A headline that is frequently used as a part of political humor which indicates the Turkish press’ lack of religious knowledge has been numerously repeated: “This year, Hajj coincides with Eid al-Adha again.” The dark comedy aspect of the matter aside, there is no recorded history of the Republic of Turkey’s Hajj policies.
The official patronage of the state over hajj had concluded following the Sharif Hussein uprising. The last hajj group and sürre, meaning the imperial purse – caravan containing money and gifts sent ahead of the hajj season to meet the needs of the people of Mecca and Medina – in 1917 could be sent to Medina only. However, the Hajj pilgrimages did not cease. Muslims from Turkey continued to go to Hajj individually, using the means they found. The Republic of Turkey sent Istanbul Deputy Mr. Edip as representative to the 1925 Islamic Congress in Mecca, which had been organized by Abdulaziz bin Saud (the sultan of Najad and Hejaz), who took Mecca from Sharif Hussein, and where the future of Hajj and Hejaz was discussed. However, no official Hajj group could be organized by Turkey for a long period. Because, as the Turkish state’s economic circumstances would not allow this in the founding years, the former Hajj paths were also closed off. Syria, Jordan and Iraq were under mandate administration, and hence, it was not a safe route for Turkish pilgrims. Taking the route through Egypt was quite expensive. Furthermore, Turkey, where almost all companies had gone bankrupt during the war years, did not have means of transport to take the hajj group to Haramayn, the two holy cities, Mecca and Medina, neither by land nor sea.
Meanwhile, though it had control over religious life through the Presidency of Religious Affairs (DİB), the new state mindset – paradoxically – considered being involved in the Hajj matter in violation of the principles of secularism. Thus, the first official Turkish hajj group could only go to Hajj in 1947, via seaway.
The founding of the Democrat Party in 1946 led to a switch to the multiparty system, and elections were held the following year. The opposition, which declared that it was against the single party system and more respectable towards religious values, garnered great interest. Naturally, this change in politics reflected on Hajj policies as well. Thus, ever since 1947, numerous private companies started to transport pilgrims via sea and air. An official hajj group could not be organized in 1948, due to the lack of foreign exchange, but personal departures were not prevented. Private companies organizing Hajj trips every year since this date, has also led to a rise in the number of Turks going for Hajj.
This change reflected on the Turkish press as well. When the Turkish public became interested in the experiences of pilgrims in Mecca and Medina, some newspapers started sending reporters for the pilgrimage. Archives show that ever since the 1950s, the Turkish press published special editions and regular news reports about Hajj and Hejaz in season.
The discussion on Hajj in Turkey and groups going to Hajj regularly is clearly disturbing certain circles. Incidents caused by companies transporting Hajj groups, and complaints by some pilgrims with respect to travel and accommodation conditions, has given the opportunity for those opposing Hajj to open a debate on the matter.
These groups were claiming that Turkey was in dire financial straits, hence, it was wrong for pilgrims to be taking so much foreign exchange abroad. In fact, even the prohibition of Hajj groups had come up on the agenda in 1951 for this very same reason. However, Turks’ interest in Hajj increased, leading to the continuation of the organization of the trips. Also, with the efforts of the Democrat Party, an official regulation was instituted for Hajj groups for the very first time.
In 1953, the Council of Ministers issued an executive order titled, “Principles concerning the travels of those going to Saudi Arabia for hajj purposes.” The executive order was related to Hajj travels and pilgrims’ health conditions. However, this law was amended with another in 1955. According to the new regulation, travels to and from Mecca and Medina would be done via sea and air only. This restrictive law, which had closed off the land routes to pilgrims, would remain effective until 1963.
Throughout time, taking into consideration the people’s interest in hajj, governments started to constantly make facilitating regulations. A “permanent hajj committee” that also included the DİB and members of ministries was established in 1974. The aim was to ensure the health and safety of those traveling on the Hajj ğilgrimage, and to prepare the conditions that would allow them to perform their hajj duty without any problems.
The opening of the land route in 1963 had made it easier for pilgrims to go for Hajj from Turkey. Turkish pilgrims would travel from their cities to the Hejaz region through Syria and Jordan by bus. The opening of this route not only made Hajj easier for Turks, it also allowed for serious cultural interaction between Muslim Turks and Muslim Syrians, Jordanians and Saudis. However, various reasons, political crises, uprisings, clashes, and wars – like today – closed off the land routes. Hajj groups from Turkey started to use airways alone, and the natural interaction and cultural relations that emerged between Muslims of the region ended.
Though there is currently no obstacle other than the quota applied with respect to the number of pilgrims going for hajj, there is need for new Islamic rulings on the meaning and performance of this act of worship – just as we need new Islamic rulings on the meaning, slaughtering and distribution of animal sacrifices.
May you have a blessed Eid. May it bring goodness, abundance and peace to the Muslim world and humanity.