Thursday, Sep 20, 2018
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S. Amjad Hussain

Debate surrounds change in Islam’s holiest rituals

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    Muslim worshippers circumambulate around the Kaaba, Islam's holiest shrine, at the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia's holy city of Mecca.

    GETTY IMAGES/AHMAD AL-RUBAYE

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    Dr. S. Amjad Hussain.

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BTN-Amjad-15

Dr. S. Amjad Hussain.

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Recently, Muslims all over the world celebrated the second of their annual religious holidays. Called Eid ul-Adha, the holiday commemorates an incident in history when, according to the Old Testament and the Quran, the prophet Abraham, as commanded by God, takes his son to sacrifice him. The Bible mentions the son as Isaac, but the Quran does not identify the boy. According to Muslim traditions, it was Abraham’s son from Hagar who was the subject of sacrifice.

To celebrate the day, those among the 2.5 billion Muslims around the world who can afford it offer an animal in sacrifice. Though this is not a Quranic injunction, it is a millennia-old tradition that has roots in secondary religious literature.

Read the previous column by S. Amjad Hussain

The day of sacrifice coincides with the annual pilgrimage to Mecca where, after the completion of the ancient rites, the pilgrims offer to slaughter the sacrificial animals. The meat is divided three ways; one portion for the family, one for friends, and the third for the poor and the needy.

Muslim pilgrimage is one of the five pillars of Islam. The others are a declaration of faith, five daily prayers, fasting from dawn to dusk during the month of Ramadan, and giving away two-and-a-half percent of one’s savings to charity. Muslims must complete at least one pilgrimage, or Hajj, though it is only an obligation for those who are physically and financially able .

This year, more than 2 million Muslims converged on Mecca to perform the pilgrimage. The number of animals sacrificed during the Hajj is also in the millions, and perhaps in the billions worldwide.

Some scholars have raised questions about the relevance of this ancient custom. Couldn’t the money spent on buying animals be spent to help the needy in a community? Chronic hunger around the world aside, sharing the meat accrued during these sacrifices may satisfy hunger temporarily, but it wouldnt not alleviate chronic hunger.

There are passionate arguments on both sides. Those who want to continue the tradition point to Islamic prophetic traditions and uninterrupted customs for the past 1,400 years.

Saudis, as custodians of Islamic holy places, have spent billions of dollars to make the Hajj safer. The simulatenous convergance of more than two million people for one week would put strains on any city and create a logistical nightmare. But things have been improving in the past 50 years. Pedestrian traffic-control, improved sanitation, and availability of potable water are among the essential improvements. So, too, is the availability of emergency medical services. In recent years, there have not been any epidemics of communicable diseases.

Performing the Hajj is not as taxing physically now as it used to be in the past. Air-conditioned luxury hotels and comfortable motor couches are now commonplace, though they are often beyond the reach of common pilgrims. But regardless of luxury, it is physically hard to perform the various rituals spread over five days.

For 1,400 years, the faithful have come in droves. They used to come simply by walking, riding animals, or sailing in via steamers and boats. Now most of them travel by jet airliners. It was once commonplace for people to take months to make the arduous journey from far corners of the world for the week-long ritual, only to spend the same amount of time to get back home.

People save money all their lives to be able to make the journey. In 1982, I ran across a dirt farmer from the tribal hinterland of northwest Pakistan who had saved most of his life to able to fulfill the obligation. In his 80s with a flowing grey beard, he was serene, satisfied, and thankful beyond expression that he had finally fulfilled his life-long dream. There were, I am sure, a million others with the same story. I was envious.

As recently as 50 years ago, Mecca was a small city. Now it is a large city with high-rise apartments, luxury hotels, and widened roads. The Saudis have a total disregard for history and, thus, they feel at ease bulldozing old neighborhoods and structures, putting in their place ostentatious buildings that have marred the simple landscape of the city. The 76-story Makkah Royal Clock Tower building, one of the tallest structures in the world and home to the luxurious Fairmont Hotel, is one such example. Add to that the fast food outlets, Starbucks, and luxury stores, and soon Mecca will be just another Las Vegas.

The Clock Tower monstrosity is a stone’s throw from the Kaaba, the holiest of Islamic shrines, which is located in the courtyard of the Grand Mosque. Saudis, the custodians of the holy places of Islam, seem to find spirituality in gaudy and grotesque architecture whereas ordinary pilgrims find it in the ancient relics and the ancient rites.

S. Amjad Hussain is an emeritus professor of surgery and humanities at the University of Toledo. His column appears every other week in The Blade. Contact him at: aghaji@bex.net.

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