A Hajj first timer, Saju, is pissed about getting written permission from her husband to make the sacred journey to Mecca. “You don’t ask your husband for anything these days,” she says, soft-spoken and indignant. “It’s unheard of.”
Since Shiites have no restriction on single women going for the Hajj, the 52-year-old homemaker from Iran is less than pleased to know that Saudi Arabia requires all women pilgrims below the age of 45 to be accompanied by a male relative.
As Saju did her homework, she also found out that certain rituals of her sect were not acceptable in the holy land. “There are some things that you simply cannot do…..word gets around about people who have gotten into trouble,” she says.
To learn more, Saju headed to an Islamic Center in New York City where Imam Sawani advises travelers about certain customs that need to be practiced differently or discreetly.
“Do not break the rules or they will send you back and we will all go to prison,” the religious leader cautions, half-jokingly, but the seriousness is not lost.
The Sunnis reject several Shiite practices that involve revering the Prophet’s family and their saints. The strict interpretation of Koran relied on by the Saudis is even less tolerant of many of the Shiite beliefs that are denounced as polytheism.
At the center of the long list of “dos and don’ts” is the prohibition on the use of the Turbah, which is a disc made of clay, stone or wood that Shiites put under their forehead in prayer because prostrating on any artificial material is not allowed.
The circular tablets lies at the heart of their faith as it is made from the soil of the battlefield of Karbala in Iraq where Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and the revered martyr of the Shiite, was killed by his enemies in a feud of succession.
The Sunnis liken praying to the stone as a form of idol worship. An Islamic scholar from Tanzania, Haafiz, who has gone for the Hajj ten times, recalls how the sacred stone and certain religious books are confiscated at the airport.
“It’s terrible, they just pick it up and throw it in a dustbin,” he says. “You can’t even use it in a hotel because if someone reports you to the Mutawa (religious police) then you’ve had it.”
Imam Sawani’s first response to whether the stone should be carried is, “I would not recommend it.” Later, the Imam from Iraq reveals that Hajjis manage to sneak in Turbah’s the size of a dime or camouflaged in a special mat. “Pick it up each time you raise your head,” he warns.
A mother of two, Aaliya, 33, related how she concealed her Turbah as a tiny rosary. “My prayer is not complete without it and so I had to take the risk,” she says. “I feel like when I set my mind to it… I’m there at Karbala.”
Another habit that the Shiites have to guard against is touching and kissing any walls or shrines. A Hajj guide from Pakistan, Syed, describes pilgrims being beaten by guards for reciting incantations near the Kaaba -a towering black cube at the center of the Grand Mosque that all Muslims across nations turn to face when praying.
“People travel from far away to see this and they cry out of love but if you cry…they say this is ‘Kuffar’(against Islam)…stop crying,” says Syed. In many of their prayers, Shiites condemn historical and religious figures that they hold responsible for grave atrocities committed against the Prophet’s family in the years following his death. The Sunnis who are the larger sect consider this blasphemous.
Stringent checks are observed at the mosque where the Prophet is buried, and the cemetery called Jannatul Baqee where rest members of his kin and companions. Both are in Medina where almost all Shiites go before heading to Mecca.
The Baqee is closed to women, and several of its shrines have been destroyed by the ruling royal family of Saudi Arabia who practice the severest form of Islam called Wahhabism, which leads them to believe that paying homage at the cemetery is akin to grave-worshipping.
“You touch the graves and immediately someone will pounce on you,” says Haafiz who remembers each grave being surrounded by long barriers and a guard. On loudspeakers, the authorities warn against “Bid’ah” (innovation) - something not practiced at the time of the Prophet.
Veteran Hajjis tell tales of women inviting trouble at the Prophet’s mosque where they loudly praise their messenger of God and pay scant attention to angry objections by the beefy guards.
“Sometimes they even ululate and this really infuriates the guards.” says Haafiz. “They really get roughed up but they’re in such an emotional state that they don’t care.”
The professor admits to having thrown caution to the wind quite a few times. Back in 1987, he asked friends to “accidentally” push him very close to the mausoleum of the Prophet. Unfortunately, the security wised up to their ploy.
“This guard whipped me with his scarf but I managed to kiss the shrine,” he says, laughing. “It is such a humiliation ….. I’m a forty year old man…come on.”
Different prayer timings between the two sects is another anomaly that needs to be worked out during the Hajj. The call to prayer for the Shiites is approximately ten minutes after the Sunnis.
Since many Sunnis refuse to be led in prayer by a Shiite Imam, there are Shiites who protest against following a Sunni Imam. During the Hajj, however, many clerics advise Shiites to follow their host.
“You can say your own prayers individually later but you must bow at the same time as everyone else,” Imam Sawani emphasizes. “It is a symbol of unity.”
This is easier said than done for Saju who is considering a quick stop at the Sunni mosque to practice before leaving. “I can’t concentrate on my prayer if I’m so worried about when to lower and raise my head,” she says looking flustered while her husband patiently goes over the rules again. “It’s not that difficult jaan (dear),” he says.
Every pilgrim has a unique story about whether these constrains were a major problem or minor inconvenience. “When all these rules do not let you fulfill your religious duties and makes you feel guilty then it is more than an inconvenience,” says Haafiz.
To comfort his group, Syed tells them not to feel guilty about foregoing a few obligations as it can be viewed as Taqiyyah, which means temporarily hiding one’s faith if you’re scared for your life, dignity and property.
“If I use a clay stone to prostrate but I fear of it being kicked….. then it is okay to hide it if I know it will be disrespected,” he explains.
Although, when Alidina thinks of his ten trips to the Hajj, the story that he loves to tell is of a Saudi guard who quietly placed a Turbah under his forehead as he prostrated not in Mecca but in a smaller mosque in the suburbs of Medina.
“When I said my prayer the man just picked it up and disappeared,” he says.
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