Once a year, from every corner of the globe, a mass exodus occurs. Muslims of every color, ethnic group, rich or poor, make their way to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. This is the world’s largest annual pilgrimage, known as the Hajj. Over 2 million devotees descend on Islam’s most holy place which falls on the twelfth month of the Islamic lunar calendar.
As one of the five compulsory ‘pillars’ of Islam, all Muslims must do the Hajj at least once in a lifetime, and often spend years of hard graft saving up for it. Yet this is no busmen’s holiday. For the half million strong Asian Muslims who make the journey every year, it is fraught with logistical problems and each Muslim nation has a strict quota on the number of people who can attend each year. While this sacred spectacle emits harmony and brotherly love, chronic overcrowding and stampedes are an occupational hazard – dozens of pilgrims never make it home. In 2006, over 300 were trampled to death.
Even today, there is an air of mystery about the Hajj. Non-Muslims are not permitted anywhere near the main pilgrimage sites but throughout Asia you can easily sense the importance as local Muslims ready themselves for a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the Middle East. Many young people embarking on the Hajj, particularly those who live in more cosmopolitan areas, such as Kuala Lumpur or Jakarta, take pre-Hajj lessons to get a handle on the bewildering and at times, bizarre set of rituals that lay ahead.
In short, the Hajj involves walking round the Kaaba at al Haram Mosque, sipping holy Zam Zam water, an open air vigil at Mount Arafat and ritualistic stoning of the devil at Mina, over the course of several scorching hot days and nights. It is all planned with military precision with a small army of stewards and volunteers, which intriguingly include boy scouts. Yet it is no picnic, the Hajj is a deliberate arduous journey, designed to test one’s faith, patience and at times, sanity.
Across Asia, every nation has strict quotas from the Saudi Arabian authorities, based on the respective Muslim population. Whether it is the lucky quarter of a million Indonesians or the handful of ethnic Japanese Muslims, demand always outweighs the supply and some would-be pilgrims often go to extraordinary lengths. It has been known for people to forge passports, change nationality and pay massive bribes to get that priceless seat on the plane. There is even a growing market for ‘backpacker Hajis’ – traveling thousands of miles overland weeks ahead to avoid the strict quotas and save a fortune on airfare. Here is a brief look at how Muslims in Asia prepare for the Hajj.
Hari Raya Haji in Indonesia
As the largest Muslim country in the world, Indonesia sends more pilgrims each year than anywhere else, around 10% of the global total. There is currently a six-year waiting list at the state-run Hajj Ministry with no sign of a let up, increasing by around 20,000 every month. Due to the high costs and limited space, an extended family or even whole villages will club together to send just one person off on the Hajj.
It is cause for great celebration and is a real status symbol, often attracting local rivalry and jealousy into the bargain. There is always a huge communal no expense spared feast designed to give the aspiring ‘Haji’ a send off to remember. Regardless of their previous standing in the local community, they are afforded great respect on their return.
Hari Raya Korban in Malaysia
It is a similar scenario in Malaysia but they take a very business-like approach to Hajj preparations and in Kuala Lumpur it is sometimes difficult to see the dividing line between big business and religion. There is a pre-Hajj expo where local and international brands try to jump on the bandwagon and wall-to-wall TV commercials promoting ‘Halal’ products and services for the preceding month or so.
When pilgrims return home from the Hajj, whole villages turn out to welcome them back, wearing their finest clothes and bestow these prodigal sons and daughters with garlands of flowers. Then it is time to make a ritual sacrifice of livestock – a cow, goat or sheep. The rest of the day is spent respectfully visiting neighbors, overeating and mingling at lively night bazaars.
Hari Raya Haji in Singapore
In the Lion City, due to the much higher standard of living and a proportionally smaller number of Muslims, is it much less of a financial struggle to make the trip. Singapore is probably the best place for curious onlookers to immerse themselves in a little ‘Hajj fever.’ The end of Hajj is marked by ‘Hari Raya Haji,’ known as the Feast of the Sacrifice.
On this day the city’s mosques are filled to bursting point for prayers and giving alms to the less fortunate. The day continues with merrymaking, music and a little mayhem in the ethnic Malay districts of Kampong Glam and Geylang Serai. Expect garish decorations, great food and hectic street bazaars.