Hajj – a vision of interfaith solidarity

Kaaba - the goal of the Hajj pilgrimageThe Islamic Pilgrimage to Mecca in 2024 occurs from Evening of Friday, 14 June 2024 – Wednesday, 19 June 2024 when Muslims turn to the Kaaba as a common centre point, they are reminded of their sacred bond with the entire human race and their special relationship with the other Abrahamic religions.


Community is a chaotic affair. I love my local Muslim congregation – but sometimes I have the urge to withdraw into my own little bubble and be alone. It isn’t easy to get along with one another, work together and cooperate.

Giving up the ego – the “I” and building up the “we” is complex work, taxing and sometimes disappointing. Working for years as a volunteer at my mosque, I have learnt that there is no perfect community.

Perfection is something reserved for God alone. Community has meant many things to me over the course of my life: my body and my entire being form a micro-community. My family, my neighbourhood, my workplace, my Muslim and my interfaith communities, not to mention Creation – this sacred planet as a whole – are all my community, and I try to maintain healthy relationships with each of these circles.

As the Islamic season of pilgrimage approaches, I am thinking about what it means to be in communion with others, and my mind turns to the holy shrine in Mecca, the Kaaba. With up to three million people per year, the hajj remains humanity’s largest religious gathering.

According to Muslim tradition, the Prophet Abraham and his son Ishmael laid the foundations of monotheism in this ancient land.

 

The hajj is a huge logistical undertaking
The hajj is a huge logistical undertaking for Saudi Arabia (image: Amr Nabil/AP Photo/picture-alliance)

Sibling relationship with the Abrahamic religions

In the past Muslim scholars have even put forward the view that angels prepared the first house of God for the arrival of mankind, or that the Prophet Adam – the father of all mankind – did this.

Today, when two billion Muslims worldwide turn to the Kaaba as their common centre point five times a day for their prayers, they are reminded of their sacred bond with the entire human race, and of their special sibling relationship with the Abrahamic religions. This strengthens them in their commitment to live a life that accords with God’s vision and guidance for humanity.

As Muslims attest, despite all modern comforts, making a pilgrimage to Mecca is still a very taxing physical and emotional challenge. Finding your bearings in a very crowded space with millions of people from every layer of society is, in practice, no easy undertaking. But despite all the trials, it is possible to move forward together.

What traits are required of everyone for this to succeed in peace and harmony? I fall back on some of the timeless virtues to navigate my way through the overwhelming crowd of people.

These qualities have stood the test of time and are of universal value in community: love, compassion, empathy, respect, selflessness, willingness to make sacrifices, kindness, meekness, patience, forgiveness, humility, curiosity, openness, simplicity, frugality, adaptability and flexibility.

 

Husband and wife at Mecca taking a selfie
Religious joy: an experience that must be captured and recorded. For many Muslims the pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia is the crowning moment of their faith. It is the religious duty of every Muslim to carry out the hajj – a journey that lasts several days – at least once in their lives, providing the individual is in good health and can afford to do it. Saudi Arabia is responsible for organising the pilgrimage

Growing in humanity

Despite all the hurdles that communal life brings with it, you cannot escape its beauty. It is still human connections that bring out the best in us – and, unfortunately, also the worst. Virtues are not cultivated in a vacuum, but through fostering social connections.

How can I show love, compassion, patience, forgiveness, humility and curiosity if I don’t engage in human encounters? They allow me to deepen my self-knowledge and grow in my own humanity. God – the host of the hajj – bids us all welcome: the fallible, the weak, the needy, the imperfect. With all our faults, we are embraced by God’s holy and merciful presence.

God assures us that we can be both, a perfect masterpiece and an incomplete artwork. If God accepts us with our innate weaknesses and our failings, can we not accept and be more satisfied with one another?

 

Crowds at Mecca
High-tech support: in response to the fatal accidents, Saudi Arabia has tightened security procedures. These include the introduction of electronic wristbands to identify each individual worshipper in the crowd. The wristbands will store personal data including health details and location, as well as inform pilgrims about prayer times

We are one human family

Here on the pilgrimage – a rehearsal for the Day of Judgement, in which all human souls will gather together – age, sex, wealth, titles and rank play no role. “Here I am, here I am, oh my Lord,” the pilgrims declare constantly. “I have nothing to offer, but here I am.”

