Jeddah — Sultan of Sokoto Alhaji Muhammad Sa'ad Abubakar is the Amirul Hajj of Nigeria. In this interview in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, the Sultan spoke on the 2012 hajj operation, the challenges faced by female pilgrims and the effort being made to rectify it, allocation of pilgrims to air carriers, direct flights to Medina, unity among Muslims, stereotyping of Muslims, terrorism, among others. Excerpts:
As the leader of the Nigerian delegation to the 2012 hajj, how do you describe the operations?
The 2012 hajj is a success despite all the challenges, despite the hiccups and the mahram problem. We have had a successful airlift from Nigeria. And the over 85, 000 Nigerian pilgrims conveyed to the holy land by National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) and the 10, 000 pilgrims that followed the international routes, bringing the total to 95, 000; had performed their hajj rites successfully. Nigeria has one of the largest contingents in this year's hajj; therefore it must be given the desired attention by the Saudi authorities when it comes to hajj matters.
We have had complaints from pilgrims- some are genuine and some are just sentimental. We believe that Nigeria has one of the largest contingents that are well managed, well brought up and well shepherd by the various administrators at the state and national levels. It is evident that hajj operations in Nigeria have witnessed a significant change in the last four to five years.
Also, the continuity in NAHCON since its establishment about five years ago as a parastatal, has helped a lot in making hajj operations a success. I think continuity on issues like this, is very important because where we made mistakes last year we came back this year and rectified them. We had so many comments about feeding this year, though the food came late in some places but it was even better. But last year, there were so many complaints about food-not getting food, not getting this and not getting that. But this year, there were very minimal complaints. I think this was a result of the commitment and dedication of the leadership of NAHCON as well as the commitments from states who have the pilgrims. Overall, it was the will of Almighty Allah. We only did our best and leave the rest to him.
What about the issue of mahram for female pilgrims? Many Nigerians were not happy with the treatment meted out to female pilgrims from Nigeria.
That was one of the little problem we had during the early airlift of the pilgrims from Nigeria that had to do with our sisters, some of them were brought back to Nigeria and there was much noise being made. But thankfully the issue has been put to rest. Those ladies who were returned were brought back here and they performed their hajj. But we intend to discuss the issue with the Saudi authorities on the issue and what should be done. We are quite aware that we have been performing this hajj for several decades but we were never asked to produce mahram to our female pilgrims. And we also have our own school of thought (Madhab). Our own madhab (Maliki) allows a woman to come and perform hajj with trusted group of people: they could be ladies, a mixture of ladies and men. And you all know how we move our pilgrims. Right from home, they move in group up to the camps, then to the airplane. Even when they land in Jeddah or Medina, they are still in groups and their passports are taken away from them. So, they can't even go anywhere.
Thereafter, they move in buses to Nigerian accommodations, women separately and men separately. They move to Muna, Arafat, Muzdalifa, back to Muna and then Makkah in the same manner. And they finish their hajj rites and airlift back home in the same manner. So, what is the problem? That is why we believe that these are some of the things we'll take up with the Saudi authorities in our meeting before our preparation for the 2013 hajj, God willing. We intend to take up these issues as soon as we get clearance from them, we'll come down for the meeting so that some of these grey areas could be ironed out so that we won't have a repeat of what happened this year as regards our female pilgrims. We are all concerned and passionate about it. We are happy that it was resolved amicably and the federal government team that came under the leadership of the Speaker (Aminu Tambuwal) was well received. They had an excellent meeting and they were even hosted into a lunch in a brotherly and amicable atmosphere. When they came and briefed us we were elated. I think there was a misunderstanding somewhere, which is what we need to iron out once and for all. So that in 2013 we won't have the same problem; we also want to avoid a situation where by somebody somewhere will just wake up and say this lady passing doesn't have a mahram. If there is any problem we need to resolve it now.
I don't want anybody to look at the issue of mahram as a set back to us. It is nobody's fault. The challenge was never the fault of the NAHCON, state pilgrims welfare agencies or the pilgrims themselves. This is because it was not part of the memorandum of understanding signed between Nigeria and Saudi Arabia. All the meetings held between Saudi hajj authorities and NAHCON officials that issue was never brought up. It only came up after 17 flights were made and over 20, 000 pilgrims were airlifted. If they told us from day one, we wouldn't have had that problem at all. We would have prepared for it. If it is repeated in 2013, then it is our fault and people should hold us responsible because we have seen what happen this year and if we allow it happen again, then we are capable of being called inefficient.
