KARACHI, PAKISTAN -- Along with more than 2 million other members of his faith, Mohammed Sandozi decided this year to fulfill the commandment and lifetime dream of every devout Moslem by making the long pilgrimage to pay homage at Islam's holiest shrine in Mecca.
The 60-year-old shopkeeper left the rugged mountains where he lives on the Pakistan-Afghan border to join thousands of other Pakistanis at a camp in central Karachi last month before embarking on the journey to the birthplace of Islam in Saudi Arabia. His trip was part of a tradition more than 10 centuries old, carried out in Asia and Africa as well as the Arab world, as Moslems from more than 60 countries prepared for an elaborate series of rites upon reaching their destination.
Their arduous passage has been eased at and near its destination by billions of Saudi dollars spent in the past two decades on vast, new lodgings and an international airport, a reflection of the importance attached by the desert kingdom to its role as protector of Islam's most sacred places.
In Mecca, the pilgrims circle the black stone Kaaba shrine at the Grand Mosque seven times. They make seven trips between the hills of Mrwah and Safa to commemorate the search for water by Hagar, Abraham's wife, and drink from a sacred well believed to have been provided by the archangel Gabriel. They pray from noon until sunset at the Plain of Arafat, where Mohammed gave his last sermon. In Mina, the pilgrims toss pebbles at three white pillars representing the devil, then sacrifice animals before returning to circle the Kaaba again seven times to complete the pilgrimage.
This year, the holy pilgrimage was overwhelmed by fierce battles between Saudi police and many of the 155,000 Iranian pilgrims, who took their cue from Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to proclaim a revolutionary political message in Mecca as well as carry out the "duty owed to God" cited in the Koran.
As the Moslem pilgrims marked the climax of the hajj with the three-day Eid al Adha feast honoring the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac at God's behest, the political tensions reverberating from last Friday's clash. Hundreds were killed in the incident, which has rekindled a rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia that is rooted in the ancient Sunni-Shiite division of Islam as much as in their modern struggle to exert dominance as the leading regional power.
The Shiites, unlike the Sunnis, revere Ali, the martyred son-in-law of the prophet Mohammed. Khomeini's interpretation of Shiism propounds that the most revered clergyman, the faqih, with the rest of the clergy, should constitute a country's political leadership. By contrast, the Sunni branch of Islam, which dominates the Arab world, holds political rule distinct from the devout Moslem's religious duties.
Violence has occurred at Mecca before, bringing shock and outrage to the Islamic world. In 1979, Moslem zealots led by a Sunni fundamentalist proclaiming himself to be the mahdi, or reincarnated prophet, seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca and fought pitched gunbattles with security forces.
Iranian state radio, received here in Pakistan, said the attack was an American plot and within hours, thousands of Pakistanis besieged the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, sacking and burning the building while 100 Americans were trapped inside.
Politics also has been used by those eager to exploit the emotional fervor accompanying the solemn religious pilgrimage. In 1980, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi demanded that Mecca and Medina, another holy city, be declared open international cities and that the Saudi royal house no longer serve as the "custodian of the holy places." Since then, campaigns have been waged steadily in the Moslem world, including one in Lahore last year at which Pakistani Shiite scholars endorsed the idea, arguing that the Saudis enforce their Sunni interpretation of religion and forbid practices they see as heretical.
But for Sandozi and the other Pakistanis who gathered here before last week's violence, such issues had no meaning.
"I have prayed all my life for this and that is why I am going," Sandozi said, as he and his coreligionists endured the wait -- sometimes for weeks -- for a seat on one of 117 special hajj flights run by Pakistan's international airline.
The $1,600 Sandozi has paid for his journey was an unthinkable sum until his daughter married a year ago. It was her husband's dowry payment, the custom in his region, that made the trip possible this year.
For Mohammed Umer, 61, it took a lifetime of work as a messenger for the public works department to make his pilgrimage possible. He retired recently after 40 years and it was the lump-sum payment from his pension fund that financed his trip.
"Behold, the first temple ever set up for mankind was indeed the one at Mecca," states the Koran. "Rich in blessing and a source of guidance into all the worlds, full of clear messages, it is the place whereon Ibrahim once stood, and whoever enters it finds peace. Hence, pilgrimage into the temple is a duty owed to God by all people who are able to undertake it."
"In a religion where there are no symbols, this is the one symbolic action," said one young Pakistani at the camp. "The travel, rubbing shoulders with people from everywhere, throwing stones to ward off the devil."
The hajj is performed at a place that is said to have been built about 25 centuries before the birth of Mohammed. Moslems believe that it was built by Abraham as he wandered in the Arabian Desert with his wife Hagar at the time of the birth of his son Ismail. These events mark the roots of the Islamic faith.
The city of Medina, nearby, is revered because it was the first city converted to Islam by Mohammed.
To Syed Maula Dadsha of the Bukhari tribe in Baluchistan, there is no experience in life like that of the hajj. Having visited Mecca before, he described the hajj in the poetic phrases that flow so easily from many Moslems when they talk of their religion.
"We feel like an infant getting food from a mother's breast. God will pardon us for all our sins," he said as he took shelter in the shade of a tree among the hajj camp's dormitories.
"I went to hajj for the first time 15 years ago. It makes no difference who is ruler," he said, referring to Pakistan's often tumultuous politics. "I just want to go to hajj."
While the political and theological disputes of who controls Mecca mean little to those preparing for their pilgrimage, there often is grumbling over petty politics and corruption.
Still, hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis each year apply for permission to go on hajj. The government limits the number to about 60,000 to conserve foreign exchange; selections are made by a lottery system. Others who can afford it often make the same pilgrimage at a time other than that prescribed for hajj. This is known as the umra, but the hajj remains the goal.
At age 70, Malik Mohammed Boota of Sialkot, in Punjab state near the Indian border, was going with his wife and 30 others from his village. It was his first trip out of Pakistan and his first airplane flight.
"God is taking me to hajj. It is a great thing for me," said the elderly, sturdy-looking farmer. "How can one be afraid if God is there?"