"FROM DURY LANE TO MECCA" Told by Eric Rosenthal.
The story of the Hajj of Hedley Churchward, Mecca 1910.
Being in one of Islam’s focal centres I was surrounded by Hajis, men bearing the title which only those who have been to Mecca may legally possess. At the customary time, after the month of Ramadan, I regularly saw gigantic crowds of Pilgrims trekking forth from Cairo. Shouting and chanting Koran verses, they strode to the railway stations, whence packed trains took them towards the steamer-quays of Suez and Port Said. Every year I was invited to see the solemn despatching of the Holy Carpet, which the Khedive of Egypt in those days supplied as a covering for the Holiest Place amid Muhammad’s City. Its shaky palanquin, wrapped in velvet that bore religious texts, was taken through the tall-walled, crooked streets. I stood among the tens of thousands who pushed and struggled to accompany the carefully folded and very beautiful wrapper, which for generations had been woven by a privileged family living beside the Nile.
Men spoke and thought even more than ordinarily about Mecca during such seasons, and my studies in the halls of Al-Azhar emphasised the need for a pilgrimage to that town.
So one evening as I strode along the looming Pyramid in the sunset and saw the jagged skyline of Cairo behind the dreamy African dusk, I decided to carry through what I had intended to do ever since I turned a Muslim – I would go to the Kabba at Mecca.
Koomer Slatar, my village, belonged to the Magistracy of Gizeh, an unpretentious town on the side of the Nile opposite Cairo. I found a big block of Government offices and, having asked for the Hakeem or Magistrate himself, his clerk led me down the colonnades into a room where sat a native Egyptian civil servant, in stately robes and a fez.
Evidently he had heard about Mahmoud Mobarek Churchward for he showed little perplexity about my request for a permit to make a pilgrimage.
“Send me an application, signed by the Chief Citizens of Koomer Slatar,” he advised, “and I will get you an interview with the Cadi of Egypt.”
I spoke to my neighbours, and as I kept on good terms with them all, the desired recommendation from the leading burgesses was soon obtained. Later the Hakeem sent a message that the Qadi of Egypt would, on a certain morning, be ready to see me. He reported I would have to pass an examination in the Faith, and that it was chiefly for this purpose the meeting would take place.
As befits men about to visit important officials I put on my best robe when I again trekked to Gizeh. From some friends in the crowd I learnt the great man had been tempted to come out in order to see such an unusual applicant for a passport.
The large, vaulted courtroom appeared pleasantly shady after my cross-country walk. Amid its darkness I gradually saw a raised platform akin to an English judicial bench, and on this, several bearded Orientals in richly coloured clothes squatted cross-legged. During the preliminary chatter several of them were pointed out to me. On the left reclined the Imam of the Mosque of Muhammmad Ali, the greatest in Egypt, the famous temple-citadel, in which the Mamelukes were slaughtered, and within which lay the largest carpet in the world, a prayer-mat costing £5,000. Next to him waited another venerable priest of even greater standing. He happened to be visiting Cairo at the moment and having heard about the strange function due to start, came across the Nile to listen. This was the Sheikh-ul-Islam, of Constantinople, who among the Muslim clergy takes a position equivalent to that of a Cardinal in Catholicism. Several other outstanding imams sat upon the Divan, and in the centre of the group I now saw the Qadi of Egypt himself.
“Bismillah,” I called to the tribunal when it noticed me. “Salaam Aleikoom,” boomed the hoarse voice of the sages. Together we, examiners and candidate, recited the Confession of Faith, in reverence to Allah. I sat down and a polite man approached me, who said that he was an interpreter and would help if any linguistic difficulty arose. This proved no unreasonable precaution, for the priests proudly used their pure Koran Arabic, which is by no means easy to understand. Nevertheless, I did not need my friend more than once or twice in the course of the four hours during which I passed through the examination.
Only the Qadi actually asked the questions. He began by saying: “What are the Five Pillars of Islam?” I enumerated those propositions, which the Prophet set out as the fundamentals in our Faith:
“There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is His Messenger. To pray five times a day. To pay the poor tax. To fast the month of Ramadan. Make a pilgrimage to Mecca if you can.”
Thereupon the Qadi reached for a luxuriously bound Koran. Opening the illuminated pages he asked me to construe several fairly difficult chapters and to explain the meaning of some obscure maxims. From this we passed to an interrogation concerning points of law: “What must happen in such and such cases in connection with inheritance, the property of married people, the duties of a master to his slave?”
The morning ran on till noon and still the questions came. Now and then my interpreter friend put in a slight explanation.
Then the Qadi closed the volume and raised one hand. “It is enough,” he said.
As excitedly as any matriculation candidate awaiting the results of that ordeal I listened for the finding. It came swiftly.
“Thank you, my Brother in Islam,” continued the examiner, “you are free to go throughout the Muslim World.”
He stood up, and embraced me. Of a sudden the whole tribunal became the embodiment of cordiality. One old Sheikh after another hurried to place his arms affectionately over my shoulders and to kiss me as a kinsman. Mutterings at the back of the court showed that the general delight had spread even there. Brown legged men ran in various directions calling through the building: “He has passed.” When I rode back to Koomer Slatar a crowd followed as a retinue, and at the village it grew evident that everybody already knew about Mobarek’s success.
Early next day the dragoman woke me and said: “Some important folk have arrived.”
Going into the courtyard I met an Egyptian military lieutenant, garbed neatly in a tunic and fez. Behind him, at attention, waited two soldiers.
“Good day, Effendi,” spoke the officer, saluting. “I come from the Qadi of Egypt and the Government.” Herewith he handed over a large sealed envelope for which a receipt was demanded. Stepping out to the sunlight I carefully opened it and was immensely delighted when I pulled out a beautifully written document, which began where Englishmen would look for the last page. The paper constituted a passport, written, not printed, in Koran Arabic, and it authorised me, not merely to visit Mecca, but any sacred shrine or building in the whole of Islam. To the bottom of the left page clung several green seals on which I could read reproductions of the signatures of the Qadi of Egypt, of the Sheikh-ul-Islam and nearly all the worthies who had been present at my examination.