By Nadeem F. Paracha
May 18th, 2014
After my father passed away in October 2009, I told my mother that I would take her to perform the annual Muslim pilgrimage, the Hajj, in Makkah.
My parents had been married for over 40 years, and my Hajj proposition was at least one way I thought would help my mother overcome her sorrow.
Unfortunately certain professional commitments have kept me from keeping my word, but I do still plan to honour it.
Nevertheless, since I usually read up on anything that even slightly interests me, from hefty histories to comic books to furniture to brochures; I decided to do some reading on Hajj as well soon after I told my mother I’d be taking her to Makkah.
Of course, I did the usual thing by first talking to the army of relatives who have performed the Hajj on multiple occasions, but what I was really looking for was something that didn’t read like a manual or wasn’t stuffed with clichéd hyperboles about the hollowed experience and event.
Well, I did get my hands on a couple of books that I quickly devoured, but it was only by chance that I stumbled upon a book on the subject that left me greatly intrigued. I found it at a second-hand book store. It was lying just behind an old book on Stalin that I had originally picked up from the shelf.
It looked really old and was called Labbaik (I am present). I picked it up and blew away that irritating, ubiquitous Karachi dust from its crumbling cover. The book was in Urdu and just had the title and the author’s name on it.
It was authored by one Mumtaz Mufti. I didn’t know who the gentleman was but later discovered that he was a respected short-story writer who had been influenced by famous psychologist, Sigmund Freud, but from the 1960s onwards had become an ardent admirer of Sufism under the guidance of another famous Urdu writer, Qudrat Ullah Shahab.
The book was first published in 1975 and in fact what I had in my hands was a 1975 paperback edition. The book is about Mufti’s maiden trip to Makkah to perform Hajj.
What excited me the most about this discovery was that a learned Pakistani Muslim was relating his experience about the auspicious pilgrimage and that too during a time when Pakistan’s society was quite different in matters of spirituality.
This got me reading the book the moment I bought it (for Rs150) and brought it home.
Mufti had written this book when matters of the faith in Pakistan had not been completely subjected to various social and political complications.
And what a read it turned out to be. Mufti writes that in 1965 he was suddenly overwhelmed by the longing to perform the Hajj. This surprised him because he was not a very observant Muslim. To him mere ritual had nothing to do with spirituality but he now considered the Hajj to be more about spiritual self-discovery than rituals.
So off he went to Makkah on a PIA flight. With him were many common Pakistani men and women on the plane all going to Makkah to perform the Hajj. Also on the flight was a group of clerics.
Mufti writes that the common folk (and he) were filled with joy but the clerics were all stern-faced, as if lacking souls. ‘They have nothing in common with us,’ he grumbles.
But over the next few days in Makkah, Mufti’s joy eventually evaporates and he is filled with a strange awkwardness and angst. He finds the streets of the holy city echoing with chaos where someone is always trying to sell something or the other.
In Mina (where the pilgrims go to hurl stones at Satan, who is depicted by three ancient walls), Mufti is struck with an unbearable feeling of anxiety and vulnerability, overawed by a sense of dread. He doesn’t like the people of Mina. He believes they have been living under the shadow of the devil for too long.
After completing the ritual, he settles in the office of his tour guide. Here he bumps into an acquaintance of his who had travelled to Makkah with his wife to perform the Hajj. The man begins to complain (to the guide) that a lady who had befriended his wife on the trip can now be seen with a man.
‘We don’t know who the man is,’ says the complainant. ‘Can you change our room and give us another room, away from the one where the lady is staying? She is destroying the sanctity of our visit.’
Hearing this, Mufti sees the common Pakistani whom he had praised on the plane for being full of joy and soul, now turning into a stern faced and soulless cleric.
‘Let it be, brother,’ Mufti tells the restless man. ‘Why are you forsaking the joy of Hajj for something you are not sure of?’
Whereas much of the book is about how Mufti first differentiates between the common Muslims and the soulless clerics, and then points out how common people too have the capacity to mutate into becoming like judgmental clerics, in the final chapters Mufti is left emotionally ravaged when he realises that he too is not immune from the traits he is lambasting.
This realisation is most painful and takes place in a mosque in Makkah where he had gone to offer prayers. While praying he begins to hear voices criticising him at the way he looks and practices his faith. He turns around but can’t figure out where the voices are coming from.
It soon transpires that the voices are emitting from his own head, criticising him and even complaining how bad he smelled. He tries to ignore them, but is left feeling so agitated that he gets up and runs away. The judge had become the judged.
One of the voices had complained how Mufti had the audacity to enter the mosque while smelling so bad. Mufti writes that he began to actually be able to smell himself and was repulsed.
Back in Pakistan he relates the episode to his mentor, Qudrat Ullah Shahab, and stretches one of his hands towards Shahab, asking him to smell it. But Shahab could not smell anything.
Mufti suggests that the smell was symbolic of the stench of hypocrisy that he smelled on others but was now himself engulfed by. And that moral judgements made by a mere mortal like him plague the human soul with something that the person in question will not like and will hide from, or worse, be repulsed by for the rest of his life.