In fact, it all boils down to misunderstanding, like I earlier said. I think the Saudi authorities don't even know that government has made hajj issue a permanent thing in the hands of Muslim leadership in Nigeria. I don't think they know. Our ambassador and consular general here have to work hard to bring this issue to the cognizance of the Saudi authorities. Hajj is a very serious matter in Nigeria.
This will also form our agenda in the post mortem meeting we hold after every hajj operation. In fact, this year's post mortem meeting, which I introduced in 2006 when I was Amirul Hajj, will hold very early most likely by January next year. At that meeting, I believe that we'll iron out this issue and several others which are parts of the grey areas that were not attended to. In overall, 2012 hajj was very successful and most satisfying and we thank God for that.
What steps are you taking now?
We have resolved that we'll keep talking with the Saudi authorities to have an understanding that we need to be given equal treatment with any contingent from other parts of the world. This is because we know we have changed in the last four years in the way we conduct ourselves in the holy land, in what we do especially our conducts in airports where you see people rushing in indiscipline manner. Such things are no longer being done by our pilgrims.
We believe that a discipline society like ours, 95, 000 pilgrims that have brought here need help, support from the Saudi authorities so that our pilgrims would have the sense of belonging and recognized by the Saudi authorities as very serious Muslims. We had come here to perform our hajj rites, and the Saudis being the custodians of the two holy places, we know they have a lot of work to do; they have a lot of logistic problems to manage for the over four million people that came for hajj. We'll therefore continue reaching out to them through our meetings with the hajj authorities here, through our meetings with the supreme authorities in the land as we intend to take up such issues with the leadership of this country.
I have already requested the Nigerian ambassador to Saudi Arabia (Abubakar Shehu Bunu) to write a letter to the authorities for a meeting so that we discuss some of these issues. We want to use that avenue to really lay on the table the feelings of the Nigerian Muslims based on what we believe should be the right of every Muslim that come to the holy land. I believe that they (Saudis) have seen the positive changes in our attitude. I remember last year we even got a commendation letter from the Saudi authorities having a well- managed hajj operation.
With Boko Haram violence in Nigeria, Islam and Muslims are stereotyped as terrorists and so on. How do you feel about that?
We believe that our religion is a peaceful one not a violent one. But unfortunately some things have been happening are given the toga of Islam, but which we still say no. These violent things that have been happening are not Islam and they neither represent Islam nor Muslims. So, it is very expedient for the media to uphold the true principles of objectivity and stop associating these violent things to Islam or Muslims. They should disassociate Islam from them, instead of calling the perpetrators Islamist terrorists they should call them simply terrorists or criminals. I don't think if a Christian commits the same criminal act, he would be called a Christian terrorist. I think terrorism should be terrorism irrespective of the faith of its perpetrator. This is a very important issue but unfortunately the world is not giving it much attention.
It is not right to give religious toga to these evil things. The problem should be addressed not by stereotyping a particular religion or its adherents. We should remove religious toga to this criminality. All the Abrahamic religions teach and preach peace and mutual co-existence. So, if someone wakes up one day and say I am doing this for my religion, then I think he should be helped, by telling him that no, that is not what our religion teach. He should be told that he is the terrorist and criminal not the religion he claims to profess, no matter who he is.
In fact, I heard comments here from the (Saudi) king, calling on United Nations to enact a law that will criminalize abuse of religions and their personages. This is true. These (desecration) of religions sometimes get people annoyed. It is insulting to find out that what you are doing, what you are preaching and what your religion is, is not what those people are busy portraying in the media. As human beings, of course, you feel sad and angry but also tolerance, patience are some of the virtues we inherit as Muslims. We have to keep on calling for tolerance, patience and understanding.
This is because we have to understand ourselves, when you understand yourself; others should also understand you by coming closer to you. But when you don't understand somebody, how would you be with him? But if you try to understand somebody, then you know who he is. Therefore, reaching out to people and coming closer to them is very important. If you don't come closer to me, you won't know how I behave. If you stay far away, and keep on imagining this is what Sultan thinks, then you are just thinking and imagining. But when you come to me, we share our food and drink, then you will know this is how this man is and so on. So, tomorrow if we hear anything negative about each other, we would say no, that is not correct. This is only possible because we know each other. You can tolerate but when you understand some one, then you are better equipped to handle such person.
