Reflections on the Hajj

The Kaaba in Makka at prayer time
The Kaaba in Makka at prayer time


By Arshad Gamiet

first published on Khutbahbank in 2007. 

Hajj is the last of Islam’s five pillars, and it brings together all the essential aspects of our faith. It is a vast subject, but in the few minutes I have, I want to touch on a few key aspects. Hajj is an epic journey on 3 levels:

1                    Geography

2                    History and

3                    Self-discovery.

1          First there is the geographic level: It is a journey from our homes to Makka and Madina, to those desert lands where the story of Islam began, and towards which we turn our faces in prayer.

2         Secondly, Hajj is a journey through History. We visit the cradle of monotheism, the place where Prophet Abraham built the first place of worship dedicated to God, and where God asked Abraham to sacrifice what he loved most dearly. Abraham recognised this as a supreme test. He would have to sacrifice his son to God. Both father and son obeyed the divine command without flinching and without resistance. Abraham’s sharp knife lay on Isma’ils tender throat. But just  before it severed the jugular vein, Allah God substituted a lamb for human sacrifice, and Ishmael’s life was spared. When we celebrate Eid al Adha, the Festival of the Sacrifice, we remember Abraham’s willingness obey God, even preparing to give up his most beloved son. This teaches us that, as God’s servants, we too must obey without question and without hesitation. We too, must be prepared to give up whatever else, besides Allah, is so near and dear to us. We too, must learn to tame our selfish desires, and to fulfil our Lord’s bidding.

Hajj takes us on an historical journey beyond Abraham, way back to the beginning of the human story, to the time of Adam and Eve. The highlight of the Hajj is therefore the gathering of more than 3 million pilgrims on the plain of Arafat. At the foot of Jabal Rahma, the Mount of Mercy, pilgrims pray and supplicate, asking forgiveness for their sins, and they rededicate themselves to a life of obedience to God, Allah. [Allah is the Arabic name for The One transcendental God of Abraham, Moses and Jesus]

Here is where Adam and Eve were forgiven for their original sin. The first act of human disobedience was forgiven here on the Mount of Mercy.

Here is where we recite Adam’s prayer:

“Rabbana thalamna an fusana wa il lam tagh fir lana wa tar hamna lana koonan naa minal khasireen.”

“O our Lord! We have truly wronged our own souls; and if You do not forgive us and have mercy on us, we will be among the losers!”

It is therefore fitting that every year, from the beginning to the end of human history, pilgrims should make this journey to seek forgiveness for their own wrongdoing, in the same place where the first sin was forgiven.

It is therefore also a supreme expression of hope, that despite all our human frailties and transgressions, there is always time for sincere repentance and for the mending of our errant ways.

3           Hajj is not only a journey through geography and history. It is perhaps most importantly, an inward journey to our own centre, to the human heart. Not the physical heart that pumps blood through our veins. I mean the spiritual heart, the locus of our personality. What emotions, what desires, ambitions and obsessions lurk in the innermost recesses of the spiritual heart? By travelling to the Kaaba, the centre of Islam, the focal point of the Qibla, (the directional axis for all our prayers), we have also made a journey inwards, to our own Kaaba and Qibla of the human heart. Are those ambitions, desires and innermost longings really worthy of a true servant of God? Are we focussed on the right priorities, beyond selfishness and pettiness? What is our real place in this great drama of life around us? What is our place in the whole cosmic scheme of things? Where have we come from, and where are we going to?

Inna lillaahi wa inna ilayir raaji oon, says the Holy Quran. “From Allah have we come and to Him is our return.”

Hajj is also a reminder of death. Every pilgrim is wrapped in 2 sheets of plain while cloth, with no sewing, no stitches. These are the same sheets of cloth that will cover us when we are buried. In a way, we are on pilgrimage wearing a burial shroud.

This is the only time we will wrap ourselves in our own shrouds. When we die, someone else will do the wrapping for us. It is a humbling and sobering experience. When you look around you, you see more than 3 million people, all dressed exactly the same, in 2 sheets of plain white cloth. You cannot tell the difference between a state president and a taxi driver, a millionaire and the cleaner who tidied your hotel room yesterday. You can only see yourself and your fellow pilgrims exactly as God sees all of us: stripped of all our pretensions, stripped of all our designer clothes and our outward signs of wealth, nationality, culture and social status. On Hajj we see one another as we really are: individual human souls, distinguishable only by the purity of their hearts and the content of their character. In the final analysis, this is all that matters.

