Extending the haj for the sake of safety

In the aftermath of the Mina stampede, which claimed more than 1,000 lives during the haj last month, two things are noteworthy for evaluation. First is how the tragedy has caused further friction in sectarian politics, particularly between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Iran was the quickest to blame Saudi Arabia for the incident. To some extent, Iran’s reaction was reasonable, as most casualties were Iranians. The Mina stampede is the biggest tragedy during the haj in the last 25 years in terms of casualties. There must be issues in the way the Saudi Arabian authorities organize the haj. 

In this respect, a response by a Saudi mufti who blamed fate by saying that the tragedy was beyond human control (alias God’s will) is shameful. In the 1990 haj stampede, King Fahd bin Abdulaziz Al Saud reacted in the same way by saying that it was God’s will. It is understandable, thus, that many suspect such a fatalist attitude was an excuse for the Saudi Arabian authorities’ errors.

The Saudi Arabian attitude was even worse while being triggered by several Iranian-linked media outlets that reported that the presence of Saudi Arabian princes in Mina resulted in the pilgrims being pushed back right before the stampede — a report that was apparently false. Those media outlets were seemingly exploiting the tragedy to delegitimize the Saudi Arabian authorities. Some Saudi media outlets then took “revenge” by citing an Iranian haj committee member who said that Iranian pilgrims did not obey the Saudi Arabian authorities’ regulations. Yet the accusation of an Iranian conspiracy behind the stampede is ridiculous as it implies that Iran commanded its people to commit suicide. 

The way the respective media of both Saudi Arabia and Iran framed the tragedy shows how sectarian sentiment has become so bad that the two are being disrespectful toward those who died in the stampede. More tragic is how such a ridiculous media war found its way into Indonesia, where some online Islamic media outlets merely translated the reports without properly investigating the reliability of them. Overall, this shows the negative mindset many Muslims still suffer from: fatalist attitude, Sunni-Shia sectarian logic and conspirative reasoning.

The fundamental question is: How should the millions of pilgrims be managed in the same space at the same time? Most of the proposed solutions suggest expanding haj ritual spaces or decreasing the pilgrim quota. The former has a limit, while the latter will only extend the pilgrimage queue (many Indonesians must wait dozens of years; some more than 20 years).

If it is not possible to expand the haj ritual area or limit the quota, can we extend the haj period? We can, though it requires reinterpreting the guidelines for haj as regulated in the Muslim scripture and tradition.

Must the haj be performed on the eighth-12th day of the month of Dhulhijjah? If we carefully read the Koran, we will see that the answer is no. The Koran (2:197) says explicitly: “The haj is [during] well-known months” (al-hajj ashhurun ma’lumat). The word “ashhur” is clearly the plural form of “months” (the singular: shahr). 

The “well-known months” are the sacred four months (al-ashhur al-hurum): Dhulhijjah, Muharram, Safar and Rabi’ul-Awwal. The four months are deemed sacred because during those months, according to pre-Islam Arab traditions, war was forbidden and if Arab tribes were at war, they were ordered to cease temporarily during those months in respect of those performing the pilgrimage to the Ka’ba.

So why do Muslims perform the haj only in one month (Dhulhijjah)? It is because two hadiths say that Muslims have to follow the ways of Prophet Muhammad and make no interpretation. The Prophet performed the haj only once during his entire prophethood and it was during Dhulhijjah.

In the Arab world, this kind of interpretation has been proposed by the so-called Koraniyyun, that is, those who argue that the Koran is superior to hadiths (which is a secondary source) and that hadith must be seen and judged under the light of the Koran. In Indonesia, this interpretation was proposed by Masdar F. Mas’udi, a leading scholar of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), in the early 1990s, in response to the 1990 haj stampede.

The question remains whether Muslims are willing to change the way things have been done. This is a radical solution, but in the years to come, given the increasing number of the pilgrims, this (re)interpretation may be the best alternative solution. 

What should be taken into consideration is that the very principle of sharia is to avoid difficulty. “God intends for you ease,” says the Koran.

~ published in the Jakarta Post, 09/10/2015

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