Sunday, December 18, 2011

MUSLIM CONSULTATIVE FORRUM’S ASHURA IFTAAR




Monday 5th December, 2011 was 10th of Muharram, 1433, and day in which the Muslim Consultative Forum (MCF) hosted Iftaar of the Ashuraa fast and discussion at the main hall of the Abuja National Mosque Conference Hall.

The Executive Secretary of the National Mosque, Alhaji Abubakar Ibrahim Jega, stood in for the chairman of the discussion session, General A B Mamman (rtd). In his remarks as chairman, the E.S welcomed everybody to the Iftaar and congratulated the organisers for having the reward of all participants. Quoting copiously, in flawless Arabic and translating into English, from the hadeeth and the Glorious Qur’an, that ‘whoever feeds a fasting Muslim, will have his reward and the reward of that person without diminishing anything of the recompense of the Muslim he feeds (hadeeth).’ He drew our attention to the importance of the subject of that evening’s discourse, “The Prospects of Islamic Banking in Nigeria & Developing An Economic Empowerment Scheme For The Ummah”, the benefit of which cuts across ethnicity and creed. Whatever we do, the chairman contends, Allah is aware of it and shall reward us accordingly; ‘…and whatever good you send forth for your souls you shall find it in Allah's Presence, - yes, better and greater, in Reward… (Al-Muzzammil 73: 20)’. The chairman concluded his short remarks by urging participants to do their part in disseminating the message of economic empowerment, in as much as Allah has adjured us toHelp one another in righteousness and piety…not to help one another in sin and rancour… (Al-Maa’idah 5: 3)”. Therefore we should see our involvement in helping raise the lot of others economically as sadaqah jaariyah the reward of which continues to accrue to one’s scale of deeds even after their death (hadeeth).

One will not be faulted in viewing the chairman’s remarks, (which he delivered offhandedly and without looking at any notes), as a succinct keynote address of some sort as it encompassed the prime points of the two papers presented afterwards - the one on The Prospects of Islamic Banking In Nigeria, and the other on Developing An Economic Empowerment Scheme For The Ummah.

The gist of the first paper by Dr Bashir Aliyu, Special Adviser to the CBN Governor on Islamic Banking, could be something like: May Allah reward the sponsors of this Ashuraa Iftaar for their resoluteness in reviving this sunnah.  Reward in ibaadah comes in the same proportion to what you expect from Allah for it, and the extent of your resoluteness in it. Today’s Iftaar reminds of what we did, in the early 1980s, as a small band of Muslim youth, of observing I’tikaaf during Ramadan at a time when it was virtually unpractised. At the end of the I’tikaaf we paid a visit to one of the Muslim scholars in Kano who received us well and said: ‘Expect an immense recompense from Allah for starting this practice; you will receive the reward of those who will emulate what you’ve started………….’

We are indeed a favoured Ummah; we begin each year with Ashuraa, and we end the year with Arafah – two events at the end of which our sins are blotted out.

Ribaa (interest) is proscribed by Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Muslims have been more steadfast in their abhorrence against ribaa than the other two. Secular, irreligious and so-called advanced countries have allowed, nay encouraged the enactment of Islamic banks, a financial system devoid of interest. Therefore, the Muslim Ummah in Nigeria has every right to demand for it.

There is legal basis for the establishment of Islamic banks in Nigeria in as much as the Banks and other Financial Institutions Act of 1991 as amended has stated that no bank should be registered with Christian, Muslim or regional appellation without the written consent of the CBN governor. The condition to be met here is the written assent of the CBN governor. And yes, we have banks in this country named after regions and communities in the past. As against what many people divined, the issue of Islamic banking in Nigeria was not something that the current CBN Governor smuggled into the system; the daft for the promulgation of Islamic banking was released in March 2009, months before his appointment as head of the apex bank.

Islamic banking has come to stay. Even by CIA’s records Muslims form 50% of Nigeria’s 160 million populations; we are speaking of more than 80 million people, most of whom have been repelled by ribaa from dealing with conventional banks.

Non-Muslims also benefit from Islamic banking. Gulf Africa Bank of Kenya, for instance, has 20% non-Muslim clients; while OCBC Al Amin Bank of Malaysia has 50% non-Muslim depositors! Actually, what people need is an honest and reliable system where they can deposit money, and access funds for business without the strings of interest. It is heartening to note that Christian bodies are inviting experts of Islamic banking to educate their flock on the modus operandi of the system.

The Ummah should not allow this effort to fail; we must change our attitude. Look at the kind of money Muslims spend each year to perform Umrah and Hajj. The least of what you will pay for an Umrah package is N250, 000. How much do you think we can save were the Muslims to decide not to go to Umrah for only one year and put the funds in an Islamic bank for example?

Now we have choice for halal over haraam; it is either now, or we may wait for a very long time before we get another chance, if at all.

Let me conclude with this: I have been inundated by calls and text-messages over a fatwa on the internet concerning the sighting of Muharram crescent; that today, Monday 5th December, 2011 is the 9th and not the 10th of Muharram 1433. I saw the said fatwa. Many people, on account of this, did not fast yesterday. They fast today and will also fast tomorrow.

The principle is that every region is bound by its own sighting. The scholars in Saudi Arabia are not compelling visitors to the site to work according to the Saudi sighting of the crescent. Our problem is that we generalise what should be confined, and confine what should be generalised. As far as our sighting in Nigeria is concerned, today is 10th Muharram 1433.

On the Ashuraa fast Ibn Al Qayyim is of the opinion, based on the hadeeth that says: ‘fast a day before, and a day after…’, that one can fast on the 9th, 10th and 11th of Muharram. Therefore, the thread in the variations of how we observed the fast is very thin indeed. What is interesting is that all of us have fasted today; those who observed yesterday in the fast and those who will fast tomorrow are all within the mark given Ibn Al Qayyim’s position above.



The second topic, Developing An Economic Empowerment Scheme For The Ummah, was handled by Dr Abubakar Al-Hassan of Bayero University (BUK), Kano. His presentation elicited discussion on what the Ummah does, rather than just say, to economically empower itself and be able to intervene in programmes like Education, Health, Capacity Building, Rehabilitation and other related programmes of the community. Of course well done is by far better than well said! He spoke about how the Ummah could raise a lot of money by donating a trifle out of their earnings. This is not a mere idea; the lecturer has a practical experience in the BUK mosque which is maintained by extracting pittance out of the wages of the Muslim workforce in the university. For years since the commencement of this experiment, worshippers in the mosque are not importuned for sadaqah after every salaah for the upkeep of the masjid.

Given the number of people standing trial for stealing, (I beg your pardon), embezzling from 70 to 200 billion of our commonwealth, why should we be considered poor? We are not.

The Muslim Consultative Forum’s Ashuraa Iftaar concluded, therefore, that if 1 million Muslims would contribute N1, 000 (one thousand naira) monthly, the Ummah can boast of N12 billion in a year. With this kind of money there is no goal or project that will be beyond the reach of the Muslim community; and yes, we can! Millions of Muslims can afford to give N1, 000 every month – nickels and dimes if you consider what we spend daily on phone recharge cards.

Let me digress. Since I came to Abuja, I’ve not been a member of any Muslim organisation. As a scholar I’ve always been at the disposal of all Muslim associations in Nigeria vis-à-vis paper presentation and participation in programmes. I envy, in a good and Islamic way, the commitment to da’wah and the honesty of members of Islamic bodies. Muslim Consultative Forum (MCF) is the only body that I am a proud member of but it is not an organisation in the sense in which I alluded to above; rather it is a forum for all members of Islamic organisations to come together and share ideas and experiences on what has worked for them in their activities, and proffer solutions to changes confronting the Ummah. We can belong to any Muslim body we desire, but MCF is where we converge, bring our organisational strength and pool resources for the benefit of Islam and its own!

