BOOK REVIEW / Seeing the light, West Coast style: Robert Fisk on a Californian Muslim whose account of the pilgrimage does his new faith no favours. 'The Hadj' - Michael Woolfe: Secker & Warburg, 18.99 pounds

The Hadj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, is undoubtedly the most impressive public display of religious faith anywhere in the world. Christian pilgrimages to Jerusalem at Easter, the Pope's sermons at St Peter's, the solemnity of Canterbury Cathedral, cannot hope to compete with the sheer, unadulterated physical as well as mental conviction expressed by Muslims who, in temperatures up to 130, trudge and bus the miles from Mecca to Mount Arafat in the footsteps of the Prophet. 'In Western religions,' as Michael Woolfe admits, 'religious pilgrimage is a vestigial tradition, a quaint, folkloric concept commonly reduced to metaphor.' For Muslims, on the other hand, the Hadj is 'an act of obedience, a profession of belief and the visible expression of a spiritual community'.

So why, I ask myself, is this such an awful book? Partly, I suppose, for what it doesn't tell us. Son of a Jewish father and a Christian mother, Woolfe claims he found a religious camp that emphasised a chosen people 'insupportable' and the other, based on a mystery, repellent. 'In me two great religions had petered out,' he announces. Moses and Jesus are 'not to blame', the reader will be gratified to know. 'My life had simply overshot their limits.' Just like that. Needless to say, Woolfe is from California.

It is not his egregious sense of self-importance, however, that so damages this book. An insider's view of the most important journey in a Muslim's life should be intellectually enlightening; more than that, it should be ennobling. The real problem, I think, is that Michael Woolfe wants to be spiritually enlightening. He wants to be a good person. The Hadj reminds me of those books I used to find in my school library, purchased by a trendy parson, all about gangsters who had found the True Light, of mafiosi who had given up blood for the bible, of explorers and teachers and broadcasters - usually not very good ones - who had suddenly 'found' God. Woolfe was never a criminal, although this might have been a more stimulating book if he had been one. What he suffers from is the mistake of all those who embrace a faith because they have forsaken others. He has lost his critical faculties. Michael is just too good by half.

Take, for example, those little phenomena that worry Christians about Islam. The punishments, for example, such as chopping off hands or heads for various transgressions. It is possible to interpret the Koran and the Hadith in such a way that these particular cruelties are not in fact obligatory. Others, such as Woolfe's royal hosts in Saudi Arabia, think it rather a good idea to mutilate thieves. So how does Woolfe feel about this? We get just one brief mention. A man near the Kaaba shouts to his fellow pilgrims that he's been robbed. 'Saudi law retires a first-time pickpocket by cutting off one hand,' he writes. 'The deterrents are biblical.'

He means, I think, that the deterrents are Koranic. But he calls them biblical. Thanks, Mike, I can hear a few Christians say - though the Bible is certainly a very bloody book. Woolfe's problem is that if he suggests that Islam - rather than the Saudis - endorses the sawing-through of wrists, then the gentle (and very Californian) message of his book becomes a little hard to take. But there is, the reader will note, no criticism of the Saudis either. Of which more later.

Then there is the issue of women. The Prophet insisted that women should be treated with respect and - according to many interpretations - with equality, although definitions of equality are open to debate. But many members of the faiths which apparently 'petered out' in Woolfe have noticed that women apparently get a raw deal in some Islamic countries, not least Saudi Arabia, where they can't even drive cars. So what does Woolfe feel? Don't hold your breath.

He notices how a Moroccan merchant channel-zaps his cable television when nipples appear on French broadcasts. He even mentions, just a couple of times, that he is married. His wife, we learn in a mere reference, is Italian. So why in this intensely personal, spiritual book don't we hear what Woolfe thinks about the institution of marriage - about what his Italian wife thinks of Islam? Did she convert too? And if not, why not? And what about the rules which forbid Christians from entering Mecca? 'Naturally it is completely Muslim,' he tells us reassuringly. 'Only a Muslim has any business being there.' Well thanks a lot, Mike. And you may be right. But tell us why, for God's sake. Tell us why a man or woman of any faith may visit St Peter's or Canterbury Cathedral or the Wailing Wall or Golgotha, but not Mecca. Would not many Christians, aghast at the evidence of failure in their own faith, be tempted to convert if they witnessed the Hadj? Many of us may know the answers to these questions. But why doesn't Woolfe tell us?

