Written by Ismail Ibrahim Nawwab
Photographed by S. M. Amin
"It all begins with Abraham."
In response to God's injunction to mankind prescribing the Pilgrimage to Mecca (the Koran, Sura III, verse 97), countless followers of Islam, rising yearly from the global ocean of humanity, have sallied forth to make the Hajj for almost 14 centuries. Considering the uniqueness of this phenomenon, with its rich kaleidoscope of symbol and significance, appearance and reality, past and present, and the innate, almost universal barrier to empathy in religious matters, few non-Muslims can be expected to have any inkling of what the Pilgrimage really means to the believer.
What does the Hajj mean? Is it a sterile ritual? A formality, perhaps? Or, as one of the five pillars of Islam—that is, one of the requirements imposed on Muslims—is it merely an obligation to be discharged as quickly and perfunctorily as possible?
Nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that the Hajj, to the average Muslim, is the emotive goal and the climactic experience of his temporal existence. It is a form of spiritual fulfillment which he shares and simultaneously celebrates with the entire world of Islam. But to explain why—and to attain some understanding of the symbolism and function of the Hajj—one must go back to the historical and sociological highlights of the Islamic traditions in which its origins are embedded.
It all begins with Abraham.
In Islam, Abraham—the same Old Testament Abraham familiar to Judaism and Christianity—plays an important role. He is regarded as a prophet and venerated as a zealous advocate of monotheism, as a relentless foe of idolatry and as builder of the Ka'bah, "the House of God," focal point for Muslim worship of the One God. With respect to the Hajj specifically, Abraham, his son Ishmael and his wife Hagar are central to some of its holiest rites.
But the Hajj only begins with Abraham; it is affirmed by Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, who, in making the Pilgrimage begun by Abraham, found that it had degenerated into a soulless idolatrous ritual and purged it. To Muslims this continuous monotheistic strand holding together the time of Abraham and the era of Muhammad is a symbol of the unity of God which permeates Muslim religious thought. Thus the yearning to behold, at least once in their lifetime, the pivotal Ka'bah, the center of the cosmos and Qiblah or focus of all prayer, symbolizes to a Muslim humanity's movement toward unity in the quest for God.
The rites of the Hajj—which are precisely those followed or approved by Muhammad during his Pilgrimage—are few in number, simple in execution, but rich in meaning. The major ones are: Donning the Ihram, "the Circling" of the Ka'bah, "the Running" at al-Mas'a and "the Standing" at 'Arafat. Other essential rites include Throwing the Pebbles and the Sacrifice. Since the Prophet of Islam did allow his disciples some flexibility in ritual sequence during the Pilgrimage, the order and even the manner in which these rites are performed can vary. The believer is thus free to follow the sequence most convenient to him as long as he is guided by the practice of the Prophet and his Companions.
The first rite of the Hajj is Donning the Ihram, a physical manifestation of the pilgrim's entering into a state of consecration. This act is accompanied by the uttering of the Talbiyah. This phrase, "Doubly at Thy service, O God," is a Declaration of Pilgrimage and is frequently repeated during the Hajj.
"The Circling" (Tazoaf) of the Ka'bah in the vast courtyard of the Sacred Mosque in Mecca signifies that the Muslim's life must focus on unity—the unity of God and mankind. Neither the Ka'bah nor the Black Stone it contains are objects of worship. Although Muslims do kiss the Black Stone, this is done only to cherish the memory of the Prophet, who planted his kiss on it.
The ceremonial procession, or "the Running," between the hillocks of al-Safa and al-Marwa in Mecca is a re-enactment of Hagar's frantic search for water for her infant, Ishmael, when they were lost in the desert; it commemorates the anguished love of motherhood and the decisive role of womankind in history.
The sun rises over the Mount of Mercy, where the Prophet Muhammad gave his Farewell Sermon.
Here, on the ninth day of Dhu al-Hijjah, pilgrims "Stand before God" on the Plain of 'Arafat.