In this regard, MCF has started sending e-mails to brothers and sisters requesting them to express interest in contributing to this empowerment scheme. An Expression of Interest Form is attached to the mail where the addressees are to fill in their contact details and how they intend to disburse the voluntary contribution of N1, 000 only. The fund will be made into a WAQF (endowment) by and for the Ummah.

I am part and parcel of this initiative; I am also a contributor to the fund because I firmly believe that it will work. If you have not received our mail and you want to be part of this history kindly send me an e-mail (deedat@gmail.com), or to Umoru Jafaru (aigbejab@gmail.com) at the National Mosque, Abuja; we will in reply send you the Expression of Interest Form and other details.

There is practically no limit to what the human mind can achieve once it is set to it. I have heard of whole mosques built from a percentage of the monthly salaries of the Muslim staff in a university. I know of a project in Lugbe by the Movement for Islamic Culture and Awareness (MICA), Abuja. This project has seen them pooling funds with which they acquired land and have built the first phase of an ambitious and state of the art Islamic centre which shall be available to all Muslims. A large percentage of the more than 10 million naira raised and expended so far came from voluntary donations from the members and well-wishers.

A smart fellow once remarked that Muslims in Nigeria are individually rich but collectively poor. How true those words ring! Some of the richest men in Africa and the whole world are Muslims from Nigeria. So, what exactly is wrong with us? How does a fish thirst in the midst of water? For me, I think it is a matter of orientation. The average Muslim thinks of giving that crisp 50 naira to the mosque management fund and 10 naira to the hapless beggar some of whom have made begging a form of art. We hardly think of sustainability and long term development and growth. It is time we did; if we don't we have only ourselves to blame.




Thursday, December 1, 2011

AMEERUL MU’MINEEN



The second Caliph, Umar Ibn Al Khattaab, may Allah be pleased with him, once set out for Sham, whose people went out to receive him. They met a man riding a camel, sitting on a covering of coarse wool, hanging his feet through the two sides of the saddle, without a stirrup. They approached him and asked him: “Where is the Ameerul Mu’mineen, Commander of the Believers? Did you meet his procession on the way?” He answered them with a smile: “The Ameerul Mu’mineen is in front of you.”

They proceeded in search for him, but later they learnt that the Ameerul Mu’mineen had arrived in Ailah, where he alighted. They returned hurriedly and entered upon the Ameerul Mu’mineen, who was sitting with the people. But, they were nearly shocked by surprise, for the Ameerul Mu’mineen was no more than the same man who had been riding the camel, whom they met earlier and asked about the Ameerul Mu’mineen and he said to them that “The Ameerul Mu’mineen is in front of you.”

Reminiscent of the above narrative, our own Ameerul Mu’mineen, His Eminence, Sultan Sa’ad Abubakar III, was touring the tents at Minaa during 2010 hajj (as he did during 2011 hajj also), saying salaam to pilgrims and asking after their welfare. He came into our group’s tents (I was not there, unfortunately, but our media consultants have preserved what happened on video), greeted the hajjis who responded to him as you would respond to anybody who extends salaam to you. In the spirit of hajj, His Eminence was moving with just about two people; no retinue; he was simply dressed in two pairs of ihraam, not in royal tunic and without turban. Until he finished the session and left, nobody recognised His Eminence but a pilgrim military-comrade who said to his fellow hajjis: “It appears you did not know that the person who just left is (Ameerul Mu’mineen), His Eminence, Sultan Sa’ad Abubakar…”

                                                            His Eminence, Sultan Sa'ad Abubakar III

Instinctively, they all stood up, searched for and located the tent of His Eminence and paid homage. They expressed compunction for not recognising him when he came to them when, actually, they should be the ones to come and show their respect. “There is no blame on you;” Declared His Eminence, “I was just performing my duty. The essence of hajj, as you all know, is for us to view ourselves as equal as the teeth of a comb; we are all pilgrims. May Allah accept our hajj.”

Before the group dispersed, somebody suggested a brief personal introduction of members; His Eminence assented. The spiritual leader of our group, when it was his turn, said: ‘I am Sa’id Ishaq, Ameerul Hajj of Comerel….’

His Eminence interjected jokingly and said: “Ameerul Hajj? No, call yourself ‘leader of Comerel delegation’. There is only one Ameerul Hajj!”

Everybody laughed and left the presence of His Eminence well-pleased.

As the permanent Ameerul Hajj of the Nigerian hajj contingent, His Eminence does not content himself with receiving field reports from hajj inspection teams, or engage in ceaseless series of meetings far removed from the realities on ground; he desires physical assessment, to see things for himself and take appropriate action.

His Eminence has now introduced and inaugurated, unprecedented in the history of Islam in Nigeria, a 30 man National Council of Ulema on hajj activities and other matters affecting the Ummah. This council is not like anything we knew in the past about select-few committees that accompany the ameerul hajj or be part of the Federal Government delegation to hajj. His Eminence’s council is indeed unique; it is as if His Eminence got a special inspiration from Allah on this council; nothing of this nature has ever been seen in this country that is aimed at uniting the Muslim Ummah in Nigeria. Every group is represented: Tijjaniyyah, Kadiriyyah, Izala (Jos and that of Kaduna), Ansarudeen, Anwarudeen, Nawarudeen and Nasfat among others. No region or ethnic group was neglected; Muslim scholars, big Sheikhs and small Ustaz, the aged and the young, from the North, South and East were fully represented. No more cries of marginalization on Islamic activities from any Muslim group in this country.

Members of this council have now strengthened their bond as brethren in Faith. Their coming together under His Eminence’s council has wiped away any rancour lurking in their hearts and made them cast away hair-splitting argumentations that had stirred up unnecessary disunity among the Ummah. Now matters among these scholars are decided by consensus; fatwa on hajj and any other issues are based on agreed upon juristic authorities, researched and authenticated by all of them before it is given out as the position of the National Council of Ulama.

His Eminence should be supported by all in his peace and reconciliation initiative among the Muslims in Nigeria. Thanks to His Eminence’s council, I now see myself, not as a member of Izala, Darika or any group, but as a Muslim in Nigeria, a brother to all Muslims irrespective of their understanding or whatever emblem they attach to their original identity as Muslims.

If His Eminence smiles; that is a natural disposition of a persona full of tenderness for the mu’mineen Allah has placed under his care. If he laughs; that comes from a genuine feeling from a heart overflowing with love for all peoples – Christians and Muslims. I once tarried in the presence of His Eminence for about two hours; different classes of people coming and going - from royalties, ambassadors from foreign lands to everyday people, paying homage to the Ameerul Mu’mineen. He was jovial, full of life and cheerful. His mobile phone rang; he picked: “Hello” he said answering the call.  Suddenly he became more cheerful. We could not overhear the responses from the other side, but His Eminence kept responding to whoever called with jocundity the like of which I have not seen in him either during my long sojourn during that or earlier visits: “Well, I’m out of Sokoto, but you are there at the right time; just wait for me to come and give you the kalimah….” At this point His Eminence laughed heartily, and then ended by saying: “I’m sure you are posted to Sokoto so you can tread the right path…; as soon as I return, you shall pronounce the shahaadah…” This he said amidst more laughter and even blitheness. Everybody there was anxious to know who could excite such vivaciousness in His Eminence; and with whom could he converse so freely over the telephone. “That was Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah of Sokoto Diocese.” His Eminence announced to us.

