Two different images of Islamic pilgrimage–Haj and Umra–contribute significantly to popular debates on the Muslim identity in India.
On the one hand, there is a relatively neutral image of Haj which we often encounter at various Indian airports: a congregation of Hajis, both men and women, wearing white clothes along with a large number of relatives, friends and well-wishers, who gather to say goodbye to them for a pious journey with a slogan Allahuma labaik!
There is, however, a different evocation of Haj as well that revolves around the question of Haj subsidy. The Government of India, following the norms set up by the colonial state, offers a small grant to cover the travel and accommodation cost for each person going for Haj. Although the Supreme Court and prominent Muslim organisations have been critical of this practice, the Haj subsidy has not been scrapped.
These two set portrayals of Islamic pilgrimage do not capture those social-cultural changes that have redefined Islamic religiosities in globalised India in recent years. Haj and Umar do not merely symbolise Islamic pilgrimage; instead, these rituals have become a component of what is now called spiritual tourism.
It is important to clarify that Haj and Umra are two different religious journeys. Haj, as it is well known, is one of the five pillars of Islam (along with Kalima–belief in Allah and the prophet-hood of Prophet Muhammad; praying five times, called Salat/Namaz; Zakat for needy and poor; and keeping fast–Som or Roza in the month of Ramzan).
It is obligatory for Muslims to perform Haj at least once in their lifetime (if he/she is capable of bearing the financial cost of this sacred journey to Mecca and Medina). In this sense, Haj is the principal congressional Islamic form of worship in which Muslims from all over the world participate every year from the 8th to 12th (or in some cases 13th) of Dhu al-Hijjah, the last month of the Islamic calendar.
Umra, on the other hand, is simply a visit to the holy sites of Islam. Unlike Haj, Umra is not a mandatory pilgrimage, which can be performed any time of the year. However, there are certain performative aspects, such wearing a white unstitched attire called Ihram (for men) and performing Tawaf around the Kaba (Tawaf literally means circling. Muslim devotees are to go round the Kaba seven times), which makes Umra an equally significant congressional activity for Muslims.
The Haj has always been considered a powerful status symbol in the social-cultural universe of South Asian Muslim communities. The title Haji (for men and Hajjan for women in North India) is still used to address those who have performed this most expensive Islamic ritual.
Performing Haj, at least two decades ago, was considered to be a rare, exceptional and courageous act among Indian Muslims. Very few Muslims, mostly those who were prosperous, had the advantage to visit Mecca and Medina for Haj.
This exceptional religious and social value of Haj also determined the contour of Islamic religiosities. The Haj, as the highest spiritual journey, used to define the relative religious significance of local/regional holy places of worships, such as Sufi shrines. The popular saying that “visiting Ajmer a certain number of times would make a Haj” turns out to be an integral part of Muslim belief system in North India for a long time.
The emergence of a new Muslim middle class in the 1990s affected this gradually evolved Islamic hierarchy of spirituality in a significant way. Although the relative importance of Sufi dargahs continued to play a major role in the social and cultural life of Muslim communities, the holy site of Mecca and Medina became new accessible shrines.
The outcome was obvious: the number of Indian Hajis has increased over the years. (It is estimated that over 1.7 lakh Indian Muslims went for Haj in 2016.) Same is the case with Umra journeys. Despite the increase in the visa fee for Umra, the popularity of the pilgrimage has not been affected at all.
This growing pilgrimage-centric Islamic religiosity has three very clear social-cultural impacts.
First of all, the Haj has lost its exceptionality as a rare, strong-willed act of spiritual nature. Upward mobility of a class of Muslims, cheap airfares, better accommodation facilities in Saudi Arabia and above all global flow of people have transformed Haj and Umra into a simplified spiritual travel. Performing Haj and Umra more than once has now become a common practice. In fact, this is the reason why the title Haji is gradually disappearing from middle-class Muslim social milieus.
Secondly, the increasing access to Mecca and Medina has changed the historically evolved relationship between the local shrines and the holy Islamic sites, where Islam as a religion originated. The local shrines, no doubt, are visited and revered by Muslims (and non-Muslims as well) from all walks of life as places of spiritual vigour; yet, the visit to Kaba and the Prophet’s Mosque—has acquired an inimitable status. Hence, visiting Mecca and Medina in real and actual sense has no longer remained comparable with any other religious journey.
Finally, the cheap Haj and Umra tour packages have also paved the way for a new cultural entity called “spiritual tourism”. A section of affluent Muslims, who perform a number of Haj and Umra annually, also take these opportunities to spend holidays in Saudi Arabia.
This spiritual tourism is compatible with the Saudi Arabian government’s new policy to open up relatively unknown Islamic sites for tourists. The Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA) recently announced that it plans to launch the “Umra-Plus Tourism” programme which would allow foreign pilgrims to visit Saudi Arabia’s tourist resorts, historical sites and museums, including places like Madain Saleh, Madain Shuaib, Haqel, Abha and Taif.
These changing cultural meanings of Haj and Umra in contemporary India have led to a series of serious internal religious debates on the importance of pilgrimage in Islam. There is a strong argument that the money spent for spiritual tourism could be utilised for community-development initiatives. This claim is justified on the ground that the Prophet discouraged all excessive practices, including lavish rituals.
Despite these overtly critical religious responses, Haj and Umra as a dominant form of Islamic rituals continue to survive.
Muslims and Modernity is a fortnightly column by Hilal Ahmed.
The author can be contacted on Twitter @Ahmed1Hilal.