I can recall the extreme alteration from frigidity to humidity while going up the stairwell, opening the door and being completely shocked. The sight I saw that night six years ago has forever marred what was to be the apex of my religious life, the sacred pilgrimage I had sought after my whole life. That night I met the contradiction and hypocrisy of my beliefs in the form of 40 or so individuals sleeping in squalor on the open air rooftop while those they served were oblivious or neglectful of their plight floors below. What made this sight all the more difficult was not only its location in the sacred city of Mecca, but that throughout my life and particularly during my stay there we were inundated with the constant rhetoric of “equality” and “brotherhood”. The workers that serve the pilgrims are often an afterthought, behind shopping and eating Halal fast-food for many Western pilgrims, but it is their plight and the trampling of their rights that should call into question the acceptance of our rites in the sight of God.
Today beneath the shadow of the Kaaba, and its towering clock tower and construction cranes, lurks the same exploitative culture that resonated with an orphaned shepherd and heralded an iconoclasm of not only stone but of deep societal change. Skyscrapers, luxury hotels, shopping and entertainment surround and defile the sanctity of the area by not only the corporate and class interests they represent, but by the very means in which they came into existence. Migrant workers, fellow Muslim brethren, are exploited daily. Workers face lack of mobility, discrimination, sexual violence and lack of redress under the lingering kafala work sponsorship agreements.1 Our Muslim brothers live lives of instability and peril in the land where those were promised before Islam.2 The famous 7th century “League of the Virtuous” (Hilf Al-Fudul) pact, though prior to revelation, greatly influenced the Prophet ﷺ as he stated, “If I were called to it now in the time of Islam, I would respond”.3 Companions and generations of scholars see this pact as the basis for the protection of individual rights in Islamic legal theory.4 Unfortunately the generational disconnect and hypocrisy that pervades Muslim governance and consciousness allows for such human rights violations to be in vogue in Arab supremacist hubs like the Gulf States, and fatalistically accepted by non-Arabs as simply “the way things are done there”. While we circumambulate, we may be remiss that the Kaaba is much more than stone. The House of Allah serves as the axis mundi of temporal and ephemeral existence, of Man connecting to the Divine. That being said, the sanctity of humanity overrides this ancient house in reverence. This juxtaposition regarding the sanctity of people versus the rites committed around the Kaaba is aptly described in the following hadith from `Abd Allah ibn `Amr ibn al-`As (Allah be well pleased with him):
“I saw the Messenger of Allah ﷺ performing tawaf around the Holy Kaaba saying to it: ‘How pure and good you are! How pure and good your fragrance is! How great and exalted you are! And how great and exalted your sanctity is! But by Him in Whose hand is Muhammad’s soul, the sanctity of a believer’s blood and property in the sight of Allah is greater than your sanctity!”5
The over-arching goals of the Islamic Law (maqasid al-Shariah) endorse the notion of universal justice. The savant Ibn al-Qayyim wrote, “Allah the Exalted has made clear in his law that the objective is the establishment of justice between His servants and fairness among the people, so whichever path leads to justice and fairness is part of the religion and can never oppose it”.6 It becomes quite clear that the repugnant labor practices against migrant workers violate not only the sanctify of the rights of fellow Muslims and the central ethos of the Hajj experience, but also even the employment laws of the Saudi Arabia. It is unfortunately the cultural ignorance and lack of rule of law that allows such practices to pervade, and the application of laws to be rarely implemented.
If we are ever able to give due right to the rite of Hajj it must come by standing shoulder to shoulder with our migrant worker faith members outside of the prayer hall of the haram. After all, as expressed by the eloquent great grandson of the Messenger of Allah (Peace & Blessing Upon Him and His Noble Family) Imam Zayn Al-`Abidin, “The right of the Hajj is that you know it is an arrival before your Lord and a flight to Him from your sins; through it your repentance is accepted and you perform an obligation made incumbent upon you by God.7 If we are ever to have hope in the remittance of our sins, should we not seek to blot out the sin of exploitation and discrimination? Do we feel secure in the acceptance of the performance of our sacred rites, knowing that others continue to suffer undue hardship for our ease?
What makes my experience all the more abhorrent is that it was not at the hands of Saudi or non-Muslim Western corporate interests that these violation of rights are being conducted, but under the auspices of a famous U.S. based Hajj carrier that actually owns the hotel in the Aziziyya district in Mecca. This carrier not only made workers sleep in the sweltering heat, but held passports under the promise of one day being able to perform the Hajj for their services. I recall speaking to a young Indonesian teenager who out of piety passed on his education for a year to perform the Hajj, only to be held ransom by false promises by his employer. These practices, along with the price escalation of U.S. based tour groups and luxurious hotels, only serve to highlight the growing income gap and the murky intentions that drive today’s Hajj industry. If you have conducted the Hajj or are thinking of performing it in the future, vocally demand from your carrier that they endorse and practice ethical and Islamic treatment of migrant workers. Again, think of the counsel of the Zayn al-`Abideen who stated this regarding the rights of fellow Muslims: “You should love for them what you love for yourself and dislike for them what you dislike for yourself. Their old men stand in the place of your father, their youths in the place of your brothers, their old women in the place of your mother, and their young ones in the place of your children.8 Muslim-Americans may only be a small percentage of the overall Hajj consumer market (estimated to be over $10 billion dollars in 20119), but we command a more demonstrable economic share via the tour groups, and the purchases we make during our stay. While people will never stop going to Hajj, regardless of the human or capital cost, we as Muslim-Americans should demand better for our brethren. Muslims in the U.S that either stand actively or passively for furthering equality and eliminating the income and wealth gap at home cannot simply ignore their responsibility to question the machine that allows them to perform sacred rites at the cost of human rights.
1. Human Rights Watch, “World Report 2013: Saudi Arabia Events of 2012”: https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2013/country-chapters/saudi-arabia?page=2
2. Ibrahim, Mahmood (Aug. 1982). "Social and Economic Conditions in Pre-Islamic Mecca." International Journal of Middle East Studies, 14(3): 355. Cambridge University Press
3. Sunan Al-Kubra 12114, Grade: Sahih li ghayri
4. Sullivan, Antony T. ,“Islam, America, and the political economy of liberty”
5. Targhib wa’ l-Tarhib of Imam al-Mundhiri, 3/276
6. Jawziyyah, Ibn Al-Qayyim, “al-Ṭuruq al-Ḥikmīya 13”
7. Ibn Al-Husayn, Ali Zayn al-`Abidin, Translated by William C. Chittick, “The Treatise on Rights (Risalat Al-Huquq), Point #10; Muhammadi Trust 1998
8. Ibid: Point #50
9. The economics of Hajj: Money and pilgrimage By Ahmed Maher; BBC Arabic, Mecca 25 October 2012: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-20067809