This is the sublime example of interfaith harmony! Religious leaders, our Ameerul Mu’mineen has shown, are to set the tone, by words and deeds, for peaceful co-existence that followers might emulate. With the likes of the above telephone communication there will be no room for apprehension; no issue will be difficult to discuss, and solution could be proffered on how best to blight the embers of religious hatred.

On Sunday 4th December and the following day, Monday 5th December, the Muslims of this planet will observe the taasuu’aa and ‘aashuuraa voluntary fasts. Both days are two of the best days on earth. We are expected to shun any form of fighting or violence in the month of Muharram in which they fall. When we fast, please remember to supplicate to Allah for our various needs and our collective needs as Muslims and as a nation; remember to ask Allah to guide our Ameerul Mu’mineen, the Sultan, and to protect him.

There are only two celebrations in Islam, the Feast of Slaughter, Eidul Adhaa, and the Feast of Breaking the Fast, Eidul Fitr. I have noted with some trepidation that there are plans to celebrate the Sultan’s fifth year in office. I think the National Council of Ulema I mentioned earlier should take note of this and educate us all on the subject of anniversaries and celebrations in Islam generally. I have written this piece not as a congratulatory message on His Eminence’s fifth anniversary as Sultan; that would be acting against my beliefs and convictions, but as a way of expressing what I have always felt about the leadership style of our Ameerul Mu’mineen. Allah gives wisdom to whom He wills; the best of those who lead are those who earn your loyalty and respect not those who demand them. Indeed, Margaret Thatcher of Great Britain was spot on when she said “Being in power is like being a lady, if you have to tell people you are, you are not”.


Saturday, November 26, 2011

THE SAUDI POLICE






This article should interest Nigerians in general, and officers and men of the Nigeria Police Force in particular, as there are lessons, I suppose, for all of us to ponder over. Police is police anywhere in the world, including Saudi Arabia; corruption, blackmail, false imprisonment, use of pepper spray on protesters, extra judicial killings and torture, among others, are evils associated with police the world over - only that I saw another side of the coin with the Saudi Police. They can be all of the above and even more but they are a hardworking force, physically fit and committed to their duty. We are not happy when they divert the traffic in Arafaat, Minaa or Makkah but we hardly appreciate what would have happened if they were not on their posts.

The police in Saudi Arabia command everybody’s respect. Call it a police state if you like; that is not the subject of this piece. Nobody is above the law here, unless, may be, you are a member of the royal family. At check-points, (there are countless here; only the occupied territories of Palestine can rival Saudi Arabia in check-points); you must slow down signifying your reverence to the police manning the posts. Many motorists here don’t use seat belts unless they approach the nuqtat taf teesh (police check-point). Officers at such points can stop any vehicle, not minding whosoever is behind the wheel, for extra checks which may be confined to asking the driver his particulars, or the papers of the passengers he carries; it may be extended to searching the whole vehicle in the event of suspicion or a road marshal’s forwarding of the plate number of that car for exceeding speed limit. These papers are called ithbaat, covering passports and iqaamah, residence permit. At such stop-and-search points you cannot answer your phone; doing so is a sign of disrespect to the honoured force and sanctions in form of tickets may follow. It is like the clock stops at check-points; no phone calls, no smoking; everybody is quiet and listens attentively. You must show utmost reverence to the officer and respond to questions with respect – a sharp contrast with the way we relate with police in Nigeria where, oftentimes, the officer has to wait for the ‘big man’ to finish an endless phone conversation before he attends to him.

There was a time that I reserved and paid for a room in a three star, Marhaba (not real name) hotel, Makkah for a period after Ramadan. I was not yet a travel agent then. I and my wife travelled for Umrah with Sudan Airways; our return date was open, no confirmed booking out of Jeddah. When we visited the Sudan Airways Makkah office we were able to find seats on a date three weeks after Eid. So, obviously, there was a need for another reservation for our extended stay. As there was no availability of rooms in the hotel we were staying during that period, which was more convenient and nearer to the Haram, we had to seek for accommodation elsewhere, hence the new reservation in the hotel under discussion. But few days to Eid there was an opening; the reservation office said we could extend our stay, and we confirmed. Of course staying here will save us the trouble of packing, checking out of this, and checking in to the Marhaba hotel, and all the attendant inconveniences of moving out luggage in the crowded streets of Makkah. I called the manager of Marhaba hotel to cancel my reservation which is a standard practice, for which the hotel may charge cancellation fees of a minimal amount and refund my balance. But the manager insisted on keeping the room for me, that cancellation was not possible and that I was not entitled to any refund. My visit to his office to iron things out made him only to be more obstinate.

I reported the case to the Haram Division of the Saudi Police. I and my wife were conveyed by two officers in a police van to the Marhaba hotel. The front office staff told the police that the manager was out of the hotel. One of the officers said the manager must appear in two minutes otherwise the entire building would be sealed up. And there appeared the manager; that he was answering the call of nature and the front office assumed he was out of the hotel.

The supreme police council of two conducted the proceedings in this way without invitation to the station or writing of statement and what not:

‘Have these pilgrims called to cancel their reservation with your hotel?’

‘(Na’am sayyidy; yarhamullaahu waalidaik) Yes sir; may Allah bless your parents.’ Answered the manager with trembling hands; his eyes became dim, and, as if, his heart gaped up to his throat.

‘Why did you refuse to refund their money when they gave you ample notice of the cancellation of their booking?

‘May you live long! I was only jesting, and they did not wait to get the import of my words. Ah, the full money is here… yes…, and shall be refunded right away.’

One of the officers told me to give him the receipt. I did. He handed it over to the manager and instructed him to give me the value with immediate effect. And so it was that the money was refunded in full, even the cancellation fee was waived by the manager. I was so relieved that, in the Nigerian mentality, I purposed, once we were alone in the van again, to offer the entire money to the officers as a token of my appreciation, but as soon as all was settled, they told us to find our way back to the Haram. They denied us another ride in their van, as if they knew what I wanted to do. How does this compare with Nigeria?

A Nigerian-Saudi resident friend of mine told me what happened to him and his family during Eid celebrations some time ago. It was Eid; he wanted to give his wife and six children a feel of another part of Saudi Arabia, so he travelled with them to the shore of Dammam or Abha, I cannot remember where exactly. In this part of the world, Eid is mostly celebrated by sea side with families having their lunch and even dinner sitting down on the grass or carpets. The meals are homemade, and only brought there to be served when needed. Grownups would play myriad games, swim and stroll along the shore, while children would build sand-castles and fly kites; everybody will enjoy themselves.

My friend and his family after travelling for about three hours to their destination and spending an Eid day full of activity on the shore became tired and exhausted. They slept off on their carpets on the sea side. They were the only family left. The whole sea side was empty but for their presence. They woke up around 3 am to find a deserted shore; only the blue and red flickering of a police van could they spot from a comfortable distance. The police came patrolling the shore and they saw the sleeping family. They did not disturb their sleep or go away, instead the police kept guard from a far waiting for them to wake up. When they did wake up the police van started approaching slowly. The officers asked them for their papers (residence permit, etc.). As their identity was established; they were not illegal immigrants or visa over stayers, the officers urged them to leave; they escorted them to about 60 kilometres of their trip just to further ensure their safety.

I leave you to imagine what would have happened to this family if the above scene were the Lagos Bar Beach.

Apart from the annual wash the Hindus of India do in the Ganges River, i know of no other annual event that brings about 5 million worshippers to the same mosque and other venues at once for two or more weeks. You can only begin to imagine the sheer logistics of crowd control. The Saudi Police and Army do a joint duty of ensuring the safety of the pilgrims- the army to a lesser degree. Bear in mind that they do not bear arms of any kind, not even 'koboko', and that they are trained not to hit you or rough handle you. All the weapon they use is words adjuring all to be patient and gestures to the same effect! Each time one sees them at work, you marvel at the supreme discipline required to guide millions of people, quite a number of whom seem to actually relish breaking the law, without recourse to shouting or 'koboko'.

