10/31/2011 05:36 pm ET Updated Dec 31, 2011

The Case of Sheikh Al-Atar and a Call for Unity At Hajj

Earlier this week, Muslims from around the world bid farewell to their communities as they departed for the journey of their lifetimes. Making the sacred pilgrimage to Hajj is a fundamental pillar of Islam, in which Muslims reaffirm their commitment to living a life centered on the worship of God. Hajj is a vital experience for all Muslims, irrespective of gender, nationality, or sect; however, it is evident that this message of unity and tolerance is yet to be internalized.

At 6:30am Sunday morning in the Holy City of Medina, the Islamic Human Rights Commission reported that Sheikh Al-Atar, Cleric of the Islamic Association of Edmonton and post-doctoral fellow at the University of Alberta, was attacked by 10-15 Saudi Religious Police. Al-Atar was reportedly leading a group of pilgrims in paying respects to sacred Shi'a burial grounds when witnesses say that the police began beating Al-Atar, kicking him and attempting to throttle him.

During Hajj, Muslims engage in a host of rituals which reaffirm unity and tolerance. Prior to entering the holy grounds of Mecca, Muslims wear 'Ihram', a simple white garment that creates uniformity amongst all pilgrims, irrespective of gender, nationality, or sect. During the Hajj, Muslims uniformly circumambulate around the Holy Kaaba in what is known as 'Tawaaf', irrespective of gender, nationality or sect. This concept of unity can be extended upon every single aspect of the religious pilgrimage.

The practice of Hajj presents a powerful and compelling message in which people who may seemingly be very different, come together in proclaiming a life centered on the worship of God. This message need not be limited to the sphere of Hajj. While we as humans may be seemingly very different in race, religion, orientation etc, we share a common bond in humanity. While there will always be differences which we can exploit, there will be even more similarities which we can uniformly appreciate.

However, this message of unity and tolerance seems to be inadequate for some, as we still see instances of sectarian violence around the world, exemplified by the attacks against Al-Atar Sunday morning. Al-Atar has since been taken into custody by the Saudi government and will be charged on Monday. (Editor's Update: Al-Atar has been released)