A few days ago Indian media reported that women over 45 years of age maybe allowed to go on haj without a mahram (an adult, male blood relative or husband) from next year immediately sparking a heated debate on TV channels and newspapers. Venerable white-bearded maulanas and some not-so-white bearded ones screamed that sharia was in danger and that this government was determined to erode Islamic values.
The secretary of the Jamiat-e-Ulema even made the ridiculous argument that "if everyone wants equality on the basis of gender, then why men and women don't carry pregnancy for four-and-half months each".
I wish they would at least read that these rules have been made by Saudi Arabia and not Indian government. Indeed this government is the new-found ally of the Muslim woman. After the abolition of the instant triple talaq, news came in that it has allowed women over 45 years to travel in groups of four without a mahram. In this case, however, credit must be given where it is due. As per the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia's guidelines: "Women over the age of forty-five (45) may travel without a mahram with an organised group. They must, however, submit a no-objection letter from her husband, son or brother authorising her to travel for haj with the named group. This letter should be notarised."
"And proclaim the pilgrimage among men: they will come to thee on foot and (mounted) on every kind of camel, lean on account of journeys through deep and distant mountain highways," Quran Surah Al-Haj 22:27
There are some 25 ayats or verses in the Quran that refer to haj as the pilgrimage that is a pillar of Islam. They spell out the rules of what is lawful during the pilgrimage. However, not one of them mentions that a woman needs to have a mahram with her. But since this is the rule that has been prevailing in Saudi Arabia where Kaaba is situated, one has to obey the law of the land.
According to hadith (record of the traditions or sayings of the Prophet Muhammad), the Prophet ordained this for reasons of safety since travel was risky and one needed protection from attacks of robbers and thieves. Travel through waterless deserts was also tough. With modern amenities, security and travel ease that is no longer a concern.
Some theologians such as the famous Egyptian scholar, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, feel that we must amend these rules to bring them more in tune with modern age. He has written innumerable books including The Lawful and the Prohibited in Islam and is a much respected scholar.
In a fatwa issued in response to a question on whether women could travel alone for haj, he quoted many medieval Islamic scholars. He quotes what Ibn-Muflih, a 14th century Muslim theologian, said in al-Furu, "A woman could perform haj without a mahram as long as she is safe," and that, "This applies to all kinds of travel (for good cause)."
We have to move with the times and hopefully now that the Saudi Arabian government has allowed women to drive inside the kingdom they will relax the travel with a mahram rule too. After all, women hold top positions all over the world, live successful lives and of course travel alone.
Let us now examine the haj subsidy, which has always been a stick to beat Muslims with, and comes very high on the Muslim appeasement card.
Every year the Saudi Arabian government allots a quota for the number of pilgrims who can come from each country - including theirs - to limit pilgrims to manageable proportions.
Of India's quota of 1,70,000 pilgrims, the majority travel via the Haj Committee of India (HCOI) and about 45,000 go via private tour operators, who are approved by the HCOI.
Till 1995, Indian pilgrims went via air and sea. Sea travel took time and often resulted in sea sickness, so the number of pilgrims was dwindling. The fleet was ageing and oil prices were rising. In this background, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1973 announced the subsidy to bridge the gap between the two modes of travel. Post 1995, everyone had to travel by air and that too the government air carrier, Air India. The prices of Air India tickets which enjoy a monopoly on this route are very high. The reasoning is that it has to charter planes and come back without fliers one way. If this route was to be opened to private airlines, the competition would result in cost-effective fares and the haj pilgrims would really not need subsidy or sea routes, which too, the government is thinking of opening from next year.
Many Muslim politicians and citizens have opposed the subsidy and called for open air routes. The Supreme Court had in 2012 ruled that by 2022 haj subsidy should be stopped.
While we cannot impose rules on other countries such as Saudi Arabia to relax rules on women travellers, we can definitely deal with issues in our domain. By opening up the skies we will ensure that no Muslim has to bear the taunt of appeasement, no political party has to cater to vote banks and haj becomes affordable for many more Indians. Since this government does not believe in appeasements and vote banks, we look to them to open up the skies.
While we are at it, we should also allot more numbers to private operators as there are many complaints of overcrowding in the rooms allotted to the pilgrims in Mecca and Medina, unhygienic conditions, being put up in hotels very far off which makes travelling to the holy places difficult and unpalatable food.
Most Muslims save for a greater part of their lives to be able to afford the haj. Let's make it as easy for them as possible.
Disclaimer: I performed haj without a mahram at the age of 48.