I saw Saudi Police motorcycles and they seemed much larger than the ones in Nigeria; at closer look, I discovered they were each equipped with life-saving equipment. They had fire extinguishers and oxygen tanks.

Another remarkable thing about the Saudi Police was that one never saw any looking flabby or unfit; they also looked very neat. Of course you know what image comes to your mind when you think of Nigeria Police. We can borrow a leaf or two from these Arabs; we will congratulate ourselves if we do.


Tuesday, October 25, 2011

HAJJ PACKAGE OPTIONS


                                                      Emirates Airline


Your private hajj company should be able to present a number of package options to you for your hajj trip. It smacks of inexperience and disorganisation to explain hajj packages verbally without any written document or a brochure. Gone are the days when poor hajj arrangements hide under euphemistic expressions as: ‘early departure and return to Nigeria on a reliable airline, with accommodation in Makkah and Madinah very close to the Haram.’ How early, how reliable and how close…? For early departures and return, pray, tell the exact date, and name the so called reliable airline. If indeed your accommodation in close to Haram the hotel should be not anonymous; mention the hotel!

Pilgrims are fed-up with our mendaciousness in presenting the hajj package; they are asking the right questions. Our hajj packages should be plain on our various brochures so that the pilgrim will not be in doubt as to what he paid for and what type of services to expect. The hajj brochure is our product manual, a user guide on what the hajj programme entails; we should be conscious of Allah in its contents and what we promise the pilgrims in it. Yes, even in the best of arrangements there a moments when things may not go as planned; in such circumstances we should be able to bring our experience to bear by proffering workable solutions to unforeseen problems. Like what happened to me recently aboard the best airline in the business, the Emirates Airline; (forget about as that ‘bad’ airline with daily flights in and out of Lagos, which prides itself ‘the world’s five star airline’ but which its mother country, Qatar hates Nigerians so much, bars them from entering Doha, the capital, that even first and business class passengers are to remain in lounges at the airport for 16 or more hours to board their connecting flights …). So, Emirates is undoubtedly the best, but this is what happened to me on board the best airline in the world:

I left my hotel in Dubai (which is not Doha; Nigerians are welcome here) and boarded my connecting flight EK803 to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Shortly before take-off (that never was) a slight problem was detected: water was not running in the lavatories. At least that was what we, laymen, could see as something unusual with Emirates flights. The pilot informed us later that there was a  technical fault with the aircraft and that the engineers were doing their best to fix it. He assured us that we shall be airborne in few minutes. After about 30 more minutes the pilot was back with the information that the engineers have decided on replacing a part the spare of which will be brought from a warehouse metres away from the runway. The pilot was consistent in keeping us posted at regular intervals on what was being done about the delay. Nobody was asking any questions. Everybody was aware of what was causing the delay. We were all worried but informed on the various happenings towards solving the problem.

What initially looked like a few minutes’ delay protracted into hours. In fact lunch was served while our aircraft was still in its complete standstill position. Few minutes after we finished our lunch, that was about six and a half hours into our ordeal, there was a final announcement from the cockpit: ‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ the pilot said, ‘I am afraid we can no longer use this aircraft to Jeddah. Another aircraft is ready for this service. Kindly take all your belongings and return to the boarding gate……………….’

For the first time in my life I boarded a flight, stayed for about seven hours in it, in the same position without movement; I would have reached my destination in 2 and a half hours. What was more painful, we had to pass through screening again, waiting for another 40 minutes for the other flight for be made ready for boarding and then boarding a second time. You don’t need to ask me how I felt during that period of uncertainty with the best airline in the world. I was grieved and sad.

Two days later I received this mail from Emirates (which I will reproduce in its entirety for its brevity and relevance to the point I’m trying to make) signed by no less a personage than Bruce Forbes, Vice President Customer Affairs:

Without Prejudice or Admission of Liability

Dear Mr Muhammad,

Emirates wishes to apologise for the unfortunate delay encountered on flight EK803 from Dubai to Jeddah, on 25 September. As you are aware the aircraft scheduled to operate this flight experienced technical difficulties. Although every effort is made to achieve on-time departures, which is an integral part of our product, there are occasions when flights are delayed/cancelled due to unforeseen circumstances. The safety and security of our customers and staff is of paramount importance to Emirates, and we are sure you will concur with this position.

Emirates appreciates that your travel has been prolonged, and we can assure you that every effort was made to ensure that your travel plans returned to normal as soon as possible.

Whilst we cannot change what has occurred, we would welcome the opportunity to restore your faith in Emirates. As a Business class passenger/Silver Skywards member, we have credited your Skywards account with 30,000 complimentary miles, as a gesture of goodwill.

Once again, please accept Emirates sincere apologies for the disruption to your travel arrangements. Let me assure you personally that this is an isolated event and we will do our utmost to restore your confidence in Emirates as your airline of choice.

                                       The Business Class Cabin

As I a service provider I learnt a lot from the above delay by Emirates, and the subsequent correspondence from its Vice President Customer Affairs. Even with the best of arrangements unforeseen problems may occur; what is expected of me, Without Prejudice or Admission of Liability, is constant update on what is being done to rectify the problem; to apologise, recognise the hitch and provide a suitable alternative followed, where applicable, by ‘a gesture of goodwill’ (like, in my case, the grant of 30, 000 complimentary mile to my Skywards account) for the purposes of restoring the confidence of my clients.

Just imagine what would have happened if you were on EK803 going for hajj, and you had a Saudi Arabian Airlines ticket to connect to from Jeddah to Madinah. As I wrote here a fortnight ago, you need about 10 hours between the time you will land in Jeddah and that of you flight to Madinah in order to avert missing your flight and losing the fair of a non-refundable ticket. This is just one out of many likely occurrences in hajj.





To explain situations like the one I related above hajj packages should include an induction course for intending hajjis. I’ve mentioned on this page in the past that hajj induction does not only denote teaching hajj rites to intending pilgrims. I concede that it involves couching them on how to perform hajj – many of them actually need it, but hajj induction course, also, is a period where the organised private hajj operator will interact with his pilgrims from Nigeria, explain the package and pass vital information on what the entire hajj programme is vis-à-vis the movement of the group in the Holy Land. Each member will be in the picture, be prepared to adapt to unforeseen hitches – to know beforehand how smooth or rough a certain segment of the exercise may be.  We need such forum as will afford us the chance of meeting members of the group even before we start the hajj journey.

Moreover, the hajj induction course is a Q and A session between the hajjis and the operation wing of the private hajj company. If all of us will introduce the hajj induction course in our packages we would nip a lot of problems into bud. Information dissemination is the key to avoiding suspense which breads suspicion and ill-feelings between the private hajj company and its clients. Once people don’t know and are not informed, they begin to assume.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

HAJJ IS NO PICNIC


Abu Hurairah narrated that The Prophet, peace and blessings of Allah be upon said, “Travelling is a kind of torture as it prevents one from eating, drinking and sleeping properly. So, when one’s needs are fulfilled, one should return quickly to one’s family.” (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 3, Hadeeth 031)

The above hadeeth was mentioned on this page last week when I wrote on THOSE WHO CAN AFFORD THE JOURNEY. Yes, any journey, including that of hajj, is a kind of torture. There are two groups of people both missing the import contained in this hadeeth: on the one hand are those who think that any form of comfort in hajj is haraam; that the more hardship you encounter during the performance of pilgrimage the more reward you get; and on the other, those who would be averse to the slightest of discomfort in hajj because they cannot compromise comfort. Both groups are wrong!

