The tasks carried out by members of the Tawafa Chiefs’ Organization — a body that encompasses the heads of three main pilgrim serving guides including Haj Mutawifs (those who guide pilgrims during the rituals), Zamzam distributors (the Zamazima), and agents (who receive pilgrims at crossing points and take them to their places of stay) — are one of the oldest in human history. Haj guidance historically was based on individual efforts but was developed under the Saudi state.
Guide Sheikh Darwish Ahmad Abdullah Ramadani said the profession of tawafa (which includes circumambulation guides and zamzam water providers and agents receiving and transporting pilgrims) has evolved over time. “In this age, the profession has come to grips with technological advancement and has benefited from it on a practical level,” he said. “This flexibility has resulted in workers gaining considerable experience in the field of developing services introduced for pilgrims.”
In the past, Haj guides used to travel individually to pilgrims’ countries where they provided people with the information needed for pilgrimage and promote themselves to be chosen as agents to host them and take care of their affairs upon their arrival. “The government then ordered the establishment of the Haj Tawafa Organization aiming to unite the efforts to serve pilgrims and for the profession to be a collective work that aims mainly to provide them with the highest level of service possible.”
The tawafa profession in the Saudi reign has gone through four stages. The first can be described as the one of expansion where guides would travel to pilgrims’ countries. The second is characterized by a decision to allow guides to work with all nationalities instead of one. The third stage is the implementation of the quota system for guides and the fourth is institutionalizing the practice.
The fourth phase witnessed transforming the work from an individualistic effort to a collective one through organizations that encompass all guides, with each organization being concerned with one nationality. This happened in 1978 when a Royal Decree was issued and included the Minister of Haj’s directives to regulate the licensing for commercial-regulation based guidance organizations.
The six Tawafa organizations that are present today began acquiring licenses; first, the Turkish and European, American and Australian Pilgrims (Tawafa) Organization in 1980, South Asian Pilgrims Organization and Iranian Pilgrims Organization in 1982, South Eastern Asian Countries Pilgrims Organization and non-Arab African Countries Pilgrims Organization in 1983 and Arab Pilgrims Organization in 1984.
Historians differ on when the practice of tawafa began as a profession.
Guide Abdullatif Muhammad Azizalrahman said tawafa is an honor God has bestowed on Makkah’s people. “It is a dated job which began as a practice (not a job) and can be traced to the days of the Prophet (peace be upon him), who had appointed his companion Abu Bakr as Haj emir. Since then, certain families in Makkah have been inheriting the practice which has since become an official profession,” he said.
According to Azizalrahman, history books state that the practice became a profession when Mamluke Sultan Qaitbay (1468-1496) appointed someone from among the Makkans as a “mutawwif”. A mutawwif would complete the rituals with the pilgrims while reciting circumambulation prayers and supplications.
“Tawafa organization members (guides or agents receiving pilgrims and Zamzam men) serve the pilgrims from arrival to departure. They follow up with their daily affairs including food and transportation between holy sites. Their tasks include religious guidance.
Mutawwif Waleed Abdulrahman is one such native who inherited the practice from his father. “As a child growing up in a Makkan house, I used to hear pilgrims’ supplications. When I reached the age of 10, I started working as a guide. My father used to travel to India and stay there for months to bring pilgrims. At the time, pilgrims were hosted at our house where my mother and sisters would cook and feed them.”
Women committees at these organizations have also contributed effectively to serving pilgrims. They have held many programs and events including lectures and organized visits for women pilgrims to historic sites, museums and projects such as the King’s Zamzam project and the Grand Mosque Library.