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Thursday, September 27, 2012

WOMEN CAN PERFORM HAJJ WITHOUT MAHRAM



Today’s piece is coming at a time when more than 1000 female pilgrims from Nigeria are detained in Saudi Arabia for lack of chaperones. As I write this, 171 of them have already arrived Kano on Max Air; deported. My purpose here is to show that the Nigerian Hajj authorities have been acting rightly on the issue of mahrams for female pilgrims on the strength of the understanding of scholars in this part of the world; the challenge is with the interpretation of the law guiding their counterparts in the holy land. I shall conclude with a prayer for the position of Nigeria on this issue, its peculiarities, and nature of Hajj operations to be respected by the Saudi authorities.


I will start by saying people, including the learned, are confusing Muharram with Mahram. The former refers to one of the Islamic months; it literary means the forbidden or sacred. Mahram is a man whom a woman is forever forbidden to marry because of blood ties, etc. like her father, brother or any unmarriageable kin. A husband could also serve as a mahram.


Let us understand the context in which the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) mentioned the oft-repeated hadeeths barring women from travelling alone. These hadeeths were reported in Al-Bukhari and other collections, to the effect that women are not to travel by themselves; that it is mandatory on them to be accompanied by their husbands or mahrams. Ibn `Abbas (may Allah be pleased with him) reported that Allah’s Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him) said: “A woman is not to travel except with a mahram, and a man is not to enter upon her except if she has a mahram.” Ibn ‘Abbaas (may Allah be pleased with him) who said: I heard the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) say, when he was delivering a sermon, “No woman should travel except with a mahram.” A man stood up and said, “O Messenger of Allah, my wife has set out for Hajj, and I have signed up for such-and-such a military campaign.” The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said: “Go and do Hajj with your wife.” 


And also on the authority of Abu Hurayrah (may Allah be pleased with him) the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) is quoted to have said: “It is not permissible for a woman who believes in Allah and the Last Day to travel a distance of one day and one night without a mahram with her.”


Based on the above authorities, some scholars in a number of Arab countries assumed, unreasonably, that there is an inherent evil associated with the woman and her dispositions; that, for example, whenever a woman is out, something immoral will occur. Thus, she has to be accompanied at all times, to grocery stores, markets and even to such women-only ceremonies like marriage banquet, etc. she has to be with a male relative. A woman in some of these countries is not trusted to cross from one side of the street to another unless her husband or any male relative guides her steps lest she falls or be snatched by an evildoer. This is engrained somewhat in the psyche of average Arabian to such an extent that you do not talk to your friend when you meet him outside his home with his wife. You pass each other like total strangers; when he is alone, you can be friends again. Of course, you have to avoid him as much as possible in situations like that, because speaking to him, it is believed, may produce a sinful act between you and his wife, even though she is covered in full niqaab, face-veil.


In his answer to the question of a woman performing Hajj without mahram, Sheikh Muhammad Ibn ‘Uthaimeen (may Allah have mercy on him) said: This action – Hajj without a mahram – is haraam; that the ‘mahram’s presence’ is to protect the woman from ‘those who do not fear Allah’. The Sheikh went further to debunk the position of the scholars who averred that she could travel in a safe company, rifqah ma’munah, citing the above hadeeth of the man ordered to go and perform Hajj with his wife instead of taking part in jihad. Sheikh ‘Uthaimeen concluded by stating that under no condition can a woman travel by herself, on road or air, for Hajj or any type of trip without mahram. She could be exposed to sin either at the airport, during transit for connecting flights or ‘there may have been a man sitting next to her on the plane who would deceive her and may like her and she likes him.’ Full stop. What the Sheikh has not addressed in this context is whether the situation will remain unchanged if the woman is 50 years old. Well, some senior citizens are prone to flirting with contemporaries. Therefore, you can now see why authorities acting on the verdict of such scholars would debar more than 1000 female pilgrims from entering the holy land.
These scholars failed to view mahram as a means of care for the woman and a way of upholding her reputation and dignity. A mahram protects her from the desires of those in whose hearts is a disease, from the assault of a rapist or a thief. They have failed also to consider the nature of travel at the era in which the Prophet’s edict was pronounced; a period in which a traveller must traverse deadly deserts, in a time when there was no sense of security, and where the places were unpopulated.


Islam is a way of life based on mercy and compassion; it is a religion that aims at protecting the weak and the vulnerable. Therefore, it is with the specific intent of safeguarding a woman’s honour, dignity, and reputation that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) forbade women from undertaking long journeys without a mahram. Since the true intent of the prohibition is safety and protection, women are allowed to travel in a safe company, rifqah ma’munah, accompanied by elders and reputable Muslim men and women, as our Hajj authorities have been doing with Nigerian female pilgrims for many decades. Majority of scholars are of this view. Ibn Umar used to travel for Hajj leading women from his neighbourhood. Imam Hassan Al Basri said: ‘A Muslim is in himself a mahram: meaning the righteous and God-fearing Muslim can serve as mahram to the woman; and in some cases, a non-mahram proves more trustworthy than actual mahram.’ (Sharhu Saheehil Bukhaari vol. 4 p. 532)


Sa’eed Ibn Jubair, Ibn Sireen, Al-Auzaa’ee, Imam Maalik and Ash-Shaafi’ee are of the opinion that women, in the company of trustworthy and faithful women, can travel without mahram (al i’laam biwaa’idi umdatil ahkaam vol. 6 p. 79). Yes, a woman can travel even with just one free trustworthy and faithful woman, provided the road is safe. Sheikhul-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah said: “Every woman can perform Hajj without a mahram as long as she will be safe.” And he said: “This is directed towards every travel in obedience... Al-Karaabisi transmitted this from Ash-Shafi`i pertaining to the supererogatory Hajj. And some of his companions also said this about supererogatory Hajj and about every travel that is not obligatory, like visiting and trading.” (Sharhu Sahihil Bukhaari vol. 4 p. 532)


