In the Name of God, Most Compassionate, Most Merciful
Today marks the beginning of the Hajj proper. For the past three weeks or so, pilgrims from every corner of the earth have descended upon the holy city of Mecca to perform the Hajj. But, the Hajj itself begins in the morning today, the 8th of the month of Dhul-Hijjah, the last month in the Islamic calendar.
For those of you not already familiar with it, the Hajj is a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage that every Muslim must make, if they are physically and financially able to do so. It is a series of rites and rituals that re-enact and ancient desert drama: that of Abraham (pbuh), his wife Hagar (pbuh), and his son Ishmael (pbuh).
My Master Abraham (pbuh) took his wife and young son – his only son after more than 80 years of life – to a barren desert plain. He left with them some water and dates and then turned and left. His wife, alarmed, ran after him saying: “What are you doing?” Abraham (pbuh) neither looked back nor answered. She – now a bit frantic – repeated her question: “What are you doing? Why are you leaving us here, with no food, no people, no water?” He neither turned back nor answered.
Hagar (pbuh) then asked, “Did God command you to do this?” He said, “Yes.” She then said, “Then, He will not betray us.” She turned back to her child, and Abraham (pbuh) kept walking. Eventually, the food and water ran out. When Hagar (pbuh) could no longer provide milk for her child, he began to cry, and she began to panic. She ran seven times between two mountains, Safa and Marwa, in a frantic search for people or water. When she returned, she found a spring of water had come out of the ground – dug by the Angel Gabriel himself – and they were both saved.
That spring became the well of Zamzam, which still flows in Mecca to this day. When Ishmael (pbuh) grew older, Abraham(pbuh) saw in a dream that he is sacrificing his son (Muslims believe it was Ishmael). On his way to do this, the Devil came to him three times to dissuade him from his duty. Three times, he stoned him to drive him away. When Abraham (pbuh) was about to kill his son, the Lord sent him an animal in Ishamel’s place.
All of the rites and rituals have to do with the above story. Today, pilgrims don two unstitched, white cloths called the ihram. This garb is the ultimate equalizer; all pilgrims, prince and pauper, are indistinguishable. Then, the spend the day worshipping God in the tent city of Mina, just outside Mecca. Before coming to Mina, pilgrims “say hello” to God’s House in Mecca, the Ka’ba, by making seven counter-clockwise circumambulations around the shrine, as Abraham (pbuh) taught us to do. The Ka’ba was first built by Abraham (pbuh) and Ishmael (pbuh) as a house of worship for God. It is to this shrine that I, and millions of other Muslims, face each day for the five daily ritual prayers.
Tomorrow morning, all pilgrims will head to the area of Mount Arafat. It is here – it is believed – that Adam (pbuh) first was reunited with his wife Eve after begin expelled from Heaven. All day, pilgrims worship, pray, and ask God for forgiveness until sunset. Once the sun sets, all of the sins of each and every pilgrim have been forgiven by God.
After Arafat, pilgrims spend all or part of the night on the plain of Muzdalifah, not far from Mina. There, they gather stones for the activities of the next day (Jan 10): stoning the largest of three stone pillars that represent the Devil, just as Abraham did centuries before. After stoning the pillar, pilgrims go to the central shrine in Mecca, the Ka’ba, and make another circumambulation and then run between the two mountains of Safa and Marwa, just as Hagar (pbuh) did centuries before. Afterwards, male pilgrims shave their heads, and female pilgrims cut off a lock of their hair. Once this is done, they can take off their ihram garb and wear “civilian” clothes once again. Shaving the head is a symbol of one’s slavery to God.
For the three days after that (Jan 11-13), pilgrims spend their days in Mina and stone each of the three stone pillars each day. Then, pilgrims make a final circumambulation around the Ka’ba, and they head back to their homes.
I performed the Hajj three years ago with my wife. It was the most powerful spiritual experience I have ever had. There is not a day that goes by that Mecca does not call to me. For the next few days, I will try (if my patients let me, that is) to share with you my experiences when I went to the Hajj three years ago. Stay tuned…