“AND proclaim the Pilgrimage (haj) to people. They will come to you . . .
from every deep and distant mountain pass that they may witness manifold
benefits to them and remember God’s name on appointed days for all that He
has provided them.” (The Koran, 22: 27-28.)
This year more than two million Muslims across the globe have responded to
this call. Forty per cent of the pilgrims have come from various parts of
the Arab world, 35 per cent from Asia, 15 per cent from sub- Saharan Africa
and 10 per cent from the West. It is the largest and most culturally diverse
assembly of humanity in one place at any one time.
The haj is the fifth of the five pillars of Islam and refers to the great
pilgrimage to Mecca in modern Saudi Arabia. It takes place during the second
week of Dhul Hijjah, the final month of the Islamic lunar calendar.
More than 22,000 British Muslims have gone to the haj this year, together
with — for the fourth year running — a Foreign Office-sponsored delegation
of eight doctors and two counsellors to provide them with help and support.
Britain was the first Western country to initiate this support for its
Before their departure, the pilgrims have to meet the primary condition for
a haj to be accepted by God, namely the purity of intention (niyyah). Their
pilgrimage must solely be to seek God’s forgiveness and His pleasure.
As the pilgrims made their preparations for the haj, many will also have
made out their wills in case they do not return. Just 50 years ago, it was
common for pilgrims to spend about two months away from home during the haj.
Modern transport facilities mean that the entire visit can now take as
little as seven days.
Before they enter the precincts of the haj, whether by land, sea or air, all
pilgrims need to assume the state of ihram or sanctity. For men this is
symbolised by the wearing of two unsewn pieces of cloth. The ihram of women
is their normal modest dress. The ihram symbolises the equality and humility
of all believers before God regardless of differences in wealth, race,
colour or age.
With their pride and vanity curtailed, all will arrive at the Court of God
as humble supplicants and aware of the worldwide brotherhood of man. The
American Malcolm X, once an advocate of black separatism, said of the haj:
“The pilgrimage to Mecca broadened my scope probably more in 12 days than my
previous experience during my 39 years on this earth.”
>From this time on until the haj is over, the pilgrim concentrates fully on
his devotion to his Creator and engages in the constant practice of dhikr,
the remembrance of the One God.
According to Islam, the haj was originally instituted by the Prophet Abraham
to serve as the focal meeting point for all believers and the centre of the
monotheistic movement. Abraham charged his son Ismail with continuing this
In time, however, Ismail’s descendants corrupted their teachings and
installed hundreds of idols in the Kaaba in Mecca, including idols of
Abraham and Ismail — two men who had devoted their lives towards eradicating
By the time of the Prophet Muhammad in the 7th century CE, the haj had been
distorted into a carnival of singing, drinking, revelry and immoral
activities. But Muhammad had been sent as the fulfilment of Abraham’s
prayer: “Our Sustainer! Send among them a Messenger from among themselves,
who shall rehearse Your messages to them and instruct them in scripture and
wisdom and purify them. You are the Exalted in Might, the Wise.” (The Koran
After abolishing various perverse customs, Muhammad succeeded in restoring
the haj so that it once again became a symbol of God-consciousness,
sacrifice and simplicity. Today’s sequence of rites was completed by
Muhammad shortly before his death and is regarded as a ritual re-enactment
of the faith-testing events in the life of his forefather Abraham, his wife
Hajar, and their son, Ismail.
Last Monday afternoon — the ninth of Dhul Hijjah — saw the pilgrims
streaming out of their tents in their masses on to the plain of Arafat, nine
miles southeast of Makkah. In an immensely moving scene reminiscent of the
Koranic descriptions of the Day of Judgment, they stood repenting for past
sins and, with many reduced to tears, beseeched God for forgiveness for
themselves and their loved ones continuously until sunset.
The haj is an integral part of Islam’s built-in mechanisms for revival and
serves as a huge forum for the worldwide exchange of ideas and knowledge.
The Pakistani Islamic thinker Abul Ala Mawdudi (1903-1979) likened the Kaaba
to “a heart in a man’s body . . . drawing blood from its far off veins and
circulating the blood back into each and every artery . . . As long as the
heart beats, the man cannot die.”
This year the build-up of American forces in the Gulf and an expected
assault on Iraq will also have been on the minds of many of the assembled
Muslims and will have added to the raw emotion felt by them.
At the centre of an event which serves as a potent reminder of Islam’s
unifying power and its ability to mobilise humanity, it is hard not to
regard with incredulity our Government’s claims that a war against Iraq will
serve to reduce tensions and improve global security.
(Inayat Bunglawala is the Media Secretary at the Muslim Council of Britain)