Al-Artham transmitted from Imam Ahmad: “A mahram is not a condition in the obligatory Hajj.” His justification for this is his saying: “Because she goes out with women, and with all those whom she is safe with.” Ibn Sireen even said: “With a Muslim it is okay.” Al-Auzaa’ee said: “With a just people.” Malik said: “With a group of women.” Ash-Shafi`ee said: “With a trustworthy faithful Muslim woman.” And his companions said: “By herself if there is safety.” 


Al-Hafidh Ibn Hajar said: “What is well-known with the Shafi`ees is that it is conditional that there be a husband, mahram, or trustworthy faithful women.” And in another saying: “It is enough for just one trustworthy faithful woman.” In a saying transmitted by Al-Karaabisi, authenticated in Al-Muhadh-dhab, is that she can travel by herself if the roads are safe. If this is what was said about traveling for Hajj and `Umrah, then this ruling should be uniform concerning all types of travel, as some scholars have agreed. 

The conditions pertain safeguarding the woman and protecting her by ensuring that the roadway is safe and that trustworthy faithful men and women are present on the journey. 

The proof of the permissibility of a woman traveling without a mahram is incumbent upon there being security and the presence of trustworthy faithful people. What was reported by Al-Bukhari is that during the final Hajj of `Umar Ibn Al-Khattab (may Allah be pleased with him), he gave permission to the wives of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) to perform Hajj. So he sent with them `Uthman ibn `Affan and `Abdur-Rahman. This act is considered to be a consensus, for all of them, `Umar, `Uthman, `Abdur-Rahman Ibn `Awf and the wives of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) agreed to it, without any objection (Fathul Baaree vol. 4 p. 91 and ‘Umdatul Qaari’ vol. 10 p. 219). 

Second is what was reported by Al-Bukhari and Muslim from the hadith of `Ataa Ibn Haatim that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) told him about the future of Islam and how its light will be spread throughout the earth. Among what he mentioned is: “The day is near when a young woman will travel from Al-Hiraa (a city in Iraq), going to the Sacred House with no husband accompanying her. She will fear none but Allah.” This information does not only prove that this will happen, but proves its permissibility, because it was mentioned in a phrase praising the spread of Islam along with its sense of security (Fathul Baaree vol. 4 p. 91). 

We have to concede that travelling today is not like travelling in the past. Except on Nigerian roads, travelling is now devoid of the dangers of thieves and highway robbers. Modern means of transportation actually make easy for large numbers of people to travel in peace and security - ships, airplanes, buses, or cars – myriad people travelling in groups. Undoubtedly, this kind of group travel instils confidence and reliability, as well as dispelling the feelings of fear for the woman, because she will not be by herself in any place. 

Therefore, nothing stops a woman from performing Hajj under the arrangement provided by Nigerian pilgrims’ welfare boards and agencies that has never been questioned by the Saudi Hajj authorities for decades.
There is difference of opinion among Muslim scholars, in Saudi Arabia and in Nigeria for example, on the issue of mahram for female pilgrims. Rifqah ma’munah, female pilgrims travelling in a safe company, a position upheld by majority of Muslim scholars, is what Nigerian Hajj authorities have been using for decades. They deserve some courtesy and respect from their counterparts in the holy land. The Prophet has warned the Muslims: ‘Don’t prevent women servants of Allah from the Houses of Allah.’ What house of Allah is greater that than the Ka’bah in Makkah or the Prophet’s mosque in Madeenah?


The worst part of the whole ordeal was what the poor hapless women bore. They were cordoned off in Jeddah like quarantined animals and they were starved and ill-treated. This is no way to behave to the guests of Allah from another country. The usual hospitality of the Saudis deserted them this time. Even if they feel the women were wrong; it is no justification for the wrong treatment. I also wonder why they issued the visas to these women in the first place when they know they would not be allowed into the kingdom. That smacks of double standard and hypocrisy. These people paid to get the visas; the visas were legally obtained and yet they were denied entry. I say do not start what you do not intend to finish.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

HAJJ VISA TRAFFICKERS

                                                          Pilgrims At Minaa


                                                   


The Hajj tour operator is expected to offer complete packages to intending pilgrims - that is the reason he is called a tour operator to begin with. A complete package covers return tickets, local transportation within Saudia, Hajj visas, Makkah-Madeenah accommodation, tents in Minaa and Arafah, etc. But some agents prefer to sell ‘visa only’ to their pilgrims. This means the tour operator will get his allocation of Hajj seats from the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON), process his documents in Saudia Arabia (I shall revert to this later), return to Nigeria only to sell visas to intending pilgrims. Such tour operators do not even travel back to Saudia for the Hajj. They remain here to enjoy the dividend of their trickery.



