One week after the rising of the new moon in the lunar month of Dhu'l Hijja, the last month of the Muslim calendar, more than three million pilgrims travel to the western Arabian city of Mecca. As they have done for over 1400 years in the footsteps of Prophet Muhammad, Muslim men and women embark upon a transformative ritual that draws them closer to God. This annual pilgrimage, one of the largest religious gatherings on earth, lasting up to five days, is known as the hajj. While an illustration of Muslim unity, solidarity and cohesiveness, the hajj also enables and invites a range of personal interpretations and expressions.
At the heart of the world's most famed mosque in the center of Mecca lies the Ka'ba, an Arabic word meaning cube. The Qur'an, the recorded revelation of God to Prophet Muhammad, refers to the Ka'ba as the Sacred Sanctuary, al-masjid al-haram. It is here and in the surrounding desert landscape that a religious practice linked both to Prophet Muhammad and to his ancestor, the Biblical Patriarch Abraham unfolds. Building on the narrative of Abraham in the Old Testament, the Muslim sacred text further describes the Father of the three monotheistic religions as having constructed the Ka'ba. The Qur'an celebrates Abraham as a hanif, a believer in one God and an inheritor of the prophetic legacy, a path also followed by Muhammad. Yet over the centuries, the Ka'ba had ceased to be the site of monotheistic practice as it had been in Abraham's day, and instead housed the images of tribal deities as well as those of Jesus and Mary. Through his call to the faith of Islam, Muhammad attempted to restore the shrine to its original intent -- as a temple to a singular and unique God.
The rituals of the hajj are often described in hajj manuals -- instructions for those who undertake the pilgrimage -- as a re-enactment of the physical and spiritual journey undertaken by Abraham and his family more than 4000 years ago. One stage of the hajj ritual, where pilgrims run back and forth between the hills of Safa and Marwa seven times, follows in the footsteps of Abraham's handmaiden Hagar searching for water for her parched infant son. Only after laying him down upon the hot sands and asking for God's benediction does her child's heel hit upon a miraculous well, now called Zamzam, that gushes from the earth nourishing and blessing pilgrims to this day. Another station of the ritual involves throwing pebbles at three pillars, signifying the refusal of Abraham to be tempted by the devil, which is said to have occurred three times during his life. The hajj ritual culminates in one of the most important festivals of the Muslim calendar, Eid al-Adha, which commemorates Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his dearest son for God.
In some of the earliest histories of Islam, such as the 39-volume magnum opus of the 10th century chronicler al-Tabari, the Ka'ba and the rituals of the hajj take on an other-worldly significance. In his telling, the Ka'ba was created even before the fashioning of the heavens and the earth and Adam, the first man, is said to have circled around the structure in a counter-clockwise manner simultaneously praising God's attributes and reciting his name.
Many Muslims consider the hajj to be a "pillar" of Islam and an incumbent duty, if one is able and can afford it during the course of their lifetime. It is a ritual and a symbol that is and has been interpreted and experienced in a range of ways by individual Muslims. These varied experiences of the hajj have been reflected in the writings of Muslims in the form of poetry, diary, travelogue and even blog.
Amongst Americans, the most widely known account of a hajji, a male who has undertaken the hajj to Mecca, is that of the Nebraskan-born African American Malcolm X who completed his first of two pilgrimages in April 1964. In his autobiography, published one year later, and turned into a movie in 1992 by Spike Lee, X recalls how this ritual enabled him to redress the key social challenges he and his community were facing:
"There were tens of thousands of pilgrims, from all over the world. They were of all colors, from blue-eyed blonds to black-skinned Africans. But we were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to believe never could exist between the white and the non-white... America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem."
To be sure, all religions have faced the challenge of racial and social disharmony and have addressed it to varying degrees of success.
During the hajj, the boundaries of ethnicity, race, gender, class and wealth are temporarily erased. Pilgrims from all walks of life stand shoulder to shoulder performing the prescribed rituals in a similar manner. The hajj is one of the only, and by far the largest public ritual amongst Muslims in which men and women pray and perform their rites together, in unison. However, one way in which gender distinctions remain is that men don the ihram, the white unstitched pilgrim's garb, while women are freer to wear other forms of modest clothing, including colorful national or cultural dresses.
