Certain acts in Islam, considered mandatory, form the foundation of Muslim life. These tenets are known as the five pillars of Islam. One of these tenets is Haj or, the pilgrimage. In the month of Zil Hijjah each year (which is the twelfth and last month of Islamic calendar) millions of pilgrims gather at the city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia to perform the pilgrimage.
As the Islamic calendar is lunar and not tied to the seasons, the Haj can fall during different months. However the Arabian summer is unrelenting for most part of the year.
Each year, millions of Haj pilgrims visit Mecca from all over the world. However, since the outbreak of COVID-19, the Saudi authorities has capped the number of people who can perform Haj. This year, Haj is expected to begin on July 17, 2021, and would host sixty thousand pilgrims from within the Kingdom. This decision from the government is a proactive one. It shall not only mitigate the spread of the pandemic but also ensure the health and safety of the pilgrims.
The spirit of Haj is full of devotion and sacrifice. A pilgrim acknowledges the greatness of God to such an extent that he/she becomes imbued with deep feelings of gratitude, which is manifested through the act of pilgrimage. Historically, the Haj is a re-enactment of the sacrifice of Prophet Abraham, who dedicated his life for the cause of God. His devotion was so deep that he was ready to sacrifice his son for God. Because of his sincerity, God Almighty not only accepted Abraham’s intent as his noble sacrifice, but also made Abraham a guide and treasure of wisdom for generations. (Quran, 37:107-8)
During the pilgrimage, a Haji (the pilgrim) relives the symbolism of events in the life of Prophet Abraham. When going through the rituals of Haj, a pilgrim pledges to dedicate his life to the divine. When a faithful readies himself to go on a pilgrimage, they do so with a devout feeling. When the pilgrim reaches Meeqat, the border of the Sacred Territory, their emotions and feelings are full of awe of God.
The pilgrims gather at Mecca for this profound spiritual experience. They pray together, thus fostering universal love and brotherhood. During the Haj, the most powerful and richest men are indistinguishable from the poorest. All signs of rank, status, wealth, colour, and nationality cease to exist. One of the other obligations of Haj is that all the pilgrims should wrap themselves in a special garment in the form of unsewn cloth, called Ihram.
For men, it consists of two pieces of white fabric, one wrapped around the waist and the other dragged over the right shoulder, while for women they are only required to dress modestly and leave their face and hands uncovered.
The adoption of these garments by all pilgrims creates a powerful image of unity, reinforcing the spiritual harmony as members of one humanity. The wearing of Ihram is also symbolic of universal equality and brotherhood. Together they all put their focus and energy in constant remembrance of God. When these pilgrims walk around the Kaaba seven times, all the while praying, their spirit and focus are only one, that is, seeking forgiveness from God.
According to the Islamic tradition, the various practices of Haj aim at giving men and women the lesson of surrendering before God and creating an awareness of the Day of Judgment. When a believer goes through this experience, his love of the Almighty is further strengthened. He/she becomes an individual with renewed faith, who is ready to step back into the world to fulfil the purpose for which he is created.
In the present context of the pandemic, when many of those who may have planned to perform the pilgrimage are unable to do so, they still have an option to live in the spirit of Haj. This spirit is one of dedication and sacrifice. That is why in a Hadith tradition, the Prophet of Islam referred to Haj as the ‘the supreme act of worship.’
According to the tradition in Sahih Al-Bukhari, “Actions are judged by intentions”. It lays focus on the importance of intention as the defining criteria for any action. Though we are at home, every believer has a chance to embark on a journey of reflection and introspection.
Just as death marks the end of one life and the beginning of another, the Haj also symbolises a spiritual rebirth. With such a resolve, a believer becomes capable of strengthening and rejuvenating the spirit and soul.
Raamish Siddiqui is a lawyer, author and Islamic thinker. Twitter: @raamishs