What we all need to understand about the hajj

What we all need to understand about the hajj

By Faisal Kutty

“America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem,” wrote Malcolm X more than 50 years ago after his hajj (pilgrimage). The reality is that it’s not just America that needs to understand it.

Millions will converge on Mecca this week. They follow the footsteps of millions more who have made the spiritual journey to the valley of Mecca since Abraham.

Last of the five Pillars of Islam (the others being affirmation of one God, five daily prayers, regular charity, and fasting in Ramadan), hajj is a once-in-a-lifetime obligation for those physically and financially able.

Hajj is essentially a re-enactment of the rituals of the great prophets. Pilgrims commemorate the experience of exile and atonement undergone by Adam and Eve after being expelled from heaven (according to Christians and Muslims). They also retrace the frantic footsteps of Abraham’s wife, Hagar, as she ran between the hills of safa and marva searching for water for her thirsty baby (which according to Muslim tradition, God answered with the well of Zam Zam). Lastly, the pilgrims also mark the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son for the sake of God. Islamic tradition teaches that God later substituted a ram in place of his son. It culminates with Eid ul Adha celebrations.

Yet, hajj should be more than just these elaborate rituals devoid of any spiritual significance. The faithful hope for a deep spiritual transformation, one that will make them better humans.

As all great religions teach, we are more than mere physical beings. We possess an essence beyond the material. Indeed, this is why all major religious traditions include a form of pilgrimage. In the Islamic tradition, hajj encapsulates this spiritual journey toward this essence.

The spiritual and universal messages inherent in the hajj are all the more relevant given the current state of affairs, both within and outside the Muslim world.

As Ebrahim Moosa, an Islamic scholar, notes: “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?”

As 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.”

Clearly, the white sea of men and women side-by-side circumambulating the Kaaba (the cube structure Muslims believe was originally built by Adam and rebuilt by Abraham) 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, colour, economic and social barriers converge in unison on Mecca, attests to the universality of the hajj. It plants the seed to celebrate the diversity of our common humanity. Pilgrims, hopefully, return home enriched by this more pluralistic outlook and with a new appreciation for their own origins.

In fact, Malcolm X shed his black supremacist views and upon returning home he began a new more inclusive mission. Malcolm X understood that in order to truly learn from the hajj, its inherent spiritual lessons must extend beyond the fraternal ties of any one group to forge a common humanity. From characterizing whites as “white devils,” Malcolm X saw them as brothers and sisters in humanity.

Moreover, as part of the spiritual experience, the pilgrimage links people across religious traditions. These linkages combined with the Islamic teaching of the common origin of humanity holds out much hope. In fact, the Qur’an teaches: “We created you from a single pair of a male and female, 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.” This is a great celebration of the diversity and unity of humanity.

The multitude of people with their inner beliefs and practices are all part and parcel of the divine scheme. Indeed, as the Qur’an makes clear, had God willed it so, everyone would have believed. Moreover, as the holy book insists, “Let there be no compulsion in matters of faith, truth stands out clear from error.”

Another spiritual message of the hajj is one of humility. No soul is better than another save and except as differentiated by their deeds and their intentions, which is to be judged by God alone. This acceptance of one’s weaknesses, and submission to divine grace is central to Islam.

A successful hajj should inculcate rich inner peace, manifested outwardly in the values of justice, equity, honesty, respect, generosity, kindness, forgiveness, mercy and empathy. Clearly, these values are indispensable in today’s world.

Contrary to clear religious teachings, racism, sexism, classism and the disparity between the haves and have-nots is starkly evident among Muslims. Sadly, this is even on display during the hajj.

For instance, some hotel rooms cost as much as $6,900 a night. “The pilgrimage is supposed to be a spartan, simple rite of passage, but it has turned into an experience closer to Las Vegas, which most pilgrims simply can’t afford,” says Irfan Al-Alawi, the director of the U.K.-based Islamic Heritage Research Foundation.

Having lived in many communities and travelled to many Muslim nations, including the holy places, I would paraphrase Malcolm X and say that today even “Muslims need to understand Islam …”

Faisal Kutty is counsel to KSM Law, an associate professor at Valparaiso University Law School in Indiana and an adjunct professor at Osgoode Hall Law School. @faisalkutty.

[This Op-ed was originally published in The Toronto Star on Wednesday, September 7, 2016]