Science - January 12, 2006

In the news / The Hajj

Many newspapers carried photos of overwhelming masses of people in white last Tuesday, the last day of the biggest annual pilgrimage in the world. About three million Muslims took part in the Hajj this year, resulting in almost inconceivable scenes for non-Muslims. But how does someone from a strict Islamic country such as Iran view these images?

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Mostafa Karbasioun and Hossein Mahdizdeh are sitting companionably in their spacious office on the fourth floor of the Leeuwenborch. Both Iranians have been here for about a year, and are working on their PhDs in the Education and Competence Studies Group, Karbasioun on competence-based learning and Mahdizdeh on computer-supported learning. The mood is one of polite and cautious openness, to strangers but also towards one another.

‘We are Muslims.’ There is hesitant laughter. ‘You can see that, and most people assume so. That’s very much how people think these days, what is someone? But indeed, we really are Muslims.

‘And for us the Hajj is one of the most important things in life, just as it is for all the 1.4 billion Muslims in the world. It is an important principle of Islam, a duty really, that you travel at least once in your life to Mecca to take part in the ceremonies that the Prophet Mohammed also underwent in 632. That was when he returned to the town where he was born, and he founded the Ka’bah as the House of God. Since then this has been the most important spot on earth for every Muslim, and wherever you are in the world, you pray in the direction of the Ka’bah. If a Muslim does not have enough money or is in ill health, you don’t have to undertake the Hajj. But for most Muslims though, doing the Hajj once in their lifetime is not only a duty but also one of their greatest ambitions. For us it is one of the ways that you can get closer to God.

‘Even though most of the Iranian people are Shia Muslims, whose beliefs are slightly different from the Sunni Muslim majority in the world, the Hajj is just as important for them. It is regarded as a national holiday period and the Hajj is broadcast live all day on television. On the tenth and last day everyone has the day off and many Iranians sacrifice a sheep, as do all the pilgrims in Mecca. Most of the meat is sent to poor people, for example in Africa.

‘Many people decide to get married during the Hajj, as it is such a special time and we feel close to God. An increasing number of young people are also going on the Hajj, partly because they have more money and also because the government seems to be encouraging them to go. Some young people even decided to get married in Mecca during their Hajj.’

Mustafa has already done the Hajj once, when he was 28, but it was not an official pilgrimage. You can go to Mecca at the time of the Hajj but not take part in all the ceremonies. This made it much cheaper and it meant he could practise for later when he does a real Hajj. ‘Mecca was hot and incredibly crowded; Dutch people would have a hard time, but you have to understand that for us it is one of the most wonderful things you can do, it’s like a dream coming true. It was fantastic.

‘As an Iranian you have to have permission from the government to go on the Hajj. There are long waiting lists that you can put your name on if you have enough money. If things weren’t organised Mecca would be flooded with a huge number of Muslims. When you get permission you can go on an organised trip to Mecca for two thousand euros. About 100,000 pilgrims go each year from Iran.

‘One of the most beautiful aspects of the Hajj for Hussein is the white colour of the masses of people, which you see in the photos. ‘Everyone wears white. In the Koran it says that white clothing stands for unity and equality. In the end everyone is equal, regardless of colour, race, gender, age or wealth. What’s important for God is how serious your belief is and the good deeds you do.’ / Martijn Vink