Later this month, groups of Muslim pilgrims from Uzbekistan will begin making their way to Mecca, undertaking a religious obligation that most believers in the country can only dream about.
In recognition of overwhelming popular demand, authorities in Uzbekistan earlier this year upped the annual quota for people authorized to make the pilgrimage — to 7,200 from 5,200, the level that has been in place since the early 1990s.
That comes nowhere near the number of Uzbek believers who would like to make the pilgrimage, but it appears to be a rare concession from a government that seeks to balance the promotion of its conservative political agenda with the containment of religion’s role in public life.
In 1992, President Islam Karimov became the first post-Soviet leader to make the Hajj, which must be performed during the last month of the Islamic calendar. But the gesture of apparent piety, which was intended to burnish the leader’s moral authority, was followed by an often brutal, decades-long campaign of repression against Muslims who did not adhere to orthodox beliefs as interpreted by the state.
The Hajj is one of the five pillars that should be carried out by every Muslim with the means to do so. Those unable to afford the expense of that undertaking seek to perform the umrah, which is less time-consuming and can be done at any time of the year.
In Uzbekistan, aspiring pilgrims must run a gauntlet in the form of a dedicated public approvals committee. This board includes officials from the Interior Ministry, the Religious Affairs Committee, the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Uzbekistan, the Health Ministry and members of state-aligned civil society groups. Overseeing it all are the ever-cautious operatives of the National Security Service, the successor agency to the KGB.
The state’s quota is an arbitrary figure. Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Hajj and Umrah annually allocates 1,000 pilgrimage travel permits for every 1 million Muslims in any given country. Under that system, Uzbekistan, in which around 85 percent of the 32 million-strong population identifies as Sunni Muslim, should be able to count on around 26,000 spots.
Other than the quota system, the most serious impediment to undertaking the pilgrimage is money — both in legal and under-the-table expenses.
By some estimates, Uzbek Muslims can expect to spend at least 18 million sums ($2,650) on making the Hajj. That includes airfare, accommodation and food for a stay lasting more than three weeks. Even the less costly umrah sets people back around $1,260 for a 10-day period.
Critics of the way pilgrimage authorization is handled also note it is a boon for corruption. Quotas are distributed unevenly throughout the country. So while residents of the capital city, Tashkent, have in the past been granted 2,250 of the 5,200 allocated spots, the three regions of the densely populated Ferghana Valley get 750 apiece. The other 700 slots are divvied up among Uzbekistan’s remaining eight regions.
Madaminhoja Sadykov, a veteran of the Hajj, said that distribution reflects demand. “Judge for yourselves, in my village district, we have around 31,000 residents. Of those, around 400 are on the Hajj waiting list. But every year, only three of those people can go. It would take 130 years for everybody to get their turn. In reality, most of them will never get the chance to go to Mecca, since they will never get to the front of the line,” Sadykov told EurasiaNet.org.
Getting to the front of the line is possible for those willing to pay.
Shavkat, a currency trader from Tashkent who spoke to EurasiaNet.org on condition his surname was not published, said he managed to send his parents on the Hajj in 2015. His father and mother were 67 and 65 at the time and were desperate to make the trip while they were still physically able to withstand the rigors of the journey. But the elderly couple were 97th and 98th in the waiting list in their area — a place where usually only one person per year gets the clearance to go to Mecca.
“I found a person that could help — he promised me that he could set my parents up for the Hajj within a year. For the two of them, I paid $10,000, so they could get ahead of the line. And so my parents got to go,” Shavkat told EurasiaNet.org.
Obtaining authorization is just the first in a long series of steps. Pilgrims are slotted into groups of 50. Before making the trip, they are required to attend mandatory classes on the rules to follow during their stay — lessons range from general etiquette to explanations on the dress code. After the classes, DVDs providing further details on the rituals to be performed while in Mecca are distributed to prospective travelers.
The groups are led by imams from local mosques around the country. The title for the group leaders is ellikbashi, or head of fifty.
Yashen Khalilov, who performed ellikbashi duties in 2014, told EurasiaNet.org the details of the trip need to be organized and agreed upon in advance in every little detail. “A half-year before, a commission goes to Mecca and Medina to rent out hotels and transport for Uzbek pilgrims. In every hotel where Uzbeks stay, they set up a polyclinic staffed by one doctor who is tasked with taking care of around 200 pilgrims. They hire cooks to prepare Uzbek meals. Over the duration of the entire Hajj, the ellikbashi are responsible for everybody in their group,” said Khalilov, who agreed to talk to EurasiaNet.org on condition of being identified by a pseudonym.
While a pilgrimage to Mecca is seen as a religious rite for many in Uzbekistan, the experience confers other intangible benefits.
“Fulfilling the Hajj carries at least as much status socially as it does in a religious sense. This may be due in part to the fact that it remains so difficult to land a spot among those chosen to participate. This would indicate to many that one has considerable influence, above and beyond the significance of completing a religious obligation,” Reuel Hanks, a professor of geography at Oklahoma State University, told EurasiaNet.org.
A former imam at a mosque in the Kashkadarya region, Buvahon Rahimov, agreed, adding that as well as lending a person certain prestige, performing the Hajj also endows the pilgrim with spiritual authority. “The pilgrim has more authority than me — a professional imam with 20 years of experience. These days, the so-called ‘new Uzbeks’ will not hesitate to spend the money on doing the Hajj, or maybe sending their parents or close relatives. They do not understand that the Hajj is done by people with pure and noble intentions. All of this arises from the fact that money is now considered to be the noblest good, more important even than belief in the truth of Islam,” Rahimov told EurasiaNet.org.
It is a matter of debate among political observers whether the decision to expand the pilgrimage quota is part of the mild liberalization that some see being ushered in by President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who occupied the top spot in Uzbekistan’s political pyramid following Karimov’s death in September.
“I see any increase as somewhat encouraging, but experience has taught me to be circumspect regarding such changes, certainly as a harbinger of more profound things to come. Mirziyoyev is very much a man of the old regime, and it may well be that he wishes to use a slight increase in the quota as a symbol of a ‘thaw’ towards believers,” Reuel said. “On the other hand, perhaps this is the start of something new.”