Hajj is a religious pilgrimage during which Muslims from literally every corner of the globe travel to Makkah, Saudi Arabia. It is the world’s largest gathering of people, with close to 3 million people attending each year.
In Islam, it is compulsory for Muslims to make the pilgrimage to Mecca once in a lifetime, if they are physically and financially able to do so. For many modern societies, religious practices are alien. In fact, to a largely secular world, a religious pilgrimage is likely to be seen as a foreign concept. But for Muslims the pilgrimage to Mecca is a revered and much longed for trip; it is a retreat from the hustle-and-bustle of daily life, an opportunity to remove themselves from daily chores and connect with others who share their faith from across the globe, and more importantly, an opportunity to spend time in communal and individual contemplation and prayer in an attempt to draw closer to their Creator.
Similar to most spiritual journeys in other religious traditions, Hajj consists of a combination of spiritual and physical endurances. It involves a lot walking and physical movement, which can be a trial in itself for those unaccustomed to the scorching Arabian heat (which is especially intense when Hajj falls in the summer months). But this physical exertion is often dwarfed by the emotional and spiritual challenges posed by leaving behind one’s family and loved ones, travelling across the world, and undertaking an act of worship designed to purify the soul of sin and reconnect with the Lord.
In a state of spiritual splendour, Muslims perform various rituals including standing in prayer, reciting the Glorious Qur’an and circulating the Ka’bah, the tall, awe inspiring cube shaped structure, draped in a spectacular black and golden cloth, that Muslims face towards when they perform their five daily prayers.
Hajj is of huge symbolic and practical importance, and forms one of the 5 pillars of the Islamic faith. It reinforces the concept that all people are equal in the eyes of their Lord. During the Hajj, irrespective of background, skin colour, social class and age, Muslims cover themselves in the prescribed two plain pieces of white cloth which they are required to don for the event in a symbol of uniformity and equality. They sleep in open ground under the clear desert sky. At this point it is irrelevant whether one ordinarily resides in a mud hut in Africa where he clothes himself in simple rags, or whether his usual abode is a mansion in London which is filled with priceless heirlooms and suits from Saville Row; the two extremes and all those in between are indistinguishable from each other and are equally worthy of their Lord’s devotion and forgiveness.
One cannot put into words the emotional roller-coaster that is experienced during the performance of the various aspects of Hajj. The first British woman to perform Hajj, Lady Evelyn Cobbold, described in 1934 the feelings pilgrims experience during the wuquf at Ara’fat. “It would require a master pen to describe the scene, poignant in its intensity, of that great concourse of humanity of which I was one small unit, completely lost to their surroundings in fervour of religious enthusiasm. Many of the pilgrims had tears streaming down their cheeks; others raised their faces to the starlit sky that had witnessed this drama so often in the past centuries. The shining eyes, the passionate appeals, the pitiful hands outstretched in prayer moved me in a way that nothing had ever done before, and I felt caught up in a strange wave of spiritual exaltation. I was one with rest of the pilgrims in a sublime act of complete surrender to the Supreme Will which is Islam.” [Pilgrimage to Mecca]
During the Hajj, memories of the beginning of humanity are also evoked. Muslims gather on the planes of Arafat, where they believe Prophet Adam, the first man to walk the Earth, and his wife Eve first met. Muslim retrace the footsteps of not only Prophet Muhammad but also Prophet Abraham, who is revered by Muslims, Jews and Christians alike. The rites of Hajj therefore predate Islam, as they originate from Abraham, whose inspirational story can be found in the Bible as well as in the Glorious Qur’an.
Hajj is a time when Muslims come together to reflect upon themselves and others around them, and leave with a renewed vigour for self and community improvement. They leave the cities of the Ka’ba and the blessed Prophet (peace be upon him) with hope and joy, for they have fulfilled God’s injunction to humankind to undertake the pilgrimage. The Prophet has given glad tidings to such pilgrims by saying: “There is no reward for a pious pilgrimage but Paradise.” [Tirmidhi]
By Dr Qari Muhammad Asim MBE
Senior Imam, Makkah Masjid Leeds