Hundreds of Minnesota Muslims are currently in Saudi Arabia to perform the Hajj as part of the several thousand strong contingent from the United States. Hajj is the fifth pillar of Islam and is a religious obligation that must be performed at least once in a person’s lifetime if one is financially and physically capable.
My wife and I went to the Hajj in 2012. I clearly remember the excitement I felt about undertaking the journey of a lifetime, about which so many Muslims dream. One of the realizations I had after deciding to do the Hajj was that I was in fact preparing to walk into the footsteps of not only Prophet Muhammad but also into the footsteps of Prophet Abraham. I simply cannot describe my feelings when this realization dawned upon me.
Abraham is considered a monotheist par excellence and the Qur’an accords him the title of Khaleelullah – a friend of God. The Qur’an, time and again, mentions Abraham as a way to highlight the monotheism that he practiced and to encourage Jews, Christians, and Muslims to follow his way.
“And who is better in religion than one who submits himself to God while being a doer of good and follows the religion of Abraham, inclining toward truth? And God took Abraham as an intimate friend.” (Qur’an 4:125)
As we reached the city of Mecca, I could only think of how this once-barren stretch of land with its harsh climate is now teeming with millions of people coming to commemorate Abraham and his family’s struggles and their perfect dedication and devotion to God.
Abraham is said to have left his wife Hagar and his first-born son Ishmael in Mecca at God’s command. In order to find water for Ishmael, Hagar ran between the two hills called Safa and Marwa seven times. As she sat exhausted after a futile search, Angel Gabriel caused a spring to burst forth near her and this is called the Zam Zam spring. Abraham returned to the valley to visit his wife and son and, according to historical accounts, Abraham and Ishmael built the sacred Kaba, a cubical structure, as a house of worship of One God.
Before starting the rituals of Hajj, I was dressed in simple two-piece, white garment called Ihram. And so were millions of others around me. My wife and I entered the Haram Al Shareef (the sacred sanctuary) and with great anticipation and trepidation, we set our eyes for the first time in our lives on the Kaba. It was a sight to behold! We simply could not take our eyes off the Kaba, the symbol of pure monotheism. We said our prayers following the tradition of Abraham and Muhammad and set out to do the Tawaf (walking around the Kaba) along with millions of others, all the while reciting praises of God. After the Tawaf, we drank water from the spring of Zam Zam and set out to walk into the footsteps of Hagar by walking between the two hills of Safa and Marwa.
As part of the rituals of Hajj, we encamped in the tent city of Mina for five days. It was like an extreme camping trip. Unmindful of food or comfort, millions of people were focused on their spiritual growth. The trip to the plains of Arafat, which Muslims believe will be the place where the Day of Judgment will be established, was just surreal. The whole area was covered with pilgrims praying to God in the most amazing expression of submission and sincerity.
Abraham was tested by God in profound ways. Ishmael and Issac were born when he was very old. He was tested further when he was asked by God to sacrifice his son Ishmael. The absolute Muslim (one who submitted to God) that he was, he set out to fulfill God’s command. According to Islamic historical sources, Satan tried to dissuade him from obeying God three times before he reached his destination. At each of these three places, Abraham is said to have thrown pebbles at Satan to reject his temptations. As Abraham was ready to sacrifice his son, God replaced him with a ram and elevated Abraham’s stature forever.
From the tents of Mina, millions of pilgrims walk a few miles to reach the place where there are three pillars a few meters apart from each other. These signify the locations that Satan tried to sway Abraham’s resolve. Muslims copy the actions of Abraham and throw small pebbles at these three pillars to symbolically reject Satan and his insinuations. It is a tradition to sacrifice a lamb or goat (or a cow or camel) to follow and honor Abraham’s example, which since has become an Islamic ritual for all Muslims for all times to come.
After finishing Hajj, I felt closer than ever to Abraham and other prophets of God including Issac, Ishmael, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad (peace be upon them all).
This unique gathering of human family truly signifies the brotherhood and sisterhood of people from every race and nationality. Malcolm X’s words kept ringing in my ears:
“"Never have I witnessed such sincere hospitality and overwhelming spirit of true brotherhood as is practiced by people of all colors and races here in this ancient Holy Land, the home of Abraham, Muhammad and all the other Prophets of the Holy Scriptures. For the past week, I have been utterly speechless and spellbound by the graciousness I see displayed all around me by people of all colors.
"During the past eleven days here in the Muslim world, I have eaten from the same plate, drunk from the same glass, and slept on the same rug - while praying to the same God - with fellow Muslims, whose eyes were the bluest of blue, whose hair was the blondest of blond, and whose skin was the whitest of white. And in the words and in the deeds of the white Muslims, I felt the same sincerity that I felt among the black African Muslims of Nigeria, Sudan and Ghana."
In a world plagued with the cancer of racism, I found the Hajj’s clarion call to efface the artificial distinctions of race, color, nationality, economic background, or any other man-made factor to be a powerful motivator. The takeaways from Hajj were far too many and striving to walk into the footsteps of these great messengers of God is by no means an easy task. However, God raises the rank of human beings above the angels precisely because humans have free will and angels don’t. And to utilize their freewill to obey God by choice is the pinnacle of human pursuit.