How will a registered Hajj tour operator contend himself with selling visa? Well, the practitioners say it is more lucrative; you just sell the seats, transfer the hassle to either the pilgrim or his agent and spare yourself the adrenaline rush and all challenges associated with Hajj operations. One is tempted to ask how these fellows got allocation of Hajj seats in the first place. Has allocation of Hajj seats become like fertiliser allocation, an instrument at the hands of politicians to reward party loyalists and cronies? I do not think so. I believe NAHCON is doing its best to sanitise the Hajj industry in this country. You see improvement every year in the form of new rules and conditions to be met by Hajj tour operators so as to weed out bad elements, but it seems that the erring agents have perfected the art of evading detection, and are always ahead of the commission; circumventing its efforts at tracking and stopping them. Part of what NAHCON used to do before each Hajj allocation to tour operators was the physical inspection of Hajj tour offices nationwide. NAHCON did not do so in 2012; at least my company was not visited by its inspectors as was the custom. Will that be why the commission found it quite difficult to distribute 10,000 Hajj seats to more than 130 companies? Many companies with requisite experience, expertise and capacity to serve more than 300 pilgrims ended up with less than 100 Hajj seats. This is not healthy for the development of the Hajj tour companies which NAHCON is overseeing and trying to make grow. The secret of the success of Hajj operation lies in numbers. Once the number is not adequate, many things will fall apart, leading to insolvency of that going concern and ultimate demise.



However, it is heartening to note that the number of companies that got Hajj seats was dwindled by the commission’s vigilance which led to the revocation of the allocation of such companies that belong to non-Muslims, and those whose memorandum/article of association permit them to deal in un-Islamic ventures like sale of liquor or running casinos, etc. This is indeed commendable, but the commission would have done better if it had conducted its annual pre-allocation inspection to our offices. Some of these voodoo companies exit only in the briefcases of their dubious owners.



Hajj visa trafficking is of two types. On the one hand, there are agents who will connive with pilgrims’ apartment owners in both Madeenah and Makkah to sign Hajj accommodation papers for a fee. Under such arrangement, the parties agree that there will be no accommodation in that apartment for the pilgrims when they come for Hajj, but the papers are signed anyway so that the company can process the number of visas on the allocation given to it by NAHCON, and get the stickers that the Saudia Embassy needs for the issuance of Hajj visa. Last year this type of fake accommodation cost only SR500 for Makkah and SR200 for Madeenah. If you add this to SR1, 029 for royalties and other refundable payments to Mu’assasah, etc., the agent’s expenditure on each pilgrim shall not exceed SR2000 (N80, 000). This type of Hajj visas is called ‘half package’, when the stickers are out, cost N350, 000 to N450, 000 per visa. So, if you multiply this by say 75 seats, at least, for some companies have got up to 100 seats, the agent will be making between N20, 250, 000 to N27, 750, 000. No wonder then that NAHCON is not able to bolt the door against the flood of new entrants into the Hajj tour operation business every year.  So, where the serious Hajj tour operator struggles to fulfil his undertakings to the guests of Allah under his care with all the attendant risks and Hajj operation challenges, the Hajj visa trafficker only smiles to the bank! He has no problems at all; he has transferred the hassle to the pilgrim or the unfortunate colleague who accommodates such pilgrims on his package.



This state of affairs reminds me of the proliferation of banks in Nigeria many years back. Every Junaid, Qasim and Usman could start a bank; it was a matter of getting licensed for a trifling sum. They bled their customers dry and many absconded overseas to enjoy their ill-gotten wealth unmolested. It also reminds me that NAHCON had been talking about merging hajj tour agencies to reduce the number and improve their efficiency. I see the sudden surge in the number of tour operators from just 87 last year to 185 this year as nothing but an antithesis of that move. The number got pruned to 137 but this figure is still alarming! The number of seats allocated to Nigeria yearly has not increased in 5 years; it stands at 95,000. Of this number, only 10,000 goes to hajj tour operators. The number of companies requesting this number has however doubled in just a year and more will join next year. When will NAHCON put its feet down on this matter? Is there no limit to the number of companies they can license?



This wickedness of selling visa only is encouraged by some pilgrims who want to book for their hotel accommodation and pay directly for other services, but do not have Hajj visas. The business is now booming because the Saudi Embassy has restricted the issuance of gratis Hajj/Umrah visas otherwise called Mujaamalah; at least to those who prefer to deal on the table and not under it. Thus, everybody is forced to go the agent for visa.



On the other hand are the tour operators who sell NAHCON Hajj allocation letters to those of their colleagues whose number of pilgrims exceeds what they got from NAHCON. This type of transaction is sealed with the allocation-selling tour operator being sponsored to Saudi Arabia by the buying tour operator. This is so because often times such allocation-selling agents are so disorganised, have no package to sell to any pilgrim, do not possess enough money for the trip to authenticate documents in Saudia Arabia, and thus need the sponsorship of the buyer of their Hajj allocation. Since the original document is in their names as representatives of the company to whom the Hajj seats were given, they have to be in Saudia to personally sign accommodation contracts, etc. until the stickers for Hajj visas are out from the Saudi Hajj Ministry through the Mu’assasah in Makkah. Therefore, the buyer of the Hajj allocation is responsible for all expenses of the trip, makes payment for accommodation according to the number of pilgrims on it and further pays the seller of the Hajj allocation from N180, 000 to N250, 000 per seat. Again, if you multiply this by a minimum of 75 seats, this indolent, sedentary and mischievous Hajj tour operator will make N13, 500, 000 to N18, 750, 000 for doing nothing!



Unfortunately, all these additional costs will be borne by the intending pilgrim. The genuine Hajj tour operator who wants to serve the growing number of his pilgrims cannot bear the cost for out-of-allocation visas. The pilgrim has to pay otherwise the whole operation will be profitless. Businesses are not run like that. Hajj is not cheap as I mentioned here a fortnight ago, and now, Hajj visa trafficking is making it even more expensive. The pilgrims bear the brunt!



