Shaikh Anjum Pervez and his wife Samina have performed the annual Haj since 2008 without a break till the coronavirus-induced precaution against crowding made Haj 2020 and 2021 out of bounds for the foreigners. Seeing it as a ‘divine decision’, Pervez used the money he would have spent on the holy trips—he requested us against mentioning the amount—to help out the pandemic-hit needy irrespective of religion.
“In the first wave of the coronavirus, we utilised our Haj fund to buy ration and food for the needy. In the second wave, we directed the money to pay hospital bills, buy medicine, oxygen cylinders for the poor,” said Pervez, the Ahmednagar-based businessman.
As the pilgrimages to Holy Mecca for Muslims living outside Saudi Arabian kingdom were put on hold, many multiple Haj and Umrah performers have put their money in charitable works. Buying ration, paying school fees or hospital bills, buying oxygen concentrators or the Remdesivir injections are some of the activities that got attention even as pilgrims’ progress to Islam’s holiest shrines in Mecca and Medina halted.
Mumbai-based Iqbal Memon Officer and his wife had performed Umrah in Ramzan without a break for two decades till Covid-19 in 2020 forced them to cancel it.
“Even if the situation had improved and the Saudis had allowed foreigners to perform Umrah in Ramzan, we would not have gone there. We had decided to spend the money (around Rs five lakh) in bringing relief to people near home and gather blessings rather than seek blessings by visiting the holy sites,” said Officer, businessman and President, All India Memon Jamaat Federation. Iqbal has performed Haj thrice, and he says he knows many members of the Memon community who have performed Hajj more than 20 times.
The pandemic-caused impoverishment has reignited the dormant debate on whether the affluent Muslims should spend so much on non-obligatory pilgrimages like multiple Hajj and Umrah. Chennai-based Islamic scholar, A Faizur Rahman, argued that the community could start poverty alleviation and education programmes even if it spent even a fraction of the money it spends on Haj and Umrah.
For the Hajj in 2017, the number of Indian Muslims who applied was 448268. Rahman said that it means 450000 Muslims can spend around Rs 250000 per person every year on pilgrimage. This works out to more than Rs 10,000 crore. If the cost of Umrah is added to it, the amount would be around Rs 15,000 crore every year, he said.
But some argue that, instead of criticising those who spend money on holy trips, efforts should be made to involve all the moneyed Muslims to fund educational and economic empowerment schemes.
“Will you criticise those who go to Bali, Bangkok, Europe and America for holidays? Here these Muslims spend their money to seek sawab (divine reward) and are saved from committing some possible sins too,” argued Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) Executive Council member M Asif Farooqui.
Rahman said Muslims could get divine reward ten times more if they spent money on the desperately needy in their neighbourhood rather than going for non-obligatory pilgrimages.
As the debate rages on, the need for Hajj and Umrah funds to be directed to charity has never been so acutely felt.