SHOULD CARE ABOUT THE HAJJ
We have a common heritage
I have been
on the pilgrimage to Mecca three times in my life: once during the annual hajj
season and twice during the off-season. This has left me savvy as I try to
negotiate the physical hurdles, including massive crowds and the heat, while
performing the pilgrimage rituals.
With the pilgrimage I hope to refill my always empty spiritual cup by praying
and reflecting in peace. The best time to visit the Kaaba and do this, I have
come to realize, is after midnight.
The Kaaba is the imperfect cube structure that is the center of the Grand Mosque
in Mecca and is at the epicenter of the pilgrimage rites. After midnight, the
crowds thin out, the heat is less oppressive and I can have a little space to
sit quietly on the steps of the courtyard surrounding the Kaaba and reflect.
The Kaaba, draped in black silk cloth embroidered with Koranic calligraphy, is
brilliantly lit at night. Even late, scores of pilgrims are circling the
structure. The sounds of the Koranic verses they are reciting wash over me like
ocean waves. There is the faint odor of a detergent that was used to wash down
the marble floor of the courtyard. The place is clean indeed.
I focus on the Kaaba, imagining the scene when it was being built. I try to see
Prophet Abraham, by then an old man, and his son Ishmael, as they stood side by
side building the structure, which the Koran describes as "The First House (of
worship) appointed for mankind."
Hajj, an annual pilgrimage Muslims must perform once in their lifetime if they
can afford it, is a journey to what Muslims believe is this first house of
worship. The spot where Abraham stood to build the Kaaba is marked by a small
structure called the "Station of Abraham." As they built the walls of the Kaaba,
the Koran states, the prophet and his son prayed: "My Lord, make this a City of
Most people familiar with Islam may recognize hajj as one of its five pillars,
but they may not know its primary association with Abraham. Several of the hajj
rituals--such as running between the hills of Safa and Marwa, which are a few
hundred yards from the Kaaba, and the stoning of the three pillars that
represent the devil--are also linked to Abraham.
I thought about my fellow pilgrims running between the two hills in what was
once a desert, re-enacting the desperate search for water by Ishmael's mother,
I thought about us stoning the pillars, symbolically warding off evil, and
emulating Abraham's stoning of the devil each of the three times the devil tried
to stop him from fulfilling his duty to God.
And I thought about the celebration of Eid al-Adha, "the festival of the
sacrifice," on the last day of hajj. The holiday commemorates Abraham's
willingness to sacrifice his dearest possession, his son, at God's command.
Abraham's willingness to sacrifice all for God is admired by all three Abrahamic
faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And the theme of connecting the three
religions as part of the Abrahamic tradition runs all through the Koran.
Jews and Christians are referred to as "People of the book." On more than one
occasion the following verse appears in the Koran: "Verily they who believe and
they who are Jews, Christians . . . whoever believes in God and the Last Day,
and do that, which is right, shall have their reward with their Lord. Fear shall
not come upon them and neither shall they grieve."
Prophet Muhammad wanted Muslims to remind themselves constantly of this link to
Abraham. His companions asked him how they should invoke the blessings of God
upon him. He replied, "(First) Say; May the blessings of God be upon Muhammad
and his progeny" and then say "May the blessings of God be upon Abraham and his
progeny." This invocation is part of Muslims' daily prayers.
The time I spent reflecting at the footsteps of Kaaba has reinforced my belief
that it is essential for the "progeny of Abraham" to be conscious of their
common heritage. The close proximity of the three major holidays this
year--Hanukkah started last weekend, Christmas is Monday and Eid al-Adha is on
Dec. 31--provides additional symbolism for shared belief.
Appreciation of this Abrahamic tradition may unite Jews, Christians and Muslims
in attaining a dream of peaceful coexistence. Muslims are reminded of it during
hajj and in their daily prayers. Sitting on the steps of the Kaaba, I found
myself echoing Abraham with my prayer: Lord, bring peace to this world.
Javeed Akhter, a physician, is a founding member of the International Strategy
and Policy Institute, a Chicago-area Muslim-American think tank, and author of
the book "The Seven Phases of Prophet Muhammad's Life
article appeared in Chicago Tribune on December 24, 2006. It is posted here for
the convenience of those who might have missed it.