In traditions across the world, the spirit of sacrifice has been regarded as one of the highest human values. Among those who excelled in this quality were the prophets, rishis and seers. From these noble souls was Prophet Ibrahim, may peace be upon him. He was born in Babylon (now Iraq) in an affluent family and his father was a priest. But Ibrahim was different. He realized at a young age the futility of the ways of his people, the irrationality of their beliefs and the ruling class’s utter disregard for justice.
He sacrificed his position of honor as the future priest when he questioned the superstitious beliefs of his father and his people. For this, he was ridiculed and attempts were made on his life. The ruler of Babylon, Nimrod, possessed unquestioned authority over his people, condemning the innocent to death and freeing the damned and regarding himself as god. Ibrahim questioned the arrogance and injustice of the king and debated with him rationally.
But when his people did not listen to him, he left them to their ways and traveled far, serving people and calling them to the way of God until he arrived in a valley in the Arabian Desert now called Makkah. There, under divine commandment, he built the Kaaba, the house of worship and the centre of pilgrimage. But his test was not over as he was, in his old age, commanded to sacrifice his beloved son, Isma’il. He resisted the temptations of the devil and pressed forward with the sacrifice, in complete obedience to his Lord. However, God was not in need of blood, it was only a means to test Ibrahim’s steel through the fire of sacrifice. So a goat was accepted in place of his son.
The Hajj is a pilgrimage of sacrifice. Through the history of Prophet Ibrahim, the pilgrim is called upon to liberate himself from the slavery of ease, to break the shackles of degrading superstition and to question the status quo. The pilgrim is asked to sacrifice his most prized possession. For Ibrahim, it was his son; for the pilgrim it could be his sloth, his position, his honor, his time or his money for the cause of truth and justice.
Will he sacrifice his sleep to wake up early and cleanse his heart through prayer? Will he sacrifice his money and the dream of buying that new car for the sake of the hundreds in his neighborhood that go without a decent meal? Will he risk his position and speak up against corporate injustice? Will he sacrifice his honor and friendships to question the superstitions of his society? Will he risk chastisement to question the government’s apathy to the dying farmers’ problems? Will he earn the anger of his family to reject their demands of dowry from his bride-to-be? Will he be a pilgrim on the path of God?
The Hajj is a process of sensitization against the division of mankind. Mankind is the creation of one God and the children of one couple therefore inherently one. Its division along the lines of class, caste and race is unjust and unnatural. The apparent distinctions of birth are merely a means of identity in the words of the Holy Qur’an, not marks of superiority or inferiority. The Qur’an says, “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other. Verily the most honored of you in the sight of God is (he who is) the most righteous of you”.
Through the Hajj, Islam gathers the laborer and businessman, the ruler and subject, the black and white in Makkah to stand shoulder to shoulder in praise of God. The exhilarating feeling of standing in that huge gathering with people of all kinds breaks many prejudices and myopic ideas of regional and racial superiority. The experience of the Hajj affected Malcolm X so greatly that he exclaimed, “They were of all colors, from blue-eyed blondes 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 non-white.”
The rites of Hajj start with the pilgrims shrouding themselves in a simple white garb as a first step towards the elimination of distinction. In the grand mosque at Makkah the counter-clockwise circumambulation of the Kaaba is performed as if to emulate angels as they go around the throne, electrons as they speed around the nucleus and planets as they travel around the sun. On completion, the pilgrims walk between the two hills where the wife of Ibrahim, Haajira, ran in search of water for her child, walking where she walked and running where she ran. The pilgrims camp on the plains of Arafat as a reminder of their gathering before God on the Day of Judgment and pray to Him for forgiveness of their sins. Back in Mina, pillars representing the devil are stoned in symbolism of the rejection of satanic temptations by Ibrahim.
At the culmination of the Hajj, Muslims the world over celebrate the festival of Eid-ul-Azha by sacrificing an animal in remembrance of Ibrahim’s sacrifice and resonate their voices with those of the pilgrims in praise of God.