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[OPINION] This is hajj, the rest of it is Saudi

The hajj is happening now. It takes place over five days in Mecca, Saudi Arabia and surrounding holy sites. It forms part of the five duties of Islam. That is: Every Muslim who is of good health and financially stable should perform it as least once in their lives.

In Islam, there are two Eids. One is celebrated after the fasting month of Ramadan ends. The other is a festival of sacrifice, celebrated in the 12th and final month of the Islamic lunar calendar once hajj (the religious pilgrimage to Mecca) has come to a close.

The hajj involves a lot of rituals that are performed to mirror significant events in the life and times of the Prophet Abraham.

The significant events in the life and times of the Prophet Abraham

Once upon a time, Abraham - the respected patriarchal figure in Islam, Judaism, Christianity and the Bha’I faiths - was asked to sacrifice his son.

God commanded Abraham to do so to prove his faith. When Abraham willingly obliged, God stopped him, and rewarded him. Instead of slaughtering his son, God asked that Abraham sacrifice an animal instead. In most cases, this animal is a sheep, goat or cow.

In the Christian religion, Abraham is asked to sacrifice Isaac. In the Muslim faith, he is asked to sacrifice Ishmael (Ismail in Arabic). As an aside, followers of Islam believe that the ancestry of the Prophet Muhammad can be traced back to Ishmail.

Ishmail also plays a prominent role in a second story. This time, with his mother, Hagar, and this event also forms part of the hajj.

_The ritual: _Every Eid, Muslim people around the world sacrifice a sheep, goat or cow in the name of God and to mimic Abraham’s unwavering faith. The meat is then given to feed the poor and the needy.

The story of Hagar and Ishmael caught between the hills of Safa and Marwah

After receiving another order from God, to once again test his faith, Abraham is asked to take Hagar and his infant son out to a desolate portion of the dessert in Mecca where there is no oasis. Abraham leaves them with some very basic provisions and their only company is the two hills that surround them: Safa and Marwah.

Eventually, the water they’re left with runs out and a frantic Hagar runs back and forth between the two hills in search of more to hydrate her parched son.

Then the story takes a miraculous turn when a well is discovered. There are two accounts of this finding. One is that the baby kicked the dirt and unveiled a source of water beneath. The other is that the angel Gabriel swooped down and uncovered the well by tipping his wing into the sand. Either way, the well of Zam Zam was discovered. It still serves to provide drinking water in Mecca today.

After a while, Abraham fetched Hagar and Ishmael and returned to Mecca. Some more life and times past and then Abraham and Ishmael constructed the Kaaba as we know it today.

_The ritual: _During every hajj, pilgrims walk between the hills of Safa and Marwa (they’re quite a distance apart) to pay respects to the suffering of Hagar and to proclaim their trust in God as the provider. The hills no longer stand in the middle of the desert. They are housed within the Masjid al-haram (the same mosque houses the Kaabah) and the path between them is long indoor gallery with marble floors and air conditioning. This is also where the ZamZam well is located.

The Kaaba

Abraham fetched his son and wife after this and returned to Mecca where he and Ishmail eventually ended up building the Kaaba – that black cube in Mecca you might have seen in pictures or the news. It also signifies the direction Muslims face when they pray.

God issued another message. He commanded Abraham to issue a proclamation: All mankind of monotheistic religions (at the time) would make a pilgrimage to this site – the hajj. And it still takes place today.

The four corners of the Kaaba roughly face the points on a compass. Kaaba translates to cube from Arabic and it is covered in a black silk cloth (the kiswah) embroidered with verses of the Quran in gold calligraphy.

The ritual: During the hajj, pilgrims perform the tawaf. They go around the Kaaba in a counter-clockwise direction seven times (a prominent number associated with the divine in many religions, including Christianity and Judaism). The Kaaba is regarded as the most sacred site in Islam and the circling of it is a demonstration of the unity and harmony of the believers and their supplication to God.

_An additional Abrahamic ritual: _The stoning of the devil: During this ceremony pilgrims throw small pebbles at three large stone walls, called jamarat, to symbolise the stoning the devil that tempted Abraham to defy God.

