Hajj: What is and what ought to be

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With chants of labbaik, Allahumma labbaik – O my Lord, here I am at Your service – on their lips, millions of Muslims, every year, undertake the journey of Hajj.  For Muslims, it is the journey of a lifetime. It is not just another journey among journeys. It is The Journey. It is an individual yet a collective journey. It is a journey of commemoration, bonding, remembrance and living a minimalist life. Most Muslims, who can financially afford and are able bodied, undergo this journey once in their lifetime.

The month of Dhul Hijjah and the Ibadah associated with this month are essentially the sunnah (way) of Prophet Ibrahim, be it Hajj or the sacrifice. Hajj is the act of honoring the memory of Prophet Ibrahim, his wife Hajar and son Ismail. It marks the commemoration of his family’s sacrifice, trials and tribulations. Ibrahim was the haneef – the one who stood upright and steadfast among tribulations and affliction.

The spiritual presence of Prophet Ibrahim is always felt in the whole Muslim community. His name is mentioned in a Muslim’s daily prayer, especially when they send salutations on Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). His recurring remembrance is found in the Quran as well. Islam attaches great importance to the annual pilgrimage of Hajj, which is intimately connected to the story of Ibrahim and his family.

The life of Ibrahim is amazing. An idol breaker son, born to an idol maker father, who, bowing to the command of God,  left his wife Hajar, and new born son Ismail, who was born in the autumn of their life, in the wilderness of a lonely, forlorn and unyielding Arab desert. He chartered out a completely different path for himself, which was at conflict with his own father. In his uncompromising submission to God, Ibrahim clearly drew a line between himself and his own father, the one closest to him by blood. That perhaps was his first offering and sacrifice.

Prophet Ibrahim, Hajar and Ismail’s story is about love and sacrifice, unwavering love for Allah and the spirit of sacrifice in His way. Their life is sacrifice personified. Theirs was a life of persistence among challenges. Ismail was the fruit of a yearning that spanned a lifetime, the fruit of prayers, of tears, hope and a lifelong wish of parents whose hearts ached for an offspring. Those tears and prayers bore fruit in the autumn of Ibrahim’s and Hajar’s life. Indeed Ismail proved to be a son most forbearing. Few men in the entire history of humankind have been tested for compliance as was Ibrahim. Hajar and Ismail were abandoned by Prophet Ibrahim in the barrenness of the desert away from home and habitation. It was to this forlorn valley that Ibrahim brought Hajar and their son Ismail. This valley was in between rocky naked hills, with hardly any signs of life around. They had only hot, scorching and fierce desert winds for company.

Perhaps it was the perfect setting for Ibrahim and his family to undergo the trial that God had set out for them. Prophet Ibrahim was convinced that God’s mercy is limitless. With this belief, Ibrahim left his weeping wife and the child in this uninhabited valley, leaving with them a water skin and a skin filled with dates.

In that forlorn valley, there were hardly any signs of life. To save her and her son from the scorching heat, Hajar would sit under the shade of a solitary tree. Around them there was nothing. There was scorching heat, rocky slopes and an endless silence, with no other living being around. The days in that desert were hot, and the nights very cold. Imagine a mother and her infant son in that desert, away from any habitation, left alone to bear the vagaries of nature. If that is not sacrifice, then what is? If that is not hope, then what is? If that is not steadfastness then what is? Ibrahim, Hajar and Ismail are the real symbols of sacrifice, steadfastness and hope. By the third day, the dates in the skin were over and it was all despair. But when the child cried for water, feeling the pangs of thirst, what could Hajar do except cry out to God for help and mercy. How could the distraught mother bear the sight of her dying child, crying for water? What could she do in a forlorn desert with no signs of any life around? How could she leave her small child, who was the fruit of their yearning, to die with thirst in this desert? Something had to be done and done fast.

In despair and with prayer on her lips, the distraught mother began to run between the two hills, over the same stretch, begging and pleading to God for help and mercy. She would sprint seven times between these two hills before God answered her prayer and delivered her from her predicament. It is in remembrance of her despair for water that the pilgrims who go for Hajj, run between these two hills, Saf’aa and Marwa. It is a ritual of remembrance and empathy.