Allah has not placed for us in religion any difficulty (Al-Hajj 22:78); He desires ease and not hardship for us in everything of service that we perform for His sake (Al-Baqarah 2:185). They have misunderstood religion those who think that one will get more reward by undergoing avoidable hardship and exertion in the performance of hajj. Such people see no point in pilgrims staying in decent accommodation in Minaa, Arafaat or Muzdalifah – what! Mattresses and pillows in Minaa…? Subhaanallah! To these people, this must be a blameworthy innovation (bid’ah). What an astounding thing…; they frown at hajjis that move in air-conditioned buses. I wonder why such people do not travel to hajj by road; and you would find some of them travelling on business class tickets; I’m going for ibaadah, he will say, so I can stay anywhere; I don’t want good accommodation or anything near Haram. But why not travel on economy, or better still by road if inconvenience is your understanding of ibaadah? The ideal for more reward in their confused psyche is for one to stay in tents within the Holy Territories devoid of carpeting and proper hygiene, and for one to trek from Minaa to Arafaat, from Arafaat to Muzdalifah, and from Muzdalifah to Makkah. This misguided opinion has led to the slumping in the Holy Mosque or even death of many who after finishing this medal less marathon on the 10th day of zulhijjah would attempt to perform tawaaf al-Ifaadah with a million other hajjis.

We can perform hajj in comfort and ease if we can afford it bearing in mind that hajj is no picnic. You can have all the money to pay for the most expensive packages but do not assume that will be like cruising your way to holiday in a private yacht. Alhamdulillah, some hajj tour companies in Nigeria can compete with any in the world in providing quality services to pilgrims but you find hajjis saying when stuck in holdup for hours around Makkah for instance, ‘What is all this wait in traffic? People recommended your company to us, that you are the best, that if we don’t want to suffer, we should join your group.’  No, undertaking the journey to hajj denotes preparing to take part in religious ceremonies with more than 3 million other hajjis, moving towards the same destination at almost the same time. There is no such event in the world. Hajj is indeed unique!

Madinatul Hujjaaj (City of the Pilgrims) is the Hajj Terminal and your first arrival point during your journey to hajj, except where you are lucky to have a direct flight to Madinah. Madinatul Hujjaaj is like a grave, a prison of some sorts or an apt micro-depiction of the Day of Judgement. The mere mention of this place sends shudders into the veins of those who have been there. Of the four or so terminals of the Jeddah airports, this is farthest from Makkah. It is too vast and at the same time too rowdy during the peak periods of hajj arrivals and departures. Hardly will anybody notice or care about your problems; everybody is preoccupied with how to sort themselves out of this desolate, harsh and unfriendly environment. Many are trapped here for days when they arrive and or when they are brought a second time after observing their hajj rites waiting for their flights back home. Prices of everything here are quadrupled if you are lucky to get what you are looking for.

As soon as you come into the arrivals hall you are greeted by indifference from airport officials that have attended to millions of pilgrims on that day’s shift. You will be left there for hours on end unattended. You cannot protest or complain to anyone even where you can speak the lingua franca. Here nobody cares who you are in your country or what type of package you paid for; it is a shocking status leveller for the most arrogant. You are just a pilgrim like other millions from around the world. Here, poverty stricken officials who can be bribed with a trifle will not be found like we have at home; you just have to swallow your pride –provided you don’t choke on it.

In this arrivals hall you will be administered fresh immunisation injections like the one intending pilgrims have and be given certain tablets that you must swallow in the presence of the officials; medics here do not believe in what is contained on our ‘yellow cards’ as if they knew that you can buy one, with genuine department of health’s seal of approval, even at the point of boarding your flight for only five hundred naira, write your name and passport number on it and you are free to travel; your immunisation is complete!

The queue at the Immigration counter is endless. It is like the siraat over which all must pass on the Last Day. VIPs are no VIPs here until they have their passports stamped, and move out of the arrivals hall where they may be received by protocol staff from the Nigerian Embassy or Consulate, or their hajj tour operator. Do not think that your wait has ended. It has just begun! You still have 2 to 4 hours more of waiting if your destination is to Makkah depending on what options are at your disposal for an exit strategy. If you choose to go out with your passport illegally and you happen to arrive in the morning, you have to wait until night when evil things are easier to commit. For a price you are smuggled out of this dungeon in jeeps with tinted classes. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself lying down motionless in the roomy luggage compartment with a former this and a former that from Nigeria. If you succeed, you are free, and with your passport in hand you can go to Makkah on your own arrangement or travel to Madinah at your convenience; if you are caught, the car, its driver and illegal cargo are consigned to sijin (prison); your hajj would not be possible that year; you may watch the hajj live on television screen with other inmates. Thus, a few hours wait has transmuted to months or years on end.

This piece is not on the implication, to states pilgrim authorities or private hajj operators, of the above scenario of people absconding with their passports out of the Hajj Terminal. I will address that in another article. But why will otherwise honourable people subject themselves to the humiliation of lying under the seat of vehicles to be smuggled out of the airport? Going out through the legal means is torturous and inhumane. The buses are old, most of them; if you see new models they are hardly assigned to any Nigerian pilgrims. Hajjis are made to form queues; passports are sorted out and once you are on board for a 3 or so hour drive to Makkah (such pilgrim airport shuttles have a designated lane on the highway and a speed limit of 60 kilometres per hour that must be observed for the safety of the hajjis), every movement you make is monitored by the hajj ministry official in the bus who is charged with the task of taking you to the field office in Makkah where all passengers and passports are checked; the number must tally with the original figure at the time the bus left the airport.

Your ordeal does not end there. The field office will register the passports while the pilgrims remain seated in the bus for another hour at least before a guide is provided to take them to their hotel or pilgrim apartment. If you happen to have ‘luxurious’ buses in your group, you begin to realise the wisdom behind the ‘exorbitant’ rates you were charged for fully air-conditioned buses. Your mind begins to appreciate the necessity and not luxury of that arrangement.

If the passengers on that particular bus are from two different groups and you are so unlucky as to belong to the further place of accommodation, then you have more hours to remain in the bus, because the first group will have to alight first as their destination is nearer the field office than yours. This, in normal times may mean few minutes, but in hajj with heavy traffic around Makkah, it translates to hours; and may Allah bless your soul if your hotel is near the Ka’bah for you may find it extremely hard to reach your destination especially during prayer times as all roads are either closed or diverted. Approaching the Ka’bah area around 6 pm means you cannot reach your hotel until 9pm because the roads will remain closed until after Ishaa prayers! Whether you are common, special, VIP or Platinum; whatever fancy name you were given by your tour operator, your stomach will speak the same language with others. It will demand to be filled. Having a bus with refreshments aboard will greatly reduce the stress.

The above reason is what makes some pilgrims throw caution to the wind and find their way out of the Hajj Terminal by all means necessary. Even top officials and dignitaries from Nigeria and any other country would have to wait for at least 3 hours within which time the protocol staff will seek for kafaalah (sponsorship) clearance for them to move out of the airport with their passports. Nobody goes out of Madinatul Hujaaj with their passports. All passports are collected only to be given back to their owners at the same place before boarding their return flights to their respective destinations.

For normal pilgrims travelling through an international hajj tour arrangement; if you come out of the arrivals hall and your tour operator is not at the airport, you are on your own and may Allah help you.

