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Updated: November 14, 2009 16:54 IST

Time of radical changes

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Exclusive extracts from the Introduction to the recently published Journey to the Holy Land: A Pilgrim's Diary.

The late 1920s were a tumultuous time, with some changes likely to have a lasting impact on power-lines across the world. The two holy shrines, having been historically controlled by the Ottomans, had by now fallen under the sway of the Nejdis. This was the time when the army of Wahhabi warriors was beginning to lay down the laws of what was proper and what was not — in both Islamic practice and doctrine. While appreciating some of the initiatives taken by the fledgling Hijaz government, Amir Ahmad criticised the rapacious pilgrims' guides and brokers, and the Nejdis, who inflicted their version of Islam on those who flocked to the holy sites from different parts of the world, bringing with them their own versions of Islam. Used to observing certain rituals such as raising one's hands in dua after namaz, he felt deeply affronted at being sternly rebuked by the Nejdi custodians of the holy places, while doing so.

The H.B. Clayton Hajj Inquiry Committee observed: ‘The Nejdis are reactionary and intolerant in matters of religion and are at pains to interfere with certain observances and practices, which have been customary as part of the pilgrimage among Indian and other pilgrims.' Oriented towards a qasba version of liberal Islam, Amir Ahmad felt uncomfortable with the Wahhabi regime, which was established after the surrender of Mecca and the capitulation of Jiddah. He saw them as self-appointed guardians of Islam bent upon erasing all traces of Islam's tolerant, pluralistic past. For example, he felt indignant that a grave in Jiddah, said to be of Eve, was razed by the order of Abdul Aziz ibn Saud (1879–1953), who followed the treatise of Wahhabism by Abdul Wahhab (Book of God's Unity), which affirmed that one must explicitly deny any other object of worship. Similarly, Amir Ahmad did not approve of the guards posted on the Cave of Hira, and of the fact that the faithful were not allowed to pay their respects at this historical spot where the Prophet had prayed for a long time and where the first verses of the Holy Book were revealed. Here is what he stated about the willful desecration of the graves of the Ahl-i Bait (the Prophet, his daughter Fatima, Ali, Hasan and Husain):

We had studied in the history of the Great Roman Empire that when the Vandals and Goths had attacked Rome, they had vanquished it and destroyed its ancient monuments and razed centuries-old art and architecture to the ground. The state of Jannat-ul Baqi under the Nejdis is similar to the ruin and havoc unleashed by those barbarians.

Amir Ahmad was, furthermore, outraged by the tendency to crush certain practices such as facing the Haram Sharif while making a dua, or offering salaam at the Prophet's grave:

The Bani Ummaya tied horses in the Masjid-e Nabawi. The Abbasids slaughtered the Sadaat. The Qaramata destroyed Medina with their atrocities and cruelties. The traitor Hussein laid siege upon the city of Medina for three years and vanquished its people. The Nejdis rained canon balls over the city and traumatized its citizens. And today from the mimbar of the Prophet, a fatwa of infidelity or kufr is being issued to those who sit facing the Kaaba.

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