- Islamic IssuesIslamic Movements
- December 9, 2009
- 6 minutes read
Where the Haj Takes Us
How is it that under such trying circumstances, strangers from the far reaches of the planet, belonging to different ethnicities, nationalities and languages, are able to sustain generally good relations with one another during the trying rituals of the haj? Says Anisa Mehdi.
Amman – Here in Jordan, American domestic news such as the horror of Fort Hood has not been crowding the headlines. Instead, the focus has been on political leaders’ assurances that there will be enough containers of butane gas to heat homes for the winter, sustainable water sources and expanding Israeli settlements in Jerusalem. Even as these concerns filled the headlines, Eid ul-Adha, the celebration marking the end of the haj pilgrimage, was a source of hope.
Eid ul-Adha means “Feast of the Sacrifice”. Scriptural stories say God asked the Prophet Abraham to prove his faithfulness by sacrificing his son. Satan appeared along the path to the altar, decrying God as cruel and false for demanding such a ghastly act. Abraham threw stones at Satan to drive him away. At the denouement, God was satisfied, sparing Abraham’s son and giving the grateful father a ram to sacrifice instead.
It is these events in Abraham’s life, among others, that Muslims commemorate during the three days of haj, including religious rituals like throwing pebbles at a stone stele of Satan. On Eid ul-Adha, which marks the end of the haj, Muslims sacrifice or, in most cases, pay for the sacrifice of, goats, cows and sheep–in remembrance of Abraham’s great sacrifice to God–which is then distributed to the poor.
Up to 10,000 Jordanian pilgrims performed the haj this year, joining about the same number of American pilgrims and close to three million others from around the world. Miraculously, with all these people gathering in one place, grappling with crowds, stress, heat, hunger and confusion, Mecca does not become rife with violence, riots, shootings or hostility during the haj. In more than 1,400 years as an Islamic rite, the greatest danger of pilgrimage remains disease.
How is it that under such trying circumstances, strangers from the far reaches of the planet, belonging to different ethnicities, nationalities and languages, are able to sustain generally good relations with one another during the trying rituals of the haj?
That is not just the challenge of the haj, but of Islam itself. The great jihad–or struggle–each Muslim faces in his or her lifetime is how to be the finest person possible. Haj is a proving ground for the best behaviour, practice and expression of humanity.
Usually, it’s easy to see how people separate themselves from one another. Many of us labour to differentiate ourselves from others–sometimes claiming superiority or dominance merely by dint of birthright. In Jordan, for example, Muslims and Christians coexist, gently appreciating what they see as the other’s mildly misguided beliefs. There are Jordanians of Bedouin stock and Jordanians from the north or the south, each with their own mansaf and kunafeh, tasty local dishes. There are 1948 Palestinian Jordanians and 1967 Palestinian Jordanians, each with historical gratitudes and gripes.
At the haj, which I have had the privilege to film and report for the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and National Geographic Television, those distinctions begin to melt. On the ninth day of the month of haj, as dusk settles over the Plain of Arafat where the Prophet Muhammad made his farewell speech to Muslims toward the end of his life, many pilgrims, drying their eyes, understand that at essence we are born, we love, and we die; that our identity is ultimately tied to the way we live our lives, not to the nation or tribe to which we were born.
Haj is as much about the individual as it is profoundly about community and the communion of humanity. God says in the Qur’an, “O humankind! Lo! We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes that ye man know one another. Lo! The noblest of you, in the sight of Allah, is the best in conduct” (49:13). The great lesson of the haj is this: more important than where we come from is where we are going.