Afghans call repeated Hajj an extravagance in war-torn country

Afghan pilgrims

:: The fervor of visiting Islam’s holiest site, Makkah, never dies in the heart of Afghan Muslims. With conflict, a humanitarian crisis and poverty gripping Afghanistan, Afghans say pilgrims should avoid frequent Hajj.

Bound by local customs and traditions in Afghanistan, Hajjis throw lavish food parties and offer gifts upon their return home, increasing the cost threefold in comparison to the average expense estimated $2,500 per person.

Afghanistan’s annual quota for Hajj is 30,000. According to locals, thousands make repeated trips to Makkah every year.

Fearing social criticism for failing to abide by local traditions, some Afghans who can afford Hajj, will not fulfill the pilgrimage, because they are not rich enough to host food parties and provide gifts — sometimes expensive watches and even gold.

Now, some Afghans are pushing for an end to this practice which is abhorred in Islam as well. They say while Afghans rely on international aid, millions of people are jobless, and over 1.2 million of the country’s population is internally displaced due to the long war, repeated Hajj is unnecessary.

“Those who go for second, third or fourth visits on Hajj, without any religious justification, need to know that they are committing a mistake, or if I can say, a big sin,” Fazl Ahmad, a resident of the western province of Herat, while waiting for his Hajj paperwork, told Arab News in Kabul.

“We have launched a campaign in our neighborhood and in the mosques to tell people that God would be far more pleased with us if we give the money for repeated Hajj trips instead to the poor and needy.”

His trip mates, consisting of elderly men, said a nationwide and even global public awareness campaign should be launched to both make pilgrims avoid non-religious post-Hajj expenses and repeated pilgrimages.

The novel campaign in Herat is even included in satire and in local poetry, says Abdul Wahab, who sports a salt-and-pepper trimmed beard.

“God is in the heart of the poor who lives in the neighborhood of the would-be Hajji, and the Hajji for gaining God’s consent travels to Saudi Arabia,” he recalled part of the satire to Arab News.

Due to the enthusiasm and eagerness of worshippers to visit the holiest site for Muslims, tens of thousands of Afghans have to wait for up to eight years for their turn, according to officials.

They need to deposit at least $500 dollars in a private bank account, which will keep the money until the lucky day of the would-be visitor approaches.

Sayed Masood, who is in charge of the national TV’s Islamic education department, said the deposited amount could reach up to tens of millions of dollars.

“This is a serious problem and it is a serious question for me as to what happens to the money that is deposited in the bank. I, very much think that they [the bank] run business on this. It is an issue that needs to be probed.”

Pilgrims said they knew about the accumulation of money, but did not know who was benefiting from the cash in the bank.

Ishaq Arab, a spokesman for Ministry of Hajj and Religious Trust, confirmed the accumulation, but did not share further details as to what happens with the millions of dollars kept for years in the bank.

“The money is deposited in the bank and will be given back to the heirs of a deceased,” he said in a short interview over the phone before terminating the connection, saying he has no time because of his engagement in dispatching Hajjis.

Masood, who has been to Makkah in the past and covered various annual pilgrimages for the media, said bribery, nepotism and patronage would ease the process of sending a Hajji from Afghanistan.

But he says: “Unlike past years, Afghan pilgrims now have access to better accommodations, transport and other facilities.”

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