Thursday, September 15, 2016

Both Sides Now

Seemed to see something akin to the best of Islam and the worst of Muslims within moments of each other yesterday. The location for this striking juxtaposition was at the Jamarat. We were there to complete our final stoning of the pillars in the early afternoon and, boy, was it crowded. Distinctly challenging, especially in the intense heat at that time of day. Approaching the final pillar I happened to walk next to one of the policemen marshalling the crowd, ensuring a steady forward movement. As I passed he reached out his arm to place his hand affectionately on my shoulder. I'm not exactly sure what provoked the welcome gesture, but I'm guessing it may have been related to my race - though, as a matter of interest, it's been very rare indeed for anyone at all to pay any attention to that aspect of this pilgrim. Anyway, it felt good in the simple, uncomplicated way of such moments of fellowship.

Then immediately after that came the almost dangerous foolishness of some pilgrims' behaviour during the stoning. It's one thing to be enthusiastic, but consider this: if a reasonably healthy and fairly tough bloke like myself who is generally used to crowds felt vaguely threatened, what must the surging have felt like to the very old, the ill, the infirm? And there was absolutely no need for any of this. Yes, the crowd was substantial, but if everyone remained calm and focused and aware of the collective needs of all around, an individual's throwing of the stones could have been achieved in less than five minutes with ease.

It was interesting to link the loonier behaviour to how various of the participants were interpreting the ceremony. If you saw the throwing of the pebbles as symbolic of the casting out of the negative parts of the self - the interpretation given by Ustad Haron and Ustad Hafiz accompanying our group - then it made little sense to deliberately drive a wheelchair into the back of someone's legs (as one gentleman took it upon himself to do to me) in order to force them out of the way since this was a fairly negative thing to do in itself, suggesting that the ceremony had not worked so well for the wheelchair propeller involved. (I might just add here that I was actually moving into an open space with little difficulty when my legs were assaulted and the perpetrator of the assault following me was going to arrive in that open space in another five seconds or so, but obviously decided he couldn't wait. Mind you, the guy actually seated in the wheelchair did manage to look faintly embarrassed about the whole thing to do him justice.) A somewhat different interpretation of the business at the Jamarat I suspect some pilgrims adhere to is that they see themselves as the holy righteous, slaying the devil in others when they cast their stones. In that case pushing aside all who deflect you from your righteous purpose has, I suppose, a grim logic about it.

But let's dwell on the positive. The vast majority of pilgrims don't behave in that manner. I didn't see anyone get hurt yesterday. And apropos the friendly cop I mentioned earlier, I've been taken aback by how the police and soldiers around have managed almost uniformly (pun intended) to cope with what must be difficult, thankless tasks, in extremely difficult, trying conditions, often with humour and understanding. So I reckon, all in all, a victory for the better angels of our nature.

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