By: Dr. Ahmad Shafaat
Muslims from all over the world come to Makkah (or Mecca, as it is less accurately spelled in English) for the annual pilgrimage known as hajj. Most people in the world know about this pilgrimage. In fact, in many languages, including English, Makkah has become synonymous with a place to which one turns, or yearns to go to, or is visited by many people. One often hears about such and such a place being a mecca for such and such a group of people.
HISTORY OF MAKKAH
Makkah is one of the oldest cities of the world. Babylonians living around 2000 BC knew about it. Both the Islamic tradition and the pre-Islamic Arab tradition link many of the sacred sites in Makkah to the Patriarch Abraham, his second wife Hagar and his elder son Ishmael, who are also estimated to have lived around 2000 B.C. Makkah is thus, at least, 4000 years old. But it seems that the city is much older. One of the sacred sites in the city, 'Arafat, is linked by tradition not with Abraham but with Adam and Eve who are said to have met there after a long period of separation caused by the "fall". The Qur'an also says:
"Verily, the first house (of worship) built for the people was in Bakkah" (i.e. Makkah)(1)
Since probably there existed houses of worship before Abraham, a strict interpretation of these words would mean that Makkah and some of its sacred sites are older than the times of even this ancient patriarch and prophet. It is interesting that when referring to sacred sites in Makkah and the pilgrimage, the Qur'an often talks about nas (mankind, people). This is probably because even before the (Qur'anic) Islam the shrine in Makkah was visited not only by people of Arabia but also by other neighboring nations such as the Babylonians, Ethiopians, Egyptians and Hebrews. If Makkah and some of its sacred sites existed before Abraham with their sacred character in different measure recognized by various nations living in and around the Arabian peninsula, then this would explain better why Abraham (a Hebrew) and Hagar (an Egyptian) took their son, born after many years of desire and waiting on the part of Abraham, and headed towards Makkah. Once Abraham's link was established with Makkah, he exerted a decisive influence on the religious tradition connected with it. He, with the help of his son, is said to have built or rebuilt the sacred house in Makkah which, because of its cubical shape, is known as the Ka'bah(2). There is also a site that marks the place where Abraham began the sacrifice of his son Ishmael who was later substituted by a ram. Three pillars mark the three failed attempts by the devil to dissuade Abraham from this supreme sacrifice.
For a long time no buildings were erected near the cubical structure. Only a relatively short time before the Prophet Muhammad (probably in the time of Qusayy ibn Kilab, a pre-Islamic Makkan leader) did people start living near the Ka'bah. Even then the houses built were round shaped, to avoid any likeness to the Ka'bah, and their heights were kept low in comparison to the height of the sacred house. With the arrival of Prophet Muhammad, who was born in Makkah from among the descendants of Abraham, Hagar and Ishmael, the history of Makkah and indeed of Arab people took a giant leap forward. Guided and inspired by the Qur'an and the Prophet's life, the Arabs became the initial builders of a world civilization whose brilliance has rarely been matched in history. And in this civilization, which, within 100 years of the Prophet's death, encompassed most of the then known world, Makkah naturally occupied a unique position. It became one of the world's holiest cities, while the Ka'bah became the holiest shrine in the world, in the sense that no other shrine is, or has been, the object of so much religious attention and sentiment by so many people as is the Ka'bah.
THE RITES OF HAJJ
The pilgrimage to Makkah or the Hajj, as established by the Prophet Muhammad and now performed by the Muslims every year, consists primarily of seven rites:
1) The wearing of ihram or the pilgrim garment before entering certain points definitely fixed on all the roads to Makkah. For men ihram consists of two unsown white pieces of cloth. Women can wear any clothes, preferably of white color.
2) Circumambulation of the Ka'bah with the kissing of the Black Stone, if possible. The Black Stone, which is built into two adjacent walls of the Ka'bah and thus appears in one of the vertical sides of the cubical structure, is probably one of the stones used in one of the earliest constructions of the shrine.
3) Prayer at a place near the Ka'bah, called the Station of Abraham, followed by running (sa'y) between two hillocks called safa and marwa. The prayer at the station of Abraham commemorates building of the Ka'bah while running between safa and marwa remembers Hagar's search for water after her arrival in Makkah with her child Ishmael and husband Abraham.
