By Zainab Salbi
Visiting the Kaaba or the House of God at Mecca is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, and last week I got to do just that. To be honest, I was a bit worried about my experience. I dreaded the possibility that some religious cleric would yell at me for not covering myself enough or for not behaving correctly.
Growing up in a secular family, I expressed my love of God in my own way. I resisted rules — the “should” and “should not” as taught to us in our religious classes, mandatory in every school. I found my own way to practice my faith with the help of my grandmother, who was a pious Muslim, and my mother, a spiritual Muslim who told me that God is everywhere: in the trees, in the sand, and in the air.
This is the Islam many people grew up with in the Middle East. We knew our obligation to the Five Pillars: Visiting Mecca at a particular time of the year to do the Haj; acknowledging that there is no other God but one God and that Mohammed is his prophet; fasting during Ramadan; practicing charity; praying five times a day. But, where I was raised, we were left alone if we didn’t fulfill some of these duties. The attitude in my home country Iraq was that an individual should be left to establish his or her own relationship with God. That was the spirit of the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and even the early ’90s throughout much of the Middle East. ISIS and other fundamentalists, by contrast, are now trying to impose a very particular form of Islam on all, something that many find alien to the way they were raised.
Muslim women pray outside Mecca's Grand Mosque, during the hajj pilgrimage -- to be completed at least once in a Muslim's lifetime. (MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/Getty Images)
Some of my family members pray and some don’t. Some cover their hair with hijab and some don’t. There has never been a judgment or even a discussion of individual choice. So when I got a visa to Saudi Arabia to speak to young Arab entrepreneurs, and took the opportunity to visit Mecca, all of my family simply wished me a blessed visit.
I went straight from the Women in the World New York Summit, with its heated discussion of Islam and attitudes toward women, to Saudia Arabia — with all of the conflicting opinions echoing in my head. One view was that of Vuslat Dogan, co-host of the Summit, who talked about her own grandmother’s ability to combine traditions and her faith in Islam with her feminism and women’s rights activism — the two co-existing and even helping to nourish a new way of freedom. Dogan argued that the concept of freedom needs to evolve from merely having the opportunity to express opinions to actually being heard. Unless we carve out a space to hear each other, she believes, freedom is simply talking without being acknowledged and listened to, which leads to more anger and resentment.
The summit moved from her speech to a controversial discussion that included Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali born, Dutch-American activist and author, who has offended many Muslims by calling Islam “a nihilistic cult of death,” and who vehemently opposes Sharia law. Her critics argue that Sharia is not a rigid set of laws: despite the popular Western perception of Sharia as always adhering to a fundamentalist interpretation, Islamic scholars are as varied as the cultures and political systems they come from. Sharia is an elastic concept that shifts from culture to culture, nation to nation, and era to era. Put simply, there is no book in Islam called Sharia. It is not a written law. Rather, it is an ever-evolving interpretation of the Quran.
Zahra Langhi, co-founder of the Libyan Women’s Platform for Peace noted that extremist views of Islam “are two sides of the same coin. They both see Islam as monolithic and antithetical towards women’s rights. Both are reductionist, simplified views of Islam. Both alienate the majority of the people.”
The tense discussion continued with Hibaaq Osman, a well known women’s rights activist in the Middle East who has dedicated her life to working with women in the Muslim world to claim and fight for their rights legally, socially and economically. Offended by Ali’s comments, she lashed out in what felt like a defensive reaction regarding Islam. She later explained: “The way I interpret the religion is a way of life. For me, Islam is a submission to the idea and principles rather than it is something that is imposed on you.” All the while, Farah Pandith, former Special Representative to Muslim Communities for the United States Department of State, argued for the diversity of Muslim voices and especially the youth, stating that no one can define the religion as one rigid belief system.
