Hajj, the inner dimensions

“Even after thirteen centuries [the Prophet’s] spiritual presence is almost as alive here as it was then…”  When Muhammad Asad, the Austrian Jew who converted to Islam in 1926, made these comments, it was sequel to the spiritual-social impacts the Hajj exercise had wrought on him. But his experience is qualitatively different from that of Malcom X. Malcom is one Muslim who saw the light of Islam through his Hajj in April 1964. 


As a former member and speaker for the Nation of Islam, a black spiritual and nationalist movement, he believed that the white man was the devil and the black man was superior. He left the Nation of Islam in March 1964, travelled to Makkah for the Hajj and was completely transformed by the experience. The Hajj exercise changed Malcom X’s perspective to life. He ceased to be a racialist forever. He eventually chose the name Hajj Malik al-Shabbaz. His memoir on his experience in Hajj is highly germane. He wrote as follows:

“There were tens of thousands of pilgrims from all over the world. They were of all colors, from blue-eyed blondes to black-skinned Africans. But we were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to believe never could exist between the white and the non-white. You may be shocked by these words coming from me. But on this pilgrimage, what I have seen, and experienced, has forced me to rearrange much of my thought patterns previously held, and to toss aside some of my previous conclusions…During the past eleven days here in the Muslim world, I have eaten from the same plate, drunk from the same glass and slept in the same bed (or on the same rug)-while praying to the same God with fellow Muslims, whose eyes were the bluest of the blue, whose hair was the blondest of blond, and whose skin was the whitest of white…”


But the significance of the Hajj exercise goes beyond the social-spiritual. Rather, the Hajj is sui generis in the way it has been structured by the Almighty and practiced by His apostle such that while the pilgrim is involved with the spiritual, she is celebrating the historical, while the pilgrim is engrossed in the historical he is engaged in the eschatological, while the pilgrims are immersed in the physical they are calling attention to the geographical. Or how else do we explain the rites of the tawaf in the oldest house on earth, the Kaaba. The Kaaba, you should bear in mind, is located in Makkah. Whereas the Makkah is the epicenter of the world, the Ummul Qurah (the mother of all villages in the Quranic phraseology), the Kaaba, which is located inside the city of Makkah, actually occupies the center of the epicenter. 

In other words, while the pilgrims are seen on earth circumambulating the black stone inside the Kaaba, while their voices are heard as they say “Labayka Allahuma labayk, – I have answered your call (O! Almighty), their eulogy of the divine, their circuit round the Kaaba directly corresponds to the circuit the angels round the inimitable and the indescribable throne of the Almighty. But that is not all.  

Consider the “Ihram” the white garment which pilgrims adorn for the Hajj exercise. These are two loose and unsewn garments the pilgrim put on for the hajj exercise. There is nothing like this on earth. The garments are a leveler-with it the mighty is reminded of the inconsequential nature of his status with the Almighty; the lowly is reminded that as far as He is concerned, the best of all is the most pious. What about the Tawaf round the Kaaba? This exemplifies the unity of our humanity as a direct manifestation of the unity of our origin and equally the direct manifestation of the unity of our creator. Circumambulating the Kaaba, therefore, calls attention to the necessity for us as humans to constantly make the Almighty the centre of our activity; that no authority should orbit the space of our existence aside from Him.

Now my reference to the iconic way in which the hajj fuses the historical with the spiritual and the manner in which the physical is seized upon by the divine to become spiritual, I have in mind the experience of the wife of Prophet Ibrahim, Hajar and her son, Ismail. I refer to Hajar’s search for water for her son in the then barren and hungry land of Makkah. While motherly love and care in Hajar was pushing her to run between the hills of Safa and Marwa, little did she know that she was actually being given an opportunity to partake of divine redemption of humanity. Her search for water for Ismail, the Prophet, became a metaphor for humans’ search for the Almighty; the way Zam-Zam zoomed out from under the feet of her son, Ismail, became a signifier for the inexplicable ways by which despair can be turned to hope. 

Thus while other religions position the woman as the evil, the source of sin, here, in Islam’s weltanschauung, she is an enigma, an icon, an exemplar: that the Muslim, no matter how hopeless your situation might be today, He, who turned the barren land of Makkah to a land of plenitude; He, who made a fountain of Zam Zam gush out from under the feet of a baby boy, is ever life to perform the same wonders in your circumstance. 


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