A tale of two pilgrimages

By SHAMSUL AKMAR / Pic By AFP

Less than two months ago, renowned Islamic scholar/cleric Youssef al-Qaradawi reportedly tweeted about the haj pilgrimage, saying: “Allah has no need for the haj. Any duty that He imposed is aimed at enriching his followers so that they can transcend to their maker on the spiritual, moral and psychological levels.

“Seeing Muslims feeding the hungry, treating the sick and sheltering the homeless are better viewed by Allah than spending money on the haj and umrah every year.”

It sparked a controversy across the Islamic world and his detractors condemned him of undermining Allah’s injunction as performing the haj is the fifth pillar of Islam.

By any standards, Qatar-based al-Qaradawi’s views are definitely unacceptable to most Muslims who had been brought up never to raise, let alone discuss, the demerits of any of the five pillars of Islam.

However, he is not without supporters who believe that Allah’s concern is more of the spiritual and not the physical pilgrimage.

And that his views are formed following Saudi Arabia’s travel ban on Qataris into the kingdom where Mecca is located and the haj performed, provided further context to his “edict”.

In entirety, however, al-Qaradawi’s edict on the haj was rejected and condemned, no matter how humane he tried to package it.

It is, however, interesting to note that he is not the first well-known personality to attempt to diminish the importance of pilgrimage when put on parallel with deeds for humanity.

For that matter, al-Qaradawi could have taken a page from Leo Tolstoy’s short story — The Two Old Men — narrated his edict less explicitly and not suffered such condemnation.

It was written at a time when Tolstoy started openly sharing his Christian beliefs, his embracing of pacifism and also at a time when he was critical of some of the church’s doctrines.

The story is about two Russians, Efim Tarassitch Sheveloff and Elijah Bodroff, friends who agreed that they must one day perform the pilgrimage in old Jerusalem. It took them a long while to embark on the journey as Efim, the richer of the two, had always found excuses to postpone it as he was caught up with his day-to-day affairs.

Even when they finally decided to embark with the months’ long journey on foot, Efim was still filled with uncertainties, worried whether his children would attend to his worldly possessions which were quite substantial.

Elijah on the other hand was depicted as someone carefree, who enjoyed his tobacco smoking and indulging a pint or two of his vodka. Before leaving, he sold off most of his bee hives to finance the trip.

Along the way, Elijah stopped at a village to get some water and told Efim to move along and that he would catch up. What Elijah discovered in the village derailed him from pursuing the journey.

It was a village that suffered from a failed season with nothing to harvest. Plague, famine and extreme poverty saw deaths knocking on their doors. Elijah stayed on, helped a family get back on their feet and spent almost entirely all of his money for the trip.

By the time the family recovered and was good to work for the new season, Elijah had to turn back and abandon the pilgrimage.

Efim was unaware and in fact, as he trudged on, thought that Elijah must have caught a ride on one of the passing horse carriages and made good time.

When he finally reached Jerusalem and started visiting the holy sites and performing his prayers, on several occasions, amid the crowd, he saw Elijah way ahead and closest to the holy spots.

Despite attempts to find Elijah, he failed.

On his return trip, Efim stopped at the village where he last saw Elijah and was informed of how Elijah had turned a saviour.

By the time he reached his village and was aware that Elijah did not make it to Jerusalem and yet was seen there, Efim’s concept of the religion had obviously been challenged and questioned.

The story was written by one of the greatest authors in the world in 1885, more than a century ago, but the debates on deeds over rituals had never diminished.

Of course, it can be quite contentious for attempting to compare, if not equate, a Christian narrative to that of a Muslim, given the sensitivities of present day mankind who had not changed much from the sensitivities of the days of yore.

Furthermore, as pointed out, the pilgrimage to Mecca is not an option, but a requirement that makes one a Muslim. Neither does a short article do justice to Tolstoy’s beautiful rendition and subtle nuances.

And without attempting a caveat, suffice to say it is just the sharing of a story that probably contributed to the modern day philosophy of Christianity.

Then again, printed books and novels, where ideas, opinions and concepts are profoundly narrated, are also becoming quite anachronistic.

So tweet it is and al-Qaradawi, be wary.