The Sunday TimesPlus

28th April 1996



Millions before God at Hajj

By Hussein Saibo

A friend who has radical views on almost everything suggested that I do a challenging piece on the Hajj. It was indeed a challenge because I see little to challenge in a spiritual outlook on things whether it be Islamic, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist or Hindu. What he was trying to get at was the operation of the cash nexus even in a spiritual event such as the Muslim Hajj. In his view it was only those who could afford the expense of the plane or ship journey all the way to the pilgrim city of Mecca who were privileged to take on the title of Hajji on their return and then flaunt it as a badge of spirituality for the rest of their lives. Why?

As millions of Muslims from many countries of the world are even now gathered at Mecca in Saudi Arabia for the Hajj pilgrimage which is closing to its final stages and will climax with the Hajj festival celebrated by world Muslims and Muslims in Sri Lanka tomorrow such questions are pertinent.

Muslims were enjoined by the Prophet Muhammad to perform the Hajj pilgrimage once every year during the sacred month of Zul-Hajj. The most significant part of the pilgrim ceremonies involves the circumambulation seven times around the Holy Kaaba, the large black granite stone cube which perhaps measures 20 to 25 feet all ways. Within the Kaaba are rooms for worship and a section which encases the sacred stone which is said to have fallen from Heaven in response and as a sign to the Prophet Abraham. Hence it came to be venerated from pre-Islamic times. This is the stone that the pilgrims on their rounds of the Kaaba long to get close to and kiss in the belief this confers special merit. The number seven designated for the circuit perhaps has esoteric and symbolic significance.

Other rituals performed by the pilgrims who are expected to wear a white garb comprising a single long white cloth wrapped around the waist and thrown over the shoulder is again symbolic of the letting go of all worldly possessions and a mark of the purity of the pilgrim soul as he or she comes before the Divine literally in a shroud. "Allahuma Labaik" ("Oh Lord! I have come to Thee!") is the incantation on the lips of each and every pilgrim going around the Kaaba. Are only those who can afford it privileged to come before God? This is something one certainly can challenge. I think not. It brings to my mind the story of the mystic - Sufis as they are known in Islam - who was asked whether he did not believe in performing the pilgrimage incumbent on all Muslims healthy enough and who have the wherewithal to do it. To this the saintly Sufi said he did not have to go to the Kaaba because the Kaaba was constantly going around him. It is a reply fraught with the deepest of meanings signifying total absorption in God. The pilgrim proclaims coming before God but the Sufi is with God. Extending this we could say God is with those who are truly in His way, rich or poor, but that it is more often the poor than the rich who find this closeness to Him.

Again it was the Prophet Muhammad who said that the poor will go into Heaven 500 years before the rich - regardless of the number it was the prophet's deep understanding that goodness is more often a quality to be found in the poor than in the rich. An Hajj pilgrim is said to divest himself of all sins once the pilgrimage is completed, there is a turning over to a new leaf, a pristine page to a new life of selflessness. But this is not often what we see in the rich Hajji who prides himself on his title and basks in the glory of being looked upon as a pillar of faith. No sooner out of Mecca after the pilgrimage in which Satan has been symbolically stoned and laid flat - another ritual - the rich pilgrim is back to his habitual acquisitive life and the poor pilgrim follows the pernicious example. There is a rush for all kinds of goods from the shops in the city and the pilgrim leaves with his bags bulging and God left behind. Can this be the significance of the Hajj?. I think not. I am sure it is not.

Millions of poor Muslims throughout the world who can ill afford the expense of a pilgrimage nevertheless save up during an entire lifetime in anticipation of performing the pilgrimage at least once. For them it is an act of faith, truly a meeting with God. There are, however, the fewer rich who make the pilgrimage several times over perhaps as multiple insurance of a tryst in Heaven. I am told there is provision for getting the benefit of a Hajj pilgrimage without actually going through the ardours of the journey. Here a person with the financial clout provides the requisites for another pious person, be it man or woman, to make the pilgrimage on behalf of the donor. If such a practice can be made more widely prevalent it should be of immense benefit and satisfaction to the larger number of Muslims mostly in our South Asian countries who long to make the pilgrimage but have not the means to do it with.