NAHCON abhors this development and have been warning tour operators from trafficking in visa. The commission is encouraging buyers of visa selling arrangements to report the sellers for punitive sanctions. But have the buyers any choice? You have made arrangements, early in the year (relying on NAHCON to allocate you at least 200 seats considering your experience and good track record) for 60 rooms to accommodate about 200 pilgrims in Madeenah and Makkah, paid for other services for equal number at a total cost of more than two hundred million naira (N200, 000, 000), only to end up with 75 Hajj seats! The allocation comes so late (done less than 3 months to hajj) in the year that there is practically nothing you can do to remedy the damage. You cannot get your money back from hotels and service providers. Regardless of how unfair it may be, you have ratified contracts to the effect that you do not merit any refund in case of default to complete payment on certain agreed dates or inability to utilise the rooms you paid for. Refusal of the offer to buy Hajj allocation in this case is suicidal to the company. We have no option.



Hajj visa trafficking will continue to flourish unless NAHCON finds a way of discerning the serious from the fraudulent Hajj tour operators and allocate reasonable number of Hajj seats to the companies that have previous records of standard service to its pilgrims and which are proven to be capable, to a great extent, in efficiently handling large contingents. NAHCON should exercise its powers without fearing the blame of blamers. Yes, some will say that its officials are favouring those companies in which they have interest, and so on and so forth. You cannot allow things to go on like this. Hajj is one of the pillars of this religion. Its operations cannot be left at the hands of malefactors.



I suggest that NAHCON should not only resume office inspections in Nigeria to verify claims and addresses of companies, they should also verify the accommodation mentioned by each company as well as the tent, transport and feeding arrangements. NAHCON should physically verify the number of pilgrims leaving Nigeria through each company and arriving in Saudia. They should station their staff at every stage of the pilgrims’ movements in Saudia and see what is really happening. Without doubt they would be shocked at what they shall find out. They can then decide whether to blackball an erring company or to reward a performing one. They have no reason to take accommodation in Jeddah when the rites of hajj take place in Makkah. They have no reason to complain of shortage of staff; what agencies pay annually can easily pay for the requisite number of experienced staff they would need to do sterling job of bringing pride to Nigerian pilgrims.



I admonish the tour operator to fear Allah as He ought to be feared; to remember the day when neither wealth nor offspring would be of any use; to work hard to do the needful within his limits; to remember why he is on earth and unto Whom he would return. I ask him to take the pains to learn the business well, deliver good service, be fair and open and not rip off anyone. If in the process of doing this his prices are higher than the rest, he should rest content with work well done.


Thursday, September 13, 2012

I AM ALMAJIRI


                                                                              Almajirai



My name is Almajiri from Tsangaya, my school. Unlike what the manyan mutane (big men) are trying to do now; building classrooms and all these strange boko things, my Tsangaya is a group of huts made of cornstalks and plastered on the inside with clay. Here, we sleep in open space, even when it rains. Our bed mates are driver ants, lice and bed-bugs. You may find some Tsangayu (plural of Tsangaya) in cities nowadays. Mostly they got to the cities before the cities got to them. Put differently, the Tsangaya, in such a case, was not situated in the city; rather, the city grew around them. Just like Malcolm X said, “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock, Plymouth Rock landed on us; landed right on top of us…”


I will tell you something about my life as Almajiri, how we live in Tsangaya, our syllabi, and why we have to beg for food; mark the word food. I will also tell you my doubts about the government’s sincerity on the Almajiri school project, and suggest a solution to the almajirci problem.


For those who do not know the meaning of my name, Almajiri is the name we call one who left behind the comfort of his home and the love of his dear ones to live with total strangers in a life people like you only know through books like Oliver Twist in search of knowledge of the Glorious Qur’an. The only thing we take along with us from home is the iron portmanteau, may be of a granny, in which we fold our clothes, a wooden slate and a tattered copy of the Qur’an tied together with a leather string. Some of us are lucky to have their parents take them; otherwise, an uncle or an elder brother will do so for their first day at school. We don’t choose the schools; that is for our parents to decide after listening to former students and even teachers. In some cases, they just tell the Sheikh or head of the Tsangaya that a new student has arrived. We don’t fill forms; we never get admission letters or ask for one; no boko things of any sort and we do not pay any fees.


We take shelter from the storm of worldliness and ignorance in the peaceful home of scholarship, frugality and learning. We don’t need passports, visas or ID card. We go to the Qur’an, and we are welcome.


My father left immediately he handed me over to our malam. He did not give me a kobo as pocket money and I do not see anyone from my home until Sallah-break, twice in a year. After sallah, we return to school within two weeks. Our mallam has no other job and this one pays nothing; we beg for food to survive daily. Our parents are mostly poor peasant farmers but some of us came from affluent homes; their parents just want them to live a Spartan life while studying.


After my dad left on my first day at school, I was on my own, and part of the ƙolawa (plural of ƙolo), new students of between the ages of 7 to 14; I was not yet a gardi (matured independent student). As a ƙolo, my seniors showed me pepper! I got flogged all the time for any mistake.


Let me tell you about bara (begging). I will explain how, where and when we may go for bara. Not everybody begs at the Tsangaya. Once you are over 14 years, you do not take part in bara. You are now a senior student. Only ƙolawa go out for bara for what to eat; we beg on behalf of the rest. Because ƙolawa are still children, we could enter any house without risking the anger of the mai gida (master of that household).