For instance, if you understand Christianity and somebody is doing something negative in its name, I would say no, that is not Christianity. The same thing applies to Islam and Muslims. That is why we keep on calling on people to understand Islam and Muslims. They should separate the bad ones among us. Yes, they are Muslims, but what they may be doing is not necessarily Islam. Someone will say but is he not a Muslim? Yes he is, but Islam doesn't instruct or teach him to do what he is doing that is bad. And this thing applies to all religions and people. It is no secret that Islam is a peaceful religion and it doesn't preach violence.
For the first time, some Nigerian pilgrims were flown directly from Nigeria to Medina. Is there any effort to fly more next year?
In fact, we all want our flights to go straight to Medina before proceeding to Mecca if possible. This is because by the time we are through with hajj, we know there is no need arranging pilgrims to go to Medina again. But you should also know that Medina airport is a very small one, so it has very limited capacity of the number of pilgrims it handles at a time. Again, I learned that the Saudi government is doing something about it. I believe in the future, we'll all have our pilgrims fly direct to Medina from Nigeria. We are very happy this year with this development and we are optimistic that the Saudi authorities will give us more slots because they have seen what we did with the one given to us this year.
There are some complaints against some airlines that airlifted the pilgrims. What are you doing in that regard?
As you know NAHCON doesn't allocate air carriers to states. States choose their air carriers themselves. If you see a state with KaboAir, it was that state that picked Kabo. Some states wanted Max Air, some Medview while some preferred Meridian. So, there is nothing anybody could do. The states have the pilgrims, their accommodation and transports. When they say they want a particular airline to airlift their pilgrims we won't say no to them.
In fact, there was a little debate before we started the airlift. This was because about 60 percent of the pilgrims were allocated to Max Air, that is about 45, 000; which also means over 50 percent of the 85, 000 we had. Some people felt that some of these figures should be given to other airlines to break even because it is a business. But since the states have chosen that particular airline, it is left for the rest airlines next year to do vigorous marketing to win most of the states. Medview, for instance, had a larger number of pilgrims than last year. It has about 10, 000, I think while Kabo Air has less than last year. Kabo had above 30, 000 last year but ended up with about 27, 000 this year. It is clear that it was only Max Air that did a vigorous marketing.
Some Nigerian Islamic scholars from various sects came together in Arafat and prayed together. Can you give an insight on that development?
The Ulama team was formed last year. When we saw the positive outcome of the various sects, the same team was brought back again this year. And it was not just Izala and Dariqa but the several sects across the country, including groups from the South Western part of the country such as Ansaruddeen, among others. We just want to show that look, Islam is one. No matter what sect you belong to or how you say your prayers, first and foremost you are a Muslim. We are all worshipping Almighty Allah. We worship Him the way you read and understand your book and leave the rest to Him. But don't tell somebody that you are doing wrong. Don't pass judgement. You can't judge who is right and who is wrong. That is the essence of the coming together.
Some of them say that it never happened like that. They rode in the same bus, lived in the same tents in both Muna and Arafat, together and interacted freely. They lived together and move around together. What was done was to show unity of purpose among the religious leaders in the country. Many of them were far away from each other for many years. Thus, there is misunderstanding and misconception and they were thinking negatively about each other. But when they all came together, they understood each other.
Time has changed and you can't hold someone with something he did 25 years ago. You know stereotypes and misperception are very terrible things but you come close you correct them.
By coming together, you create greater understanding and exorcise stereotypes. The various sects understand each other but not necessarily abandoning their sects or understanding. By this unity, it doesn't mean that Sheikh Dahiru Bauchi, for instance, had left his Tijjaniyya brotherhood and joined Izala or Sheikh Bala Lau had abandoned Izala and joined Tijjaniyya. With this development, the era of somebody calling someone Kafir (infidel), will be the thing of the past. That is what we are trying to achieve.
During my visitations to some of the state pilgrims in Mecca, I told them that they should pray for whoever God has chosen as their leaders. If these leaders take positive decision, it will affect their lives. If they take a negative decision, it will badly impact on them. It's always good for people to pray for their leaders to do the right thing. It is sad that you see people castigating Nigeria as if they have other country than this.