The Story of an Epic Hajj Journey
By C. Naseer Ahmad
Hajj is the fifth pillar of Islam. For the faithful adherents to their religion, every able bodied Muslim is obligated to make the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lifetime, assuming that they have the means to make the journey and have discharged all other responsibilities in life. Over the centuries, millions of Muslims have embarked on the spiritual journey making Islam the vibrant and progressive way of life it is.
This year Hajj began in Mecca on the evening of August 31st and ended on September 4, 2017. It is reported that over 1.2 million pilgrims performed Hajj. The volume is about 20% higher than last year.
Each pilgrim brings something special that tells his or her life story. Their life’s work, the blessings they received, the prayers of their loved ones, their decision, and finally their energy propels them for this journey of a lifetime. Upon completion of the Hajj, each pilgrim carries forward with their lives with renewed spirit and surely they have stories to tell.
The story of the Hajj journey of Sheikh Muhammad Iqbal Piracha came to my desk via a very loving letter from his son Muhammad Ikram Piracha, currently living in Toronto, Canada. Though almost sixty years have passed since that epic Hajj in 1961, the letter makes it feel like it was just yesterday.
Hailing from Sargodha, Pakistan, Sheikh Sahib came from a family of entrepreneurs who as young men were going places. During World War II, Sheikh Sahib had a military contract to supply uniforms. Following the end of World War II, he transitioned into the transportation business and established a company called “United Transport” with a major route between Sargodha and Lahore. Long before the Daewoo Bus Service came on the scene, United Transport ruled the roads of the area between Sargodha and Lahore.
During their rule over the Subcontinent, the British recognized the importance of Sargodha – which is now the 11th largest city of Pakistan – and established the Royal Air Force Base. Following independence from the British and the creation of Pakistan, Sargodha had become the home to Pakistan Air Force’s (PAF) largest base - the PAF Base Mushaf.
Hard work, good luck and not to mention the strategic location of Sargodha factored into Sheik Sahib’s success. His business expanded into other ventures like petrol pumps (gas stations) and maintenance workshops.
Among Sheikh Sahib’s notable achievements was the “Sargodha-Bhera Bus Service,” linking Sargodha to Bhera. This important bus service linked the emerging city of Sargodha with the historic town Bhera – home to Sher Shah Suri Jamia Mosque built in 1540 AD. From a historical perspective, Bhera was in the path of invaders like Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Mahmud of Ghazni, Babur, and Ahmad Shah Durrani. Bhera was also home to Hakeem Noor-ud-Din, famous physician and scholar of Arabic and Hebrew; Justice Pir Muhammad Karam Shah al-Azhari, famous jurist and Islamic scholar; and Maulvi Sher Ali, whose translation of the Qur’an into English is a book that I read every day.
For his growing business, Sheikh Sahib needed helping hands so he requested his elder son Sheikh Muhammad Ikram Piracha, who was about 21 then, to join him after leaving Forman Christian College Lahore. Together, the father, the son, fellow family members and company staff enabled people go to places to distant horizons.
While working at United Transport, the son went to the local bank for official business. During the visit, the young man noticed a rather large crowd gathered so he inquired about the reason for this unusual hustle and bustle. He was informed “people are filing applications for Hajj,” which was and remains like a lottery system.
Caught up in momentary excitement, Sheikh Ikram Piracha filed the Hajj application for Sheikh Sahib. Later that day, he told his father about it. Sheikh Sahib really appreciated the sincere gesture of devotion and love by his elder son but was a bit apprehensive. Acknowledging his business success, he expressed some apprehension. “I still have to take care of the responsibilities of marrying of my daughters yet,” Sheikh Sahib explained his unease and lack of readiness for the Hajj.
Months passed by and nothing happened until one day a notice arrived about Sheikh Sahib’s application- acceptance in the Hajj lottery. While he was initially hesitant to embark on a journey, Sheikh Sahib mulled on the idea a bit more. “I think if my application has been accepted, then God wants me to perform Hajj – so it becomes necessary to travel,” Sheikh Sahib informed his family.
With the decision made, preparations for the journey began in earnest. There was a huge gathering at the Sargodha Railway Station to bid bon voyage – Khuda Hafiz - to one of the leading personalities of the town. While Sargodha took pride in being home to Sir Feroz Khan Noon, former Primer Minister of Pakistan, and many other luminaries, Sheikh Sahib had earned the respect of the town through his decency and exemplary life.
According to the original plan, Sheikh Sahib would travel by sea along with fellow pilgrims. Travelling for Hajj by air was catching on but that was not how people travelled then. Concerned for his father’s comfort, Sheikh Sahib’s son requested the Hajj Duty Officer to see if anyone would like to switch their seat on the ship with a different mode of transportation. “Switch from sea to air?” said the startled Duty Officer. “Hasn’t happened before on my watch for decades,” he added. Ever the optimist, the son left the hotel information in Karachi with the Hajj Duty Officer just in case someone had a change of heart.
“You won’t believe it,” said the Hajj Duty Officer informing the son a few days later that there was someone who actually preferred to travel by sea. Fortunately, the exchange of tickets happened and with much ease – in simpler times and age of innocence.
While helping Sheikh Sahib pack for travel, his son noted a very neatly pressed Sherwani and a fine Karakul cap. Since this appeared not to be the items people usually took for such a journey, the son teased his father: “So are you going to be dining with King Saud also?”
After Sheikh Sahib performed the Hajj, he took a break to visit the Pakistan Embassy in Saudi Arabia. Seeing Sheikh Sahib in his distinguished Sherwani, one of the diplomats recognized him because of his past encounters and extended a warm welcome.
“Sheikh Sahib, can you stay for a few more days?” asked the diplomat, “… and please don’t let your Sherwani get stained and keep it pressed,” he added.
In apparently customary manner the Saudi monarch invited distinguished guests to dinner after Hajj. So the diplomat’s request for keeping Sheikh Sahib’s attire tiptop was intended to include him in the official guests list. Sheikh Sahib was advised that guests would only shake hands with King Saud, the ruling monarch then, at the dinner event. But, as luck would have it, King Saud initiated a conversation for which he was ready, especially since Sheikh Sahib had been practicing his Arabic skills while in Saudi Arabia on this epic Hajj journey. And, he not only lived to tell but was also received enthusiastically with garlands by his loved ones, friends and admirers in a huge public gathering in Sargodha.