This Thursday, November, 19th, on the next Inside Islam radio broadcast, the topic will be the hajj. Between November 25-30, one of the longest-lived religious rites in the world will take place. Every year, for well over 1400 years, millions of Muslims from around the world have flocked to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, to fulfill the pilgrimage. The hajj, the fifth pillar of Islam, is a duty prescribed on every able and healthy Muslim to perform once in their life. This journey, while physically exerting, is described by many pilgrims as one they would like to repeat again in their lifetime.
The pilgrimage predates Islam. Many of the rituals of the pilgrimage stem from the story of Prophet Abraham, Ishmael, and Hagar. The Prophet Muhammad, in line with his vision of the message, was simply codifying a pilgrimage that had been put in place by Abraham. Therefore, pilgrims are enacting rituals that put them in the Abrahamic lineage. Even the Kaba, the religious center in the Muslim worldview, is believed to have been rebuilt by Prophet Abraham and his son Ishmael; it was the Prophet Muhammad who emptied it of the idols and restored the monotheistic worship called for by Prophet Abraham.
The pilgrimage is emblematic of the egalitarian and inclusive spirit of Islam. Pilgrims meet other Muslims from parts of the world that they may never have had the chance to come in contact with. Moreover, the ritual clothing of two plain white sheets for men levels the playing field, so to speak. While on the pilgrimage, wealth and background are not significant. Rather, it is the fact that everyone is there to worship God. Malcolm X wrote, in a now famous letter, about how the pilgrimage transformed his vision of American politics. Engaging in the rituals with Muslims from various backgrounds, especially whites, gave him a sense of equality and showed an alternative and more inclusive approach to the struggle of African-Americans.
Like Malcolm X, many Muslims who go on the pilgrimage come back with a transformed vision of their world and themselves. All of the components of the hajj: a spirit of communal worship, removal of worldly markers, incredible diversity, and continuity all make it a ritual unlike any the world has seen.
Have you gone on the hajj? What was your experience? Please share your comments below or on air.