This week, Muslim pilgrims will start the five day ritual of Hajj. Hajj is the world's largest annual gathering of people, which has grown from 30,000 in the 1930s to around 2 million pilgrims this year. Muslims from across the world travel to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, with a clear focus: to bring God to the centre of their lives.
It is the coming together of Muslims from every nation that makes Hajj so special. It is a personal yet collective experience.
Muslims retrace the footsteps of not only Prophet Muhammad but also Prophet Abraham and his family – a family that is revered by Muslims, Jews and Christians alike.
Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam and is compulsory for Muslims to undertake once in a lifetime if they can physically and financially afford it. For many modern societies, a religious pilgrimage is likely to be seen as a foreign concept. But for me the pilgrimage to Mecca is a revered and much longed for journey. It is a breathtaking sight to watch the sea of people at Mecca's Grand Mosque circling the Ka'aba, the black cube-shaped building considered by Muslims to be the house of God and towards which followers face five times a day when praying anywhere around the world.
Hajj is an epic human journey, a great assertion of faith, community and ordinary people's courage. It is also an extremely challenging experience: walking in blazing heat, finding a “perfect spot” for prayer when hundreds of thousands are also doing the same, queuing up for food and amenities. I find the Hajj journey a real test of patience and self-control, humbleness, and brotherhood – a real school for applied social ethics! Despite physical and emotional challenges, every year, I see people weeping with joy and sorrow, praying through the night, emerging spiritually renewed and revitalised and achieving a sense of peace and harmony.
During the Hajj, pilgrims stay in tenants in an open desert, which can be a real challenge for Western Muslims. Men – irrespective of background, skin colour, social class and age – cover themselves in the prescribed two unstitched pieces of white cloth which they are required to don for the event in a symbol of uniformity and equality. The spiritual pinnacle of the Hajj is the Day of Arafat when millions of people shed tears as they pray for God's forgiveness. The diversity of the people – from blonde Europeans to West Africans, elderly Indians to Indonesian babies – all chanting the mantra of the Hajj: "O God, here I am here to answer Your call", is simply an awe-inspiring and unforgettable experience.
Given the huge religious significance of Hajj for individuals and communities, it is with a slight sense of unease that I observe the ever-increasing encroachment of materialism onto the occasion. The spirituality of the pilgrimage is being affected by the excessive materialism around the Grand Mosque. The glittering Clock Tower, the world's second-tallest building, stands overbearingly at the doorstep of the mosque, whilst pilgrims try to devote themselves to their Lord in the most simple of attire, heads bowed with humility.
It also stands as a symbol of the increasing disparity between rich and poor in Muslim's holiest city, and poses questions in the minds of pilgrims about the values of equality and simplicity enjoined by Islam.
I applaud the efforts of the Saudi government that has spent billions to provide a relaxing and joyful experience to pilgrims but I also lament the excessive capitalism that is creeping into the city, obliterating historical and religious heritage in its path, which had been preserved for centuries.
The irony is that pilgrims might have left the skyscrapers of London or Shanghai or the hustle and bustle of New York or Jakarta behind them to take a break from materialism and find God in simplicity and minimalism, but the simple spartan rite of passage is being turned into a big-bucks business, with over-loaded malls and overblown hotels. The high rise complexes and luxury hotels have changed the experience of Hajj for rich pilgrims, while poorer pilgrims find it increasingly difficult to afford lodgings. The over-consumerism during the Hajj season acts as a distraction from prayer, reflection and enhancing the value of brotherhood and solidarity by spending time with fellow Muslims from across the world.
Robust infrastructure, strong architecture and commercial engagement is important given the millions of pilgrims who descend on Mecca but the balance between the spiritual experiences and commercialisation must not be allowed to shift inexorably in favour of the latter. The excessive capitalism and over-indulgence instantly eliminates social and economic equality which is intended to be displayed through Hajj. I am concerned that, in years to come, a journey of faith and even asceticism could merely become a materialistic ritual, an entertaining holiday, a showground for the super rich to display their wealth and nobility. There is a need to reclaim Hajj from the clutches of mass commercialisation.
But despite this and past tragedies, the crowds, the sea of people in white praying and crying in the most effusive expression of religious emotion, trying to purify their souls and embrace humanity, is something that remains with the pilgrim for the rest of his life.
Imam Qari Asim is a senior imam at Makkah Mosque, Leeds