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Heavenly Target

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Having just got back from umroh or the mini haj recently I was struck by how numbers and set targets play a big part in what are supposedly religious undertakings. For a start there is the notion that a mini haj performed during the fasting month of Ramadhan yield more points on their religious scoreboard than on normal days so more pilgrims make the journey on this holy month than at any other time simply to take advantage of the bonus that would guarantee them a hefty top up of their heavenly investment.

As to paying tribute to the sacred site itself, the Ka’bah, there is precious little time to meditate and ponder on the symbolism and mystery of this black cube that houses the stone that had been worshipped long before monotheism became the religion of choice for the majority of the earth’s population. Instead one’s concentration is focused on counting the specified number of times that one must circle the cube (seven to be exact) while chanting the appropriate prayers. Don’t even think about miscounting or coming up short because that would impact on the validity of your spiritual performance. As this is a physical feat with a very specific target (a bit like being put on a treadmill with the instructor not allowing you to get off before you reach four kilometers) it is no wonder that a lot of people are impatient to complete the task, particularly since thousands of other people are trying to do the same thing at the same time.

At this holy of holiest place therefore, one sees a lot of pushing, shoving and elbowing of other slow coaches (little old ladies and limping old men not withstanding) and behaviour more commonly seen at the bus stop on a cold rainy day. The next task, the Sa’i , which is walking up and down between two hills, again for seven times, is even more strenuous. Those who are fit (and want to show off) as well as those who cannot shake off their worldly habit of always being in a hurry, would run, jog and sprint as this exercise is of no mean distance. While those who are physically challenged, tired or just plain lazy, could hire a wheelchair complete with a young energetic pusher who would push you at breakneck speed up and down specially designated lanes. And did I mention about those who do not wish to miss out on their worldly investment even as they work on their heavenly target by talking on their mobile phones? The signal to reach the outside world is very strong in this area, perhaps even stronger than the frequency to reach the heavens.

Other than counting mileage there are a lot of heavenly bonus points to be won on this pilgrimage that could also guarantee a lot of your sins to be erased – a sort of debt forgiveness or haircut to one’s loans, which is a great incentive if you’ve incurred a lot of spiritual losses in this world’s life journey. Such as if one succeeds in kissing the Hajar Aswad, the stone (extra terrestrial, they say) on the side of the Ka’bah. This bonus packed task however, only comes with a lot of physical effort and the willingness to be sandwiched and squashed between sweaty bodies all aggressively trying to press their faces on the same spot. If you do manage to do it, be ready to be whacked on the head by the security guard hovering above who makes sure nobody hogs the stone for longer than a fraction of a second.

There are also prayers that one can perform at certain spots near the Ka’bah that are the equivalent of a multiple of prayers that one performs at home. But for the ultimate in top up bonus, no pilgrimage is complete without visiting the Nabawi Mosque in Medina, where the Prophet himself (peace be upon him) is buried. There is a spot in this mosque where the Prophet first prayed, and where, if one prays there is the equivalent to performing a thousand prayer elsewhere and moreover, whatever one prays for, if offered here, will come true. This is a good place for those who are not so disciplined in performing their mandatory five time daily prayers as they can catch up on their spiritual savings quite effectively by performing just a few prostrations here. And indeed, one sees many fervent and frantic prayers done here by the enthusiastic faithful.

Clearly well defined targets and the promise of tangible results are great motivators for the thousands and millions of believers who flock to Mecca everyday from all corners of the world. One sees it etched on their determined faces, the eagerness to carry out a duty that will earn them personal rewards whether extra blessings, good luck or the cleansing of one’s sins. It is a familiar sight in banks and successful companies that impose high targets together with high rewards and great incentives – the energy, the competitiveness, the rush to reach the goal and the earnestness in following the rules. Somewhere to be sure, there lies the spiritual aspect and perhaps even the presence of God. But among all the constant movement, the rush, the jogging, the bowing, the repetitious chanting of prayers and the counting of numbers, it is quite hard to see where.