In the West, there have been protests about the commercialization of Christmas, with many people forgetting the essence of the holiday being the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. Instead, Christmas time has become a time for shopping, exchanging material, and mostly unneeded gifts. It is an opportunity for department stores to lure consumers into shopping malls, selling them merchandise at an alleged discount of say 25%, with the expectation that most will be returned by the gift receiver after New Year’s Eve, without a receipt, when the merchandise discount could be as high as 75%.
For instance, a $100 shirt is purchased by the gift-donor for $75; it then gets returned to the store by the gift receiver for a $25 refund. This is quite a creative way for the stores to make an easy profit capitalizing on the transformation of Christmas time into a time for material consumption.
In the Muslim world, there has been a parallel trend to commercialize Hajj, which is one of the five pillars of Islam. Every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it is obligated to go to the holy city of Makkah in Saudi Arabia at least once in his/her lifetime. There is a limited number of Muslims who can be accommodated each year to perform the pilgrimage, usually between two to three million Muslims from all parts of the world. Each country has a certain quota based on population size. Many eager hopefuls apply to get a visa at least two months in advance, and wait anxiously to find out if they are among the “chosen ones”. Factors such as age, and number of previous Hajj visits contribute to the decision of being selected. Capacity could increase depending on logistical improvements, meaning there will be more places to apply for.
There has been a recent development of a black market for Hajj visas. For a US Muslim citizen it would cost over $1600 to buy a visa, whereas in Lebanon the price can reach $1000. People who were rejected several times, or who worry about passing on before getting the prized visas resort to buying a visa in the “black market”, something that poor people cannot afford to do.
This definitely defies the Shari’a’s equitable prerogative among humans as evidenced by the Hajj rituals, which require everyone to dress in the exact same modest style. In addition, it leads to the exploitation of people who desperately want to perform the pilgrimage.
Another demonstration of the commercialization of Hajj is the high cost of taking these trips, with packages costing $8000 for a U.S. Muslim. The package will include a private room, transportation including air tickets, and meals usually over a ten-day period. In the old days, people used to travel from Lebanon to Saudi Arabia on camels for two to three months and some even died on the road. The survivors used to celebrate returning from such adventures, and felt confident that the harder the trip, the greater the credit they received in the eyes of God.
Nowadays we have what we can call ‘fast’, or almost ‘drive through’ Hajj, with a lot of ‘luxury’ hotels and much less exertion of effort. This is to be contrasted with some of today’s impoverished pilgrims who cannot afford even the hotel or motel cost, and who end up sleeping on the streets.
Despite all the above, Hajj remains a time for hope, with ‘sinners’ hoping for starting over with ‘a clean slate’, and parents sending to Hajj their young offspring who just started out adulthood on the wrong foot, in hopes of heavenly intervention and a miraculous change of direction.