I was deeply touched by a young man who stood up and asked a question to a group of pilgrims: “When we return to God, what can we give Him that he doesn’t already have?” We were all bemused. God has everything. What can we poor, wretched and miserable human beings possibly give Him, that we have and that he doesn’t have? The answer came: “A pure and unblemished heart.” Purify and refine your heart, and when you return your shining heart to Allah, He will look at it and see within it, His own reflection. The young man told us he was quoting the poet Jalaluddin Rumi.

Hajj is a chance for us to take stock of ourselves, to examine our hearts, our emotions, our ambitions, our desires. What is the driving force in our lives? Is there something higher and nobler than having a new car, designer clothes, a fine house, respect of our peers, or buying a villa on the Costa del Sol? Hajj reminds us that our earthly life is short, and it should be spent on good works, striving to fulfil the needs of others, purely out of love for Him and gratitude to Him. If only we would sit down and reflect on our good fortune. We have so much to thank Him for. Count your blessings, name them one by one. We complain that we don’t have nice shoes, till we see someone living happily without any feet. We can be so ungrateful! God is infinitely generous and He deserves our love and gratitude. He created everyone and everything, and we are His trustees. We are answerable to Him. When we treat people of other faiths with respect, we do so as a courtesy to Him, and when we are disrespectful or abusive to others, we offend God.

Hajj has some important lessons for us in these difficult times. We can learn a great deal from studying the life and times of Prophet Muhammad sws. He performed one Hajj only, and delivered a memorable sermon, in which he declared that all believers are brothers of one another, and that there is no superiority of one race or one people over another. The only distinction between people is in their good deeds. The highest and noblest of us are those who serve others selflessly out of love and gratitude to God. Muslims must always ask themselves: How much have I added to the sum total of human happiness? How much have I removed from the burdens of human misery and despair? My life must count for something, each day; my life must count for something!

Today we can hardly open a newspaper or turn on the radio or TV without hearing more bad news about Islam and the Muslims. We find conflicting and contradictory messages. Islam is Peace. Islam is Violent. Muslims are (sometimes) OK. Muslims are terrorists. Some people even attack Prophet Muhammad sws in the most hateful and offensive language. Our response should be modelled on his own example. Did he throw childish temper tantrums, burn flags, destroy embassies or call for the death of those who criticised him? No, he did none of these. He was always dignity and humility personified. He knew that his conduct would be meticulously studied and emulated for all time to come. When he was abused, insulted and physically injured, he remained calm, dignified and completely self assured. He spoke to his detractors with kindness and wisdom, never in anger, never ill-tempered. He knew that he was safe in God’s hands. He knew that relief, and God’s mercy always follows temporary hardship. Our apparent misfortunes are merely a test and trial from Allah. Those who spread hateful lies about Islam and Prophet Muhammad should consider what Jesus said.

When Prophet Jesus, [peace and blessings on him], delivered his Sermon on the Mount, he said: “By their fruits shall ye know them. Do men gather grapes from thorns?” He was describing the difference between true prophets and false prophets. False prophets do not produce wholesome fruit. Prophet Muhammad sws did not come to start a new religion. He came to reconfirm the original faith of monotheism, Tawheed, Divine Unity, the true faith of Abraham and Moses and Jesus, (may God bless all of them). We’ve had the Old Testament and the New Testament. Prophet Muhammad sws brought us the Last Testament, the Quran, the final divine revelation. Nothing new, just a clear re-affirmation of Divine Unity: Pure, uncompromising monotheism. Muhammad was the ‘seal of the Prophets’ and there will be no new Revelations after the Holy Quran. Islam is indeed, ‘the last bus home.’

Look to the Empire of Faith that Prophet Muhammad established, and what fruits do you see? You know, Faith does not enter the heart of anyone, without improving it and beautifying it. This is true of individuals and it’s also true of communities and nations. Wherever Islam went in the world, it raised that society to a higher level of civilisation. Don’t take my word for it. Look over the past 1,400 years to the history of Arabia, Africa, Spain, India, Persia, Turkey, Central Asia and Indonesia. Ask yourself, what were these lands like before Islam and after Islam? In every case, you will see that there was a dramatic improvement.