And God says, according to the Koran (Surah 35, 15), “O humanity! It is you who stand in need of Allah; as for Allah, He is Self-Sufficient, Immensely Praiseworthy.” Here we are all the same, as one prophetic saying tells us: Certainly, God looks neither on your bodies nor on your appearance. Rather, He looks into your hearts and on your deeds.

As with all religious rituals, there is also always the danger that they become empty and meaningless. The hajj was named one of the most important pillars of Islam for good reason. It offers immense wisdom and continues to have a deep influence on the hearts of people. Malcolm X’s moving letter from the hajj is evidence of how radically this religious ritual can change a person’s mindset.

If you undertake this spiritual journey in good faith, you can undergo a deep change. The hajj is an unusual testimony to the fact that humanity is fundamentally one family. Every single person is sacred.

God lends every individual honour and dignity, as the Koran (Surah 17, verse 70) emphasises: “Verily we have honoured the Children of Adam. We carry them on the land and the sea, and have made provision of good things for them, and have preferred them above many of those whom We created with a marked preferment.” If God has equipped humans with dignity, how can we then humiliate and exclude one another? How can we prove ourselves worthy of our Creator and honour this contract of community? Migration, movement and mobility are part of our spiritual DNA. No one will linger eternally on this earth.

 

Influx of visitors to Mecca

Saudi Arabia is expecting a massive influx of Muslim pilgrims from all over the world for the hajj. Some 2.5 million Muslims attended in 2023, which was a record (image: Amr Nabil/AP/picture alliance)

The essential thing on life’s journey

“In this world, be a stranger or a traveller,” recommends another prophetic saying. This suggests a paradoxical state: being at home in any strange place, treating everyone with respect, but never really completely belonging anywhere.

Humanity is therefore called upon to cultivate healthy relationships, treat the planet with respect and care, concentrate on what is essential on life’s journey, and to leave behind a lasting spiritual or moral legacy.

In this spirit, the Muslim theologian Bediuzzaman Said Nursi encourages his fellow humans to emulate the living role model of creation, the world’s ecosystem: we should approach one another openly and get to know people (Arabic: tearuf); we must join forces (teanuk); support one another (tesanud); tend to the needs of others (tecavub); and help one another (teavun).

 

Construction at Mecca
A major economic endeavour: view of Mecca during the hajj. For Saudi Arabia, the pilgrimage to Mecca generates billions in revenue every year (image: picture-alliance/AA/R. Turgut)

Overcoming the spiritual illnesses of our age

At our core, we are social creatures, closely tied to and interwoven with one another. When we look in solidarity at the Kaaba, we renew our promise to abide by this sacred contract of community: we will strive to overcome ethnic, national, political and social dividing lines and constructed labels.

Together, we will try to eliminate the spiritual illnesses of our age. Egotism, racism, sexism, materialism and all forms of injustice are destructive and have no place in our world.

In global unity, we will work to maintain this sacred planet. If we support each other on this communal journey through life, we will not only grow and mature as a community, but also reach our ultimate goal in peace and safety.

Zeyneb Sayilgan

© Qantara.de 2024

Zeyneb Sayilgan is an Islamic Studies scholar at the Institute for Islamic, Christian and Jewish Studies in Baltimore. She was born in Mainz to Kurdish-Muslim migrants from Turkey, grew up in Germany and has lived in the USA since 2006. Her work has appeared in journals such as DIALOG, Religion News Service, Covenant, U.S. Catholic, and German media such as MIGAZIN and Islamische Zeitung.

 

Circunambulating Kaaba
Anti-clockwise: the final destination on the pilgrimage is the holy city of Mecca. All worshippers visit the Grand Mosque in the Saudi Arabian city. In the inner courtyard of the mosque is the Kaaba, the “House of God”, in the form of a black cube. The pilgrims circle the Kaaba seven times, always in an anti-clockwise direction

 


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