Monday, January 18, 2010

En Route to Mecca - A Spiritual Bond

“O men! Behold, We have created you all out of a male and a female, and have made you into nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another...” (Surah Al-Hujurat: 13)

Why is Hajj so significant to Muslims? Unlike other journeys, this is a spiritual expedition with the sole intention of worshipping Allah in His house. Pilgrims sacrifice their time, money, comfort and worldly pleasures as they seek to surrender to Allah and seek His mercy. The send of obligation ordained upon Muslims has given them the strength to endure hardships and to be parted from their families. In retracing the footsteps of the prophets, Hajj provides an unforgettable lesson about piety and virtue.

Hajj is more than just the sum of its rituals. It is a transformation of the pilgrim into a better person. In common with the other four pillars of Islam, Hajj creates a strong spiritual bond between mankind and its Creator. As guests of Allah at His Sacred House (Baitullah Al-Haram) all pilgrims should strive to understand deeply the meaning behind each ritual. The essence of the sweetness of faith is sought after by every pilgrim.

The journey starts long before the pilgrims head for the Holy City of Mecca. As this undertaking is considered to be a testament of the physical, mental and spiritual determination of each believer, it requires considerable preparation. Mecca and its environs are stations of renewal for the faith of believers. Pilgrims learn lessons at every stop and hope to leave the city of Mecca with all their sins wiped out and their heart’s purified. In many hadith, the Prophet Muhammad (bpuh) said: “Whosoever performs Hajj and does not commit any obscenity (rafath) or commit any evil will go back (free of) sin as on the day his mother bore him.”

Mecca is not, however, the ultimate destination. The journey continues until the pilgrims are back in the arms of their family. This is the time for them to put into practice the lessons they have learned from their Hajj. It is a training to be a better Muslim, with pure hearts and chaste manners. Stories of their experiences are not only to be told but also demonstrated in their daily lives. By merely imitating the actions that were set by the Prophet Muhammad (bpuh) without synchronisation of thoughts and feelings, a pilgrim might return to his homeland with an empty mind and soul.

As the largest annual congregation of faith, Hajj unites those believers who come to the Baitullah Al-Haram from every corner of the earth. It is a manifestation of brotherhood, equality and unity. Hajj celebrates unity in faith from the diversity of culture, race and nationality. Beyond the act of worship, Hajj encourages pilgrims to exchange cultural norms, hospitality and ideas, opening minds at the same time. Pilgrims from all corners of the world assemble at one location with a single intention. A strong sense of brotherhood develops during this great meeting. Members of the Muslim community realise that they were never strangers, despite the differences that they possess. Lending a helping hand and showing tolerance of different customs are common.

All males, regardless of status and colour, wear the same seamless white garments in the state of ihram. Their female counterparts are attired in garments that reveal only the face and hands, the same clothing they wear for prayers. These clothes are a manifestation of renunciation of worldly concerns while striving for greater spiritual awareness. They proclaim simplicity and unity at this great congregational event, with pilgrims about to enter their new abode in total surrender to Allah.

The removal of headgear is compulsory upon all male pilgrims as these items usually act as symbols of social status. All should appear equal in the eyes of Allah. There must be no distinction between one believer and another: “Verily the noblest of you in the sight of God is the one who is deeply conscious of Him.” (Surah Al-Hujurat: 13)

Pilgrims who speak different languages chant the same talbiyah, responding to the call of their Lord. Whatever time zone they may live in, Muslims come to the House of Allah obeying His command within the period of time that has been fixed for them. While performing the tawaf, they move in the same direction. They stand shoulder to shoulder in lines while performing the daily prayer. Rich or poor, black or white, they follow one imam, the leader of prayer.

Road to Unity

The road to Mecca is open for both commerce and faith. Before Islam, it was an important centre of trade as well as serving as a shrine. From the time of Farewell Hajj, led by the Prophet Muhammad (bpuh), Muslims have flocked to Mecca, following in his footsteps. As Islam spread to a wider geographical area, the number of Muslims who made their way to this holy land increased each year, especially during the month of Hajj.

In earlier days, travel to Mecca was full of adventure. A journey that was already arduous had the added element of danger. The path was exposed to the hazards of bandits, bad weather, disease and political upheaval. Many pilgrims perished along the way; others lost their bearings entirely. None of this discouraged Muslims from observing the duty of Hajj.

The means of transport used to be quite different, although whatever route they took, pilgrims had to enter Mecca through one of several Hajj routes. The most important were those which led from Cairo, Baghdad and Istanbul. Until the 19th century, camel caravans were essential. They were packed with enough provisions to sustain them during their journey. Security was another consideration. The poor often travelled individually, making stops to earn money as they ran out of supplies. Their journey could take many years.

Realising the importance of Hajj as a social phenomenon, rulers and wealthy patrons helped to ease the pilgrims’ journey. A system of caravanserais providing water and security was one of their contributions. Wells, dams and bridges were built along the way to facilitate the progress of travellers. With the opening of the Suez Canal, the Hijaz Railway and Jeddah airport, the transport system gradually improved. The experience of travelling to Mecca has changed beyond recognition in the 21st century and the risks are almost negligible. At the same time, the spiritual rewards are as great as they have ever been.

Extracted from the book: En Route to Mecca – Pilgrims’ Voices Throughout the Centuries

Publisher: Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

(This book is published in conjunction with the En Route to Mecca: Pilgrims’ Voices Throughout the Centuries exhibition, launched in October 2009.)

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