Arabia itself was a wretched place before Islam. Wild Bedouin tribes worshipped idols, waged endless blood feuds, oppressed their women and buried their daughters alive. The Roman and Persian empires regarded them as so contemptible that they weren’t even worthy of conquest. Islam transformed those desert Arabs into the leaders of a world civilisation. They carried this faith from Spain to India. Muslim Spain enjoyed a golden age of over 700 years from the 8th to the 15thCentury. India under the Mughals gave us splendid architecture and the incomparable Taj Mahal.  Turkey shone brilliantly under the Ottomans. Under Muslim rule, nations prospered. Science, art, poetry, music, philosophy, mathematics and technology flourished. Diverse communities lived together in peace and mutual respect. Religious and cultural diversity was celebrated long before anything comparable came to Europe. In Spain, it was known as convivencia, living together in harmony, and we’re talking here from 711 C.E. till 1492! Nations had nothing to fear from a Muslim presence. Indeed, During the Tang Dynasty, the Chinese Emperor Yung Wei was so impressed with the honesty and integrity of Muslim traders on the Silk Route, that he decreed that a great mosque should be built in central Canton. Known as the ‘Memorial Mosque,’ it still stands today, after 1,400 years! Brothers and sisters, you can see that our illustrious ancestors were inspirational role models that shone as beacons of light in the darkness!

When the historians come to write about the history of Muslims in Britain, what will they say about our contribution to British society? How would we have improved the British way of life? Would we have contributed more than doner kebabs, chicken tikka and papadums? Look around our neighbourhoods and you will see that there are many problems that we can help to alleviate. Crime is rising. Family life is falling apart. Divorce is at record levels. Teenage pregnancies, abortions, binge drinking, drug abuse and antisocial behaviour is spiralling out of control. It’s not just headlines in newspapers. These are real problems affecting real people. These are our neighbourhoods. They affect us and should concern us also. Are we Muslims part of the problem or part of the solution? Can we offer a better, alternative way of living? Can we show by our living example, an inspirational role model? Our Prophet Muhammad sws is described in the Quran as uswatul hasanah, ‘the exellent role model.’ By aspiring to his beautiful pattern of conduct, can we not bring something of his grace and nobility into our own lives?

We live in one of the wealthiest nations on the planet, but around us we see people struggling to piece together fragmented and dysfunctional lives. Islam teaches us that holiness is about wholeness, about being complete. Can we Muslims not show, by our living example, a more complete way of life that is balanced and harmonious? I believe that our biggest challenge, our greatest struggle, our real jihad will be to transform the fear and hatred of Islam into something of an inspiration, a way of living that others will find beautiful and worthy of respect. As well-rounded individuals and well-balanced families and as a well-integrated community, we can and must become models of serenity and calm in these difficult times. It’s do-able. Our Prophet Muhammad sws and his illustrious Companions, and 1400 years of good examples, can show us the way. Are we ready for the challenge?

Despite all the machinations of those who seek to harm us, Allah has a way of completing his plans. I believe there is a law of unintended consequences. Those who seek to harm Islam today, may well find their children and grandchildren embracing it tomorrow. The pagan Arabs tried to kill Muhammad and destroy his message of Monotheism. But their efforts were fruitless. They and their children, in time, accepted the same religion they hated. The same happened to the descendants of Genghis Khan, who became the Mughal emperors of India. In the Holy Quran God says that He will not allow the unbelievers to blow out His light. If people try to destroy what is good and beautiful, they usually end up destroying themselves, or loving what they hated before. So let’s not lose heart. You and I have only to remain truthful and steadfast. History is in good hands. The planets will stay in their orbits and the universe is safe in God’s loving care. We shouldn’t give up hope and we shouldn’t give in to despair and desperation. These hard times are merely a test from Allah, a test of our character and endurance. This is how He tested all of His prophets and messengers. None of them had an easy life, and their faith and forbearance is a beacon light for us, an inspiration and guidance for all time.

So as we celebrate Eid al Adha, and we remember the supreme sacrifice of Prophet Abraham, let us remember that the way to God’s good pleasure is paved with trials and tribulations. We must travel hopefully, with a buoyant and positive spirit, eagerly anticipating our first glimpse of His smiling Face. We know that at the end of every difficulty there comes relief. This is what our faith teaches us. Be hopeful, be optimistic. If we are to be worthy followers of Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad, (may God’s peace and blessings be on all of them), we must bring something of that grace and nobility, that patience, perseverance, love and devotion that they taught us, into our own lives.

With so many Muslims enduring unspeakable hardship in so many places today, the blessings, the barakah, and the spiritual lessons of Hajj are desperately needed by all.

May Allah grant all the pilgrims an accepted Hajj. May all hujaaj return home safely. May Allah bless all His devoted servants on this joyous day of Eidul Adha.