Haj beyond rituals

Updated September 11, 2015


The writer is a freelance contributor with an interest in cultures and religion.
The writer is a freelance contributor with an interest in cultures and religion.

Haj is an important Muslim religious practice performed by millions every year by travelling to Makkah to participate in certain rituals during the month of Zilhaj. The purpose of the pilgrimage is to go beyond the rituals so that Haj transforms individual and communal lives.

In one saying attributed to the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), Haj has been termed as an opportunity for devoted individuals to start a new life by reflecting on their past and setting new goals for life. Similarly, many scholars have seen the rituals of Haj as a means to expand the horizons of the spiritual, moral and social aspects of life.

For example, Nasir Khusraw, an 11th-century Muslim thinker, poet and traveller, who performed Haj not less than four times, gives a very deep interpretation of the rituals of Haj. In one of his Persian poems, he engages in a dialogue with a person who has just come from Haj; he leads the readers gradually to the spiritual dimension of the pilgrimage.

According to Nasir Khusraw, when a haji puts on the ihram, he/she needs to avoid everything, except the thought of Allah. When one calls out ‘Labbaik’, it should be done so with knowledge as was done by Prophet Ibrahim during the inspiring dialogue with Allah.

Brotherhood is one of the important messages of Haj.

He further says that slaughtering a lamb in memory of Prophet Ibrahim’s sacrifice symbolises the slaughtering of the nafs — which means to control one’s worldly wishes and lusts. When one is on the plains of Arafat, it should remind him or her of the supreme surrender, as with Prophet Ibrahim who was willingly going to sacrifice his son.

Furthermore, Nasir Khusraw asserts that when one stones the pillars symbolising the devil in Mina, it is akin to purging the evils inside oneself and promising to avoid them. The sacrifice of animals and feeding the needy and orphans also symbolises the killing of selfishness.

The ritual of the seven circumambulations, or tawaf, around the Kaaba should remind the pilgrim of the angels who constantly circumambulate the arsh, or divine throne. And the sa’y, or running between the hillocks of Safa and Marwa, means to sanctify and purify one’s life. Finally, the departure from Makkah should be like death, because it symbolises the return from Haj.

According to Nasir Khusraw if one does not understand the spiritual dimension of Haj it becomes a ceremonial exercise. He says: “Oh friend, if you don’t understand the inner meaning of the Haj then you went to Makkah and visited the Kaaba, spent your money and bought the hardship of the desert.” The above message by the great scholar reminds us that Haj is not only about performing rituals; rather, it should be a transformative experience that changes our lives so that we play a positive role in society.

Haj is not only meant to transform personal life; rather, it also gives a very significant message to transform social and communal life by promoting the values of peace and harmony, brotherhood and equality.

It is evident from Islamic teachings that any kind of killing and violence are prohibited on the premises of the Kaaba. This indicates respect for life on earth. Today, many Muslim societies are facing the challenges of terrorism and violence and many innocent people are killed for no reason. Haj is a good opportunity for Muslims to reflect on how to adopt the Islamic message of peace and harmony in their respective societies.

Brotherhood is also one of the important messages of Haj. Millions of Muslims from around the world perform the pilgrimage together in a spirit of brotherhood and community. However, today many Muslim societies are facing conflicts within or with others for different reasons. Such political or sectarian conflicts sometimes lead to hostility within Muslim societies and affect the lives of the people in many ways. Learning from the message of Haj, Muslims need to reflect on how to resolve their differences peacefully by enhancing the message of brotherhood.

Equality is another important message of Haj. During the pilgrimage there is no difference of race, geography and gender. Haj is obligatory for both males and females, who perform it together. However, in many Muslim societies the gender gap is quite evident in different spheres of life such as education, health, politics and development. Hence, Muslims need to learn from the message of Haj in order overcome different forms of inequality in their respective societies.

In sum, Haj forwards a significant message to transform different aspects of individual and communal lives. It is important to understand that Haj is not just an event to perform rituals; rather, it demands a proactive approach to bring about changes in one’s spiritual and social life by promoting the universal message of inner and outer peace, brotherhood and equality.

The writer is a freelance contributor with an interest in cultures and religion.


Published in Dawn, September 11th, 2015

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