Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, begins soon. It is a period when believers are enjoined to further redouble acts of piety, kindness and forgiveness. Those with the means shall travel to the holy land to seclude themselves in devotion and prayer, especially in the last ten days.
While recommended, for many people though, the insistence on performing Umrah in the midst of fundamental inequalities, injustice and crushing poverty reflects what, in essence, amounts to class struggle and misplaced priorities. Why else would people beg and borrow just to keep up with peers who make the trip every year?
This attitude probably underscored a survey which showed Nigeria to be the most religious country in the world, with 90 per cent of the population believing in God, praying regularly and affirming their readiness to die for their beliefs. The survey, “What the World Thinks of God,” also showed Nigeria coming tops as a praying nation with 95 per cent of the population claiming to pray.
So, with all the prayers, how come we are where we are?
Our brand of Christianity has a uniquely Nigerian character: loud, colourful, vigorous and patently overdone. Though church attendances in many parts of the world are falling, the business of worshiping Christ is a trillion naira concern in Nigeria – and growing. Apart from being a PDP apparatchik or oil subsidy thief, the easiest way to own a private jet in Nigeria is probably to talk-smooth on a church podium.
Similarly, our brand of Islam is just as peculiarly Nigerian: pretentious, ignorant, obtuse and grotesquely expensive. A good example is the calculatedly obscene manner Nigerians struggle to spend money to demonstrate religiosity. And this is where the issue of Umrah comes in. Already, intending pilgrims are scrambling for visa and hotel arrangements, with minimum costs starting from $5,000 for a few days of ‘executive’ devotion.
Why should people who can ill-afford the trip task themselves needlessly to perform Umrah, and why must wealthy pilgrims compete to outspend themselves?
Last year, it was reported that $100,000 was paid to a luxury hotel on behalf of a state governor for 10 nights; he stayed only two. A former state governor travelled with his entire family at a cost of over N80 million. Another politician ordered $250,000 wired as payment for a 10-night stay, but didn’t show up. At current exchange rates, that is 40 million naira. Does this mirror the essence of Ramadan?
The math is simple. Which would be a worthier act, spending N40 million for a few days of luxurious devotion, or using the same amount to change the lives of at least 100 Nigerian families forever? For a graduate willing to drive a cab, N400,000 would buy a taxi. The same amount would kick-start many small businesses. For many jobless youth, that amount would buy land, farming implements, a bull and an irrigation pump. For many others struggling to settle down, that amount of money would settle all marriage expenses and create new families – the basis of social stability and security.
These estimates are actually very generous: The entire contents of some hawkers’ trays – from which they feed their families – is often less than N5,000; the entire assets of some petty traders are usually less than N10,000. If our Umrah club ‘veterans’ spend a fraction of their travelling expenses to change the lives of fellow Nigerians by helping them to start up in life, how many armed robbers, kidnappers and prostitutes would have been recovered for society? Would Boko Haram find it so easy to recruit suicide bombers?
It is important to ask: What is the real meaning of worship? Is spending (probably stolen money) outrageously, ostensibly to please God the essence of religion? Why should the unspoken assertion seem to be ‘my prayers were more exclusive than yours?’ Why must the essence of Umrah be summed up in the vain proclamations: ‘I could see the Holy Mosque from my hotel room’; ‘I haven’t missed one Umrah in the last 20 years’; ‘I brought my entire family with me’; ‘I stayed at the Intercontinental because Hilton’s standards are falling’ or ‘I stayed at Raffles. It is the best. Try it next year’.
No doubt, if the keys to Heaven could be bought with money, Nigerians would probably outbid every other people in the world, with change to spare. The contradiction in using stolen funds to build mosques and churches is often lost, so from the same ‘chuwachuwa’, monies intended for roads, schools and hospitals are stolen – and part of it used to travel to Mecca and Jerusalem – first class.
In the midst of such chest-thumping exertions to outspend others for heavenly praise, the Divine injunctions of piety, justice, honesty and concern for fellow humans go unheeded. Is it any wonder, then, that instead of respite, what we see daily are bombs, bullets and blood?
Filed Under: Salisu Suleiman