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Hajj-e-Akbar: Some day in the Future

By Murtaza Haider

Nov. 9 2011  

Some day in the future, the Hajj (annual pilgrimage to Makkah) could be much more than a ritualistic manifestation of congregated prayers. It may evolve into a fulcrum of intellectual thought and dialogue amongst Muslims.

Earlier this week, the Saudi government declared the recently completed Hajj a success for being able to perform successful open heart surgeries on pilgrims and for providing kidney dialysis to hundreds during Hajj.

The single largest congregation of Muslims should be deemed successful if it also enables discussion and debate on the continued suffering of Muslims while the rest of the world turns the page on poverty and disease.

The Hajj has been reduced merely to an exercise of carefully choreographed rituals under the watchful eyes of the Saudi regime. Any attempt to mobilise pilgrims at Hajj is always met with strict state-sponsored violence.

Instead of becoming a marketplace for innovative ideas to resolve challenges faced by Muslims, the Hajj is largely a gathering of elderly Muslims who perform rituals as part of culturally homogenous groups, thus seldom interacting with Muslims from other parts of the world.

Hajj could be much more than a gathering of elderly pilgrims seeking salvation. It could simultaneously be the largest gathering of the Muslim youth and intellectuals who can collectively create the largest marketplace for development ideas, or an exhibition place to showcase what works in development, or an entrepreneurial hub where prototypes are graduated from incubators to mass production.

In the not-so-distant future, I aspire to file the following dispatch from Hejaz. It was the largest-ever gathering of Muslim intellectuals, youth, civil servants, and members of the not-for-profit sector in Jeddah to devise strategies to alleviate poverty, disease, hunger, and water shortages in the Muslim world.

The annual Muslim Development Summit, which coincides every year with the Hajj, attracted over 300,000 participants making it the largest gathering of development professionals anywhere in the world.

Fewer than 50 miles away from the Summit, almost four million Muslims were busy performing the Hajj rituals. While the pilgrims in Makkah were throwing stones at devil, the participants of the development summit were innovating strategies to use stones to build more schools and hospitals. Whereas the pilgrims were slaughtering sheep, camels, and cows as part of the Hajj rituals, the participants of the development summit were debating strategies to improve food security in Muslim countries.

The nature of the annual pilgrimage completely transformed after Makkah, Medina, and the neighbouring towns were merged into a sovereign city-state, whose affairs are now collectively managed by the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC). This change in governance has enabled the construction of the new knowledge city at the outskirts of Makkah, which is now home to world’s largest technology incubators, conference centres, and institutes of higher learning. As a result, the Hajj has become the single-most important gathering of the Muslim intelligentsia dedicated to improving the state of Muslim economies and societies.

At the Centre for democracy and innovation, an initiative sponsored by Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, thousands of university students from Muslim countries were busy analysing why the Arab spring in 2011 failed to bring democracy, rule of law, and prosperity to Arab countries. Students were exploring the factors that made Arab army generals, and not the masses, the largest beneficiaries of the Arab spring. Another few thousand students at the Dr. Ali Shariati Complex of Muslim Social Thought were exploring how the Iranian revolution against the dictatorship of Shah of Iran resulted in an equally less representative regime led by clerics, which has even outlawed any opposition. A group of South Asian students analysed why bouts of parliamentary democracy in Bangladesh and Pakistan were characterised by economic disasters, poor governance, and social discord.

A panel of global experts gathered at the Sultan of Brunei’s Institute of Philanthropy developed strategies to expand opportunities for higher education in Muslim countries by creating a network of privately-funded universities to accommodate an additional few million university students across Muslim countries.

The most globally followed dialogues were held at the Haq and Sen Centre for Economic Development, which was sponsored by the people of Pakistan and India (collectively home to the largest Muslim populations in the world) to honour Dr. Mehboobul Haq and Professor Amartya Sen. The debates and dialogues held at the Haq and Sen Centre were watched live by global audiences at university campuses across the world. The Centre hosted the single largest assembly of development economists, professionals, and enthusiasts who focussed on how to improve economic growth and efficiencies in Muslim countries.

The millions who arrived in Hejaz for Hajj and the annual Muslim development Summit collectively formed the largest marketplace for ideas and innovation. On the sidelines of the summit one could find numerous financiers, micro-finance lenders and others who were eager to take ideas and prototypes from incubators to mass production. Promising discoveries in desalination of water were the most sought after innovations.

Verse 28 of Chapter 22 in Noble Quran mentions that those who go for Hajj may witness things that are of benefit to them. For centuries, many Muslims pilgrims have bought gold and considered that to be the benefit. I wonder if the promised benefit is in fact the trade in aspirations, ideas and plans that will one-day help improve the quality of life of a billion-plus Muslims.

Source: The Dawn, Karachi