Issue 58 July 2009
I received an invitation from the King of Saudi Arabia to attend a special Hajj and training programme, specially designed for a thousand young European Muslims. I was extremely excited by the prospect of meeting so many fellow young Muslims from Europe. It was going to be my first Hajj so my heart was filled with joy that I would be able to complete one of the most significant milestones in a Muslim’s life.
When I arrived at the Jeddah Hajj terminal I was awed by the size of the place and the sheer number of people arriving. As a guest of the King, I was ushered away from the crowds and endless queues within minutes to a car that was waiting for me. This was turning out to be a VIP Hajj for me.
My accommodation turned out to be an interesting mix between communal sleeping and special treatment. The room was large enough for about 15 people sleeping on the floor but it had thick cushioned bedding with bed sheets, blankets and even a pillow. I was amused but happy to have a place to put my head down. My neighbours on each side of me were one brother from Slovakia but of a Syrian origin, and one brother from the Czech Republic but originally from Algeria. They would become my closest companions for the next two weeks in Makkah. The Syrian brother read Qur’an beautifully and I was glad I could revise my reading with him. The Algerian brother had arrived at the Czech Republic some 30 years ago to complete his studies; he fell in love with a local woman who converted to Islam. After getting married and settling down in a small village for a few years, a majority of the villagers had converted to Islam! I also discovered that he is the founder of the first mosque in Prague. It is amazing how Islam has penetrated some of the most remote places in Europe simply by the good character of a few Muslims.
There were young Muslims from all over Europe, especially Eastern Europe – Bosnia, Albania, Macedonia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania etc. I heard the stories of these people, I lived with them, I shared food with them and even slept in the same room with them. It was one of the best experiences of networking I have ever had – a networking full of the genuine spirit of brotherhood.
The programme was filled with lectures on Islam by renowned scholars like the Qur’anic reciter Sheikh Abdur Rahman Sudais. Disappointingly, some of the talks were very dry, while others made me question why certain issues were not addressed. For example, one scholar was more concerned in telling European Muslim men to keep their trousers above their ankles, rather than tackle the subject of social responsibility towards non-Muslims, taking into account the needs of the 21st century. This however, gave us the opportunity to learn more about each other in the discussion groups. Most young people in my group came from Bulgaria, where I learnt that Islam had arrived hundreds of years before the Ottomans had taken siege of Vienna. Thousands of Bulgarians are in fact native European and born Muslims. I also discovered that the Bosnian government made a commitment to send 100 young Muslims every year to the Arab countries’ Islamic institutions to get them trained as Islamic scholars. After having graduated, one such group had been sent to attend this programme and perform Hajj – this was their graduation ceremony. What an amazing and forward thinking policy; if only other Muslim countries thought the same way! Bosnians may have been bombed back to the Stone Ages by the Serbs, but the spirit of Bosnian Islam remained unshaken.
The next day the Hajj rituals began and we made our way to Mina. A few metres away from the tent, I lay my mat under the open sky decorated with millions of stars. I was soon in deep sleep and woke to the call of the dawn prayer.
Once we had finished the essential rites of Hajj we were escorted back and forth from Makkah to Mina for a further three nights’ stay in Mina. During those days we had several sessions on the Qur’an, biography of the Prophet and the Creed, as well as lectures by scholars from the universities of Makkah, Madina and Riyadh. As I had discussions with people from various backgrounds, one thing became glaringly obvious, while this training programme was a noble idea and the invitation extremely generous, the content of the training was totally inappropriate. Islam in Europe cannot be dreamed up in Makkah, it has to be lived by the Muslims in Europe.