We say: ‘ko dan ƙanzo iya’, “please, give me even the crumps, mother”; we go from house to house, looking for leftovers from the mistress of the house. We pack together all we get from this bara which are all kinds of leftovers like rice, beans, tuwon shinkafa, dawa, with miyan kuka, kuɓewa, and what not, and bring them back to the Tsangaya and everybody eats to remain alive and learning. This food of many colours, especially what we bring for dinner, is what we also have for breakfast. We do not beg in the morning. Any boy you see in the morning begging is not one of us; he belongs to something else. This is how we feed here.


We do bara for about 3 hours from around 11am to 2pm to get lunch, and between 8pm and 9:30pm for dinner. We do not have any other time to spare; our school hours stretch between Subhi (dawn) prayers to 7am; 9am to 11am; 3pm to the time for Magrib (sunset) prayers, and from the time Ishaa (late night) prayers are said until 10pm. Any beggar you see during these periods is not one of us.


We don’t beg for money and we do not clean your windshields. Bara is done only by us the young children for what to eat. We are only allowed to visit uwar gida (the mistress of the house) - she has kids of her own and will show us mercy, eateries and restaurants. If you see beggars over 14 years old in traffic hold-ups, fuelling stations, markets, and other places apart from where I have mentioned, asking people for money, they are not one of us; we cannot beg in such places. Tsangaya is not responsible for that kind of begging. If only these big men would do what they promised when they were asking everybody to vote for them, all these other kinds of professional beggars won’t come and spoil our name. I am angry at those governors, Allah knows!


Our school does not have any written syllabus; what for? We just memorise the whole Quran in 4 years, and that is just the beginning. We will, in another 3 years try to write portions of the Quran from memory until we have written the entire book without any mistake. Our malam will not take any nonsense or laziness.


During the time we write the Quran from heart, we are not allowed to take a peep at a copy of the Quran. Our malam will not as well when he is checking our work, but if you compare what we write with the printed Quran, you will be amazed to see no difference. I mean every sentence, phrase, word, full stop and comma is correct! Our final year project is to write the whole Quran again without anyone checking from time to time until the whole book is written. At the end of all our exertions, we graduate and we are called alaramma (one blessed by Allah).


When I finished, I became an authority in reciting and writing the Quran only. I would later move to a zaure (outer chamber of a malam’s house) for further studies. I got ijaazah (complete permission) from my malam to write, distribute and teach the Qur’an. All the years of toil, hardship and bara are over at last!


I am yet to decide on which zaure to attend where they will teach me how to understand the language of the Quran and other higher studies. I am also thinking of going back to my school and teaching others.


Our learning system in the Tsangaya that I have described is unique. If you go to any part of the world to study the Qur’an – Morocco, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and so forth; you will memorise it, know its meanings and exegesis, but you cannot know, for example, how many times a certain phrase is repeated; what is the textual difference between verses having similar messages, wording and intonation; you cannot, also, reproduce, verbatim, what you memorised as text; only a Tsangaya graduate can do that!


When the King Fahd Printing Press of the Glorious Qur’an opened in Madinah, Saudi Arabia, it invited more than 40 distinguished Qur’anic scholars around the world to work on the text of the Qur’an that the establishment will adopt. They went too far, if you ask me; one scholar from a Nigerian Tsangaya, who may not even speak Arabic as a language, is pre-eminently qualified to do the job; he would have done that without checking any text of the Glorious Qur’an. That is what Allah has favoured us with even before Nigeria was born!


The other day President Jonathan said the Tsangaya system is the problem, and source of Boko Haram. No, Mr President! It is not. I am Almajiri from Tsangaya, and I am not Boko Haram. Tsangaya is rather a source of pride to this nation. It only needs help with better learning conditions, well-paid teachers and better student welfare to end begging. We don’t need help with curriculum, time-table, computers and school anthem. We don’t want much food or luxury either. We wish to remain frugal so that we will concentrate on our studies better. We want school uniforms and ID cards too; at least that way, you will fish out the impostors better.


While you’re at it, don’t give all these tasks to any contractor; they will ensure you fail. Have records of all Tsangaya malams and their locations and standardize their living conditions and learning centres to make it easy for the students to learn better. Mandate the products of our school to get boko education too. Don’t run the two concurrently; they don’t mix well. The Tsangaya studies are very intense and require complete concentration. It takes 7 years, at least. Help the malams by reducing the ratio of students to teachers.


Graduates of our school do not become thugs and killers; that is the prerogative of those who did not go to school anywhere- neither our type nor boko. Only ignorance breeds hatred. Ignorance of our education makes the boko educated think we are illiterate; we are as illiterate in their language as they are in ours. Who said one is superior to the other?


We love boko too; many of us finish from Tsangaya and start the boko one afterwards. It will mean that we would start learning ABC at age 14, but we would have had 7 years of education in another field which the kids who got only boko education can only dream of. In fact, I challenge any boko professor to show that his thesis is superior to reproducing the entire Quran from memory both orally and textually. We get the best of both worlds.


CONCLUSION

Is the Almajiri School Project of the Jonathan government a genuine concern to improve our lot, or is it, rather, a political tool with which to hoodwink the gullible among our members? What is the aim behind this project? Is it to strengthen or to weaken and destroy the Tsangaya system? But why can’t we support this initiative given the huge amount, a whopping 5 billion naira, the government is putting into the formation of 100 Almajiri Schools in over 18 Northern state?