To those in their home countries the Hajj is a festival of joy. It is not unlike the Ramazan festival a follow-up to the rigours of a month-long fast. Yet both these 'festivals' have larger significances, inner depths often lost to a vast number of Muslims to whom the bread and butter or rice and curry grind of day-to-day living or to the small coterie in the mad search for more and more riches. Let us not grudge them all the joys of tomorrow but let us remind them too of the deeper meaning of the epiphany of the meeting with God symbolised in the Hajj and the significance of surrender, submission and charity that are an essential feature of the Ramazan or the Id-ul-Fitr (Festival of Charity) as it is known.

Hajj essentially is a festival of sacrifice and commemorates the sacrifice that the Prophet Abraham was willing to make to God of his beloved son Ismail in fulfillment of a vow he had made earlier. A voice held him back from making that ultimate sacrifice and Abraham was ordered instead to make sacrifice of a sheep instead. While it is part of the ritual of Hajj for pilgrims and Muslims to make a similar sacrifice in commemoration of this event, let us remember the deeper symbolism in this, too. It signifies the sacrifice of all that one holds closest to oneself - indeed it is the sacrifice of the self in complete absorption in the Divine. In this, then is the highest significance of the Hajj.

When Muslims gather for the special Hajj prayers tomorrow there will indeed be one of the greatest manifestations of unity and equality for the world to witness. Rich and poor, white and black, men and women of all nations will be conjoined in one superlative act of togetherness as they bow in unity before the Creator. In this collective act where the potentate and the commoner - in Mecca the Saudi King and his subjects - and the high and the low in all walks of life join there is unbounded spiritual strength and in this a hope not only for the Muslims of the world but indeed for all humankind. If only we can carry this act into our lives at all times the world can and will be a more peaceful one, a happier one for all humanity than it is today.

Living on the Edge

By Rajika Jayatilake

The villagers of Herath Halmillewa in Kebithigollawa were unprepared in the hushed silence of a grey October dawn.

Forty-five year old Sumana Ranawake, her husband Ranbanda and a couple of their married children and their spouses stood at the deserted bushalt at 5.15 a.m. on 26th October1995, waiting for the early morning bus to Anuradhapura.

The silence was suddenly shattered by reverberating gunfire. "Tigers are attacking," shouted Sumana as she fled towards their house, thought for only the children yet asleep at home.

As she ran, a searing pain pierced her leg, a warm liquid poured down her knee. She knew she had been shot in the leg. Within sight of her house she could see several other villagers gunned down, she hid behind a clump of bushes, biting her lips so she would not be tempted to scream in pain.

Three Tamil women emerged from her house. They had with them her cassette player and a till full of coins saved over the years. She watched in anguish as they smashed to smithereens the small television her husband and she had bought with their meagre savings of a lifetime. Her heart turned as they pulled out the sarees in two suitcase and shook them out vigorously. Small bundles of dirty notes came tumbling out. Sumana watched dolefully as her savings disappeared into the pockets of the invaders, along with her daughter's gold chain.

She watched aghast as Tamil youth ran about the village, screaming then torching the humble abodes of the villagers.

As suddenly as they came, the Tigers vanished from the scene as the soldiers arrived along with groups of people from neighbouring border villages.

Sumana's endurance cracked. She screamed.

She spent several months at the Anuradhapura Hospital before being transferred to Colombo General Hospital for further medical attention.

The villagers of Herath Halmillewa abandoned their village temporarily and sought the safety of a refugee camp in the area. Some days later they were returned to their village only to be attacked by the Tigers again.

Sinhalese families in the border villages of the east die a thousand deaths each day, living in fear of Tiger attacks such as this, according to Devika Colombage, Counsellor and Public Relations Officer of the Family Rehabilitation Centre, an NGO based in Colombo which focuses mainly on the psyche of refugee families.

As Colombage says there are 347 families in the Kebithigollawa camp - the casualties of Tiger attacks on the villages of Kanugahawewa, Thulana, Mahanikaw-ewa, Yakawewa, Kunch-uttuwa, Dutuwewa, Paaluhalmillewa, Ra-lapanawa, Tammanewa, Herath Halmillewa, Vihara Halmillewa, Hal-millewa, Thalgaswewa, Indigolla Kanugaswewa and Kelapuliyankulama.