What I have mentioned so far has to do with those who start with Makkah. If your destination is Madinah; and many people prefer to start with Madinah, then your waiting time depends on what period of the month of Zul Hijjah you arrive and the availability of Saudi Arabian Airlines flights (the only local airline allowed) taking off from the Hajj Terminal. Prepare your mind to stay for at least 10 hours if you arrive around the 1st to 3rd of the hajj month; many have had to stay for more than 24 hours to connect to Madinah. This is quite unusual to regular travellers, but this is hajj! Book an earlier flight if you like; you are sure to miss it in case the officer at any desk decides to smoke or have Arabic coffee for some time. Tickets here are non-refundable.
                                 Some Pilgrims on Transit
Prince Muhammad Bin Abdul-Aziz International Airport in Madinah is the opposite of Madinatul Hujjaaj in Jeddah. Everything here is appealing, welcoming and peaceful as if to remind you that when life became hard for the Messenger of Allah (SAW) and the believers along with him; when the torture and persecution of the Makkan Mushriks (idolaters) became more than flesh and blood could stand, Allah gave permission for them to flee to Madinah where the people here accepted them, took them in and helped them. The people here are not like the people you meet in Jeddah or even Makkah. You can feel it within your system that you are in a serene territory. You can perceive it from people’s demeanour and disposition that you are home. You are more likely to be ill-treated in Makkah than in Madinah. Even in the Ka’bah many people would not create a room for you to sit down in the row of worshipers waiting to offer salaah but in Madinah you are called to come sit and the room is for you.  No wonder then that this is where Allah has chosen to keep the body of the Holy Prophet (SAW). No wonder then that the Messenger of Allah (SAW) said that by the time corruption overwhelms the world; true religion of Islam shall retreat to Madinah as a snake retreats into its lair.

The arrivals hall here is not as rowdy as that of Jeddah, and the airport officials are friendlier. Actually, you could land in Madinah, finish immigration, baggage claim processes and still leave the airport for your hotel within two hours, even at the peak of the hajj season. The only problem you could have at Madinah airport is that resulting from poor arrangement on the part of your tour operator or state pilgrim official. Hajj accommodation contracts are signed according to dates of arrival into Madinah and modes of transportation. No contract is valid with any hotel for any group that will come to Madinah by road from the 25th of Zul Qi’dah, for example. This is because it is against the law transporting pilgrims by road within that time as the roads are officially closed. Only those hajjis arriving by air are allowed into Madinah and that also, according to the dates the accommodation contracts are signed. An example here could be where your tour operator has signed contract for your stay in Madinah after the hajj, after you leave Minaa at the end of your hajj exercise. This information is stored on the Saudi Hajj Database. Then suddenly your tour operator heard of a direct flight to Madinah and decided to make you happy by having you land in Madinah, so he confirmed you on that flight. This is where landing in Madinah will be worse than landing in Jeddah. The airport officials will insist on seeing a copy of the group’s accommodation contract for Madinah and comparing it with what is on the hajj arrivals database. Any discrepancy will not be entertained here. You will remain in the airport for countless hours until the hotel can send a written document confirming that, in the circumstance, rooms have been created to accommodate your group for the period before hajj as against the spirit and letter of the original contract. In this case, the group may leave the airport for the said hotel but the tour operator’s company shall be blacklisted against organizing hajj for the next two to three years. If such a tour operator had been flouting hajj regulations repeatedly, the sanctions would be more severe, may break the cover of corporate protection and hit the man hiding under the name of the company and ban the tour operator for life from taking part in hajj operations. But you know with Nigerians all things are possible. If one company is blacklisted today, he registers another tomorrow – it is business as usual! The unperceiving pilgrims bear the brunt.

To avert such tribulations intending pilgrims must insist on studying the hajj brochure or programme of the hajj operator if he has one. You should be able to ask questions in case you spot any digression from the original programme, like the case of starting with Makkah or Madinah. If the programme speaks about landing in Jeddah and starting with Makkah but the company is confirming your tickets for a Madinah flight, I advise you not to travel in that order. Let the company respect its hajj programme otherwise you will be heading to a perilous, tortuous and discomforting hajj experience!

Leaving Madinah could be fun if things go well; otherwise your passport may be misplaced somewhere and you could end up in a horrible nightmare. Not only you but the problem will affect all members of your group because passports must be complete before the bus is allowed to leave. Sorting passports for groups is a 48-hour task that officials of such groups must commence as soon as they arrive in Madinah. They will repeat the same exercise before leaving Makkah to Jeddah, or to Madinah in case the group starts with Makkah. Misplacement of one passport affects the movement of the entire group. This is normal and everyday occurrence given the nature of the procedure involved in the way hundreds of thousands of passports are collected and kept. The computing system introduced recently is only helpful when passports reach the pilgrim office and are entered in the right order. What is indeed abnormal and suppressing is when the entire passports of a group are found intact even though they were collated from variant points and amidst thousands others! Confusion may arise from the people working at the airport collation point. Not all members of the ad hoc staff are either well-trained or even literate. A Lufthansa flight may land with passengers from Nigeria and many other countries. Their passports are collected and distributed according to their nationalities. Your passport could be put in the wrong bag containing passports belonging to pilgrims from Germany for instance (in the thinking of the official, Lufthansa is a German company; anyone on it should be German!). You or your tour operator cannot do anything about this, avert it or be blamed for the misplacement. Call it ill-luck if you please; I prefer to call it ill-preparation by the officials. Nobody will even notice it until when your group is to leave Madinah. Your passport is not seen among the same group that arrived on the same aircraft. That is the use of the card or hand band that pilgrims are given at the airport upon arrival. It is a distinguishing mark to set your group apart for the purposes of sorting your passports at the time of departure. Many pilgrims will neglect it or throw it away, not knowing that this little card or band means a lot when you have a case of missing passport. It will guide the officials in locating it.

Now, for the passport that was placed wrongly in the German pilgrims bag as we see above, the African Non-Arab Pilgrims Office will be busy searching for that missing passport in its offices around Madinah not knowing that the passport is in an obscure bag amidst the European Pilgrims Office. This seemingly trifle mistake may take at least 16 hours to correct, and, if dusk sets in, the group cannot leave Madinah because the Bus Syndicate (the body charged with pilgrims’ transportation) is barred from night journeys.

Consequently, one problem leads to another. Now that the group’s movement is stalled, you have to find fresh accommodation, and in such a period there will doubtless be no availability of rooms because your stay was according to contract. As you checked out for your aborted trip to Makkah, other groups with valid contracts with the hotel starting from that date must have checked in to the rooms you left. Your tour operator must get you another place to stay for that additional night and that he must do as soon as possible. His pilgrims need to be educated on the goings and comings surrounding the process that led to the missing passport so that they may appreciate the situation and, most importantly, be patient, otherwise they are sure to blame the company in ignorance for having a bad departure arrangement out of Madinah. I witnessed the above scenario where the pilgrims were insinuating that the tour operator had no accommodation in Makkah therefore he was trying to delay departure out of Madinah so  he could cut costs and have them stay more in Madinah and less in Makkah. Sheer ignorance! Unfortunately, the pilgrims churning out these weighty but unsubstantiated accusations were already in their ihraam ready to start chanting the talbiyah. How easily people forget that the hajj is perhaps the greatest test of a Muslim’s self-restraint! You are never to utter words of contempt nor insult and slander.

Yes, a tour operator may cut costs in hajj and short change the hajjis if he is the type that does not see his service to pilgrims as both worship and business. Hajj is a pillar of this Deen. Whoever will offer any service to Allah’s guests, even in business, shall be rewarded, just like those who hamper them in any way shall be requited the evils of their deed. But what some pilgrims don’t know is that hajj visas could only be obtained where accommodation, transportation and other logistics have been paid for each pilgrim; the quality and standard of the arrangement may be high or low, but there must be one in place before visas are issued for the pilgrims to be in Saudia in the first place.