Putting a lot of money into a government project does not translate into success of the desired goal. Did the crazy amount expended in the power sector translate into more megawatts of electricity in Nigeria? Yes, the money is pumped in but siphoned out from another opening within the system, so, nothing happens. Look at the 100 Almajiri School Project under discussion, for example. Apart from the Steve Jobs-like dazzling commissioning of one Almajiri Model Boarding School each by the President and his vice, have you heard anything about the project? Media reports have it that less than 30% of such schools are almost ready but the remaining 70% are at various stages of completion, or are they? What happened to the 5 billion; so soon in the day?


The project is another opportunity for some people to help themselves to public funds, not least, at this time when public servants, sorry, public thieves steal in trillions.


Why should I support the handling of the future of my Tsangaya by people who have failed dismally in sustaining this country’s education system? If they want me to have faith in the Almajiri Project let them fix Nigeria’s dead public education section, and stop taking their children abroad for studies. Otherwise, the fate that befell the public schools is certain to engulf the Almajiri Project sooner rather than later.


Keep your Almajiri Project alive; keep stealing funds earmarked for the project; let your children take our quota as they are doing already, you will not see us in your classrooms! If you want to help us, help us within our system. Your modern buildings should be in an existing Tsangaya. If you provide feeding arrangement and wages for our instructors, we shall not have any reason to beg whatsoever.


If you see anyone calling himself one of us on the streets afterwards, arrest him and he will produce his ‘employers’ who lurk in corners with keen eyes counting from afar the money you give to the boys. I have told you our timetable and begging schedule; even with that alone you can weed out most of the fakes. Add standard uniforms and ID cards to that and you will help us a lot.

Friday, September 7, 2012

HAJJ PACKAGE PRICE


                                                                      Masjid Qubaa


Why is the package price of the so-called international Hajj (organised by tour operators) higher than that of state pilgrims’ boards? And why is the VIP package of Hajj tour operators so expensive that only the men of means can afford it? Since Hajj is one of the fundamentals of Islam, why can’t we work towards low-cost pilgrimage to give as many people as possible the chance to observe this once-in-a-lifetime-obligation?



Some of those who know my company would jump into the wrong conclusion that this article is about justifying the so-called high fees my company charges for its services for hajj or Umrah. Only the objective will read it with an open mind and without any preconceived notions as to what I intend. I will leave such to follow me on the journey into the heart of a tour operator’s pricing determinants.



The Hajj tour operator has come to cater for the needs of those pilgrims who desire a higher standard of service than the one offered by state pilgrims’ boards. This class of pilgrims is composed of busy executives, business persons and civil servants who would want to finish their rites and return to their offices within the shortest possible time. The Hajj tour operator, therefore, who provides indistinguishable service from one offered by state pilgrims’ boards has a lot to learn in this industry. I am not saying that what the state pilgrims’ boards are offering cannot be improved upon; in fact I do not think humans should be kept in the conditions our Nigerian pilgrims are made to endure during their stay in Minaa and Arafah. It is subhuman.



Operations of the state pilgrims’ boards consist of accommodating pilgrims in apartments not very close to the two Holy Mosques in Makkah and Madinah; transportation is with buses manufactured in the 1980s and ‘90s under the Car syndicate Office (niqaabah); room configuration could be up to 10 and above, the tents in Minaa are far-removed from the Jamaraat area, and pilgrims are likely to linger for some time in Saudia after the completion their Hajj rites. Some of these peculiarities are understandable bearing in mind the large number of Nigerian contingent annually for the Hajj. Certainly, state pilgrim boards’ officials should be extoled for managing over 80 thousand pilgrims every year, despite obvious challenges. I am sure there are those who see it differently, though. They point at countries like Indonesia which come to hajj with a larger population of pilgrims and yet do not have the problems we have. They are not kept in the last tents barely within the boundaries of ‘Arafah and they have clean tents in Minaa. That is true, but you have to look at the country itself, its leadership and then you will appreciate that the officials are doing a great job in spite of everything.



The current leadership of Hajj regulators in Nigeria is working hard to raise the standard of the service by making feeding and Minaa/Arafaat Additional Services (Category C) of the Mu’assasah part of the Hajj package for state pilgrims’ boards. With this arrangement in 2012, Nigerian pilgrims will be closer to Jamaraat than they had ever been in the history of Hajj in this country. This arrangement means greater cost to the organisers and ultimately the pilgrims.



For the aforementioned services in 2012 Hajj, state pilgrims are to pay N622, 445.05 for the lowest seat, and be entitled to $750 as basic travelling allowance (BTA); N658, 695.05 for medium seat, and receive $1000 BTA. The highest category in Hajj seat is N736, 570.05 with $1, 500 as BTA. Of course none of these categories is attainable for the very poor in our society. This is the cheapest fare for Hajj today, given what is charged by the Hajj tour operators. The average price for the international package is almost twice as this and no tour operator gives BTA to his pilgrims. Maybe in the future the industry will create this opening for the international Hajj pilgrims; they are also Nigerians, afterall.



The services of the average Hajj tour operator are distinct from what is described above. His pilgrims are housed in, at least, 3 to 4 star hotels (not forgetting the fact that some of these hotels are actually 2 or less star if one compares their standard with what obtains in the First World) within reasonable distance to the Harams in Makkah and Madinah. This type of accommodation and feeding will cost each pilgrim about SR20, 000 = N800, 000 at N40 to Saudi Riyal. Add to that the cost of transportation, outside the transport provided by the Car Syndicate as attached to the compulsory Royalties of SR1029 (N41, 160) paid for each pilgrim but which the tour operator forfeits in order to provide better mean of transport to his hajjis during the 5 days of Hajj. On account of this, the tour operator will pay SR1, 500 (N60, 000) on behalf of each pilgrim for 2008 model of Mercedes buses provided by the Mu’assasah. He will also pay SR2, 500 (N100, 000) for each of his pilgrims for category B in Minaa/Arafaat tents of the Additional Services also provided by the Mu’assasah. As I mentioned above, even state pilgrims will be in category C tents, so, for a tour operator to give something higher his pilgrims should at least enjoy the services of a B tent. The package of each pilgrim, therefore, excluding air ticket fare and the profit margin of the Hajj tour operator, will be at least N1, 001, 160. Of course this rate will be higher or lesser subject to type of hotel, proximity to Haram, and room configuration which should not exceed 4 people in a room.



