Tuesday, May 4, 2010

REVIEW: Journey to the Holy Land

Journey to the Holy Land - A Pilgrim's Diary
Amir Ahmad Alawi
Translated and with an introduction by Mushirul Hasan and Rakhshanda Jalil
Oxford University Press
Rs. 650
Pp 271
ISBN: 0198063466

One of the five pillars of Islam, Hajj (literally ‘effort’) is the largest annual pilgrimage in the world stretching back to the time of the Prophet (seventh century ad) and even earlier. Before the age of organized travel, the journey spread across sea, deserts and mountains was perilous to say the least. Nonetheless, the hajjis (pilgrims) trivialized the dangers in the knowledge that they would soon enter the House of God.

Translated and introduced for the first time, Amir Ahmad Alawi’s Safar-i Sa’adat (Propitious Journey), written in 1929, is a firsthand account of this quintessentially Muslim journey. Presented in the form of a roznamcha or daily diary, the work is much more than a personal narrative of lamentation and triumph. Alawi watched, listened and recorded with an air of confident authority. His catholic vision captures the comingling of cultures and peoples, and he candidly comments on the social, economic and political conditions of the places he passed through.

The comprehensive Introduction, while locating the place of hajj in Islam and describing some of its well-known customs, rituals and practices, provides a broad understanding of hajj in colonial India. The special piece, ‘My Experience of the Hajj of 1916’ by J.S. Kadri, information on movement of ships meant for hajj passengers of 1929 and a detailed glossary add value to the book

A pilgrim's progress to Haj Hindu
Amir Ahmed Alwai wrote Safar-I-Sadaat in Urdu based on his daily accounts of his Haj experience. He undertook the Haj journey that spanned more than four months, beginning January 31, 1929. This book is its English version. The objective evidently is to make it accessible to a wider audience. One of the negative offshoots of the British colonial rule has been the damage native languages suffered on account of the dominance of English, which virtually became a global lingua franca, so to say. And Urdu is among the worst victims. The irony of it all is that the most vehement of the critics of imperialism are also the most committed champions of English. This translated work can well be seen as an attempt to demonstrate that native languages are indeed a reservoir of vital sources of historical and other information and are as effective a medium as English to tell the human story.

Quite enlightening is the 69-page introduction which provides an incisive analysis of the contemporary literature on Haj experiences, apart from giving a detailed account of Alwai's life, career, antecedents, and, more importantly, the socio-historical importance of the region he belongs to. Marked by profound scholarship and intellectual richness, this piece bears the unmistakable imprint of Mushirul Hasan, who has a towering presence among contemporary historians, thanks not just to his several volumes of scholarly work but also to his creation of a new genre of historiography on modern India by employing varying methodologies. There is also an interesting chapter by J.S. Kadri, titled ‘My experience in Hajj in 1916', which provides a comparative perspective on such empirical accounts of Haj pilgrimage.
This above all Telegraph
I have never been on a pilgrimage. I admit I never had the least desire to do so nor would go on one now except as a spectator-journalist. However, I also have to admit that everyone known to me who has been on one speaks highly of the emotional satisfaction they derived from the experience.

All religions believe in pilgrimages. For Jews and Christians, it is Jerusalem, the birthplace of both faiths. They also have lesser places of pilgrimage like Lourdes in France, where it is claimed that the sick are miraculously healed. Hindus have their Kumbh melas where they go in millions to bathe in the holy Ganga. The Sikhs have their five takhts (thrones), with the recent addition of Hemkunt Sahib in Uttarakhand. By far, the most spectacular of all pilgrimages is the haj to Mecca and Medina. It is obligatory for all Muslims who can afford it. Millions of Muslims from all parts of the world gather there to offer prayers. Those who can’t make the haj go on a lesser pilgrimage called umra. From the pictures I have seen (no non-Muslims are allowed in Mecca or Medina), the haj makes for an impressive sight, with thousands of similarly attired people going through their genuflections with military precision.
Everyman’s Mecca Outlook
Western scholars have noted that from the fourth to the 16th century, pilgrimage was the dominant mode of travel to the Middle East and the most common paradigm for travel writing. The Crusades were fed as much by religio-political aspirations of regents as by the desire of European ‘commoners’ to see the Holy Land. It was they who often formed the most vehement of crusaders, a rag-tag army trailing behind the knights and princes.

Again, from the 19th century onwards, there was a revival of the practice of pilgrimage to the Holy Land from Europe and the US. While this history of Western pilgrimage has been widely studied, the parallel history of Haj pilgrimages is only now being excavated and examined in English. In this context, the book under review—the first English translation of Amir Ahmad Alawi’s Journey to the Holy Land, and the excellent introduction by translators Mushirul Hasan and Rakhshanda Jalil—is a major contribution to a burgeoning branch of study.

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