Later, they perform "the Circling" around the Ka'bah in Mecca.
The hours passed at 'Arafat on the ninth day of Dhu al-Hijjak, the month of the Pilgrimage, are precious. They are devoted to profound self-examination of the ends and means of a Muslim's earthly existence, to sincere supplication, to genuine repentance for one's sins, and to moving prayers for the dead and the living. At no other place and on no other occasion in his lifetime does the believer feel so intensely and confidently that he is approaching a merciful, responsive and loving God. It is well-nigh impossible to convey the vividness of the experience and the sense of elation of the pilgrim during this, essentially personal apprehension of Divine presence and grace. At 'Arafat, a Muslim's devotional life reaches its culmination. It is the feeling of many that this is the closest man can come to an encounter with God on earth. Besides, it was on this day that the Prophet delivered the Farewell Sermon by the rocks of the Mount of Mercy to the multitudes who witnessed the first, and last, Pilgrimage made by Muhammad. Often compared with the Sermon on the Mount, the Prophet's address gives glimpses of the religious, moral and legal amalgam so characteristic of Islam.
O People, listen to and understand my words for I do not know whether I shall ever meet you in this place after this occasion ...
Your life and property are sacrosanct and inviolable until you stand before your Lord on the Day of Judgment, as this day, this month and this place are sacred ...
All usury is hereby abolished ...
Satan has despaired of ever being worshipped in this your land, although if he is obeyed in other matters, he will be pleased even with the inconsequential lapses on your part . . .
You have your rights over your wives and they have rights over you . . . Know that every Muslim is every other Muslim's brother. Nothing belonging to his brother is lawful to a man, unless it be given freely and with good grace. So wrong not yourselves . . . I have delivered God's message to you and have left with you a clear command: the Book of God and the Practice of His Prophet. If you hold fast to this you will never go astray . . .
The lapidation ceremony—throwing pebbles at three stone pillars in Mina—is another commemoration of Abraham's practices. Some associate it with Satan's efforts to dissuade Abraham from sacrificing his son as commanded by God. By stoning the spots where Satan appeared to the Patriarch, the pilgrim symbolically rejects evil and disobedience to God.
The sacrifice of animals, also at Mina, is in recollection of Abraham's willingness to sacrifice even his beloved son to fulfill God's command. It also symbolizes the Muslim's preparedness to part with what is dearest to him in order to attain God's pleasure. The act of sacrifice is an encapsulation of the spirit of Islam: submission to the will of God—which is the literal meaning of the word Islam.
But quite apart from the historical and symbolic significance of the Hajj, the institution of the Pilgrimage serves two main functions for the Muslim, both as an individual and as a member of society.
The unassuming Ihram worn by the pilgrim serves a social purpose as well. For at least once in the believer's lifetime, the idea of equality among Muslims becomes a visible fact. Philosopher and fool, patrician and plebeian, millionaire and beggar alike wear this unsewn garment—and become indistinguishable. The social status or privileged rank of the believer is of no consequence in the sight of God. During the Pilgrimage, as a result of this simple sartorial device, neither are they of consequence in the sight of man.
Also on the social plane, the major, unparalleled contribution of Islam is in the area of racial harmony and the brotherhood of the faithful. The Hajj is Islam's key instrument for creating and strengthening fraternal ties among millions of its followers. Pilgrims representing every conceivable color, country, and tongue yearly converge upon Mecca. Here, they share common objectives and beliefs, and perform the same devotions. They also get acquainted with one another, and learn of, and grow to care for, the conditions of their brethren in other countries. The Hajj inspires in the believer an unrivaled sense of solidarity, a feeling of identification in a world of alienation. The believer feels himself a part of the whole system of the cosmos. Whether in Mina or Michigan, 'Arafat or Zululand, no man, no woman and no nation is an island. In this reunion, convened annually by God from the time of Abraham, ties of brotherhood and love are forged among people representing the nations of the earth.
This article appeared on pages 8 of the November/December 1974 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.