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Hajj: Ritual and Spiritual

This is a transcription of a video by Shabir Aly.

Every year two million people from all around the world head to Makkah to the annual pilgrimage.

They gather to perform rituals that date back to the Prophet Muhammad more than 14 hundred years ago.

What were some of the rituals performed during the pilgrimage?

And what is their significance?

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With me to discuss Hajj, brother Shabir Ally, President of the Islamic information Center.

Q: Brother Shabir, what is the Hajj period exactly? It’s a short period, but it seems like many Muslims go for quite a long period of time.

A: Yes, of course you need to get in there ahead of time and be relaxed, you know, you set your bags in your hotel room and in a way scope out the environment and be ready for the actual day.

So you arrive a little bit ahead of time, and then there are some optional devotions and extra devotions that people may want to perform. Some people may want to do a little bit of shopping as well, bring back some traditional clothing or some other items for their family members as gifts, and so they might need a few some extra days after the Hajj is over as well.

But the Hajj itself is only five days, and the period starts from the eighth day of the last month of the Islamic calendar. Now we know we fast in the ninth month, the Hajj is performed in the twelfth month, it’s called Dhul-Hijjah.

On the eighth day of Dhul-Hijjah, that’s when the Hajj begins by the pilgrims donning what is referred to us as the Ihram. It might be referring to the clothing that marks this state, or it might refer to the state itself as being a spiritual state.

So the believer then enters in this condition of Ihram, which means making things prohibited and that simply means that while believers are in this state, things which normally might have been permissible, now become impermissible. For example, the believer cannot put on perfume and the reason for that seems to be that just as we read in the Bible that somebody may be mourning or putting on sackcloth as a way of becoming close to God, detached from all material things.

In a similar way, the pilgrim dons two simple pieces of clothing and from that time on will not apply any perfume because there is no interest now in material things, material comforts and decoration. We want to just be close to God and have a connection with Him.

Q: What is the significance or purpose of this pilgrimage? Some people when they think about pilgrimage they think about people of old, people long time ago travelling long distances to get somewhere. So how does that relate to Hajj?

A: Nowadays, of course, the journey is much easier. You take a flight and within ten hours from JFK in New York, or similar time from Toronto to Dubai and another hour or two to Jeddah and you’re there. A taxi ride to Makkah, … it’s a breeze compared to the fact that people long time ago had to undertake long journeys and they were not only difficult but they were also dangerous journeys.

Q: Why are we still doing this pilgrimage today? What’s the importance and significance of it?

A: The significance is that the house of worship that people visit on this pilgrimage is one of the first. In fact the Quran says: {A first house of worship that was established for human kind is the one at Bakkah, (the blessed Bakkah).} (3: 96) and nowadays, Bakkah is called Makkah.

We believe that Abraham set up this house of worship after being directed by God, he and his son Ishmael, laid the foundation of this Ka’bah (a cube). It looks like a simple structure on its own. Nowadays it’s decorated with a black cloak that is striped over it and the cloth itself has calligraphic writing embroidered with gold thread. So that gives a certain attractiveness to it, but on the whole it’s just a simple brick building. But the level of spirituality that Muslims experience there is intense, and it is for these reasons that Muslims continue to go there to this day.

Q: You mentioned the connection to Abraham, can you elaborate a little bit on that? How the tradition perhaps has remained the same and how has it changed?

A: Well, prior to Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) preaching in Arabia and calling the people to be Muslims as we know them now, the practice of performing the pilgrimage was already in vogue, because the Arabs consider themselves to be descendants of Prophet Abraham through his son Ishmael, and they understood the Ka’bah to be dating back to him, and so they had performed certain rituals which they also credit to this ancient forefather of the Arab peoples. They would circumambulate the Ka’bah, they would go back and forth between the two hillocks, Safa and Marwa.

These practices continued, but whatever pagan practices were contrary to this spirit of Islam were eradicated. For example, it is mentioned in the Quran that people used to clap and whistle as they went around. And somehow that doesn’t seem to be conducive to the devotion and the prayers that need to be directed to God at that time in a solemn manner. So this was removed.

It is mentioned in some traditions that some women used to go around the Sacred House in a naked state and this was declared prohibited by the teachings of Islam, by the clear pronouncement of the Prophet Muhammad himself.

Q: I believe that there were also idols in the Ka’bah brother Shabir?

A: Yes, prior to Islam people used to worship idols and house them in the Ka’bah and the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), now with the teachings of Islam, declared that the idols are of no benefit to us, that we should worship God directly calling out to this great – as people may say the Great Spirit – but we think of God as being transcendent, the creator of everything, and idols made by human hands cannot be true representations of God and why not appeal to God directly because He hears us without intermediaries. So the idols had to go.

People naturally were disinclined anymore to worship idols and eventually these were broken. There were idols also on the two hillocks, Safa and Marwa, and people used to go and back between those.

The practice of going back and forth as an effort made in the service of God continues, depicts the humility of Muslims just simply following the command and following the tradition. But the idols are no longer there, but we pray to God on these hillocks. We also hasten our pace between a section of that walk, between two pillars that mark the section in which this is a tradition.

This tradition goes back to the action of the mother of Ishmael. We know from the Bible that it was said that Abraham left the boy and his mother in the wilderness of Paran.

Well, in the Islamic tradition, it is mentioned that when the mother saw that the child had no water, and she also had run out of milk to feed him, she went back and forth between these hillocks running to see if she might find anyone to supply water for her baby and eventually the well of Zamzam sprung up miraculously to supply that water from God.

Muslims imitate the actions of this noble woman and remember her sacrifice and her devotion to God in these troubling circumstances in which she was left.

Q: What are some of the lessons of Hajj? Someone coming back from Hajj, what would they have learned or gained from the experience?

A: Well, in terms of gains, it’s mentioned that when the person returns from the hajj, having performed it according to it requirements, one returns with a completely clean slate; all of his or her previous sins are forgiven.

But one also attains many spiritual benefits. There is a deep experience of being close to God when one is performing the Hajj, and this is an irreplaceable experience; it’s not gained by some other means.

So I think people owe it to themselves to make this trip at least once in a life time.

It is also an accomplishment of duty; one feels satisfied that this is a requirement of Islam and one of its pillars and I have fulfilled it.

Host: Thank you for your time brother Shabir.

Dr. Shabir: You’re welcome.