The uproar started on social media, then spun out of control after a news site published the story.
It was claimed that the Hajj application form now featured a new question – ‘Are you Shia?’ – purportedly added at the behest of Saudi Arabia.
The first time I came across this controversial story on a Facebook community page, I ignored it, as I do with many such posts from random Facebook pages. I disregarded it as just more online misinformation/propaganda.
A day later, I came across the news story. Now this sounded serious.
I asked my mother about it (she had gone for Hajj just last year). Not confident of her memory, she said she would ask the Qafila (caravan) leader instead.
After talking to the caravan leader’s wife with whom my mother traveled, and who has been accompanying her husband in leading a caravan to Hajj for years, it became clear that the question was not a recent addition.
“I have been seeing this question as part of the application form since well over a decade. I am sure it is even older than that.”
The reasoning behind the question, as some people have figured out by now, was that as per differences in 'fiqh' (Islamic jurisprudence), while a Sunni woman requires a mehram [male family member] to accompany her on Hajj, a Shia woman does not. Keep in mind this reasoning is over a decade old as you keep reading.
On Facebook, the news caused a ruckus, and a long series of debates ensued, many focused on how the Saudi-Yemen conflict would affect Shia pilgrims this year (as suggested by the news report).
Witnessing this, I decided to post a Facebook status to clarify the issue. Unexpectedly, it was shared over 750 times. Many people seemed to agree with my explanation, while some criticised it and others stayed in a state of confusion.
The news story was eventually removed. But, even as people learn the motive behind asking the question, the online conversation on the issue is still rife with some, I daresay, fairly inane objections and conjecture.
For example, someone floated this idea: Why not simply ask if the woman wishes to travel without a mehram?
The Hajj form cannot simply ask a woman if she wishes to abide by law or not. Pakistan is a Sunni-majority country and Sunni fiqh has it mandatory for women to have a mehram accompanying them on Hajj. For the minority Shia, there is allowance for going without a mehram, but only because their own religious law i.e. Fiqh-e-Jafariya, makes this allowance – not because the woman 'wished' to go alone.
The government, in this case, is facilitating rule of law and doing the right thing by asking for details on the form.
Then, as always, there were the conspiracy theories, making some sort of link between Riyadh making it mandatory for all Hajj pilgrims to declare their sect and the fears of a possible rise of sectarian tensions in the Kingdom, as a consequence of the Saudi-Yemen conflict.
Some gullible readers fell for the Bad-Saudis-dictating-poor-Pakistanis reasoning. But this is obviously not the case.
If this question has been a part of the Hajj application for over a decade, or at least since 2012 (as this link shows) or since last year (as my mother’s Hajj application proves), then how can it possibly be related to the recent conflict in Yemen?
The worst part of all this is how the entire episode blemished the sanctity of Hajj.
Aside from hoping citizens are far more critical of the information they consume and share, I request our media to exercise restraint and adopt ethics, especially when covering sensitive issues like religion and sects – and let us please keep Hajj out of politics. Journalism is about objectivity and facts. If it loses integrity, it loses everything.