Hajj, an Opportunity to Reflect upon the Unity of the Abrahamic Faiths
By Dr. Basheer A. Khan
Garden Grove , CA
Millions of Muslims gather every year in the holy city of Mecca to perform Hajj. As we are engrossed in the grandeur of this pilgrimage and its rituals, we should also focus on the reality behind these rituals to understand the universality and vitality of the religion of Islam.
By ignoring the literal meaning of Islam and by equating it with the religion of present-day Muslims, we have diminished the universality, versatility and significance of the term “Islam” and as such are not able to understand the real meaning of Islamic rituals. If we revert to its original meaning and understand Islam as the universal religion of peace through submission to One and The Only God preached by all the prophets, then Hajj will not remain as an annual ritual of present-day Muslims but a commemoration of the life of Abraham, who was the unquestionable patriarch of all Abrahamic faiths, and his family.
Islam is not the religion brought by Muhammad (Peace be upon him), but is a continuation of the same message that was given by all the prophets (Peace be upon all of them) before him. All the prophets propagated the same message amongst the people of their time, that a Creator has created this universe and everything in it, and we owe our gratitude and submission to Him and Him alone, and that we are answerable to Him for our deeds in this world so as to qualify for a permanent place of pleasure in Paradise or an eternal life of misery in the fire of Hell. It is this message and this consciousness that is Islam. Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was careful in making this point clear that he was not the founder of the faith of Islam, but the last link in the chain of prophets; who brought the same message of recognizing, loving and obeying the One and Only God.
In one of his sayings, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) made it clear that his position in the structure of Islam is that of the last brick that completes the edifice. He (PBUH) was sent to purify the message of Islam from human interpretations and distortions, and perfect it for the mankind one last time much the same way as Jesus (PBUH) was sent to restore the lost sheep of Israel. Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was the fulfillment of the prophecy made in the following verses of the Old and the New Testament:
“…Will raise them up a Prophet from among their brethren, like unto thee, and will put my words in his mouth: and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him. (Deuteronomy Ch 18 Verse 18).
“I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now. Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth is come, he will guide you into all truth for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak (John Ch 16 Verse 12-13).
To make sure that the followers of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) did not turn away from the legacy of earlier prophets, the holy Qur’an emphasized their lives, their mission and their travails again and again. Islam and its universality being paramount to Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), he commanded his followers to commemorate the events associated with the lives of prophets before him instead of celebrating the events related to him.
By commanding Muslims to fast on the day of Aashura, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) immortalized the memory of the release of Israelites from bondage of Pharaoh. By making Hajj obligatory for his followers, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) established the reverence of Abraham (PBUH) as the patriarch of all monotheistic faiths for all times to come. With this understanding, Hajj and its rituals become an occasion to reflect, rejoice and benefit from the unity of all monotheistic Abrahamic faiths. On the contrary, if we consider Hajj as a ritual of the present-day Muslim community, then this great event loses the significance that it is due.
When Adam (PBUH) was sent down to earth from the Garden of Eden, he built the Kaabah in the city of Mecca for the worship of the One and The Only God. When the flood during the time of Noah (PBUH) destroyed Kaabah, Abraham and Ishmael (Peace be upon them) built it a second time and prayed that they and their progeny remain steadfast in their obedience to God and God alone. They also prayed that people of the world remain attracted to this place and an abundance of provision is made available to all those who visit it (Qur’an Ch. 14 Verse 35-37). Muslims going to Hajj are surprised to see millions of people coming from far off lands, from different nations and tribes, enjoying abundance of food and comfort in this barren land. They perform the act of Tawwaf (circumambulation) of the Kaabah in gratitude for the fulfillment of the prayer of Abraham and Ishmael. They make many more prayers for themselves and for the people of the world, and see their prayers answered in their personal lives.
To understand the rituals of Hajj, one must remember the time when Abraham (PBUH) took Hagar (Peace be upon her) and their young son Ishmael (PBUH) away from the holy land and left them in the wilderness around Mecca. When the little water they had was over, Hagar (Peace be upon her) was anxious for the safety of her child and cried. It was then that an Angel was sent by God to console her with the following assurance:
“…Hagar fear not; for God hath heard the voice of the lad where he is. Arise, lift up the lad and hold him in thine hand for I will make him a great nation. And God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water …” (Genesis Ch. 21 Verse17-19).