_And the only Prophet Muhammad hajj related ritual: _On the second day of hajj, worshippers wake up at dawn to make their way up Mount Arafat, the location of Prophet Muhammad’s last sermon. The walk to the mountain is short and the rest of the day is spent in quiet worship and contemplation.

FILE: Muslim pilgrims gather at the Grand Mosque in the holy Saudi city of Mecca early on August 30, 2017, during the annual Hajj pilgrimage. For the faithful, it is a deeply spiritual journey, which for centuries every capable Muslim has been required to make at least once in their lifetimes. In the age of social media and live video streaming, it's now also an experience to be shared in real time. Picture: AFP.

Muslim pilgrims gather at the Grand Mosque in the holy Saudi city of Mecca early on 30 August 2017, during the annual hajj pilgrimage. Picture: AFP.

The rules/contradictions of modern day hajj in a “modern” day Saudi Arabia:

- All humans who believe in the oneness of God are equal and must come together, but not really:

It was decreed that any believer of a monotheistic religion like Jews or Christians who believe in both God and Abraham as a prophet were able to make their way to Mecca to perform the hajj. But somewhere along the lines (and modern day Saudi has a lot of lines) the government decided to FORBID any non-Muslim from entering Mecca at all.

- Saudis are allowed to question your faith at will:

Converts are allowed to enter. But there is a lot of red tape. Some of this red tape includes the issuing of a letter from an imam (Muslim religious leader) who testifies that the person is indeed a true convert. Even then, the application can be rejected.

- Let’s not kid ourselves, hajj is expensive… and the Saudi government is rich:

While I understand that this a logistical nightmare and the Saudi officials are probably the only ones who are able to pull it off so channels are necessary, I still question this, a lot. Namely, pilgrims must book their hajj trip through a Saudi government-approved hajj travel agent.

- The class system of the tented city:

In the valley of Mina (where the stoning of the devil takes place) lies the tented city. This is where men and women sleep separately in more than 160,00 teflon coated fibreglass tents. Each pilgrim pays $500 dollars for the night - compulsory. The tents are safe, fireproof and air conditioned to prevent any medical emergencies. There is no argument that every measure of care is taken to see to the wellbeing of 2 million pilgrims. But here’s the thing - for a pilgrimage that signifies sacrifice, patience, oneness and humility, the tented city also offer luxury tents, provided by the Saudi government, to house those in need of a jacuzzi ,for example. These go for $10, 000.

- And then there are the women:

Islam is a religion that revolutionised the rights of women. Making them equals. Contemporary Saudi Arabia is a barbaric state that punishes the female eyesores on the face of humanity.

During the hajj, the rules and treatment of women seem contradictory and contrived because customary laws come up against culture.

Even though the observance of the pilgrimage is compulsory (only for those who have means) for ALL humankind - the Saudi government does not allow women to travel alone. They must be accompanied by a male. So if you’re a single woman who really wants to fulfill the duties of a good Muslim but cannot find a male chaperone - forget about it.

Another contradiction is the one of segregation. Men and women are separated in mosques but during the hajj they mix freely (except at Mina). However, this does not mean women are treated properly. Women are still less-than, and are treated with force and pushed out of the way by many Saudi officials themselves. Women are not allowed to get in the way of men. Simply standing on a path where “men must walk” will get you into a lot of trouble.

And even though women and men are permitted to walk together around the Kaaba, it is highly frowned upon that a woman makes contact with any man. In a crowd of two million people, she must basically make herself invisible. So to avoid this and to keep out of trouble, the government recommends that women perform tawaf on the roof of the mosque, where it takes an hour and ten minutes to complete one round.

Several Islamic references warn against women “running like wild animals let loose, shouting and screaming in ignorance, pushing each other, trampling anyone and everyone that comes in their way”.

But men can push and shove their way around to swat women out the way in order to perform the same rituals.

But this is not hajj. This is Saudi.

Haji Mohamed Dawjee is a commentator on gender equality, sexuality, culture, race relations and feminism as well as ethics in the South African media environment.

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