The pilgrimage itself is truly unique and to make it with more than a million other people from all four corners of the earth is overwhelming
It's that time of the year again when Muslims from all over the world heading off to Makkah for Haj -- the annual pilgrimage. I went last year and I, to date, reminisce about the ineffable moments of this momentous journey.
Haj is no ordinary journey. It is a voyage to the land of the Prophets of God: To trace their footsteps and connect our future with their past. For most of the pilgrims, it is the greatest expedition of their life and in many ways Haj is a metaphor for life because pilgrims experience numerous emotions, deep feelings of joy and euphoria coupled with exhaustion, fear and trepidation. As they encounter the challenges of the rites and feel the relief on completion of these and experience birth; rebirth and death; the poor become rich; the proud are humbled; hearts are purified and all egos are diminished in a sea of humanity where there is no distinction in terms of race, class, status, wealth and privilege. All that matters is their relationship with their Creator and the desperate need for His mercy, forgiveness and compassion.
Haj is the fifth pillar of Islam which takes place in Dhul Hijjah, the 12th month of the Islamic lunar calendar. It is an obligation that every sane, adult Muslim should fulfil at least once in their lives, if they can afford to and are physically able. For a Muslim, this pilgrimage to Makkah is the zenith of a lifetime of one's relationship with God.
Like all acts of worship in Islam, Haj begins with a pure intention -- that is to seek God's pleasure and to submit to His command. In fact, the word 'Muslim' means one who has submitted to God; therefore, 'Islam' is the religion of submission.
A journey like this is unique in itself, but to make it with more than a million other people from all four corners of the earth -- comprising all races, languages, ethnicities, a multitude of cultures -- is overwhelming. This sea of humanity, so disparate in appearance and background, is totally unified as all share the same sense of purpose and aspiration. It is this experience of unity, fraternity and mutual love that is perhaps one of the miracles of the journey of Haj. Seeing Muslims of every colour and background, speaking different languages and following varied customs would normally be rather unconventional, but during Haj, the crowd regulates itself. To me, it feels like the actualisation of the Prophet's words: "You do not believe until you love for others what you love for yourself," with the "others" referring to all of humanity despite religious and cultural backgrounds.
Two aspects stand out in the minds of most observers and participants of the pilgrimage. The first is the simple garb of the pilgrim -- all attending, whether prince or pauper, black or white, wear the same attire. This oneness of dress shows us the true oneness of humanity. Historian Arnold Toynbee said in Civilisation on Trial: "The extinction of race consciousness as between Muslims is one of the outstanding achievements of Islam and in the contemporary world there is, as it happens, a crying need for the propagation of this Islamic virtue." This unity led Malcolm X to remark: "They were of all colours, from blue-eyed blondes to black-skinned Africans. But we were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experience in America had led me to believe never could exist between the white and non-white." It is for this reason that social status and racial superiority are meaningless for a Muslim.
The second aspect of Haj is the day of Arafah, when every pilgrim gathers at the plain of Arafah from sunrise to sunset. Here they beseech forgiveness from God and ask for success in this world and the next. If the pilgrimage is sincere, then the pilgrim returns from the day of Arafah free from sin, having attained the ultimate reward of forgiveness. Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) asserted: "Whoever completes a righteous pilgrimage, he will return back as the day his mother gave birth to him." Prophet Mohammad's (PBUH) sermon on the Day of Arafah was a manifesto of justice and unity. It was enshrined with a myriad of important principles where he established the importance of treating women equally and that all differences between humanity are trivial.
What is more, this tradition instructs Muslims how to implement the verse from Chapter 49 of Quran: 'O mankind! We have created you from a single male and a female and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know one another. Verily, the most honourable of you with Allah is the one of the most righteous hearts.' The 'knowing one another' that is referred to here is the embracing of the diversity of humanity as a blessing from God and the acceptance that true belief is to treat all others as one would want to be treated themselves regardless of their background and belonging.
Today, as parts of the Muslim world are engulfed in turmoil; the principles of unity and egalitarianism manifest during the rites of this historic journey should resonate in the lives of Muslims.
This article was first published in the Gulf News on 10 October 2013