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The Spirituality of Hajj: Sa’y

Part 4

Sa’y, which comes after tawaf, is to walk, and sporadically at the determined stations run, between the Safa and Marwah hills a total of seven times. One way distance between them is considered one stretch. Sa’y starts at Safa and is completed at Marwah.

As a sign of vitality and ambition, Sa’y means “walking”, “striving for”, “seeking”, “effort”, “toil”, “endeavour” and “pursuit”. In addition to being an ordinance of God, sa’y also commemorates the effort and struggle of Hajar, Ibrahim’s wife, to find a solution to her and her son’s (Isma’il) predicament they had found themselves in.

Moving seven times between the Safa and Marwah hills – a distance of about 450-500 meters, and about 3.2-3.5 km in total – brings to mind the dedication and willpower of Hajar even when the odds were stacked against her.

Sa’y is the continuation of the movement that has been set off and celebrated in tawaf. For that reason are tawaf and sa’y sometimes regarded, in particular outwardly, as two sides, or parts, of the same motion. They are complementary parts of one philosophy.

We have seen earlier that during the first three rounds of tawaf a pilgrim hastens and jogs (ramal) – which is a form of sa’y – whereas sa’y itself is often called tawaf. The Qur’an itself does the latter:

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“Indeed, Safa and Marwah are among the symbols of Allah. So whoever makes Hajj to the House or performs ‘Umrah – there is no blame upon him for walking between or circumambulating them (yattawwafa bihima). And whoever volunteers good – then indeed, Allah is appreciative and Knowing” (al-Baqarah, 2:158).

The Symbolism of Sa’y

However, the movement of sa’y is straight, representing infinity, and is also horizontal, representing temporality. Just like everything in Islam, sa’y is a subtle interplay between the two domains. And in order to materialize, as well as temporalize, the straightness (expansion) of sa’y and its educed infinity, sa’y is framed between two earthly points: the hills of Safa and Marwah.

This framing notwithstanding, the significance and effects of sa’y are not to be reduced in any way. Rather, the physical sa’y is to be utilized as a launching pad for rising in a vertical direction towards the infinitude of the divine realm. This rising is the envisioned definitive outcome of the sa’y ritual. It is a spiritual course (spiritual sa’y) between heaven and earth, and between spirit and matter, and is truly boundless and unending.

Sa’y embodies the character and struggles of life. It is a blend of running and walking, and of delight and suffering. Which means, first of all, that a person should run towards the consequential aspects of life, sacrificing much for getting hold of them, as they are indispensable (essentials), and should merely walk towards the less important aspects, because they are relative and are no more than fleeting means (accidents).

Thus, by way of illustration, the Qur’an says that people should desire the Hereafter and should strive therefor with all due striving (sa’y) (al-Isra’, 19); that people should hasten earnestly (sa’y) to the remembrance of Allah (al-Jumu’ah, 9); that of their entire lives people will have only that (good and quality) which they strive for (sa’y) (al-Najm, 39).

Finding the Right Balance

In opposition, when it comes to taking advantage of the material benefits of the earth (of life), the Qur’an simply says: “walk among its (the earth’s) slopes and eat of His (God’s) provision” (al-Mulk, 15), and “disperse through the land and seek the favour of God” (al-Jumu’ah, 10). Undue tenacity and intensity are by no means implied.

Moreover, the word “safa” means “to be pure and purity” and the word “marwah” “pebble and flint”. Hence, sa’y between Safa and Marwah means that life is every little bit of striking a balance between the purity of godliness and virtue, and the impairments of matter.

In principle there is nothing intrinsically wrong with matter; it all depends on how one handles its few advantages and how he triumphs over its many disadvantages. Sometimes a person must “run” and sometimes “walk”, sometimes press forward (be on the offensive) and sometimes shrink back (be defensive), and sometimes give and at other times take – while finding the right balance.

Obviously, a person cannot survive and succeed in his life assignments only on spirituality, or on matter. Regardless of how wholesome and pure spiritual life is, a person, who is a composition of matter and spirit, and who operates in the like existential conditions, cannot have it all.

Similarly, regardless of how disagreeable and objectionable matter can be, a person cannot balk at it completely, especially if that be in the name of self-righteousness. As if a person declares to matter that his life is hard with it, but harder without it, and to the purity of religious devotion that his life makes sense and is fulfilling only with it on-board, but – in the final analysis – there is no actual and complete life, nor bliss, except in the Hereafter.

At any rate, no excesses of any kind are welcome, neither with regard to purity (spirituality) nor matter. Nor are the states of being stationary and passive, mediocre and unproductive, acceptable. These negativities are fated to be swept away by the powerful currents of life (sa’y). Because of this, primarily, Islam abhors and is incompatible with the ideologies of materialism, relativism and liberalism, on the one hand, and the ideologies of religious utopianism, liturgism and fatalism, on the other.

Prophet Ibrahim, Hajar and Isma’il

In connection with the sa’y rite, there were three characters involved: Prophet Ibrahim, Hajar and Isma’il.

Ibrahim followed the decree of God and settled his wife and son (some of his posterity) in an uncultivated valley near the sacred House of God (Ibrahim. 37).

Having accepted her husband’s doing – firmly believing that the divine providence will take care of everything – Hajar set out to do her utmost, run towards and facilitate fate’s choices for her (by running seven times between Safa and Marwah and hoping to find a source of help). She was distressed but never lost confidence or gave up hope.

In the meantime, baby Isma’il was selected to be the chief instrument and immediate object of a designing providential hand. He was innocently helpless and on the point of dying, so the angel Gabriel (Jibril) was sent to dig the Zamzam well so that Isma’il’s thirst and the thirst of his mother – together with her motherly-cum-human desperation – could be quenched. The water is said to have gushed right beneath Isma’il’s little legs. Thus, it was Ibrahim who initiated the process, Hajar who stepped it up and so, induced an upper intervention, and finally Isma’il around whose personality the first and perhaps most dramatic chapter of that process was concluded.

The additional message gleaned therefrom is that man is a social being and must live in social relationships. Individualism and self-centredness are deceases and can offer little to the social order over the long term. The success of a community depends on social coherence and harmony. Each and every member should be turned into a resource. Liabilities and demerits are damaging, hence must be faced head-on and cured. Every society should have its Ibrahims, Hajars and Isma’ils, and should have its sa’y path (quality vision and mission).

Part 1 – The Spirituality of Hajj: An Introduction

Part 2 – The Spirituality of Hajj: Ihram and Talbiyah

Part 3 – The Spirituality of Hajj: Tawaf

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About Dr. Spahic Omer
Dr. Spahic Omer, an award-winning author, is an Associate Professor at the Kulliyyah of Islamic Revealed Knowledge and Human Sciences, International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM). He studied in Bosnia, Egypt and Malaysia. In the year 2000, he obtained his PhD from the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur in the field of Islamic history and civilization. His research interests cover Islamic history, culture and civilization, as well as the history and theory of Islamic built environment. He can be reached at: [email protected].