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Journey to the Holy Land by Amir Ahmad Alawi

Journey to the Holy Land by Amir Ahmad Alawi, Translators: Mushirul Hasan and Rakhshanda Jalil, (New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 2009), 271 pages, ISBN 978-0-19-806346-9

‘If one of them had silver, he would buy gold, but if he prospered further, he would go to Mecca.’ This quote, according to this book, was a saying amongst the merchant communities in Southeast Asia. However, even after almost a century, this quote still signifies the tradition of the followers of Islam all over the world who consider pilgrimage, Hajj (literally, ‘effort’), to Mecca and Medina as one of the five essentials of Islam. The Quran presents the five essentials or five pillars of Islam, as a framework for worship and a sign of commitment to the faith. They are: the shahadah (creed), salat (daily prayers), zakah (almsgiving), saum (fasting during the month of Ramadan) and hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca) at least once in a lifetime. This book is about the conduct of hajj with detailed descriptions of different practices and beliefs of hajjis (pilgrims).

Translated and introduced for the first time, Amir Ahmad Alawi’s Safar-i-Sa'adat (Propitious Journey) is a firsthand account of a person who undertook this holy journey of hajj. Mushirul Hasan and Rakhshanda Jalil deserve praise for translating this cultural, social and anthropological account written in Urdu for the benefit of English readers. In the winter of 1929, Alawi (1879–1952) set out on the hajj pilgrimage from Lucknow and maintained a personal account of all that he witnessed on his journey. His account became a detailed narrative of a South Asian Muslim—of what he witnessed in the other Middle Eastern Muslim societies. The different practices, varied approaches and distinct versions of Islam are reflected in this travelogue. While writing, he did not intend to publish any part of this as it was in the form of a daily diary. Alawi’s presentation in the form of a roznamcha or daily diary is much more than the personal narrative of a traveller. During his sea voyage, he watched, listened and recorded the lives, acts and practices of his fellow travellers with an objective eye. He captures cultures and peoples; and he candidly comments on the social, economic and political conditions of the places he passed through.

The comprehensive Introduction by Hasan and Jalil, 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. It explores the geo-political situation of Hijaj—the strip of land hugging the eastern coast of the Red Sea containing the Holy cities of Mecca and Medina—and the battle for political ascendancy of the House of Saud (the royal family of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia).

This introductory part does not merely introduce us to Alawi’s account of hajj, but also encapsulates the larger backdrop of the society of that time. It describes the socio-cultural backgrounds of the people of various classes. People who travelled together were not treated alike. Among the historical details provided by Hasan and Jalil are the social and cultural differences and the behaviour of people under the discriminatory arrangements of the time. The various sources and information provided in the footnotes show the socio-historical observations of these historians.

Alawi obtained an English-medium education (from Aligarh) and later served the British government in India as tehsildar and deputy collector of Banaras, Allahabad and Kanpur. In 1929, when he went to Mecca, he was a senior government officer. Hence, he received better facilities while travelling and a better place to stay when he was in Jeddah. In his diary, he shows intense awareness of the social conditions of the hajjis. He mentions the miserable conditions of the poor men who took the religious task in spite of their economic hardships. The arduous journey to Mecca and poor and unhygienic conditions in the ships and in the town of Jeddah used to affect the common man badly.

Alawi expresses his anger against the government of Hijaj and the mullahs of the Mecca. His comments on the social and economic conditions of fellow travellers are significant for sociological studies about that time. With regard to the politics of that region, Alawi does not ponder much. One case is worth mentioning here. He admires the attitude of the Sheriff of Mecca in declaring his independence from Turkish rule and his friendship with the British government in India. The late 1920s were a tumultuous time with many changes which had a lasting impact on power equations across the world. The two holy shrines, which had been historically controlled by the Ottomans, had by now fallen under the sway of the Nejadis. This was also the time when the army of Wahhabi warriors was beginning to lay down the laws of what was proper and what was not—in both Islamic practise and doctrine.

The special piece, ‘My Experience of the Hajj of 1916’ by J. S. Kadri, is of additional value to this book. The information given in the book about Kadri is that he was a Muslim officer from Bombay who was asked to submit his report for the hajj in 1916. This article (written in the form of a personal diary) which gives information about the movement of ships meant for hajj passengers of 1929 and the detailed glossary add value to the book.

This book gives a noteworthy account of the hajjis with the help of various tables. At the end, the select list of Urdu publications on the hajj—books, magazines and journals—gives information in abundance on the subject. This makes for an informative and pleasant read.

Khinvraj Jangid is a Doctoral candidate at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Email

As part of its editorial policy, the MEI@ND standardizes spelling and date formats to make the text uniformly accessible and stylistically consistent. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views/positions of the MEI@ND. Editor, MEI@ND: P R Kumaraswamy