In a period of independently-organised travel before the introduction of packages in the West during the mid-2000s, Hajj-going in Britain was relatively well-advanced as compared to other Muslim minorities. But it was not at all centrally organised.
The Early Days
The number of Hujjaj travelling from Britain from the late 1960s was in the hundreds: 1968 (759) 1969 (573) 1970 (696) 1971 (786) 1972 (834).
By 1985-7, when the reunion of South Asian families following migration was more or less complete, the numbers had risen to 4,482. Notably, at the time, this were nearly ten times as many Hujjaj as from the Netherlands (540), France (262), US (222) and Germany (46) (Bianchi 2004: 279).
My research since 2011 shows that various well-networked individuals in local communities were involved in leading UK Hajj groups at this time. The majority were technically self-employed as ‘sole-traders’ but few were formally registered or probably even thought of themselves as running a 'business'. Even today around a quarter of Hajj organising businesses are run from residential rather than high street properties.
However, in the early 2000s the Saudi authorities began to increase the regulation of Hajj organisers in Muslim-minority countries. In Britain at least, what they began to institutionalise was an existing semi-formal system, which is still arguably professionalising two decades later.
Despite previous efforts a Licensed Hajj Organisers trade association for around 100 UK authorised companies was finally established only in 2016.
New Saudi Regulations and UK Companies House Registration:
My research shows that although concerned with UK business governance, the vast majority of current licensed Hajj organisers, that is around 85 per cent, became incorporated at Companies House in the 2000s, with 59 per cent incorporated in the period of 2000-04 alone.
As noted above, this was at the Saudis' insistence and just before they insisted too that Hajj-going from non-Muslim states must be tied to a package purchased from a licensed Hajj organiser.
However, before 2000, just four current UK Hajj organisers were incorporated as limited companies. Again, this underlines the more informal and independent nature of the majority of Hajj organisers in the 'industry' during the 1980s and 1990s.
All four exceptions are more general travel agents based in the UK’s largest cities. One (El Sawy, London) lays claim to having been the first travel agency to have formally organised a Hajj tour from the UK in 1982:
- Pak Travels (Birmingham, incorporated 1986, Pakistani heritage)
- Hajj and Umra Travel Limited (London, incorporated 1993, Iranian heritage)
- El Sawy Travel Limited (London, incorporated 1994, Egyptian heritage)
- Ehsan Enterprises (Manchester, incorporated 1997)
What's in a Hajj Organiser's Name?
Interestingly, even the different names of UK Hajj organisers today shed some light on this history.
While some names are very obviously associated with travel agents and the general business of arranging flights to ethnic homelands in South Asia, Africa or elsewhere – e.g. Pak Travels, Sylhet House, Euro Africa – others reference Islamic categories familiar to pilgrims such as Khadim ul-Hujjaj i.e. the servant of those undertaking Hajj.
However, some companies still retain the name of their late pioneering founders, such as Lalla Abdul Malik from Nottingham and Sheikh Liaqat from Bradford, though these family businesses are now run by the second-generation.
Such individuals began by leading relatively small Hajj groups before being prompted to formalise their businesses given the new registration requirements introduced by the Saudi authorities in the early 2000s.
In the context of an increasingly packaged Hajj it is unsurprising that more universal Islamic references predominate in the names and 'brands' of pilgrimage organisers today.
These can be mapped in terms of:
i) Sacred places related to Hajj, for example, Holy Makkah, Arafah, Haramain, Hijaz, Karwan al-Madinah;
ii) Rituals and symbols, for example, qibla (the direction of daily prayer towards Makkah), labbaik (the first word of the talbiya prayer or invocation uttered by pilgrims once they enter into a state of ihram or consecration), zamzam (water from the well of that name which recalls foundational events of Hajj in the Quranic story of Hajar, Ibrahim and Ismail), dome (referencing the Holy mosques in Makkah/Madinah and popular Muslim iconography);
iii) Abstract and idealised values, for example, ehsan (perfection), taqwa (piety), hidayah (guidance), satia (truth), all strongly associated with a sacred journey focused on the forgiveness of sins.
So, while there may or may not be a pious commitment behind the founding of all such companies, and more ‘secularised’ names continue to suggest travel agents with a broader set of business interests - for example, Flight Express, Travel Express, Fly Well, Onecall, Sky Fly - it is clear that businesses dedicated to Islamic pilgrimage are a growing niche sector of the UK travel market today.