Hajj is an annual event that falls in the last month of the Islamic (lunar) calendar with the Ka’bah in Mecca as the central gathering place. Roughly a 15 meter cube, it is not a temple, church, or shrine, but the physical axis of the Muslim world, a focal point said to be the first building ever consecrated to the worship of God. Upon seeing the Ka’bah for the first time, Muhammad Asad, an Austrian Muslim, said, “There it stood, almost a perfect cube … entirely covered with black brocade, a quiet island in the middle of the vast quadrangle of the mosque: much quieter than any other work of architecture anywhere in the world. It would almost appear that he who first built the Ka’bah—for since the time of Abraham the original structure has been rebuilt several times in the same shape—wanted to create a parable of man’s humility before God. The builder knew that no beauty of architectural rhythm and no perfection of line, however great, could ever do justice to the idea of God: and so he confined himself to the simplest three-dimensional form imaginable—a cube of stone.” Although Muslims pray toward the Ka’bah five times a day, the worship of God is the Muslim’s central focus. There are indications in the prophetic traditions that the Ka’bah was first built by Adam and that Abraham restored the house on its original foundations. The Quran says, “And remember when Abraham and Ishmael raised the foundations of the house…” (2:127). It has been rebuilt several times in the same place and shape since Abraham’s time.
Abraham is the founding father of the hajj. God ordered him to “proclaim the pilgrimage among men: they will come to you on foot and mounted on every kind of camel, lean on account of journey through deep and distant mountain highways.” (22:27) The Quran describes Abraham as a monotheist: “As for me, I have set myself, firmly and truly, towards Him Who created the heavens and the earth, and never shall I give partners to the [one true] God.” (6:97) It also describes him as a Muslim, or one who submits to the will of the One God: “When his Lord said to him, ‘Submit!’ he promptly responded, “I have submitted to the Lord of the Universe.” (2:131)
The Quran also records Abraham’s prayer: “ ‘Our Lord! Raise up in their midst a messenger from among them who shall recite to them your revelations… you are All Powerful and All Wise.’” (2:129) Centuries later, Muhammad was born from the descendants of Abraham and proclaimed Islam, or submission to God, the same religion that Abraham practiced. With Allah’s command, Muhammad revived the hajj by restoring its pure foundations and eliminating the pagan idols and customs that gradually defiled it.
Major Rites of the Hajj
There are several rites of the hajj, including circumambulation of the Ka’bah, which commemorates the way Abraham and Ishmael carried out the God’s order to do so as a token of their gratitude that they were asked to construct such a significant and sacred house of worship. Jogging between the hills of As-Safaa and Al-Marwa commemorates Hagar’s desperate search for water for her thirsty child as she courageously accepted God’s command that she and her son settle alone in the barren valley of Bacca (later called Mecca). Drinking from the well of Zamzam, which was first provided for Hagar and her son, acknowledges God’s generous blessing for life-giving water. A day of prayer on the plain of Arafah is the most significant rite of Hajj, as Prophet Muhammad said. He gave his last sermon from this location, which was attended by almost 100,000 Muslims. He reconfirmed the importance of equality, justice, tolerance and peace with all mankind, and confirmed the sanctity of honor, property and life. This location is also said to be the place of Abraham’s intended sacrifice.
To commemorate Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his only son, an animal is slaughtered by each pilgrim and the meat is distributed to the poor. The Quran relates the origin of this rite: “[Abraham] said, ‘O my son! I have seen in a dream that I must sacrifice you. So what do you think?’ He [Ishmael] said, ‘O my father, do that which you are commanded. If God so wills, you shall find me of the patient.’ So when they had both submitted their wills [to God], and he laid him prostrate on his forehead [for sacrifice], We called out to him, ‘O Abraham! You have indeed fulfilled your vision!” Thus do we reward the righteous.’ And we ransomed him with a momentous sacrifice. And We left [this reminder] for him among generations in later times.” (37:102-107).
Finally, the pilgrim confronts evil for three consecutive days by stoning three pillars erected to symbolize Satan, whom the Quran warns against: “…Satan is to man an avowed enemy!” (12:5) He said, “…I will lie in wait for them on Your Straight Path. Then I will assault them from before them and behind them, from their right and their left…” (7:17) Stoning the symbolic pillars is physical act of rejecting, fighting and disabling evil forces that undermine faith. It commemorates Abraham’s resistance of Satan’s attempts at three different places to dissuade him from carrying out God’s command; Abraham pelted Satan with stones to ward off temptation. It also reminds us that fighting evil is an ongoing process, not an event.
The Hajj enables one to put worldly interests aside – work, family, friends, entertainment – for a spiritual retreat. It provides a chance to refocus on the higher purpose of life: devotion to God in all things. A Muslim connects with other Muslims in the current Muslim “ummah;” it is the largest annual international peace conference, with representatives from every country of the world. It has been described as a physical world wide web. A Muslim also connects through time with Abraham, Hagar, Ishmael, whose acts are the bases for the pilgrimage rites, and with Muhammad, who restored pure monotheistic worship from Mecca. More than 2 million people of all races, classes and nations gather together in the valley of Mecca, where distinctions among people vanish, giving one a sense of equality with all others. Patience, tolerance and brotherhood develop as each pilgrim experiences the exertion and sentiments of the other. Temporary loss of residence, everyday comforts, familiar company and personal items make one grateful for these provisions in daily life. Having the opportunity to participate in the pilgrimage makes one feel complete in his duty to God, since the Quran says, “Due to God from the people is pilgrimage to the House” (3:96-97). Finally, the great gathering, the dress of white shrouds, and the masses’ pleas for forgiveness draws one’s attention to his own death, resurrection and standing before God on Judgment Day.
Some people’s perception of life is forever changed after the hajj. Personally, I thought about the meaning of life and the scene of thousands of people circumambulating the Ka’bah reminded of the atomic level of the electrons circling around the nucleus, as well as the astronomic level of the planets revolving around the sun. In both, there is a center reference point. And it struck me that THIS is the meaning of life: to keep God as my reference point, to keep my actions and thoughts revolving around Him and, like Abraham, to devote myself to the one Lord of the universe.
The Hajj re-establishes God as the focus of life.