April 07, 2008
It is the greatest annual gathering of humanity, when some two million people from all corners of the globe, representing a myriad of nationalities, ethnicities, languages and cultures join in a monumental collective act of religious witness. It is the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, the subject of this passage (al-Baqura 196-203).
But far more than providing the most amazing logistical act of witness, the hajj provides some of the most important insights into the essence of Islam and the worldview it seeks to inspire.
As classical commentators note it coveys to the living some inkling of the gathering that awaits us all on the last day, when all the souls of all people who have ever existed will stand together before God to be judged. Participation in the hajj is also a real demonstration and experience of the way Islam integrates the individual and the collective. In this greatest gathering of people there is an extraordinary sense of community, of unity with the emphasis on equity.
The unity of the hajj is based on the eradication of all distinctions of race, culture, colour and class. All pilgrims are dressed alike; ideally a king or a billionaire may walk alongside a pauper and we would not know the difference. If, in the eyes of God, such distinctions are of such little moment, then we have reason not to be too beholden or overpowered by them in our daily lives; it is evidence of the balance we should strive to achieve.
The hajj is proof that there are things more important than the social conventions of human invention, which can be perverse and contrary to the balance the Qur'an seeks to guide us towards. But then, there is the even more profound insight that in community, unity and equity there is no dissolution of individuality. The most often repeated statement of the pilgrims is the ultimate personal statement: "Labbeik!", "Here I am!" - in this sea of humanity, before God each individual is known in their uniqueness, just as each will ultimately be judged and charged with responsibility only for their individual actions and intentions.
It seems to me that in the hajj one of the great enduring philosophical disputes - the supposed contradiction between the collective and the individual that has divided societies and been responsible for some of the greatest atrocities of history - is dissolved or rather resolved as an illusory distinction. All people are individual and unique but necessarily and inevitably must live within communities, in human groupings among and with other people. We are faced not with a contradiction but with realities that must be balanced, and in being conscious of God, the creator and judge of all, we find the understanding and guidance to effect this balance. It is not just the mass of humanity gathered together that makes the hajj such a moving, humbling and inspiring experience. It is the profundity of the way of thinking about our relationship to God, to other people and ourselves it teaches.
The hajj is one of the main pillars of Islam, an obligation for all Muslims to perform once in their lives, if they are able. It was the last of the major obligations to be instituted. According to the most reliable sources it was made obligatory only in the 9th year of the hijra. It was established by this passage, known as the "hajj verses", after the Muslims led by the Prophet Muhammad had retaken Mecca, and all pagan idols and shrines had been removed from the Ka'bah, the house of worship originally built by the Prophet Abraham towards which all Muslims turn when they pray. The Ka'bah is the black draped cube at the centre of the sacred mosque in Mecca.
"Hajj" can be translated as "effort" and just like the fasting we explored in week 12, the performance of the hajj requires spiritual and physical exertion. While these verses of the Qur'an establish this institution for Muslims, they describe few of the rites of the hajj as we have come to know them. It is through the example of the prophet, in the reports of how he performed the pilgrimage, that we learn how these various pieces of the hajj are put together in a set of rituals that culminate in the supreme hours of a Muslim's life.
The hajj takes place in the month of Dhul al-Hijjah, the 12th month of the Islamic calendar, and falls on the 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th of that month. It is a journey that requires the pilgrims to "take provisions" with them to ensure that they do not suffer from any financial problems both during the travel and once they get to Mecca where they will spend some time. But it is typical that even as the Qur'an makes something obligatory it recognises the difficulties that ordinary people may face and institutes alternatives, so that no one is excluded. So, just as with fasting, there are exemptions: those who cannot travel for any reason can compensate by "fasting, giving alms and prayer."
The Qur'an requires the pilgrims to go to a place called "Arafat". The name of this valley comes from the root word Arafa meaning "to know": something happens at Arafat that enables the believers to know they are in the presence of God. It requires a sacrifice and shaving of one's head as an act of humility.
During the five days of the hajj, pilgrims from all over the Muslim world come together in Mecca, pray and worship in unison, and move constantly from place to place. Before entering the holy areas, they are required to be in a state of grace. They abandon their worldly thoughts and desires and put on ihram, two white, un-sewn sheets of cloth. The actual pilgrimage starts with the performance of Tawaf - walking seven times round the Kaabah. After Tawaf comes say, when the pilgrims run between the hills of Safa and Marwah. These hills are now joined by a covered walkway within the sacred mosque in Mecca. The ritual is in memory of the Prophet Abraham's wife Hager, as we discussed in week 10.
The night of the eighth day of Dhul-Hijjah is spent at the hill town of Muna, near Mecca. The ninth is the day of Arafat, the supreme moment of the hajj. The pilgrims leave early to cover some five miles, arriving at Arafat before midday. When the sun passes the meridian, the ritual of wquf, or standing, begins. The entire congregation, nowadays well over two million, prays as a single entity. Immediately after sunset, there is a mass exodus from enclosed plain of Arafat to the more open area of Mazdalifah a couple of miles away, where the night is spent under the open sky.
On the morning of the 10th, the pilgrims return to spend three days in Muna. During this second stay in Muna, the pilgrims sacrifice an animal. They are joined by Muslims everywhere who observe this day as one of the two Eids, the high points of the Muslim calendar. The sacrifice of a sheep or goat or other animal gives this one the name of Eid al-Adha, the feast of sacrifice. The meat of the sacrificed animals is then distributed in charity.
Today with so many pilgrims finding ways to distribute the meat is not the least of the logistical challenges. In Muslims communities around the world, Qurban, the meat of sacrificial animals, is distributed among the entire community and prized as a means of participation, of feeling near to the great gathering in Mecca. The pilgrims also engage in "stoning the devil" - three small pebbles are thrown at each of the three masonry pillars marking the different spots where the devil tried to tempt the Prophet Abraham - a gesture that symbolises the pilgrims' intention to cast out the "evil within". Once these rites are performed the pilgrims conclude their hajj by removing their ihram and shaving their head or cutting their hair.
Is This Pilgrimage A Form Of Sacrifice?
April 07, 2008
I've always been intrigued by the hajj (al-Baqura 196-203). The television programmes I've seen indicate the enormous scale of it - all those tents, the sheer logistical exercise involved in moving such large quantities of people around - and friends who've been on the hajj talk of it as an extraordinary experience.
There is an interesting emphasis on "be mindful of God" which is repeated several times during the instructions for the hajj. Indeed in verse 203, this is the key demand; it's not a matter of how long you stay but how mindful of God you are. Have you been on the hajj Zia?
I presume the Haj is the "major pilgrimage" referred to here; can you explain what the "minor pilgrimage" is? I think there is a broader issue here about the role of pilgrimage in the spiritual life of Muslims. Pilgrimage is optional for Christians, but it's not for Muslims - have you any thoughts about how different traditions understand this religious duty which can shed light on the way Muslims place it at the centre of their faith?
I find the juxtaposition of the idea of pilgrimage with the idea of sacrifice significant. Is pilgrimage - and the hardships it entails - a form of sacrifice? And from that come more questions about the understanding of sacrifice in the next few lines of these verses. Are these animals to be sacrificed as offerings? What is sacrifice for? Do you offer sacrifice - in what way?