By Ziauddin Sardar
April 08, 2008
The complex rites of the hajj are performed in "quick pace" and in a "peaceful condition". The holy areas are inviolate and nothing within can be harmed - animals, plants, not even a fly. The pilgrims shun all signs of vanity and refrain from combing their hair, wearing perfume or clipping their nails. The whole being of the pilgrim should be completely devoted to God without attention to appearance.
At the most intense moments of knowing God's presence, knowing the presence of the great mass of humanity and knowing oneself, the ego should be suppressed, for in the power of these experiences we are most truly humbled. Desire, including sexual desire, should be put aside. The pilgrims come to Mecca dishevelled and covered with dust to seek God's mercy and crave His forgiveness. From the moment they don their ihram, the pilgrim declares, "O Lord, here am I in response to your call". Throughout their journey, they "celebrate his praises" by uttering "Allahu Akbar" (God is Great) and "There is no God but Allah".
These verses institute the hajj as the climactic point of Muslim existence. But they also make clear the theme of continuity, an important aspect of the mindset of Islam. The hajj was an ancient rite established in Arabia long before Islam. Evident in the reference to its being "performed during well-know months": these are the Islamic months of Shawwaal, Dhul al-Qidah and Dhul al-Hijjah. The point being made is that they should not be altered. At the time of the prophet Muhammad, it was completely assimilated into Arabian pagan practices. Idols punctuated the Kaabah and pagan customs had introduced certain undignified and discriminatory practices.
The tribe of Quraysh who inhabited Mecca and guarded the Kaabah together with certain of their allies were raised to the position of religious aristocrats. They were allowed to perform certain rites fully attired while members of other tribes had to shed their clothes, which were regarded as unclean, and either perform these rites completely naked or to obtain "ritually clean cloth" from the Quraysh. The strict pagan code also prohibited those wishing to perform the rite to consume any food other than Meccan food. The pilgrimage was a major source of income and prestige for Meccans, and in part explains their initial hostility to the new religion of Islam, its prophet and his followers who were seen as a threat to the institution that brought trade and profit to the city.
Of all the practical manifestations of Islam the hajj captures the imagination of Muslims everywhere. Many save all their lives to go on this once-in-a-lifetime journey. Some still cover long distances on foot over a period of years thus demonstrating an unparalleled devotion. In south-east Asia, Malaysia and Indonesia, for example, it is customary for people to visit everyone they know and take leave of them before setting off on the hajj. The custom dates from the time when the hajj was not only a journey of a lifetime, but a journey from which some would never return. To become a hajji or Hijjah, one who has made the pilgrimage, marked a great change in one's life and the title is honoured, because it is seen as being life changing, a renewed and intensified sense of spirituality and its importance.
I performed the hajj five times during the years I lived in Saudi Arabia in the 1970s. On one particular hajj, I walked from Jeddah to Mecca, and everywhere in the holy areas, with a donkey.
I can say without doubt there is no experience on earth like that of hajj: to see the pilgrims, all dressed in white, move like a mighty river, meandering and swirling, in a great tide of devotion and reverence. The sound of their pleading voices and the patter of their hurrying feet fill the air with awe. Despite the enormous numbers and different places from which they come there is an overarching feeling of brotherhood and sisterhood. Under the open sky in Mazdalifah, one discovers that whatever the cultural, social, national or ethnic background of the pilgrims, they all, as Malcolm X says in his autobiography, snore in the same language. And yet, the experience is intensely personal: it is me standing before God, uttering his praises, quivering with emotion, thirsty for spiritual fulfilment, asking for his forgiveness. It is an experience hard to describe, for what is felt defies language. Once you have stood at Arafat, alone in a congregation that spreads on all sides as far as the eye can see, you "know": you feel the Grace of God. That's why, I suspect, the attraction of hajj is so compelling for Muslims.
There is also the lesser pilgrimage, the Umra, which consists in performing a limited set of the rituals that make up the hajj. The great distinction is that while Umra brings one to Mecca, provides people with the enormous sense of being before God that comes from visiting the Kaabah in person, it remains an individual occasion, or an undertaking of small groupings of families and friends. Umra can be performed at anytime outside of the hajj season. It is a memorable achievement for any Muslim who lives outside of Mecca, but it can never match the majesty of the crowning experience of one's life that is the hajj.