Hajj is a religious pilgrimage during which Muslims from every corner of the globe travel to Mecca, 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, 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 journey; it is a retreat from the hustle-and-bustle of daily life, an opportunity to 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.
Hajj consists of a combination of spiritual and physical endurances. But the physical exertion is often dwarfed by the emotional 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, reconnect with the Lord and embrace humanity.
Empathising with others is one of the keys aspects of Hajj. Pilgrims, irrespective of background, skin colour, social class and age, 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. This year, whilst sleeping in open ground under the clear desert sky, the Pilgrims are likely to be remembering the millions of Syrians and others displaced from their homes, sleeping in open ground either in the deserts of the Middle East or by the rail tracks of Europe.
The concept of embracing 'strangers' and those 'strangers' going on to become contributing agents for positive change in their host countries, working side by side with the indigenous populations to grow, is epitomised by the family of Prophet Abraham.
During the Hajj, Muslim retraces the footsteps of not only Prophet Muhammad but also Prophet Abraham, who is revered by Muslims, Jews and Christians alike. Prophet Abraham's story is particularly relevant to the events that we see unfolding in the world today. He left his native city in Mesopotamia after voicing opposition to the political elite of his homeland, and eventually settled in Egypt with his family. Later, he took his wife, Hajar, and their infant son Ishmail, to a desolate valley in Arabia and left them there.When their provisions ran out, Hajar began searching the surrounding land for food and water to feed her baby son.
This situation is akin to the current refugee crisis, in which hundreds and thousands of mothers are searching for food and drink for their children. During this search, a spring, named ZamZam, miraculously gushed forth to quench their thirst. When passing traders stopped in the valley and asked Hajar's permission to use the water, she granted them permission to use the resources that belonged to her and welcomed those 'strangers' into her city. Due to this welcoming gesture, the traders decided to settle in the little valley, and eventually contributed to the economic growth of the city, which has come to be known as Mecca.
The journey undertaken by Abraham and his family is reminiscent of that currently being taken by refugees from Syria and its surrounding areas towards Europe. Their flight from persecution and conflict to safety and security is not dissimilar to the flight of Prophet Abraham, who first sought sanctuary in Egypt and then in the deserts of Arabia. The generosity and welcome he was met with have undoubtedly played a part in shaping the history of the three great monotheist faiths; Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Similarly, there is no doubt that Europe's response to the current plight of refugees will shape the future of many generations to come. Just as the Arabs benefitted from the spring of water that sprung forth for Hajar and her baby, and are still enjoying that water today, so too will Europe and other nations that open their borders to the refugees reap the rewards for generations to come if they are able to successfully welcome those in need of help.