Millions of Muslims who gather at Mecca every year give a testimony to the fulfillment of this promise made to Hagar (PBUH) in the Old Testament: “I will make him (Ishmael) a great nation”. The pilgrims reenact the anxious moments of Hagar (PBUH) in search of water for the thirsty boy by running between the mounts of Safa and Marwah in what is called Saee which means effort. Through this incident in the life of Hagar RA, Allah swt draws the attention of the believers to a basic principle operating in their life. A little effort with supplication by a devoted heart will create miracles like the one of the well of Zam Zam in the parched desert. Drinking from the well of Zam Zam, after the circumambulation of Kaabah, the faithful quench the physical and spiritual thirst. As they do it they are astonished at the miracle of the existence of this well for more than four millenniums to serve the need of billions of people who have visited it so far.
On the 9th day of the lunar month of Hajj, pilgrims spend the day in the field of Arfaa (means recognition and knowledge). They spend the night between the 9th and 10th day of Hajj in Muzdalifa under the open sky. In the valley of Arfaa, a pilgrim sees people of different colors, different races, speaking different languages, engaged in different professions, but all dressed in the two pieces of white cloth which becomes their shroud when they die. They are all engaged in the same act of devotion to Allah, supplicating before him and crying before him and seeking His help. In the quiet of the night they contemplate over the observation of the day and develop them into an everlasting consciousness during their halt at Muzdalifa which is also known as Mash’ar, the place of consciousness.
The energy flowing in the valley of Arfaa and Muzdalifa, where millions of people pray and cry before the unseen God, awakens the consciousness of a pilgrim over realties that had hitherto escaped his attention in the routine of life. He recognizes the power of God and the power of religion to gather so many people from all parts of the world. He recognizes his insignificance in the throngs of people amidst whom he finds himself. He recognizes the reality that although he is different as an individual from others, he still remains a part of them. This brings him to realize the importance of building unity among diversity in order to live in peace and harmony. The gathering of millions of people under the sky, wearing nothing more than two pieces of cloth, brings into him the consciousness of the day of resurrection and accountability. He awakens to the reality that he has to be alone on that day as he is today, severing all his connections with the people and possessions that he loves so dearly. This will soften his heart and sharpen his understanding to realize that the jealousies, the hatred and the greed that he was nurturing to better his worldly life, and which had their evil consequence on the society will have deleterious consequences on him that day. He realizes that it will not be possible for him to escape the power of God to gather all human beings on the day of reckoning as He has done it this night. This humbles him, makes him repentant for his past mistakes, and inspires him to live a life of virtue and piety.
Elated and elevated by this consciousness, he leaves Muzdalifa by dawn to go to the tent city of Mina, where Satan dwells to destroy his newfound consciousness. He throws the small pebbles of consciousness he gathered at Muzdalifa on Satan, symbolized by the huge pillars at Mina. While doing this he mimics the act of Abraham, to whom Satan whispered against taking his son for sacrifice. Determined to defeat Satan, the pilgrim then goes to sacrifice the animal in emulation of the act of Abraham. This sacrifice of an animal symbolizes his readiness to make all sacrifices that are essential to live a pious and virtuous life in service to God and mankind. Subsequent rituals of shaving the hairs, taking a bath, and changing out of the clothes of Hajj (the two clothes of Ihram) emphasize the importance of having a clean body for a clean mind and a pure soul. After finishing with these meaningful rituals he goes to circumambulate around Kaabah with ecstasy to thank Allah for the gift of this new found consciousness. He does Saee (running between Safaa and Marwah) to show that consciousness by itself is not productive without putting some effort behind it as demonstrated by Hagar AS.
A pilgrim spends the next three days in the company of like-minded people in the tent city of Mina remembering God to fortify this consciousness. All these three days he goes to Jamaraath to throw stones at Satan who is distracting him from remaining firm on this consciousness. He also develops an understanding of the world and its people through this interaction with people coming from all over the world Globe.
The power of Hajj in purifying human beings and bringing mankind together is evident in the story of former Black Panther leader Malcolm X Malik Shabaz. He went to this pilgrimage with pride in the black race and hatred towards the whites. Seeing Muslims of different races interact as equals, he realized that the real message of Islam is not superiority of any race but equality of all races. He returned from Hajj reformed and helped persuade the other Black Panthers to abandon the path of hate. He worked to establish tolerance and unity of all races until the enemies of this cause assassinated him.
If we are not able to see this transformation in our life after performing this pilgrimage, it is not because of the ineffectiveness of these rituals but for other reasons alluded to in The Holy Qur’an in verses 200-204 of chapter 2 which can be a topic for another article.
If the ritual of Hajj is understood with correct knowledge of its history and in the true spirit of religion, it has great potential to unite Abrahamic faiths under the common tenets of their belief in the oneness of God, their common ancestry to Adam, and the commonality of their belief that Abraham was the patriarch of their respective faiths.