Accounts of the Prophet Muhammad's life speak about him performing the hajj together with the women in his family, and their continued participation in the ritual even after his death. There are numerous examples dotted throughout history of Muslim women attending the hajj; these women are called hajjas, though there are cultural and linguistic variations of this term. Khayzuran, the Queen-mother of the Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid attended the hajj from Baghdad while she was still a slave-consort in 776. Another Indian, Gulbadan Begum, the daughter of the Mughal Emperor Babur, performed the Meccan pilgrimage in 1575, a journey which didn't bring her back to Agra for seven years. And groups of unnamed Takayrna women from modern-day Sudan are recorded by the Swiss writer John Lewis Burckhardt in 1814 as preparing for the long and expensive boat journey to the hallowed sanctuary.
Despite women going on hajj, and in some cases even bequeathing endowments to the people of Mecca while there, one of the first autobiographical accounts of a female pilgrim does not appear until 1863. The account by Nawab Sikandar, Her Highness the Begum of Bhopal, is also the first known account written by a regent. The Begum was the first Indian monarch to attend hajj and she was accompanied by a large entourage of close to a thousand people, most of them women.
Other ways in which hajjas recorded their experience was through poetry and song. Indeed the oral form pre-dates written records of hajj narratives. Anthropologist Barbara Cooper records a lilting melody of a more contemporary encounter in 1989 by Hajjiah Malaya, a 90-year-old Maradi Hausa woman from Niger. The song dedicated to her son Mahaman Lawali goes:
I slept at Muzdalifa, Mahaman.
In the morning I went to throw stones at Satan,
We went to throw stones at Satan, and then there I was at God's house, Lawali.
Allah gave me the will to make the circuit of the Kaba,
I did the Tawaf, I did Safa and Marwa [Sa'y], Mahaman,
I went to visit the tombs at Medina, Lawali,
I say I went to Medina and made a visit.
The rites of the hajj for some pilgrims are not just about performing its outward acts, but have a much deeper significance. A common trope used in Muslim mystical writings is "Die before you die," which refers to one's inner struggle to destroy their ego, communing with the Divine in this world, before one's physical death. In a sermon given on Sept. 1982 in Philadelphia, the Sri-Lankan Sufi Shaykh Bawa Muhiyuddeen, who founded an American-based Muslim mystical community primarily consisting of converts, exclaimed to his devotees:
"All of everything experiences life and death. In life and in death, the way to fulfill the hajj is to make the world die within oneself and to turn one's life into Everlasting Life while still living in this world. This hajj is to make the world die in the world and for life to become Eternal. To fulfill this is hajj."
Today, his Pennsylvanian grave-site continues to attract his followers who go on pilgrimage not only to the Ka'ba, but also to his shrine. In fact, there are a multitude of sites that are visited by Muslims around the world that co-exist alongside the Ka'ba. These other pilgrimages are often referred to as ziyara to distinguish them from the journey to Mecca.
More than a millennium earlier in 1045, the Persian-speaking philosopher and traveller Nasir Khusraw also provides a mystical interpretation of the hajj, albeit in a different way. Taking heed of a life-changing dream, Khusraw performed the hajj no less than four times. He describes the first of these in his celebrated Book of Travels, his Safarnama, where he writes about the actual journey of going on hajj. In his other works, he reflects on the meanings of this important ritual: for him, each station of the hajj has an apparent (zahir) and hidden (batin) meaning, an earthly and heavenly significance that we must strive to know. The poet-philosopher even chides a pilgrim upon his return when he admits he does not understand the real value of the ritual he undertook. Khusraw exclaims:
"Then I said, 'In that case, my friend, you have made no hajj,
you have not become a dweller in the station of self-effacement.
'You have merely gone to Mecca, seen it and come back,
and bought the suffering of the desert with silver."
What we see in the hajj is not just a unified pilgrimage which draws millions of Muslims around the globe each year, but in fact a multiplicity of hajjes that co-exist through time and in space. In each individual journey, simultaneously congregational and personal, each Muslim experiences something akin to their fellow believers, while also something intensely private. Like many transformative rituals, the hajj speaks to each person differently. In some cases, individuals who have been moved by their pilgrimages have recorded them in narratives, stories, songs, and poems. Their poignant and deeply personal accounts allow us to experience the hajj -- as much we possibly can -- through their words, their eyes and their voices.