By: Alexander Khaleeli
In some time and place, a man dons a clean, simple travelling robe. He gathers his provisions for the road together in a backpack and bids farewell to his family, knowing that he will not see them for many weeks, months, perhaps even years, or perhaps - if something should happen to him on the way - never again. The man picks up his prayer beads and walking staff and steps out of his home, perhaps joining a stream of others just like him or perhaps utterly alone. With this step, he has begun a journey that will take him across great distances. Maybe he is a medieval English Christian on his way to Canterbury, a Japanese Shintoist visiting the 88 temples of Shikoku, or a lover coming, in quiet, tearful remembrance, to the grave of the beloved.
The act of pilgrimage, of travelling to a place of great spiritual significance, permeates human existence across cultures. It is a journey whose destination is nothing less than the transcendent itself, and whatever their exact significance we believe that these places we visit are where our mundane world meets a supernatural one. These places are frequently imbued with great historical importance as well and by visiting them we affirm our faith in the events, the people and, ultimately, the meaning with which they imbue our existence as human beings. Pilgrimage, then, is as much a spiritual journey as it is a physical one.
According to the Qur'an, the Ka'ba was the first house of worship to be raised for mankind (Qur'an 3:96) and so the first place of pilgrimage for them to visit. As a result, its history as a religious site, the rituals associated with it and its landmarks, are all deeply symbolic of mankind's innate relationship with God as expressed in the various covenants He has made through his prophets. By traversing its landscape and performing its rites we are connected to the first prophet, Adam, to the forefather of the modern monotheistic faiths, Abraham, and his son, Ishmael, and to the latter's descendent, the final prophet, Muhammad(s). It is the original pilgrimage from which all others are derived. By bringing together people from the farthest reaches of the world, the Ka'ba serves not only to unite all the members of the human race with one another, but also the present time with the past and the future, and the human with the divine.
The Hajj symbolises the pre-eternal covenant with God because its centre-piece - the Ka'ba - is, according to the teachings of the Prophet's Household, the earthy representation of God's throne ('arsh) which is both the manifestation of His lordship (rububiyyah)over His creation and the utmost limit of our existence.
The throne is quite literally where our limited world meets the absolute, and our physical journey to the Ka'ba then becomes a symbolic reflection of our spiritual journey to God's throne. This is why when God instructs Abraham 'purify My House' (Qur'an 2:125), He claims ownership of the Ka'ba for Himself (by calling it "My House"), for it marks the very threshold of His transcendence and is a symbol of His mastery and lordship over all Creation. It is to this that we make our pilgrimage. But if Hajj is a journey to God, then we must realise that we cannot reach God except through devoting ourselves to Him; this means freeing ourselves from everything that connects us to this world and its pleasures, save that which is absolutely essential and dedicating everything we do to Him, seeking only his pleasure.
This process of detachment begins before we even leave our home; we are supposed to ensure that all of our debts have been paid and that our dependents have provision enough until we return, so that there is nothing (not even a worry!) to tie us to this world and hold us back from giving ourselves fully to God. Then, once we arrive at the miqat (Hajj stations), we complete this transformation by bathing ourselves and donning the ihram (pilgrim's robes), which symbolises our shedding the trappings of our worldly life, cleansing ourselves of its pollution, and returning to our natural state - the state of purity and tawhid (monotheism) in which we were created. Our complete detachment from the world is reflected in the fact that we are prohibited from hunting, sexual intercourse and disputation - everything we do and everything that we are must be turned towards God alone.
Freed from the fetters in which we dress ourselves, the rituals of Hajj commence. Hajj represents perfect obedience to God ('ubudiyyah) because it involves the performance of acts whose spiritual significance is hidden from the intellect; we can only know the purpose of these rituals from the Lawgiver Himself. Unlike the acts of prayer, fasting or charity, whose meaning our mind can at least partially discern, the meaning of the Hajj rituals - running between the hills of Safa and Marwa, stoning the pillars at Mina, standing on the plain of Arafat - is lost to us.
But a true servant obeys his master without asking why - the question we are so used to asking in worldly matters and religious ones - and does as he is bid without needing to understand the purpose of his master's instructions. So by performing these rituals, ignorant as we are of their ultimate significance, we demonstrate our absolute dedication to God and complete submission to him. In doing so, we go against our worldly habits and our worldly nature; our need to understand the practical reason for everything we do. In doing so, we break the psychological hold that the world has over us and turn our minds from the rational to the supra-rational, from the mundane to the divine, and from the material to the spiritual; we open our minds to God and place ourselves completely in His power. At this moment we are completely receptive to Him and thus ready for Him to transform us however He wills.
It is no accident that when we look at the rituals of the Hajj, we find a symbolic connection between them and the story of Abraham, when he willingly offered his eldest son, Ishmael, as a sacrifice to God. When we stone the devils at Mina, we must remember Abraham as he threw stones at Satan when he appeared to him in this place and tried to cast doubt into his mind. Neither Abraham nor Ishmael knew the purpose for which God had asked him to offer up his son, only that it was their duty to submit to God: 'When he was old enough to assist in his endeavour, he said, 'My son! I see in a dream that I am sacrificing you. See what you think.' He said, 'Father! Do whatever you have been commanded. If Allah wishes, you will find me to be patient' (Qur'an 71:102).
It was after Abraham(a) had demonstrated this complete and utter devotion to his Lord that God raised him up to the highest level: 'And when his Lord tested Abraham with certain words, and he fulfilled them, He said, 'I am making you the leader of mankind' (Qur'an 2:124) and ompleted His covenant with him.
So when we set out on our journey to Makkah, we too must cultivate this level of devotion and sacrifice to God, mentally preparing ourselves to offer everything we have to him and to spend our lives in his service. It is not the physical journey to Makkah alone that accomplishes this, any more than it is the bodies of the sacrificial animals that God receives - 'It is not their flesh or their blood that reaches Allah. Rather it is your God-consciousness that reaches Him', (Qur'an 22:37) - rather what accomplishes this is our sincere intention to attain nearness to Him. Our physical journey to Makkah must be a manifestation of this inner state of devotion. Then, and only then, will we have realised the pure monotheism of Abraham(a) - the monotheism which pervades the entire universe and lies at the very core of human existence.
Originally published in islam today magazine UK, Vol. 1 No. 12 | October 2013. It has been republished here with permission.