Asra Nomani’s ‘Standing Alone in Mecca’ says how the hajj became the catalyst to her empowerment as a woman in Islam
There are , proverbially, thousand and one roads to Makah, the holy land of Islam. In the age of science and technology, thanks to winged ships; the number of routes to Makah grows unlimited. Interestingly, the mental route map to the abode of Allah also takes different shapes along with the changes in the land and the air route maps from generation to generation.
Here, Asra Q Nomani, a well known American journalist, finds herself on the way to Makah with an unconventional motive in mind. To this globetrotter, hajj was not a traditional pilgrimage prompted by long cherished desire to perform the time honoured sacred religious rite. Instead, Asra wanted to explore the roots of her own feminine spiritual self. Asra in her famous book Standing Alone in Mecca gives us a vivid personal account of her pilgrimage in a highly transparent, lucid language. However it is not a straightaway narration of the journey from arrival to departure as we are familiar with in conventional travelogues. It crosses the borders of literary genres like travelogue, dramatic monologue, journalistic reporting, live commentary, historic narrative and spiritual introspection. The book is a brilliant blend of all these.
Why did she embark on a seemingly ‘dangerous’ journey from Middle America to the West Asia when President Bush was preparing to invade Iraq ? Let us read in herown words: “I was very much at odds with my religion. But instead of turning away from Islam, I decided to find out more about my faith. From my home in Morgantown, West Virginia, I embarked on the holy pilgrimage to Mecca, the birth place of Islam, in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, one of the most repressive regimes in the world for women. What happened there shocked me. The hajj became the catalyst to my empowerment as a woman in Islam.”
It was not from any Islamic books or sermons Asra received the elemental spark to go out to the holy lands of Islam. It came from the Dalai Lama, the Buddhist supremo. She chanced to meet the Dalai Lama on the banks of the Ganges in Allahabad in January 2001. She attended his press conference and asked a question which turned to be instrumental in rewriting the whole scenario. She asked: “What is it that our leaders can do to transcend the issues of power that make them turn the people of different religions against each other?’’. The Dalai Lama looked at her intently and replied: “There are three things we must do. Read the holy books of each other’s religions. Talk to the enlightened beings of each other’s religions finally, do the pilgrimages of each other’s religions.” (Preface)
Asra, though a daughter of Islam, was in the thick of a Hindu pilgrimage. A thought crept into her mind: “I had done the Buddhist pilgrimage. I was doing the Hindu pilgrimage. I have never done my own pilgrimage to Mecca called the Hajj.” The thought led her to a firm decision- to do her pilgrimage.
She knocked many doors of travel agents in India and Pakistan with this dream in mind, but all her attempts came to grief because of technical reasons. Years slipped. A lot many things happened to her during this time. To cut a long story short, she gave birth to Shibli whose father left her as they were unmarried when they conceived the baby.
In 2003, Asra reached Makah in a pilgrim package in company of her father, mother, nephew, niece and of course the infant in hand. Shibli, the living proof of her guilt, had been the challenge throughout the pilgrimage. She says that she felt as if she was wearing the red letter Z (which stands for ‘zina’-adultary-) around her neck. She didn’t want to hide the truth. On the contrary she struggled hard to reconciliate with the hard reality and to affectionately accommodate her son in her bosom. She succeeded in the attempt. As Asra puts it, she was following the footsteps of Hajar (the second wife of the prophet Abraham) who made her way to Mecca carrying her little son Ishmael. In the pilgrim’s own words: “Hajar made the choice to accept Abraham’s decision. She could have clung to him. Instead, she chose to turn her back and walk away from him. Clinging to faith in both God and herself, Hajar was the image of strength. Four thousand years ago, she was standing alone in Mecca.” (P. 91, 92).The Hajj, thus, continued to evoke glimpses of Islamic heroines’ history. The panorama of Muslim matriarchs from Hawwa to the “female anchors” of the prophet Muhammed occasionally flashed through of her mind’s mirror. She identified herself with brave daughters of Islam in some way or other. The hajj for her has been a fathomless source of eternal energy for liberation and emancipation.
Asra enjoyed each moment of Hajj to its full. “In Mecca the moment arrived for me to see the Ka’ba for the first time. I was nervous. I was scared. I was excited. I was also cynical. Slowly, I opened my eyes and lifted them. I stepped into the light of the courtyard a little hopeful but so skeptical I couldn’t take the pressure of a wish upon first sight. “The Ka’ba” I whispered to Shibli, whose young eyes focused on this place where history and faith intersected.” (P. 85)
Faith, history, her own self and the present social realities – these were the main concerns she had at the back of her mind while performing the pilgrimage. She appreciated small acts of kindness in the journey from which she learned the large lessons about Islam. As her family got off the bus a young man shepherded their luggage to them. They had brought too many bags into the tent. The tent mates showed their best to one another. Let Asra speak: “In the simplicity of the acts of kindness I sew in my tent, I received a serious lesson: we are the accumulation of our small deeds. The tent told me that the outside world must be like the inside world: we must be kind, respectful and considerate, and we must live by the golden rule that Jesus taught and Muhammad echoed.”(P. 162) She spares no detail when she describes the life in Makah and Madeena.
To Asra, the brightest side of Hajj is the freedom it offers to women to pray and perform sacred religious rites shoulder to shoulder with men with zero discrimination. She enjoyed the freedom at its maximum in Masjidul Haram, the first holy masjid of Islam in the holy premises of Ka’ba. She writes: “It was a different experience in Mecca. There were no formal boundaries between men and women, between boys and girls. Families prayed together. Men and women who happened to pray beside a stranger, as many of us did, tried to pray beside someone of the same gender, but it didn’t always work out that way and nobody ruled mixed –gender prayer lines indecent. It was no more complicated than that. There were no curtains, walls or partitions dividing men and women from each other, just common sense.’’ (P.104)
She thought that the same should be the model for every masjid in the world. Her experience with her mixed-gender pilgrim group, her breeze into the holy Masjid where men and women prayed together and the scenes at the pilgrimage accommodations made her aware of the inherent contradictions in Muslim society. Men and women mingled comfortably in Mecca. How could they be equal and interact without this burden of sin in Makah and but not elsewhere? This question had a profound impact on her. And it was this never-heard-before message of gender equality in Islam that she took home from the birth place of Islam. On the way back from Makah to Morgantown, the pilgrim group paid a visit to Baith al Muqaddas, the first Qibla of Muslims. There too, Asra and family prayed together which was a re-enforcement of what she learned from Makah. She says: “With another prayer finished, we returned to Dom of the Rock. Inside we said the sunset prayer together. My mother, Safiyya and I prayed in a section with a row of about six other women, about ten yards behind a row of men and boys that included the guide and my father and nephew. Although we were behind the men, the trapezoid form of the mosque kept our position from feeling subordinate. Nothing felt separate. I laid Shibli beside my feet. It was so beautiful to pray there together. (P. 215)
Asra’s compelling narrative style gives us the pleasure of co-travelling not only through the landscape she staggers along, but the mindspace where the spiritual, cultural, political, and social musings are being fashioned and refashioned. Like her bus-mates and tent-mates we too begin to love the company of little Shibli when he utters Ababooboo when the call for prayer (adan) rings in the air.