For the VIP Hajj package the tour operator must keep his pilgrims in 5 star hotels within the Harams in Makkah and Madinah. Accommodating each pilgrim will cost SR40, 000 (1, 600,000). Add the Royalties SR1029 (N41, 160), and the payment of SR7, 375 (N295, 000) on behalf of each pilgrim for the Minaa/Arafaat category A tents, with the Mu’assasah. Another cost is SR500 (N20, 000) for Saudi local air ticket from Jeddah to Madinah for those pilgrims that have not got a direct flight to Madinah, and SR2000 (N80, 000) for transport in the latest model of buses with inbuilt toilets. So, the least VIP Hajj package, subject to the proximity of hotels to Haram, excluding return air tickets, will be about N2, 036, 160. As stated earlier this cost does not include profit margin and other incidentals as are bound to occur in Hajj operations.



Unfortunately, some tour operators will not do their homework. They just copy what others publish on their brochure, reduce the rate by certain percentage without knowledge and try to market that. Such tour operators find themselves in trouble where they discover that what they collect from the pilgrim is insufficient for the services they promise to provide.



Hajj services are dependent upon a number of factors the bulk of which are in Saudi Arabia where the rites are observed. Hajj is unique. Only in Hajj will 3 million people or more gather in the same place, at the same time, for the same purpose and doing the same thing. Those pilgrims who question why the rates of hotels are exorbitant in Saudia, why the tour operator subjects them to strict cancellation policies and why they cannot pay for Hajj package when they please have missed the point completely. Hilton Makkah for example has more revenue than any other Hilton Hotel around the world. The same could be said of other hotels like Intercontinental, Mövenpick, etc. Nothing explains this other than the fact that they happened to be situated in the territory of pilgrimage rites, Makkah, right in front of the most frequented building; the Masjidul Haraam (Sacred Mosque). So, pilgrims should not expect a uniform rate and cancellation policy in a hotel in Makkah because they are used to the services of similar name in London, America, Germany, etc.



There is nothing hidden in the facts mentioned in this piece. You can make your own calculations by asking the hotels and other service providers in Makkah and Madinah. Unless the current demolition of structures around Haram is followed by construction of many more hotels, the price for Hajj packages will continue to rise. It is apparent, from what I have stated here, the very poor cannot perform Hajj even with state pilgrims’ arrangement which is now the cheapest, and the hotels around Haram are reserved only for the super-rich on the so called VIP Hajj packages. But, alhamdulillah, Allah has made Hajj obligatory only on those who can afford it.



To be frank, Hajj, as it is organised currently, is not cheap. The cheapest you get which I have mentioned above is the government’s way of helping out. If you have to pay what is truly the price of a decent room in a decent hotel near the haram and get decent tents in both Minaa and ‘Arafaat, you must cough out a fortune. Those services are not the types we are used to back home; they are in a league of their own. I am amazed yearly by the level of expertise the hoteliers have reached in managing millions of clients yearly. They seem to have an inexhaustible store of human and material resources to cater to the needs of the pilgrims.



There are many Nigerians on whom this reality is lost. They insist on being pampered and display tantrums like children when they cannot have their way. They forget entirely what brought them to the Holy Land and they seem not to remember that the tour operator merely procures the services of the Saudi service providers on their behalf. He has very little control on how big your room will be; how much of the Ka’abah you can see from your window or how nice the hotel staff will be.



If Allah had made hajj compulsory on all, regardless of your purse, it would have become a huge problem that so many are unable to find the means to be on hajj yearly. To begin with, the Saudi government gives Nigeria just 95,000 slots every year. That means in a country of at least 80 million Muslims, only 95,000 make the cut yearly! That includes repeat pilgrims who have been doing the pilgrimage yearly since they were children. Then there is the matter of finance. Allah’s messenger (and also the Qur’an) expressly stated that it is for those who are able to make the journey. This requires getting to the Holy Land and finding somewhere to lay your head at night.



I have heard arguments to the effect that companies like mine are excluding the poor. I am yet to understand the logic of the argument. It is like saying people should not sell cars because some people can only afford motorcycles. There will always be those who can afford the expensive services and those who will choose something less expensive. It is simple economics; you forgo some wants to meet others. Those who pay for the cheaper packages know what they endure. And those who pay for the VIP know what they had to pay in exchange for less hassles, greater comfort and reliability. They had to make a decision on what comfort is worth to them. What would be morally wrong would be a situation where anyone feels superior to the others on account of his affluence. We are as equal as the teeth of a comb before Allah.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

HAJJ AND UMRAH BUSINESS


                                                            Jabalur Rahmah







Can Hajj and Umrah be commercialised? These are religious rituals; in fact Hajj is one of the pillars of Islam. But the commercial aspect is where people or going concerns provide services like air transport, accommodation and other logistics to the pilgrims to facilitate the observance of this devotion. Such service providers are known as Hajj tour operators. This symbiosis between pilgrims to the House of Allah and Hajj tour operators makes them share in the reward of undertaking this duty without diminishing what appertains to the other.