The contract in Makkah for groups starts from 1st Zul Hijjah, so how can one leaving Madinah with his group on the on 4th or 5th of Zul Hijjah be said to be cutting costs? If anything, the additional night in Madinah is loss as rooms for the group were ready in Makkah 5 days earlier.


                                   Pilgrim on Ziyaarah in Madeenah
In Makkah you have to start with the field office where your passports will be kept until your departure date. You would be quite unlucky if by the time your bus reaches the field office your hajj operator is not there or at least his representative, to lead the pilgrims to their place of stay in Makkah.

The field office, guided by the information provided by your tour company, will take you to the place of accommodation contained in the contract signed by your tour operator. Do not panic in case you find yourself in a dishevelled pilgrim apartment on the way to Jeddah or the outskirts of Aziziyyah, rather than the hotel stated on your package. Your hajj operator was constrained to present a pilgrim apartment to the Hajj Ministry for your Makkan accommodation because this is faster and more acceptable to the Mu’assasah (Establishment of African Pilgrims under the Hajj Ministry) in processing the pilgrims’ contract for hajjis coming from African non-Arab countries. In fact, companies from this region are not allowed to keep their pilgrims in hotels (it’s like the restriction is lightened this year). Probably every hajj organizer, with the exception of this writer, had to sign an undertaking not to put pilgrims in hotels. With this edict I have always resisted compliance. Thus, if a hajj operator desires to use hotel in accommodating his pilgrims he has to pay for cheap apartment which he would not use (operational loss) but only for the purposes of obtaining the necessary documents to process visas for his hajjis, and also pay for the hotel where the pilgrims will stay for certain. It does seem there is a different way Arab pilgrims are treated here; another set of rules for African Arabs; another set for Europeans and, lastly and the least, another set of rules govern ‘African Non-Arab’ pilgrims, as people from Nigeria and other black countries are called.

Now, this above arrangement into which the hajj operator was forced to enter, in spite of the attendant loss, is against the law stipulated by the Saudi Hajj Ministry in accommodating pilgrims. The Hajj Inspection Team must see evidence of your pilgrims staying in the place stated in your contract documents. Any deviation from the ratified accommodation contract puts your company at risk of being blacklisted for violating hajj regulations.

The point I’m trying to make is to assuage your fear (you, the pilgrim) in situations where you see the bus heading to a settlement very far away from where you were told your accommodation would be. What is important here is constant communication with your hajj operator in case his representative is not with you at the time and his Saudi mobile is reachable. Any hajj operator worth his name must be present at the field office where he knows that his group is likely to face this kind of confusion.

Why on earth will pilgrims from America, Europe and even Egypt be allowed to stay in hotels of their choice while those of black Africa are consigned to pilgrim houses far removed from the Haram? They said in times gone by, our hajj operators used to sign contracts with hotels, obtain visas only to cancel the reservation later, collect their money and leave the hajjis stranded during the period of hajj without accommodation. The private hajj operation industry,  despite the effort of the current leadership of the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) to sanitize it, is not altogether weedless, but at the same time we must concede that the 21st century hajj organizer operates in a competitive climate, vying with his colleagues in offering better services to the hajjis, and of course, he is more sophisticated than his predecessors whose hajj operations did not enjoy the technological advantages of today’s world. Thus, it is not fitting to deny our pilgrims the use of hotels due to what private hajj operators did in a distant past.

Every year when confronted with the issue of the ban on keeping pilgrims in hotels, I would complain to the chairman of the Mu’assasah, Sheikh Abdul Wahid Saifuddeen Abu Ahmad who listens and directs head of the accommodation section, Dr Adnan, to grant exception for my group to stay in hotels of my choice. This concession, I feel, should be extended to my colleagues in the industry. NAHCON has directed all hajj operators to standardise their services to a level above what obtains at the state pilgrims’ boards. But this directive places more emphasis on upgrading services at tents in Minaa and Arafaat, hence the instruction to register pilgrims with the Additional Services Department of the Mu’assasah. NAHCON will do better by ensuring that all companies are allowed to sign accommodation contracts with hotels according to their packages without hindrance. It will indeed be meaningless to have a VIP arrangement for pilgrims in Minaa and Arafaat only to keep it them in ‘no-star’ apartments far away from Haram.

There are 3 grades (A, B and C) of Additional Services in Minaa and Arafaat provided by the Service Plus Committee of the Mu’assasah. What you should know here is that your hajj operator is not the service provider; things are not under his control. Be ready to be inconvenienced by a number of things that may go wrong; hardly will your hajj operator be of any meaningful succour. Oftentimes food is not sufficient not because it is in short supply but because the gates to the tents are so porous that people from outside come as visitors to dignitaries (and politicians) and deplete what is served and many legitimate hajjis go without food. How can somebody who is on hajj and in ihraam eat what is not lawful to him; going around the Haram with stomach filled with Haraam!

Of course there are hajjis and there are hajjis; not all who make the tawaaf every year do so with pure intentions, not all who pay to travel for pilgrimage get the reward. They squander the chance to wipe their records clean, to make amends with their Lord and start afresh. These are those for whom hajj is a mere mechanical, yearly ritual of bustle and hustle. They see no wrong in stealing, lying, backbiting and even fornicating during this holy month. They fight, swear, curse and wrangle- all the things a pilgrim should never do! That they would not travel at all would have been better, it is such a pity. The sad part is that they have succeeded in giving the devout and honest pilgrims a bad name by their manners and actions; the Saudi man does not know the difference. To him, all Nigerians are uncouth and dishonest.

Allah’s messenger said the one who goes on the hajj pilgrimage without committing any obscenity or indecency will have all his past sins forgiven and he would return to his home devoid of sin just like when his mother just bore him. I pray anyone who has read this will take heed and not mar his hajj with his hands and tongue. May Allah accept our ibaadah, aameen!


                                    Pilgrims on Arafaat

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

RAMADAN UMRAH: SPIRITUALITY OR WASTAGE?


