PILGRIMAGE (Hajj) –like Prayer (Salah)– in Islam is a sequence of physical acts performed at a distinctive destination and designed to channel and to develop mankind’s innate longing to come “close’ to their Creator-Sustainer. Pilgrimage is common to the world’s religions. Central to Pilgrimage is the preparatory travel to a geographical location having a sacred history and the expectation of blessing held out to its God-seeking visitors.
In Islam, it is not the last prophet whose service to mankind is celebrated in our Pilgrimage, but rather the first prophet about whom we know that he trusted God through thick and thin. The revelation to Muhammad instructed the people of Islam to celebrate the prophetic legacy of Abraham (Arabic: Ibrahim) as mankind’s ‘father of faith” in the Deity who Is. Abraham is the exemplary man –thousands of years before recorded history– who put his absolute trust in Allah as the one who would properly guide him and be true to His promises.
Now, who but one who fools himself could be averse to the sacred way of Abraham? For very truly, We did choose him [as a messenger] in this world. Moreover, in the Hereafter, he shall, most surely, be among the righteous [in Paradise]. [Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:130]
For who is of a more excellent faith than one who submits his face to God, while he excels in [doing] good and follows the sacred way of Abraham, the upright [in heart]? [Sûrat Al-Nisâ’, 4:124]
There is truly an excellent model for you in [the firm stand of] Abraham and those with him when they said to their [idolatrous] people: We are free of [association with] you and [with] all that you worship, apart from God…. [Sûrat Al-Mumtaḥanah, 60:4]
Pilgrimage to Makkah (Mecca) was instituted as one of five ‘pillars’ of Islam based on the concept that this location was the first site established for worship of the one God. Some scholars say that Abraham originally built its structure; others that he rebuilt it. We are given a sense that ancient practice was being re-instituted in the time of Muhammad, along with re-establishing pristine monotheism.
For behold! We established for Abraham the place of the [Holy] House [in Makkah, saying}: You shall not associate anything with Me [as a god]. And you shall purify My House for those who circle around it [in My worship], and [who] stand, and bow, and bow [their faces] down to the ground [in the Prayer]. [Sûrat Al-Ḥajj, 22:26]
In this place Abraham stood in meditative prayer and supplication, bowed down in reverence for service to his Lord and prostrated himself before the awesome God in absolute surrender.
So behold! We made the [Sacred] House [in Makkah] a [spiritual] resort and [place of] security for all [believing] people. So take up the [marked] Station of Abraham [there,] as a place of Prayer. [Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:125a]
For when his Lord said to [Abraham]: Submit yourself! He said [at once]: Willingly, I submit [my face in worship] to the Lord of [All] the Worlds. [Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:131-132]
Makkah is the place, and the rite of joining in seven circuits around the Kaᶜbah is the form of worship, that invokes that kind of relationship with one’s Maker, a place of connecting one’s heart with the Lord “of all the worlds.” Prophet Muhammad was informed that Abraham’s subsequent godly descendants, too, had indeed, also submitted themselves to the care of the God of their fathers. Note that the Qur’anic term muslim is a functional term meaning ‘one submitted to God’ –applying to pious persons of all epochs of human endeavor:
Thus Abraham enjoined his children with this [sincere devotion to God], as did Jacob, [saying] “O my children! Indeed, God has chosen for you the religion [of purity]. So take care not to die except as muslims, in willing submission to God [alone]. Or were [those of] you [who would deny this] witnesses when death approached Jacob? Behold! He said to his children: What will you worship after me? They said: We shall worship your God [alone] … the God of your fathers –Abraham, and Ishmael, and Isaac– the One [and only] God. Thus are we muslims, in willing submission to Him [alone]. [Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:132-133]
Indeed, God has chosen Adam and Noah, and the Family of Abraham, and the Family of ‘Imran above [the people of] all the world. They are descendants, one of another. And God is all-hearing, all-knowing. [Surat Al- ‘Imran, 3:33-34]
Abraham’s attachment to this center of the world’s map location is decisive.
Our Lord! I have placed some of my offspring to dwell in a valley that is infertile near Your Sacred House, our Lord, [as You have commanded], so that they may [duly] establish the Prayer [on earth]. … My Lord! Make me steadfast in [observing] the Prayer–and also my children, our Lord. And do accept my supplication. [Sûrat Ibrahim, 14:37, 40]
As we know in the story of Prophet Muhammad, the so-called Year of the Elephant –late in the 6th Christian century– was the year of the new prophet’s birth, as well as the year of a decisive skirmish for the ancient pilgrimage destination in the Valley of Bakkah (Makkah), where a caravan trading center had come to prominence.
Indeed, the first House [of God] appointed for all people is that [in the valley] of Bakkah. [It is] most blessed and a [source of] guidance for all the [peoples of the] world. [Sûrat Al-ᶜImrân, 3:96-97]
Modern hajji’s do not approach this destination from a visual vantage point of viewing from afar the black-enveloped cubic structure –the Ka ‘bah— where the modern, air-conditioned grounds ensure the comfort of its guests. The air space over encircled Makkah is today reserved exclusively for winged avian flight, and thus today’s human hajji is not able to get a bird’s eye view on his approach. But in the old days, when Makkah was limited in population and lacked visual clutter, the pilgrim could spot the object of his desire grow more distinct as he continued his approach –and could anticipate its blessing– after an often grueling long journey on four-legged transport, or even on foot, many pilgrims coming from distant corners of the world.