The general pattern is for Tigers to abduct a couple of villagers when they go into the jungle for firewood says As Colombage relating what she had been told by the villagers. Thereafter it is a matter of time before the village is attacked for they somehow prise the vital information out of the abducted villagers. Thus when one of two people just disappear, the fear that descends upon the entire village is almost tangible. The slightest sound or flash of movement spells terror.

When the Tiger attack finally takes place, it is unbelievable trauma, says Ms. Colombage. Some people are gunned down or hacked to death. Those whose lives are spared suffer a worse fate as they watch their loved ones brutally killed. One six year old child had watched terrorists hack to death her parents, sister, brother and grandmother. Many lose their homes and all their worldly possessions.

Soon after a tiger attack, the villagers abandon their village and seek the protection of a refugee camp. As they flee from terror they ask for nothing but safety, food for their stomach and rags to cover their nakedness.

Yet as time goes by, life in a refugee camp becomes unbearable. All villagers living at the border engage in cultivation. They work hard and lead simple lives. As Ms. Colambage says, they led a frugal existence but one that is fiercely independent content to reap the harvest of nature's bounty. As refugees in a camp they are away from home and work. They are unable to earn a living and live off the charity of others. With nothing to do except sit around and mope, most of them become depressed. Many become lazy and get addicted to vices like drink, which as Ms. Colombage says, is the fate that has overcome many refugees in the camps.

Many of the villagers cannot cope with the situation. They are apparently stressed out and depressed about their future. The close-knit family structure in the village is in total disarray and husbands and wives have lost their privacy. Ms. Colombage says most of the refugees feel useless and pessimistic. They never expected this type of fate to overcome them and now feel utterly out of depth.

"Many of them are afflicted with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)" said Ms. Colombage. PTSD is a psychiatric term that covers frequently seen stress reactions in people exposed to extreme trauma. Symptoms include personality changes, lack of self-esteem, inability to concentrate, memory lapses, irritability, depression, anxiety, fear, panic-stricken feelings, disturbed sleep with nightmares, loss of appetite and symptoms of withdrawal which become more pronounced as time goes by.

As Ms. Colombage says, 'Counselling is only part of the helping system." During the counselling process, she says, it is important the counsellor teaches the victim that some of his or her reactions are normal and to be expected. As Ms. Colombage has experienced, such knowledge can prevent recurrence or worsening of the symptoms.

She says right now the refugees of the border villages are no better than the refugees in Ethiopia. The moment they see a vehicle in the distance they crowd round with outstretched hands like beggars. "It is so pathetic, they were such proud people once", she comments sadly.

As the Family Rehabilitation Centre realises during counselling sessions terrorists have well nigh succeeded in destroying the personalities of the villagers. Their self-esteem is at its lowest ebb, worsened by the sense of isolation and helplessness with family members brutally killed or separated. What is worse, they feel they have been abandoned by society, say counsellors.

Ms. Colombage recalled the words of a silver-haired old man who had almost choked on his words as tears poured down his cheeks, "What is the point in living now? Our brave lads who protected the village are all gone." This was immediately following a Tiger attack on a village.

Groups of security personnel scattered among the border villages have a good rapport with the villagers. Yet they lack the strength of numbers to give confidence to the villagers that they would have ready assistance in the event of an attack.

It is apparently the lack of security that compels villagers to stick on in refugee camps. They would rather go back to their villages and try to pick up the pieces of their former lives however difficult. They are said to be desperate to hang on to an independence they feel is being wrested from them. Yet, as they have told Family Rehabilitation Centre counsellors, they want a security circle from Mahakachchikudi to Welioya.

Defence analysts say Tigers have done many things to break the spirit and the valour of border villagers including brutally murdering Buddhist priests who tried to bolster the morale of the villagers. They say it is easy for policy makers in the relative safety of Colombo to dismiss this tragic situation lightly as another casualty of the war. What seems to have got lost amidst the carnage and turmoil, say analysts, is the crucial point that the unitary state of the country is being protected by the border villagers. If the border villagers flee their homes, Eelam could well become reality, say analysts.

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