In the wake of this debate, I travelled to Mecca. In preparation for my trip, I had to buy an Abayas, a black robe that covered all of my body, and a matching head scarf, just to enter the country. All women are asked to put it on before reaching the airport in Saudi Arabia. On arrival, I was taken into King Abdullah City, a new city, built around a model of life in Saudi, with both social and environmental design in mind. There, I met with hundreds of young entrepreneurs from all over the Middle East and North Africa, showing off their innovations for an MIT contest: a new low-cost design for prosthetic legs, affordable for all the victims of the Iraq and Syria wars, and designs addressing the needs of the handicapped population by making side roads wheelchair accessible and streets more easily navigable for the blind. The youthful enthusiasm was palpable and touching in a roomful of innovators, trying to contribute to their society in the midst of what they see as tough days in the region, given the high unemployment, political pressure, and ongoing wars.
The morning after my speech, I made the journey to Mecca. My visit started with a frustrating traffic jam that did not allow my car to drop me at a convenient place. I was unable to make contact with the guide who was supposed to take me around. All my fears of being a woman walking alone and perhaps facing harassment from the moral police came into focus. I considered turning around and trying another day, but as I was already there I decided to go through my discomfort and fear and ask some policemen to help me. Everyone I talked with was actually kind. Upon noticing my discomfort, one policeman told me: “ You seem frustrated and afraid. Please know you don’t need a guide. You can do it on your own. I will show you how.”
And sure enough, he explained the ritual: walk seven times around the Kaaba, then do a prayer, then walk between two rocks where Hajer walked as she sought water and food for herself and her baby. After another seven times around, I was to cut off a piece of my hair as a sacrifice. It was simple enough to do it on my own, but it required me to surrender to the fact that I was alone in the midst of hundreds of thousands of people, all doing the same thing.
The Kaaba was surrounded by a sea of men wearing white and women mostly wearing black, all walking with each other in longing and worship of God. There was no separation, of poor and rich, black and white or any other race or ethnicity. There was not even the concept of male and female: all were one in their worship of God. The faces, all following the same movement around the Kaaba, revealed all types: fundamentalists, hip youngsters, traditionalists, some kind and some mean. There was deep silence in that movement, broken only by the mournful call of a voice next to me pleading, “Please, God, forgive me,” and another, “Please, God, have mercy on me.”
These voices were so deeply moving in their fervour that I actually started crying.
When it came time for prayers, all lined up next to each other, all bowing at the same time, all reciting the same verses of the Quran, and saying “Amen” at the same time. My tears and those of the women next to me flowed between prayers, and in that moment I could see how beautiful Islam can be: a beauty too seldom talked about. To me, the religion sees all as equal in front of God, men and women alike. There is also beauty in its movements, in its prayers, in its asking people to do good in this world and to help each other.
That moment of surrender and love was then broken by some men who tried to be disruptive to the other worshipers. Some were loud and rude, some sat when everyone was walking, making the crowd even harder to navigate, but none of them managed to interrupt the flow of love. I overheard a man talking to his friend, telling him, “Leave those people alone. They don’t know any better. But there is no point of having them impact our rituals. Just leave them alone.”
In that moment, I wondered if, more generally, we are allowing a few to hijack the discussion and direction of an otherwise beautiful religion. As a feminist and a woman’s rights activist who was born a Muslim and does love her religion, I should never be put in the position of having to defend the religion from fundamentalists. We each have a choice: to let those trying to disrupt our way of life to get in our way, or to ignore them and not have them impact the larger majority, who are worshiping out of love and striving to be good people on this earth.
Just as Vuslat Dogan articulated, in these days of fear, our idea of freedom is too often about speaking out, too seldom about the right to be heard. Those with the most extreme opinions drown out other voices. Fundamentalists do exist in Islam, of course, and they are inflicting significant damage on the world, on their communities and on Islam itself. But the larger majority of Muslims are those who are doing good and worshiping in personal longing for God. Perhaps it is time to incorporate Vuslat Dogan’s definition of freedom: the liberty to be heard. Then we may find the beauty in Islam, just as I found it with millions of Muslims in Mecca.
Zainab Salbi is an author and media commentator and the founder of Women for Women International — a grassroots humanitarian and development organization dedicated to serving women survivors of war. Salbi is an editor at large for Women in the World, reporting on the intersection of Middle Eastern and Western cultures.