Daily Trust (Abuja)

Nigeria: Hajj and the Saudis [I]

opinion

The news came that Saudi Arabia has detained for four to five days at two of its international airports without adequate food or drink and under deplorable condition, and then turned back more than a thousand of our women pilgrims who were not accompanied by a Mahram, a husband or a non-marriageable close relative.

Only in Saudi Arabia is it possible to detain a thousand helpless women--and pilgrims at that--and then deport them. And the Saudi attitude is that they don't listen to entreaties or have time to see the logic of any counter argument once they have made up their minds. And they have made up their minds that these female pilgrims from Nigeria will go back home. And home they did go back to, a move that threatened to spoil a Hajj that was on its way to becoming better than many before it.

It was clear that something strange was happening: it didn't even look like there was any new policy as such at all; because while our women were being detained at the King Abdul Aziz International Airport in Jeddah, they were free and unmolested at the Prince Muhammad bin Abdul Aziz International Airport Medina, where they went through checks by security, customs and immigration without any hassle, besides the customary humiliation that all pilgrims have come to accept as normal in Saudi Arabia.

Moreover, even in Jeddah, 15 flights from Nigeria had discharge without any problem; problem started there with the 16th flight and in Medina with the fifth to that holy city. Ironically, it was in fact only after Nigerian officials had protested the novelty of the new procedure, pointing to the free passage that Nigerian female pilgrims were getting at Medina airport that Saudi officials clamped down on that airport too, suggesting that it was no policy at all. Or that they discovered the Mahram hadith last Saturday. And only when the news was publicised internationally and Nigerians started condemning this discriminatory treatment that the Saudis extended it to a contingent of pilgrims from Mali.

It is still difficult to understand exactly what was happening then; and because a non-policy suddenly became policy and apparently no one was able to do anything about it or be able to help the situation, this has led some to conclude that perhaps some power drunk Saudi official, most likely a prince on paramilitary probation at the immigration, for instance--at that post at that time, decided to give the order--that Nigerian women pilgrims not accompanied by a Mahram be stopped from entering the kingdom. Hitherto, this was not a requirement for the Hajj; but it shouldn't really be surprised when it is given or when it is arbitrarily and so discriminatorily applied.

Saudi officials are notorious for their disrespect to pilgrims, for racism especially against blacks, for disrespectful asabiyyah to other non-Arabs. You see Saudi subservience and real obsequiousness only when they encounter White Americans or when other foreigners speak English to them. To them, deporting irritating Hujjaj was therefore no big deal.

The deportations began even as Vice President Alhaji Namadi Sambo was discussing the issue with the Saudi ambassador to Nigeria. And the Federal Government was forced to call off the presidential committee raised under the leadership of House of Representatives Speaker Alhaji Aminu Waziri Tambuwal to negotiate with Saudi leadership, when, in a clear snub, it was advised that there would be no official to receive it.

By all standards these acts constituted insults to Nigeria; and though the diplomatic response was vigorous, it should have been swifter and more hard-line. Perhaps Nigeria's ambassador should have been temporarily recalled immediately, and the Saudi ambassador sent home after the expiration of the ultimatum that the Federal government gave. And if the matter was still not rescinded, Nigeria should have considered boycotting the Hajj this year. That should at least begin to teach them a lesson.

Our intending pilgrims would not have to suffer any loss spiritual because God had seen their intention and efforts and would recompense that with the reward of those on whose paths obstacles had been placed. The only thing they would have lost was "that which is of benefit to them," which every successful pilgrim ought to realise and experience, either collectively or individually.

In the end, the real loser will be the Saudi economy, though, awash as it is with petrodollars, it is going to be immune from this type of miniscule shock; it will hit harder at the innocent sector--the middle and lower classes, the restaurateurs, the shopkeepers, tentmakers, pharmacists and the taxi and bus drivers, the very sector that services the pilgrims directly and whose individual economies depend on pilgrim spending. If Nigeria boycotts the hajj, these people will lose the $321,505,000 that the pilgrims will be spending on them from their basic travelling allowance and the payment of royalty, not counting rates for tent and rent. But these are small fishes, and like all small fishes everywhere, they are eaten by Big Fish.

On the other hand, it is difficult to fight for or speak on behalf of Nigerians, especially when they are outside their country in large numbers whatever the reason for their outing, not least because of their unruliness--and in this, Muslims are no exception: they also are typically unruly, they are often less than tidy and they are mostly ignorant of the basic tenets of Islam, more especially the rites of the Hajj. But this doesn't give the Saudis the right to manufacture excuses to use to obstruct the path to the House of God for Nigerian pilgrims. Defenders of the Saudi move have spoken of immoral behaviour and ignorance as justification for what has been done; but the Saudis themselves have not given these reasons. They said they acted because female pilgrims came to their country without male escort.

No doubt, there is an injunction in the hadith disallowing women from travelling out alone on journeys that take more than three days. Shafi'iyyah holds that for a woman to perform Hajj, she must be able to undertake the journey in security, which can be found if she is accompanied by a husband or a Mahram or a group of trusted women; and further holds that it is permissible for a woman to perform Hajj if she finds only one trusted woman with whom to go. In Shafi'iyyah it is permissible for a woman to travel alone if she fears nothing on the road. Malikiyyah holds that a woman who does not find a Mahram or husband to travel with a secure group, which can be made up of men or women or a mixture of the two.

The classical scholars of Shafi'iyyah and Malikiyyah and almost all contemporary scholars have understood the prohibition in context, and accepted that it was occasioned by the prevalent lack of security of that age; so that when the environment became secure as it had today, the need for a Mahram to accompany a woman no longer subsisted. And the best proof for this is the Saudis' own attitude for not insisting on it all these years, despite the rigidity of its own Hanabilah on following the letter rather than the spirit of the Shariah; and the fact that even this year, they only remembered the hadith after 25 flights [15 in Jeddah, 10 in Medina] had landed in the kingdom with Nigerian women without Mahram in the manner they have now interpreted it.

The memorandum of understanding signed between the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria and Saudi authorities like all similar agreements signed over many years had no provision on the issue. The groups formed by the pilgrims and the agreement extracted by the Hajj commission satisfy the conditions set by our Madhhab, and the Saudis have no basis to return our female pilgrims. As an excuse therefore, this pretence must be discounted when a female pilgrim was returned to Nigeria despite the presence of her husband on the same flight.

But it is perhaps good hat this is happening to pilgrims from Nigeria, these Muslims whose love for the Holy Land and the two spiritual icons in contains has often been erroneously directed at the monarchy in charge of it, and who, in this, have been more Catholic than the Pope. A few years ago, no criticism of the Saudi regime would have gone without shrills of protests and rebuttals from some of the very preachers who are today condemning it.

This single act has done more to lift the blinkers from the eyes of some of its supporters such that, with luck, this may in future lead them to see more clearly and accept and finally realise the full implications of what the fact of its origin has done to Islam, and its continuing pro-Western and anti-Islamic stance in Middle Eastern geopolitics is doing to the Muslim world--and this much is more than all that its critics may by their own effort achieve. This deliberate and shabby insult to Nigerian pilgrims provides a suitable backdrop against which to examine and expose their mismanagement of the Hajj and their claims to the custodianship of Islam's Two Holy Places.

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