdis and the ruthlessness with which they laid down the sternest, most austere principles of Unitarian Islam — whose effects are being felt to this day.

Same experiences

Hajj is performed in the month of Zul Hijjah from the eighth to 11th day of last month of the Islamic lunar calendar. This year the hajj shall be observed from November 25 to 28 2009. Eighty years after Alawi's pilgrimage, the Muslims who flock to the holy places, especially from India, still feel bewildered when they are commanded by rude Saudi guards to pray in a certain way. And the present-day Hajj Committees that flourish under government patronage are no better than their colonial cousins. Also, there is little difference between the hajj subsidy given by the government to the national carrier, Air India, and the subsidy given by the colonial government to the British-owned shipping lines. But therein hangs another tale. Here, let us talk of Alawi and his catholic vision that saw, interpreted and captured for posterity a commingling of cultures and experiences — both religious and secular.

From the day he left his home in Kakori, Alawi began to write a travelogue in the form of a daily diary, a roznamcha as it is called in Urdu. His journal became an intimate account of not just all he saw and heard in the course of his travels — first by train to Bombay and then by ship till Jeddah and from thereon sometimes in a swaying contraption made of wood and leather, called shaqdaf balanced precariously atop a camel, or on bumpy motor lorries on potholed roads — and his stay in Arabia, but was also, far more significantly, a candid record of what he felt and experienced at different points in the voyage. And so the document became not merely a chronicle and a record but also an account of a rite of passage — both of the spirit and of the world. Alawi returned to Kakori five months later suffused with the barakat , blessing, of the Prophet whom he loved more dearly than ever, his faith strengthened, his worldview enlarged, his belief in pluralism bolstered and his distaste for Unitarianism more marked.

Two things make Alawi's account different from other hajj accounts; one, clearly, it was not written with the intention of being published; Alawi wrote for himself and maybe a small circle of friends and relatives. Second, the time of this voyage is significant, for, it marked the transition from the old order to the new. The late 1920s were a tumultuous time. Changes were being brought about in West Asia, changes that would have a lasting impact on power-lines across the world. The two holy shrines had by now slipped out of the control of the Ottomans and fallen under the sway of the Nejdis. This was the time when the army of Wahabi warriors was beginning to lay down the laws of what was proper and what was not — both in Islamic practice and doctrine. While Alawi expressed his appreciation of some of the initiatives taken by the fledgling government of Hejaz, he was critical of the rapacious pilgrims' guides and brokers and the fundamentalist Nejdis bent upon inflicting their version of Islam on the devout who flocked to the holy sites from different parts of the world, bringing with them their own ‘versions' of Islam which were, more often than not, in marked contradiction to the Nejdi version.

In the Bait-ul Muqaddas , Alawi finds himself a small speck in a vast ocean of humanity. People from every corner of the Muslim world converge here — from the Indian subcontinent, Java, Burma, Cape Town, Shiraz, Anatolia, Chinese Kyrghystan, Turkey, Egypt, Afghanistan, and the deepest, darkest corner of Africa. Alawi's diary reveals not just the significance of the holy cities in the religious life of Muslims, but far more significantly the role of the hajj in unifying the Muslims as a religious community and providing an impetus to the, then fledgling, idea of pan-Islamism. It also shows the reverence Muslims feel for the sites associated with the early history of Islam and those places in particular where the Prophet lived and preached. The Masjid al Nabawi or the Prophet's Mosque in Medina is one of the two Harmain Sharifain, or the two sanctuaries of Islam, the other being in Mecca. A hadis asserts the Prophet as having said, ‘One prayer in this my Mosque is more efficacious than a thousand in other places, save only the Masjid al-Haram.' It is therefore considered beneficial to pray all five times a day and to spend as much time as possible in these two places, apart from the time spent in the rituals prescribed under hajj.

Powerful symbol

The Kaaba, which is the focal point of the hajj rituals and also the centre of day-to-day devotions of Muslims around the globe, is a powerful symbol of Muslim unity. It attracts Muslims, quite literally, like a magnet. Those who have gathered in Mecca for performing the hajj perform their circumambulations or tawaf around it; others turn their faces towards it no matter which part of the world they might be in when they stand up to pray five times a day. Dressed alike in the ahram , the millions who descend upon Mecca and Madina during hajj, forsake their everyday, material selves when they shed their everyday clothes and clad in the two pieces of white unstitched cloth they are united in a common purpose. Often one man is representing more than one person or even an entire village, or he may be observing the rite of pilgrimage by proxy. Well-to-do but infirm or incapacitated Muslims often send others to do the hajj on their behalf, such a practice being known as hajj-e-badal . Women must be accompanied by a mehram that is a relative with whom they need not observe the purdah ; husbands, brothers and sons constitute the mehram . Women are not permitted to go unaccompanied or in the company of na-mehram , that is those male members of the immediate family other than the ones proscribed mehram .

It is important to place Alawi's account in its historical time frame. Unlike recent accounts, Alawi's account has no dramatic reconsideration or re-engagement with a lost or diminishing faith. The long voyage from Kakori to Bait-ul Muqaddas is a journey of faith from start to finish. Alawi sets out a Musalman, a Believer, and remains one. His disaffection, sometimes couched in polite Awadhi correctness of behaviour and expression as a traveller in a distant land, sometimes clear and unequivocal, is with the hukumraan , the Nejdi rulers and bureaucrats; it is never, ever, with the message of Islam. Alawi returns with his love for the Prophet strengthened, his faith invigorated and his vision broadened.

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