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Faisal Kutty: The Universal Lessons Of Hajj

The Universal Lessons Of Hajj


By Faisal Kutty

Millions of pilgrims from all over the world are converging on Mecca this month. They will retrace the footsteps of millions who have made the spiritual journey to the valley of Mecca since the time of Adam.

Hajj literally means, "to continuously strive to reach one's goal." It is the last of the five pillars of Islam (the others being a declaration of faith in one God, five daily prayers, offering regular charity, and fasting during Ramadan). It is a once-in-a-lifetime obligation for those who have the ability.

The Hajj is a re-enactment of the rituals of the great prophets. Pilgrims symbolically relive Adam and Eve’s exile and atonement after they were expelled from Heaven, wandered the earth, met again and sought forgiveness in the dessert. They also retrace the frantic footsteps of Abraham’s wife, Hagar, as she ran between the hills of Safa and Marwa searching for water for her baby (which God answered with the well of Zam Zam). Lastly, pilgrims also commemorate Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son for God. God later substituted a ram.

Yet, the Hajj is more than these elaborate rituals. The faithful hope for a deep spiritual transformation, one that will make them better. If such a change within does not occur, then it was merely a physical exercise devoid of any spiritual significance.

All great religions teach that we are more than mere physical creatures in that we possess an essence beyond the material. Indeed, this is why they all have a tradition of pilgrimage. In the Islamic tradition, Hajj encapsulates this spiritual journey.

The current state of affairs -- within and outside the Muslim world -- greatly increases the relevance of the universal messages inherent in the Hajj.

As Islamic scholar Ebrahim Moosa asks: “after paying homage to the two women Eve and Hagar in the rites of pilgrimage, how can some Muslims still violate the rights and dignity of women in the name of Islam? Is this not a contradiction?”

Indeed, the Qur’an teaches: "I shall not lose sight of the labour of any of you who labours in My way, be it man or woman; each of you is equal to the other.” (3:195)

Clearly, the white sea of men and women side by side performing tawaf (circling) around the Kaaba (the stone building Muslims believe was built by Adam and rebuilt by Abraham and his son Ishmael) should lay to rest any claim that Islam -- as opposed to some Muslims -- degrades women.

The fact that millions transcending geographical, linguistic, level of practice, cultural, ethnic, racial, economic and social barriers converge on Mecca, attests to the universality of Islam. The Hajj plants the seed to celebrate the diversity of our common humanity. Pilgrims return home enriched by a more holistic outlook and with a new appreciation for themselves and their surroundings.

One of the most celebrated Hajjis (one who has performed Hajj) is none other than African-American civil rights leader El-Hajj Malik El Shabbaz, better known as Malcolm X. The man who was renowned for preaching that whites were "devils" -- especially the blond, blue-eyed ones -- profoundly reassessed his views during the Hajj. This transformation, of course, sealed his break with the Black nationalist Nation of Islam.

Contrary to the teachings of the Nation, Malcolm concluded that Islam encompassed all of humanity and transcended race and culture. He later said, "In my 39 years on this Earth, the holy city of Mecca had been the first time I had ever stood before the Creator of all and felt like a complete human."

In Mecca, Malcolm mixed with, "fellow Muslims, whose eyes were the bluest of blue, whose hair was the blondest of blond, and whose skin was whitest of white." In fact, he was so inspired, that, in letters back, he wrote, "America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem."

Malcolm also understood that in order to truly learn from the Hajj, its spiritual lessons must extend beyond the fraternal ties of Muslims to forging a common humanity.

In fact, Hajj links people across religions through the shared Abrahamic tradition but also the Islamic teaching of our common origin. Indeed, the Qur’an teaches: “We created you from a single pair of a male and female (Adam and Eve), and made you into nations and tribes that ye may know each other and not that you might despise each other. The most honoured of you in the sight of God is the most righteous of you” (Al Hujurat: 13). This is at once a great celebration of the diversity and unity of our humanity.

Humility to God and acceptance of His supremacy and control over all is another message of Hajj. People with their divergent inner beliefs and practices are to be judged by God alone in His infinite wisdom. Indeed, the Qur’an proclaims, "Let there be no compulsion in matters of faith, truth stands out clear from error." (2: 256)

A successful Hajj breeds inner peace, which manifests in the values of justice, honesty, respect, forgiveness, mercy and empathy. And it is these values – all attributes of God almighty -- that are indispensable if we are all just to get along in this world.

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Faisal Kutty is a lawyer, writer and doctoral candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School. He is also the vice chair of the Canadian Council on American Islamic Relations. His articles are archived at www.faisalkutty.com.

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