New Age Islam
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Islamic Society ( 18 May 2014, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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The Angst of Ec­sta­sy



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.