Moreover, you shall proclaim among all people the [duty of the] Hajj-Pilgrimage. They shall come to you on foot and on every lean mount. They shall come through every faraway passage that they may observe [many] benefits for themselves–and mention [much] the name of God during the known days [of Hajj-Pilgrimage] … [Surât Al-Ḥajj, 22:27]
So propitious and prosperous a pilgrimage site had become the Kaᶜbah that, many centuries after Abraham, Abrahah, the Christian Abyssinian ruler hoped to destroy it in order to lure Makkan pilgrims, instead, to his new church in Sana (Yemen), far south on the Red Sea coast of the Arabian Peninsula. But Allah had another destiny planned for this ancient memorial associated with His beloved prophet Abraham and progenitor of prophets –Isaac – Jacob -Joseph. Later prophets in Abraham’s lineage would come Jesus; then, lastly Muhammad — a descendant of Abraham’s firstborn son, Ishmael (Arabic: Ismâᶜîl).
As Abrahah’s war party neared Makkah, 570 CE, some fluke of extra-terrestrial phenomenon occurred: an air-borne army of combatants, wielding stone-hard blows, in surprise attack, routed the supposed military might of an elephant-reinforced contingent of invading soldiers, mowing them down with an endless barrage from the sky. Not only was there the offensive onslaught from above, but mutiny in Abrahah’s own ranks occurred when the lead elephant knelt in her tracks rather than enter Makkah. This event had taken place within the living memory of all those who were hearing and seeing their very own Arab messenger of God. So when the ‘Chapter of the Elephant’ –Surat Al-Fil– was sent down to their native son, Muhammad, no one could deny that Allah was Lord of the ancient pilgrimage site in their very midst. The Lord of the Sacred House had protected and saved it from conquest.
Art thou not aware of how thy Sustainer dealt with the Army of the Elephant? Did He not utterly confound their artful planning? Thus, He let loose upon them great swarms of flying creatures which smote them with stone-hard blows of chastisement pre-ordained, and caused them to become like a field of grain that has been eaten down to stubble. [Sûrat Al-Fîl, 105:1-5]
Millennia previously, Abraham, with Ismâᶜîl, had erected in this very location the structure dedicated to worship of the All-Merciful, the Almighty, the All-Wise. In so doing, they had asked Allah to keep them safe from corrupted religion in the Semite sea of false deities; they had asked Allah to mandate and spell out for them a formal ritual of worship as frame of reference to ensure that they and their descendants could please their Lord for all time to come.
Thus when Abraham and Ishmael raised the foundation of the [Sacred] House, [they prayed]: Our Lord! Accept this [deed] from us. Indeed, it is You, You [alone] who are the All-Hearing, the All-Knowing. Our Lord! And make us both muslims, in willing submission to You [alone]. And [make] our children a community of muslims, in willing submission to You [alone]. And show us our [religious] rites [in your worship], and grant us repentance. Indeed, it is You, You [alone], who are the All-Relenting, the Mercy-Giving. [Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:127-129]
Abraham knew intuitively that fleeting good intentions were not enough but that a simple set of guidelines –in synch with human psychology– was needed to ensure that future generations were continuing on the correct spiritual path with the correct mental attitude and intention. By the time of Prophet Muhammad, Jews and Christians –with communities across the Arabian Peninsula– were claiming Abraham as their own.
Now, [some] have said: Be Jews! Or: [Be] Christians! [And then] you shall be guided [aright]. Say [to them, O Prophet]: Rather: [We follow only] the sacred way of Abraham, the [purely] upright [in heart] — and never was he of those who associated gods with God. Say, [O believers]: We believe in [One] God, and [in] all that has been sent down to us [in the Quran]; and [in] all that has been sent down to Abraham, and Ishmael, and Isaac, and Jacob, and [to] the [prophets of the] Tribes [of Israel]; and [in] all that was given to Moses and [to] Jesus; and [in all that was given to Moses and [to] Jesus; and [in] all that was given to [all] the [other] prophets from their Lord. We do not differentiate [in faith] between any of them. Thus are we muslims, in willing submission to Him [alone]. Then, if they believe in the same [creed] in which you have believed, then, truly, they are guided [aright]. But if they turn away [from the true religion], then it is they who are [the ones] in schism [with God’s religion]. Thus God shall suffice you, [O Prophet,] against them. For He is the All-Hearing, the All–Knowing. [Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:135-137]
Abraham was the man tested and tried by God and found trustworthy.
Now, behold! Abraham’s Lord tested him with [arduous] commandments, and he fulfilled [all of] them. So [God] said [to him]: Indeed, I shall make you an exemplar for all people. [Abraham] implored [the favor of his Lord]: And [the same for] my descendants? [God] said: [The promise of] my covenant shall not extend to the wrongdoers [among them who are godless in heart]. [Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:124]
The Sacred House in Makkah was to be the place to honor the integrity and disposition of Abraham, a model of godliness for mankind. Abraham’s monument was to be a purified place for all believing people, those who were ready to bend the knee (in rukûᶜ) and to prostrate the forehead (in sujud) before their Lord in reliance upon Him:
Moreover, We covenanted with Abraham and Ishmael: [You shall] purify My House for all those who shall circumambulate [it in worship; and for all those who shall] retreat [there; and for all those who shall both] bow, and bow [their faces] down to the ground, [in Prayer there]. [Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:125b]
The rituals of Hajj are another subject altogether, but the general purpose of performing Hajj is straightforward and clear:
And when you have performed your acts of worship, [continue to] bear God in mind as you would bear your own fathers in mind – nay, with a yet keener remembrance! For there are people who [merely] pray, “O our Sustainer! Give us in this world”- and such shall not partake in the blessings of the life to come. But there are among them such as pray “O our Sustainer! Grant us good in this world and good in the life to come, and keep us safe from suffering through the fire”: It is these that shall have their portion [of happiness] in return for what they have earned. …Hence, remain conscious of God, and know that unto Him you shall be gathered. [Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:200-203]