The weird thing is that the author can be a fine writer. Here he is describing a fellow pilgrim: 'He had a beardless face and unlined skin and spoke above a whisper, in ruminating sentences that purled toward their goal, like Edward Gibbon's. Even his posture was patrician - he seemed to curve slightly backwards, like a reed.' And there are moments of great humour in this book. In Marrakesh he finds video tapes circulating of a debate between the discredited American evangelist Jimmy Swaggart and Ahmed Deedat, a South African imam. Swaggart, worn down by jet lag, fails to mention the Koran. Deedat, fluent and witty, manages to encapsulate the Bible as a volume of hearsay evidence. Another 10 points to Islam.

But these are rare passages. Once Woolfe is in Mecca, his writing becomes prim to the point of embarrassment. Muslims, possessors of a direct religious text - the Koran was written down in the Prophet's lifetime, rather than collected after the event like the New Testament - are intensely aware of God, and of death. Perhaps this is why they can be such fierce debaters, why they can combine passion, generosity and humour. Don't look for such combinations here. In The Hadj, the Saudis are all courtesy, the pilgrims typecast from a movie, tired, ill, cheerful, but always uncomplaining. So introspective does our Mike become that he is constantly naming the various pills and potions which he dispenses among his friends, while telling us of the progress of his blisters, the dirt which covers the bandage between his toes. After 100 pages of this, I began to feel intense pity for Woolfe's fellow pilgrims, who cannot have been as boring, lifeless and banal as he makes them out to be.

But then, just at the end of the book there comes a hiccup in Woolfe's story when a tunnel in Mecca traps and kills - wait for it - 1,473 Muslim pilgrims. A lot of people, Woolfe had to concede. But don't worry. He calculates that this appalling total 'amounted to less than 0.0005 per cent of the Hadj'. I had to re-read these words to see if they had actually been printed on the page. 'Equanimity,' Woolfe reassures us, 'tempered our talk about the Hadj.'

Not, I'm afraid, the thousands of bereaved parents, wives and children of the tunnel dead, many of whom later accused King Fahd's own police force of being responsible for the tragedy and bitterly condemned the King's conclusion that it was 'Allah's will' that it should have occurred. When I reported this for the Independent, the King's good servants banned the paper from Saudi Arabia - a prohibition only relaxed at the start of the Gulf crisis when the royal family needed to show their much-needed Western soldier guests what a free, liberal society it ran in Saudi Arabia.

No such descriptions of the tunnel disaster, of course, mar The Hadj. Woolfe does for a few seconds contemplate the possibility that a bomb might have caused the death. Could it be, he asks himself, that anyone could do anything so evil in a place of such sanctity? There had, he concedes demurely, been 'attempts to embarrass the Saudis by violence'. Well, yes, there had indeed. There was, for example, the man who thought he was the Mahdi who took over the great mosque in Mecca with armed men and went on fighting against Saudi Arabia's hopelessly inefficient army in the tunnels beneath the Kaaba until the royal family broke the rules and called in the French paramilitary police. These decidedly non-Islamic folk turned on the water taps, flooded the tunnels beneath the Kaaba and then pushed high-voltage cables into the water to fry the rebels alive. 'They floated out like kippers,' an Arab resident of Saudi Arabia told me afterwards.

But fear not. You'll not read about this in The Hadj. Woolfe tells us he was seeking 'a ritual component, a daily routine to sharpen the senses and discipline my mind'. And there's plenty of discipline here; the uncritical, unquestioning kind that is practised by saints and bores. The author might like to be included in the first category. He is very definitely in the second.

(Photograph omitted)

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