God answered her prayers in the form of a stream of water which gushed forth and the water began to flow over the sand, rejuvenating life. Hajar shouted with joy and immediately quenched Ismail’s thirst. She also drank with him and called out “zummi, zummi”.  After drinking water to their full and quenching their thirst, Hajar made a little wall of sand around the spring so that the water might not run out. The water ceased to flow and became a well. This well came to be known as the well of Zamzam and the pilgrims, from centuries, have been filling water from this well and even carrying it back home with them.

Hajj is a journey which calls for immense patience, sacrifice, perseverance, persistence and humility among many other things. It is a journey which can drain a person emotionally. The first sight of Kaaba leaves one speechless. The mind goes blank and tears start rolling down cheeks. It is to be seen and experienced, to be believed. No words can describe that feeling of seeing Kaa’ba in front of one’s eyes for the first time. How lucky does one feel at that moment? For a moment, one seems to be floating in the air. The senses go numb and one is just left speechless and there is only language that can be spoken at that very moment. Only one language and that is the language of tears. It is not the time to restrain oneself. Weep, sob, cry, repent, pray, plead, ask forgiveness from God, for this is the chance to be born again.

Islam believes in only one division in mankind and that is based on Taqwa (God consciousness). Arab is supposed to have no superiority over the Ajam, White over the Black or Rich over the Poor. In the two piece Ahram, the King and the slave stand shoulder to shoulder. Hajj is supposed to showcase the egalitarianism of Islam with a strong emphasis on a minimalist lifestyle.

But has Hajj, which we see in our times, retained its essence? The answer is that Muslims have reduced it to the bare external rituals, as has been done to the annual fasting of Ramzan. It has unfortunately become a soulless movement for Muslims, devoid of its inner and more spiritual meaning. It has become just another journey among journeys. The divergence between what is and what ought to be is increasing by the day.

What lies at the heart of this problem? Though the economic prosperity has made it possible for more Muslims to undertake Hajj every year, it has also created a class of Muslims who don’t want to undergo any kind of physical hardship and exertion on this spiritual journey. But the major reason that is gnawing at the spirituality and egalitarianism associated with Hajj is the rampant commercialization of Makkah. The speed at which the city is changing and its history being obliterated leaves a keen observer dumbfounded. The landscape of the city has been changed beyond recognition. The new construction of high rises, shopping malls and the ugly looking clock tower, which dwarfs the Kaa’ba itself, shows complete disrespect to this holy city, its history and its significance for Muslims. Earlier it was the Kaa’ba which took the centre stage, but it seems the Al-Saud family wants that focus to shift to the clock tower which looms large over the Masjid al Haram. Kaa’ba symbolizes history and piety. These new buildings signify arrogance, apathy, indifference, inequality and class divide.

The spiritual nature of Hajj is about making God as centre of one’s life. It is about renewal of faith by shunning one’s material possessions and living a life with the bare minimum. It is about focusing one’s attention away from noise of the day today life and dedicating it instead to a higher purpose. It is about being lost in the vastness of the variety among human beings and connecting with the wider humankind. It is about creating some new bonds.

But when one looks around Kaa’ba these days, one sees a concrete jungle come up around it. This rampant construction in many ways reinforces a sense of betrayal among the believers. One can see sky scrapers and garish shopping malls in any city of the world. Why would one go to Makkah to see more of the same? These hotels can be afforded only by the super-rich. This rampant commercialization of the holy city has naturally forced the poorer pilgrims to the outskirts of the city, thereby creating a class divide. It goes against the concept of equality and egalitarianism that are supposed to be the central tenets of the journey of Hajj.

The global Muslim community has been conspicuous by their silence about this utter disregard to this destruction of Muslim history and spirituality. The way things are happening now, it would come as little surprise if the Saudi rulers, after a few years, allow the rich pilgrims to circumambulate the Kaa’ba in their chartered helicopters.

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