"Stocking up quite a bit, you are. Travelling somewhere?"
"Yes, I'm going on the Hajj."
She stares back confused.
"The Hajj is a religious pilgrimage, the world's largest gathering actually with close to 3 million people attending yearly!"
"Ah, like Glastonbury?"
I resisted my temptation to face-palm, as the kids call it nowadays, and politely proceeded to explain the subtle differences between the two 'festivals'. This lovely pharmacist who had just sold me what seemed like a year's supply of medicine epitomized the reaction of many a kind-hearted folk who had simply never met a Muslim to date.
"You guys are so nice. I bet most folk just think you're ISIS" commented a vigorously candor elderly American tourist on the tube after I offered him directions through the labyrinths of London. I laughed at the time, but deep down I wondered how much truth there was to that statement. For many, Muslim practices and culture are alien. In fact, to a largely secular West, a religious pilgrimage is likely to be a foreign concept, and I myself struggled to find a better analogy than Glastonbury.
The Journey of a Lifetime
So I am now officially a 'Hajji', having travelled with millions of pilgrims from literally every corner of the globe to the 'sacred lands' of the Hejaz. This pilgrimage is a once-in-a-lifetime mandated pillar of the Islamic faith for anyone with the physical and financial means. The journey even predates Islam, as the rites originate from Abraham, and were adopted by pagans for many hundreds of years. Hajj takes place annually in its corresponding month in the Islamic lunar calendar in modern-day Saudi Arabia.
The pilgrimage was everything I needed to retreat from the hustle-and-bustle of life in London. The physicality of walking for miles in the scorching heat; the sight of all skin colours, social classes and ages sleeping under the clear desert sky draped in two plain pieces of white cloth; the spiritual splendor of circumambulating the black cube built by Abraham and Ishmael themselves; reflecting night and day over one's insignificance in this vast universe, one's majestic purpose and one's interconnectedness with all of creation around. There is no better embodiment of the Qur'anic verse, "God has created you into tribes and nations so that you may get to know one another (49:13)" than this sacred journey; this was the Hajj.
Despite the spiritual perfection of the rites of pilgrimage, I must say I had some deep issues with its practical implementation. In a journey where one is meant to recalibrate one's consciousness of the one true Creator, it seems paradoxical that such an excursion should lead to environmental harm (or destruction). The Quran has so many verses extolling the environment and natural wonders that an entire 'Hippies Handbook for Hugging Trees' could be produced with just its excerpts.
A Paradox of Spiritual Proportion
Why is it then that I walk the street of the Haram (sacred land) and find them littered with boxes of chicken and rice, strewn on the curb in front of beggars who offer to pray for you in exchange of spare change? In 7:31, the Qur'an says, "O children of Adam! ... eat and drink: but waste not by excess, for Allah loves not the wasters." Yet ironically, the pinnacle of a Muslim's spiritual journey has become plastered with waste, something which Saudi Arabia has become somewhat notorious for. Much of this also comes from the luxurious European and American tents who really should be bringing with them better codes of conduct if they choose to smack the excuse of 'Saudi bureaucracy ' on the table.
What about the millions of plastic bottles, essential for hydrating pilgrims, but surely ending up polluting landfills and oceans, destroying countless habitats? Surely a country with the financial arsenal that Saudi boasts could arrange for sophisticated recycling facilities at least. In fact, the current sovereign has shown glimpses of visionary marvel, with an expansion project of the Sacred Mosque that will increase its capacity from 1 million worshippers to 2.5 million - this is happening AMIDST mass congregations every day! I suppose one might argue that throwing $11 billion at a problem is prone to producing miraculous engineering feats. Challenge accepted, I say, let's green up the Hajj!
For a Mosque buzzing day and night all year around, it is disappointing to see the thousands of fans, bulbs, chandeliers and air conditioners in use practically all the time. Anyone who has even stepped foot in this region could probably point to a pretty abundant source of power - the SUN! That majestic ball of gas has chosen the Gulf as its lover to whom it imparts more magnificent rays than anywhere else. Yet in a country where oil is cheaper than water, whose got time for solar panels? If the sun's energy were to be harnessed for the planned Mecca Metro, surely the smog filled air, congestion, and indefinite waiting times could be avoided in addition to the tons of carbon reduced each year!
Time to Act, now!
With the threat of Climate Change intensifying, the need for countries to reduce their carbon footprints is becoming imperative. At the recent UN summit in New York, our Prime Minister agreed that, "we simply cannot put this off any longer." Just as we use our 'British responsibility' to intervene against injustice in Iraq and Syria, perhaps the $17.5 billion of joint UK-Saudi ventures gives us some clout to use political pressure and intervene on such environmental injustice!
For such reasons, the role of faith groups in opposing environmental degradation cannot be understated. Organisations like ARC and GO2015 have come together to produce a Green Guide for Hajj in various languages. We have seen more campaigns mobilizing faith communities on this issue by groups like MADE in Europe, Christian Aid, and CAFOD.
By ensuring scrupulous sustainability along every step of the most sacred journey in a Muslim's life, we are not simply reducing its carbon footprint - we are sending a strong message of leadership to 1.5 billion Muslims that environmental stewardship is an essential aspect of our faith. By 2020, an estimated 25 million more people will have completed the Hajj, and the ripple effect a Green Hajj could have on people's personal lives could change the way the entire Muslim community views the issue.
The pilgrims annually retrace the footsteps of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad; the same man who forbade the excessive use of water even at a riverbank, prohibited the cutting of trees in the sacred lands, and commanded environmental custodianship as a strong tenet of the faith. If Glastonbury is able to hold up a sound Environmental Policy, is it not incumbent for a spiritual gathering over ten times its size to carry one forth too? It is about time that the Saudi government takes a stronger stand towards externalizing the inner spirituality of the Hajj by making it a journey of environmental care, contemplation and benefit.