Hajj tour operators, therefore, should see themselves not as business adversaries but as associates in service delivery to the guests of Allah, who assist each other in ways that will simplify this pillar of Islam to their clients. Hajj and Umrah business is a unique enterprise which enriches practitioners in substance as well as in recompense. It behoves Hajj tour operators, then, to conduct their operations professionally so as to fortify their corporations, strengthen the industry, and gain reward from the Law-Giver.



The above realisation has skipped some Hajj tour operators in Nigeria. They view Hajj and Umrah business as business, period. Their turnover is what matters most. The pilgrim’s duty is to pay for the services they advertise, and theirs is to collect such payment and fulfil their part of the bargain in a way that will guarantee maximum profit at the expense of their clients. Such miscreant Hajj tour operators invent lies and outright falsehood against sister-companies, competitors in business parlance, in the industry, to woo a larger part of the market to themselves. They stop at nothing to soil the image of the “rivals” and even spy on their activities. Yes, competition, healthy competition, quickens business development; it enhances innovation, forces companies to be more efficient and brings about the provision of better services to clients at reasonable cost. Yes, Hajj tour operators should vie with one another in the provision of service to pilgrims, but that competition should be devoid of mudslinging, lies and manifest untruth.



The service delivery industry is a thankless profession, we must not forget. Do not expect any expression of gratitude from the client, though many pilgrims do that. But bear it in mind that whatever you do some pilgrims will find faults in the operation, and that is not bad. That should be viewed as feedback from the customer; note it and see how best to avoid repeating it in subsequent operations. At times your pilgrims will utter uncomplimentary remarks against another Hajj tour operator that they patronised in the past. Fear Allah and avoid speaking ill of your brethren in their absence. Just listen and resist giving any opinion that is likely to injure a fellow Hajj tour operator. We are all involved in this; the same pilgrims will say similar or worse things against you to another operator. Let us all accept and appreciate the fact that the Nigerian pilgrim who desires to use the services of Hajj tour operators has myriad options at his disposal. He has more than 150 companies to choose from. Do not distress yourself; do not speak ill of your brethren in the industry, when a pilgrim you served this year fails to return to you during next year’s operation. Just do your best, and give the highest standard of service. Allow the pilgrim to sample and experience what your colleagues offer. He will come back to you, surely!



Hajj operation has a lot of complications, much of which the pilgrim may not know but only the savvy tour operator can discern. You will spare yourself unnecessary bashing from and negative publicity by your pilgrims if you let them know your limitations in Hajj operations from the outset. Let them know that you don’t issue Hajj visas; the Saudi Embassy does. You cannot determine or hasten the time for release of passports from the embassy. Passports can even be misplaced and may not be seen in good time for the owner to travel on their scheduled date. Anomalies in visa on pilgrims’ passports, disappearance of passports after submission for visa at the embassy, and, in some cases, discovery of such passports without visas printed on them are not what make a bad travel agent. This can happen to anybody regardless of their experience; you cannot do anything to avert this. We in the business know this to be everyday occurrence. Often times, you can submit 200 passports for visa; by the time you collect them, 10 of the passports may belong to another company, and yours could be elsewhere. This does not mean all of you are not good companies or have done a bad job in handling pilgrims’ travelling documents. The confusion was created during collation and collection of passports at the embassy. In such cases, the Hajj tour operator will act, like a professional, if a novice pilgrim comes complaining about poor services of a company based on his bad experience on the issue of visa, missing passport or appearance of passport in another office other than the one he has made payment for package to. You should fear Allah and explain the situation to the uninitiated.



Experience is priceless. The Qur’an teaches us, if we do not know, to ask those who know, the experts, in everything we want to do (Al Ambiyaa 21:7). Hajj tour operators will serve pilgrims better by working and assisting each other in operational matters. Ask if you don’t know. Do not copy blindly (I have seen plagiarised information from my company’s brochure on more than one agency’s brochure for instance), or be part of a Hajj tour operator’s contingent as pilgrim-imbed to see how to conduct Hajj operation. So, today, he is a pilgrim, and tomorrow, a new entrant into the Hajj tour operation business. Welcome to the league! But you will not learn much by surreptitious design.



Being part of the contingent, you are like any other pilgrim. You are taken from one place to another, checking in and out of hotels and boarding buses from point A to B. You’ve not seen the bigger picture of planning and the effort that produced the flawless operation that you witnessed. Some of us will not travel to Saudi Arabia to make contact with partner-service providers and plan ahead for coming pilgrimage. They contend themselves with waiting for the release of brochure by serious companies, plagiarise it word for word – the design, package price with slight variation, and even copy the terms and condition of service verbatim! This business is not done this way. How can you blindly adopt someone else’s condition while you are aware that what you offer is inferior to the standard of service offered by the company? If you do not know how to paste, do not copy!



Why can’t people use their brain and their own initiative? What do you do if your entire Hajj brochure is plagiarised by another tour operator? Nothing. Just praise Allah for granting you the intellectual property that could be purloined by the lazy. Afterall you will get the reward for setting the standard and leading the way in the business.



The Glorious Qur’an praises those who give out of what Allah has provided for them (Al Baqarah 2:3). The experienced Hajj tour operators are duty bound, therefore, to share their knowledge to those of their colleagues in the business that are less endowed with operational expertise in the Hajj and Umrah business. The goal of every stakeholder in Hajj is to make the observance of one of the pillars of Islam easy for the Guests of Allah, the pilgrims.