Hajj (literally means pilgrimage) is the fifth and final pillar of Islam and occurs in the month of Dhu'l-Hijjah, which is the twelfth and the last month of the Islamic lunar calendar. It is the journey to Islam's holiest place Mecca that every sane adult Muslim must undertake at least once in their lives if they can afford it and are physically fit.
Ethiopia has the age-long connection with Hajj since it embraced the religion in early Islamic period and gave refugee for Prophet's followers when they face persecution from the powerful Arabian tribe known as the_Quraysh, who were controlled Mecca. According to a renowned researcher of Islamic history Ustaz Hassan Taju, Ethiopian Muslims were among the first non-Arab Hajj pilgrims who travelled longer distances by horse, foot, and sea to visit the Kaaba, a building at the center of Islam's most important mosque, Al-Masjid Al-Haram.
Performing Hajj in the pre-1974 Revolution Ethiopia was much difficult since the imperialist government put restrictions to the faithful from exercising their religion in worship, observance, practice and teaching. Assuming political power in 1974, the military junta Dergmade some improvements in Muslims rights, including declaring Islamic observanceslike Eid al-Fitr, Eid al-Adah and the birth of Prophet Muhammad (Mawlid) as public holidays. TheDerg, however, had negative perception for religious tourism and imposed strict controlsand rigorous bureaucracyin the Hajj pilgrims to discourage the travel.
In those times, the pilgrims had to fly to Asmara and sail the Red Sea to perform the Hajj, which in turn make the travel much more difficult, and restricted the presence of Ethiopian Muslims in the five-day event.
Even now, despite the fact that Ethiopia is among countries with large Muslim population, only 8,000- 9,000 pilgrims perform the Hajj while the actual quota is over 43,000. According to Ustaz Hassan, currently the problem is purely economic since a limited portion of the Ethiopian society could afford the travel and related expenses.
He explained that Saudi Arabia follows the policy of providing 1,000 Hajj quotas for 1 million Muslims, and the number of Ethiopian pilgrims should be between 40 and 50 thousand. Saudi has also a plan to expand the quota to 2,000 per 1 million people to enhance its tourism revenue;which means Ethiopia has the opportunity to obtain over 100,000 Hajj quotas.
Hajj as a place to promote Ethiopia's religious tourism potentials
Hosting millions of pilgrims from all corners of the world, the Hajj has invaluable importance for Ethiopia to promote its deep connection with the religion, and its rich Islamic historical and cultural heritages as well as tourist attraction sites to the world.
Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council Hajj and UmrahSector Head, Sheikh Ahmed Yusuf said that little has done to advertise the country's religious tourism potentials despite its enormous Islamic tourist attraction sites, religious festivities, age-old mosques, shrines and educational holy places as well as literature and arts.
Ethiopia has deep-rooted attachment with Islam, and this ties is not only limited tothe Al-Nejashi Mosque and welcoming of Prophet Muhammad's followers. The country has a special place in keeping the original practice of Islam and helping the religion getting international acceptance.Ethiopian scholars have also a unique contribution in Islamic law and literature.
Sheikh Ahmed said that advertising Ethiopia's strong connection with Islam does not need much effort since the country is portrayed in positive light several times in both the Holy Quran and Hadith (Prophet Muhammad's teachings). Further sign of the strong bond that exists between the country and the faith, an Ethiopian woman called Baraka was in the presence during Prophet Muhammad's birth. These facts alone can help to convince the Muslim world that the country is worth visiting.
Every Muslim in the world know the history of Bilal, an Ethiopian born, who was chosen by the Prophet to be the first_muezzin_(the person appointed at a mosque to lead and recite the call to prayer)of Islam despite the strong opposition from the Quraysh, who were dissatisfied by the choice of non-Arab for such big position.
According to Ustaz Hassan, Ethiopia is also mentioned positively in Shi'a books and other historical literatures.The country's favorable image in Islamic art would also be additional input in facilitating the promotion. Ethiopia's peace allows tourists to move freely and pay visits to religious sites, and with the normalization of the current situation in the country, the number of religious tourists planning trips to Ethiopia would be increasing.
Ethiopiahas enormous Islamic tourist attraction sites, including the Dire Sheik Hussein located in Oromia State, Jemeaa King in Amhara, King Nejashi in Tigray, and al-Kesiye in SNNPS; many age-old mosques are also available in different parts of the country.
The country's age-old and unique Islamic festivities including Mawlid al-Kesiye ceremony, which is celebrated 15 days before the fasting month of Ramadan, also attracts the attention of African Hajj pilgrims, who use the Ethiopian Airlines to travel to Mecca.
Sheikh Ahmed for his part said that the Council is working with governmental organs and other relevant bodies to encourage foreignHajj to visit the country's religious tourist attraction sites in their way to Saudi Arabia. The efforts have brought about good results in attracting travelers from neighboring countries to see the Al-Nejashi Mosque and tombs of the 16 followers of Prophet Muhammad.
Both religious scholars agreed that consolidated effort is needed to preserve the mosques, shrines, educational holy places and Islamic literature and arts in the view to promote Ethiopia's special relationship with Islam, which will help boost the country's religious tourismrevenue.
The fact that millions of Muslims, transcending geographical, linguistic, level of practice, cultural, ethnic, color, economic, and social barriers, converge in unison on Mecca attests to the universality of the Hajj. In this regard, a lot is expected from Ethiopian pilgrims,who are take part in the rituals, to make efforts in getting a proper place in the world for the noble contribution the country has made for Islam.