By Kalsoom Lakhani
director, Social Vision
WASHINGTON, D.C. – From Nov. 25 to Nov. 29, up to three million Muslims from around the world will gather to perform the hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. The journey is the fifth pillar of Islam; all Muslims who can afford to travel to perform it must complete it at least once in their lifetime.
The hajj is the journey of the individual, within and without, amid the collective. It is about sacrificing human comforts to achieve a higher, spiritual closeness with God and create a strong bond with fellow human beings. The impact of the hajj runs deep, affecting the way participants (hajjis) see the world. In a 2008 study of Pakistani pilgrims called “Estimating the Impact of the Hajj: Religion and Tolerance in Islam’s Global Gathering,” the authors found that performing the hajj “increases pilgrims’ desire for peace and tolerance toward others,” both Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
Purity and peace are central to the pilgrimage. According to Mosharraf Zaidi, a Pakistani columnist for The News who performed the hajj last year, the ihram was a fascinating part of the journey. Ihram is both a physical and mental state of purity, and is outwardly expressed by wearing special white robes. “In ihram, you cannot lose your temper or do anything that would disturb your own peace, or the peace of anyone around you,” he said.
All Muslim men must wear the same clothing to enter into this state: two sheets of plain white, unhemmed cotton; Muslim women must be dressed modestly, covering their bodies and heads but keeping their faces uncovered. The attire signifies equality among all pilgrims in the eyes of God, eliminating differences based on class, sect, ethnicity and nationality – prejudices that too often cloud our judgment in the world beyond the hajj.
“Hajj is probably the strongest equalizer that I’d ever participated in,” said Shirin Elkoshairi, an Egyptian-American consultant based in Virginia, who performed it in 2004. The hajj, he said, “deeply imprinted a sense of being connected to many different ethnicities, nationalities, languages, cultures and experiences.”
This sense of spiritual clarity and unity feeds into the culmination of the hajj, known as the Day of Arafat. On the dawn of this day, Muslims make their way to Mount Arafat and Plain Arafat, where the Prophet Muhammad delivered his farewell sermon some 1400 years ago, and where it is believed all will gather on the Day of Judgment. During the sermon, he emphasized the importance of tolerance and unity, saying, “All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab… except by piety and good action. Learn that every Muslim is a brother to every Muslim and that the Muslims constitute one brotherhood.”
In light of this spirit, Muslim pilgrims come together this day to pray and seek repentance. For many, it is their most humbling and cleansing experience.
During the hajj, spiritual clarity is an individual experience, but is also mirrored in the journey of all pilgrims – a reflection on how ideas of personal accountability, tolerance, and humility are universal qualities of Islam. Often, however, many of these lessons can be forgotten once the ihram is no longer present and pilgrims resume their daily lives, as some who have returned have noted.
In a world burdened with violence and intolerance, it is important to harness lessons from the hajj to tackle these issues and foster greater mutual respect among Muslims as well as between Muslims and non-Muslims. Networks of hajjis should be developed to sustain the sentiment of tolerance and equality brought forth by the hajj, especially in light of the aforementioned study’s finding that pilgrims are 22 percent more likely to say that people of different religions are equal. Hajjis should help educate others who were not part of the journey and act as leaders within their own communities, thereby bringing the journey home.
Kalsoom Lakhani is the director of Social Vision, the strategic philanthropy arm of ML Resources, LLC. She also runs the CHUP! – Changing Up Pakistan blog. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service.