4) Listening, on a fixed date, to a sermon, in which an exposition of the meaning of hajj is given.
5) Visit to, and an overnight stay in, the valley of Mina (about six miles north of Makkah) followed by a visit to the plain and hill of 'Arafat (about five miles further north), which commemorates the reunion of Adam and Eve after their separate wondering.
6) Sacrifice of an animal, in commemoration of Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Ishmael and his actual sacrifice of a ram that God substituted for Ishmael after Abraham passed the test for his love of God.
7) Casting stones at the pillars representing three attempts by the devil at dissuading Abraham from sacrificing Ishmael to God.
THE MEANING OF HAJJ
Hajj is like a short intensive course in which the basic teachings of Islam are presented to a world-wide gathering of Muslims. The instructions in this course, however, is not given through lectures but through symbols and rituals. A divinely written drama is staged in which every pilgrim participates as an actor and through this participation learns the basic message of Islam.
The message has three parts:
1) A relationship with God built through surrender to His will and prayer and other ways of remembering Him (dhikr).
2) Love and brotherhood among people manifested in acts of sacrifice for the benefit of others.
3) Struggle, which is of two types: struggle to fulfill basic material and psychological needs of at least oneself and one's family and struggle against all forms of evil.
Tawaf or circumambulation of the Ka'bah symbolizes the first part of the Islamic message. The notion of going around an axis symbolizes surrender or commitment. This notion around the vertical axis which starts from the Ka'bah, the early house of God, and reaches into the heavens, to the heavenly "Seat of God" ('arsh) signifies surrender to God which is the first and biggest step in building a relationship with God. Prayers and dhikr throughout the hajj further develop this relationship.
Love and brotherhood of people is taught throughout the hajj. The coming together of so many people (about 1.5 to 2 million) from all nations and races of the world itself makes the point that human beings belong to a single brotherhood. The pilgrim garment, ihram, makes the point further. Dress often signifies a person's nationality, race, social position, etc. and by changing into a uniform and simple dress the pilgrims learn that the distinctions made by such appearances as dress are superficial and that underneath these distinctions of nationality, race, social position, etc. we all share a far more important thing, our humanity.
Stay in 'Arafat also symbolizes brotherhood of humankind. 'Arafat is the place where Adam and Eve met after being separated by the "fall". A stay in 'Arafat means that all human beings are children of the same parents and belong to one and the same family. They have come to meet together in the same place where once their original parents met. Sacrifice in Mina on the 'Id day means that surrender to God and love and brotherhood among people are not to remain mere sentiments. They are to be translated into deeds by sacrificing, for the benefit of others and for the pleasure of God, something that we hold dear. Sa'y or running between safa and marwa is part of the third lesson of Islam, namely, that this world is a place of struggle. Sa'y is an enactment of Hagar's search for water in the desert. It teaches that men and women, must strive to take care of the needs of their families and their own. Sa'y is thus a reminder that the surrender to God learnt through tawaf or circumambulation of the Ka'bah is not a passive surrender, but one which goes hand in hand with effort. To surrender, in other words, means to depend on God's grace, a part of which consists of giving us the ability to make the right kind of efforts and then blessing those efforts with the right results.
Rami jumrat or stoning of the three manifestations of the devil indicates the second, more important type of struggle, i.e. struggle against powers of evil, both within man's own self and in the society. It is noteworthy that while tawaf, stay at 'Arafat, sa'y, etc. are one-time actions, rami or stoning is done three times, on three separate days. This is because while people can relatively easily learn the need to surrender to God, to love one's fellow human beings and to take care of their needs, they usually hate to strive against evil, because such striving can often threaten our wealth and lives, to which we love to cling.
There are also many, many other details about hajj, full of meaning, that we cannot deal with in this short article. All praise is due to God, the Lord of the Universes.
1) In ancient Arabic dialects the sounds "b" and "m" were interchangeable, so that Makkah was also sometimes called Bakkah. The Qur'an uses here the archaic Bakkah instead of the more usual Makkah in order to emphasize the very ancient character of the city.
2) The Ka'bah is not strictly a cube. Its base is more or less a square but its height is double the length of any side of the square that forms its base.