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Finding Spirituality in Pilgrimage

A Muslim Scholar Pondering on Hajj

Humans can be called the “restless animals” because they are not contented with mere food and creature comforts.

From their very beginning, they are haunted by a feeling of dissatisfaction about their environment, which urges them to search for perfection.

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We may say that the human discontent is related to their essential existence as souls. If material comforts or technological advancement could satisfy humans, the most advanced countries would not have recorded alarming suicide rates, for instance.

So the problem is basically spiritual. It is the spirit that urged Siddhartha (Buddha’s first name) to leave the comforts of his palace looking for enlightenment. The same must have been the first motivation of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) when in his youth he sought the solitude of the Cave of Hira’ for contemplation.

Thus, we may say that the primary impulse of humans that urges them to leave the warmth and security of their home is a spiritual yearning. And it is the soul that stirs humans to start on long pilgrimages seeking their God.

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Of all the pilgrimages, hajj is unique as it effectively declares the oneness of God, the oneness of mankind, and the oneness of the religion of God. Many non-Muslims misunderstand the importance of Makkah as the center of hajj.

They imagine that it is because Prophet Muhammad was born in Makkah that Muslims flock to that city for hajj. The truth is that the first House built for the worship of the one and only God of the universe was the Ka’bah in Makkah. The rites of hajj performed by millions every year commemorate events in the life of the family of the Prophet Abraham, “the patriarch of mankind”, who is revered by Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike.

My Personal Experience

When I was doing Tawaf (circumambulation) of the Ka’bah last year during hajj, I was struck by the mingling voices of people with varying accents. People with differing colors and physical characteristics typical of divergent climes and cultures merged into one mass of humanity slowly revolved around the Ka’bah, which could be called “the axis of the earth” as it were.

You are only a drop in this ocean, and suddenly you know that all this mass of humanity is one. And this was an instance when one is really convinced of the meaning of hajj in practical terms, as Malcolm X (Al-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz) had written about his experience:

“I remember one night… with nothing but the sky overhead, I lay awake amid sleeping Muslim brothers and I learned that pilgrims from every land — every color, and class, and rank; high officials and the beggar alike — all snored in the same language.” (The Autobiography)

This indeed is everyone’s experience in the spiritual journey called hajj.

Standing at Mount Arafat is special. There, standing in the midst of a crowd you are alone with your Lord. You liberate your heart from the burden of every transgression you had committed by lifting yourself up to God and clinging to Him.

Muslims believe that in the primordial times, God had asked us:

“Am I not your Lord?” And we answered:

“Yes indeed; we bear witness that You are our Lord.” But during pilgrimage, you remember that:

“O Lord, we have come to You in answer to Your call. Forgive us our trespasses O Lord; and accept us as Your own servants!”

After leaving Mount Arafat and Muzdalifah, you reach the Jamarat area to throw stones at the pillars, I closed my eyes and mentally redirected each one of the stones I had thrown until they boomeranged upon me and hit my chest, because the Devil was not out there in those pillars, but inside my own chest, whispering to me.

If the stones I pelted did not hit the Devil inside me, it was as if I had not performed the casting of pebbles ritual. So I stood by, and tried to dislodge the Devil clinging to the inside of my heart, and sought the refuge of God from all the evil impulses the Devil was injecting into me.

There are umpteen negative instructions and warnings about what a pilgrim should not do while performing hajj. And I have found comparatively fewer pieces of advice about what pilgrims should do while in hajj.

But I always remember God’s words in the Quran:

{And whatever good you do, surely Allah knows it. And take a provision with you for the journey, but the best provision is piety. So fear Me, O people of understanding!} (Al-Baqarah 2:197)

This means keep doing good. Once you are in the state of consecration, you have to give up doing so many ordinary things.

For instance, are you ready to allow your brother to squeeze into the little space you are occupying after a struggle; for you see him looking for a place to pray in the Mosque? Are you ready to give a helping hand to someone who is about to fall down in the rush?

In your eagerness to earn merits from God, you have forgotten how to earn it the easy way. Do good to your brother. Why do the pilgrims forget this so often?

I am happy to record here that I have come away from hajj with this great spiritual lesson: Remember: I tell myself again and again, “…whatever good you do, surely God knows it.”

If one’s hajj is consciously or unconsciously dominated by a continuous search for whatever physical comforts and conveniences one can seize, where is the place for the spirit?

About Professor Shahul Hameed
Professor Shahul Hameed is an Islamic consultant. He also held the position of the President of the Kerala Islamic Mission, Calicut, India. He is the author of three books on Islam published in the Malayalam language. His books are on comparative religion, the status of women, and science and human values.