From a professional perspective the time for lesser pilgrimage, Umrah starts as soon as the Saudi authorities commence the issuance of visas, and stretches to, very nearly, the beginning of the hajj proper by which time Umrah shall be closed for that year. During this period, within which Umrah is possible, pilgrims keep coming from all over the world; not so Nigeria. To be precise, Nigeria is relatively a new entrant into the Umrah spiritual journey as compared to other parts of the world; even so, the peak of our presence in Umrah is during the last 10 days of Ramadan. We have hitherto been more prominent on the major hajj with the second or so world’s largest contingent of pilgrims yearly.
Why do people go for Umrah annually? Many Umrah pilgrims repeat the journey every year as a spiritual battery charger for their imaan and perseverance in acts of devotion to Allah. The hearts of such people, as those of billions of Muslims around the world, perpetually yearn towards the Ka’bah, desiring the reward of hajj with the Messenger of Allah (SAW) as he said Umrah in Ramadan is like performing hajj with him; they make savings from legitimate earnings spanning the period between this to another Ramadan for the purposes of the annual trip. The savings are according to one’s means – the rich, and the straitened. There is no sin in paying for a five-star hotel if one can afford it, since, as it is now, only the rich can pay for accommodation within a reasonable distance from the two holy mosques; but that should be done without extravagance. I will revert to this later. There are people for whom this seemingly spiritual journey is, to put it mildly, an exercise in futility due to the haraam means with which the Umrah was sponsored or the purpose for undertaking the journey in the first place.
One could rightly describe Ramadan Umrah 2011 as a thank you Umrah; a means by which some politicians rewarded loyalists that helped vote or rig them into office during the April polls. It is like saying - for your effort during the electioneering; for making sure that we returned by all means necessary; for your commitment to our cause, here is a slot for this year's Umrah. A Saudi hotelier said all the signs were visible for a woeful business this Ramadan, until the Nigerians came to the rescue; they paid for the whole building. He made good profit. Thanks to Nigerian politicians!
The political Umrah sponsorship is in grades; thus, I heard reports of people leaving their places of accommodation, mostly, in the Sitteen/Mansur axis, a no star arrangement without feeding, and flocking to the five-star hotels around Haram, paying homage to their godfathers and sometimes creating commotion in the restaurant during Iftaar. Restaurant officials of many hotels were overwhelmed by the influx of ‘foreigners’; meal ticket checks failed as large numbers of Nigerians flooded the gates. Many legitimate guests could not have their Iftaar. The food was not adequate for the crowd as the hotels did not make provision for the unannounced visitors. How could a Muslim who travelled for Umrah seeking reward from Allah allow himself to break his fast with a pilfered meal? Breaking Ramadan fast with haraam?
Our sisters and mothers have proved themselves to be more dedicated to ibaadah in the Holy Land than some of their male counterparts. You see them never weary in performing Tawaaf, Taraaweeh and Tahajjud. But there are others whom I still cannot understand why they spend money every year to go for Umrah, when they spend the whole day sleeping only to wake up just before the Magrib prayer. They would be at the restaurant at the time of Magrib; would not pray with other Muslims under the pretext of observing Iftaar. The custom is to make the call to prayer heralding the end of the day’s fast, allow people to break their fast for about five minutes before starting the Magrib prayers. This short, five-minute interlude is not a license for people to avoid the salaah completely because they are breaking the fast. These mothers and sisters would leave the Haram area before the commencement of the Ishaa prayers for Jeddah. They would spend the whole night in Jeddah shopping, return to Makkah in time to make Suhur and go to bed without observing the Subhi prayers. Thus, they would not observe any salaah for the whole day, and the cycle continues. I am not oblivious of the fact that some of them may be on their menses but that cannot last for 10 days for so many of them. If a woman who stays in Shaari’ Sitteen would endeavour to offer her salaah in the Haram, it is indeed shameful for one privileged to stay close to Haram to spend nights on end in shopping in Jeddah and neglect her devotions- the reason why she is on Umrah in the first place. On the flip side is another set of pilgrims; these also miss the congregational prayers because they also spent the night busy- in supererogatory worship (Tahajjud or Qiyaam) this time around. At first it looks like a good thing to spend the night in devotion to Allah; only a closer look at the practice exposes the irony of gaining Allah's Wrath by trying to attain His Pleasure. There is a subtle misplacement of priority here- a servant of Allah cannot come closer to Allah with anything greater than what He has made obligatory, thus, no one can claim to be attaining His Pleasure by neglecting the obligatory and emphasizing the optional and supererogatory. Indeed ash-Shaytaan, the accursed is good at what he does. He makes the servant work hard at the less important at the expense of the most important! This error is the product of ignorance and in some cases, arrogance. Some pilgrims delight in regaling the spiritually less privileged with tales of their spiritual prowess; from their never ending naafilah until dawn to the number of times they were able to perform tawaaf daily. Clearly this is boastful and ruinous. The right approach would be to let the soul do some ibaadah and allow the body do some recovering by resting and sleeping in moderation. As the hadeeth says: '...indeed your eyes have a right over you'
To some, it is embarrassing not to go for Ramadan Umrah; what will people say if they could not go this year when they have been going for the past two, three or four decades? So, their aim is not to attain Allah’s pleasure but to save face by maintaining an all-is-well attitude. This set of people will do anything, borrow money, beg or sell their property to travel; see, we are still rich; we can afford to go for Umrah. Actions are by intention and every man shall have but that which he intended. Thus he whose migration was for Allah and His Messenger, his migration was for Allah and His Messenger; and he whose migration was to achieve some worldly benefit or to take some woman in marriage, his migration was for that for which he migrated. (Hadeeth)
There is another angle of notice-me and show off among Nigerian Umrah pilgrims in Ramadan; you can call it display of affluence in the Holy Land. In Madinah for example, the bigman would stay alone in a suite. Well, it is understandable, to pay for a suite, where one travels with a large family. That family may even save a lot in a suite as some of its members can request for extra bed, use the living room, dining area, etc. for additional rooming arrangement. But what economic sense does a suite serve to a small family or a single man who could comfortably do with one or two double rooms? A suite costs SR10, 000 (N450, 000) per night; the package for the stay in Madinah for most hotels is four nights, that, by 4, will be One Million Eight Hundred Thousand Naira (N1, 800, 000); when that family could have made do with two double rooms at SR2000 per room, per night, and covering both Iftaar and Suhur. No, the bigman wants to be noticed and prove to his peers that he has arrived!
This sheer waste is more pronounced in Makkah where the rates are exorbitant at peak periods like the last 10 days of Ramadan, usually sold as one package. A two bedroom suite goes for about SR280, 000 or (N12, 600, 000) for the last 10 days Ramadan. Of all the suites in the five-star hotels around the Ka’bah, more than half were taken by Nigerians! There is a penthouse special suite at the zenith of Hilton Hotel in Makkah exclusively reserved for, among other dignitaries from the Gulf region, Nigerian excellencies at about SR400, 000 or N18, 000, 000. Don’t ask me concerning a Nigerian businessman that took a whole floor with more than 50 rooms in the most prestigious hotel in Makkah, the Intercontinental Daral Tawhid, for his family and friends alone; each room was SR75, 000. Only a small fraction of this money would have improved the lot of many people in his village. Wastage!
Let me state that this is not mere speculation; when I write about hajj or Umrah I do so as a VIP Hajj  Organiser, a professional and an insider. I know exactly what I’m saying on these matters. The question remains, where is this money coming from? Most of these people are politicians and top government officials. Is this their money or, will it be that, they betrayed our trust? The latter seems to be the case because the person you see today in Intercontinental Daral Tawhid, for instance, is very often seen in a less expensive hotel, may be Hilton, etc. the very year he is removed from office. I’ve met former ministers and governors in a four star hotel on Ajyad Street during this year’s Ramadan. Why are they not in their usual places of abode, five-star, expensive hotels, very close to the Haram? The same people will come home to roost, and soon be spotted in pilgrim apartments around Mansur Street in two years or so.
There is a chance some readers, who know I am in the VIP Hajj business that thrives on the patronage of the rich, will ask whether there is no contradiction in terms here. To answer this and similar questions fecundating the minds of my readers, we have to understand a principle in Islamic business law: You do not ask about the source of a customer's livelihood in order to determine whether to accept or reject his patronage. Also, a Muslim is not allowed to base his judgement on mere speculation, as such, I am not at liberty to query my clients about the source of their money. The truth is that there will always be people rich enough to afford any hotel and some insist on a particular room arrangement, despite advice to the contrary.
What I have been explaining so far is that our rich could make the Umrah or Hajj in comfort for far less if they would not insist on rooms that add little or no value to the comfort they could procure in the same hotel if they chose a different room arrangement.
In addition, I have tried to awaken the urge to please only Allah in our acts of worship and to be moderate in all things that have to do with our relationship with Allah. I have mentioned that using most hours of the night to shop and all day to sleep is antithetical to the core purpose of the pilgrimage just as sleeping all day and worshipping all night is inimical to the attainment of Allah's pleasure; stealing funds to please Allah will likewise not work.
Allah will not accept such Umrah as was sponsored by stolen funds!