Call of the Cube
Of the many communication techniques to which the human mind has proven itself especially responsive, symbolism and imagery undoubtedly form key components. It has not been without reason, therefore, that certain aspects of the message of Islam have been conveyed to humanity in exactly this mode of communication. Among other themes, that of the Hajj – the annual Muslim pilgrimage to the House of God at Makkah – and all that is associated with it, have been particularly subject to this treatment within the Islamic framework. As a universal, undeniable, symbol of Islam’s stand on the brotherhood of Man, the Hajj has remained a most powerful exponent down the ages, even to this very day. Symbolism, or the symbolic act – indeed, ritual – may not be, in itself, always rational per se, but there is little doubt that it addresses an innate – even primordial – urge within the cultural consciousness of the human being: an urge that requires of him to remember, to celebrate, the heroics of his forebears in the eternal battle with the Demon inaugurated the day that Cain murdered Abel – the day when one son of Adam slew the other – so very long ago. The essay presented hereunder tries, through a literary appreciation of the beauty of the Hajj, to elaborate upon the implications attendant upon Max, the protagonist, as he visualizes in the company of the inner guiding voice called the Wayfarer, this most inspiring of events ever to be celebrated by the memory of Man.
It was that time of the year again and Max had half expected it to happen anyway: at least two hundred and fifty dead in the stampede at the stoning ritual.
Some were so young – as young as thirty: Max observed.
Not too young.
Not too old.
But a ‘vie-able, dieable’ age. For what one believed in.
Two hundred and fifty dead. And that was the official figure. But as he scanned the headlines earlier in the day, Max knew that the death toll could very well be higher. These were people who had come heeding the call of the Cube.
‘Well, almost a cube, if one went by exact dimensions.’ Max corrected himself.
But it did have six flat surfaces – a fact that immediately pointed out the one in many symbolisms associated with the rites centered around it. The cube faced the world in six directions: north, south, east, west and the two vertical directions. In all, therefore, the cube addressed the world of man in directions with which he was well versed; in directions from which he would come heeding its call down the ages.
‘But the cube sits on a sphere, as it were,’ as the Wayfarer had once pointed out to Max.
‘Like the Relative within the Absolute.’ Max had joined in then.
‘Yes, Max. Like the mind of man within the Mind Universal.’
The cube was conspicuous by the contrast that its black colour presented against the ocean of white moving around it. Max had been staring at his computer screen since the morning hour that he reported for work. He had to get the right image for the article to be published in the next issue of the periodical that he worked for. Not that the cube in focus now was never photographed better. On the contrary, there were hundreds of images of the most famous cube of all time. And that was just what Max’s problem was. He had to select the best, most awe-inspiring, image of the Ka’aba that he could lay his eyes on.
‘Yeah, that’s the only word for it,’ thought Max as he stared at the several colour photographs of the main rites of the Hajj, or the Islamic Pilgrimage, on his computer screen. Max had never been there amongst that ocean of humanity circumambulating the Ka’aba, the house built by the patriarch Abraham and his elder son, Ishmael, dedicated to the eternal remembrance of God.
In the land of Arabia.
In the land where Abraham’s celebrated descendent would proclaim the culmination of the Revelation centuries after Ishmael, Isaac, David, Solomon, Moses and Jesus.
In the land where Muhammad was born.
No. Max had not yet received that opportunity of a lifetime, but he could very well feel something of the throbbing pulse of the vast sea of humanity that now thronged around the cubical structure.
Around the cube that was the Ka’aba.
The center of the world.
‘The center of the world?’ Max thought again. ‘Okay, that might be stretching it a little bit.’
But one thing was for sure: two million human beings, irrespective of race, colour, language and culture converging onto one spot with nothing but the same, single, intention must definitely be some centre of power.
There was no mistaking that, no matter what you were: a Muslim, a Hindu, a Christian, a Jew or even one without any particular religion.
The same, single intention: “Labbaik Allahumma Labbaik!” (Here am I! O God! Here am I!)
For how many centuries has that call reverberated through the valleys of Makkah every year since Abraham: that cry of the pilgrim on his journey towards fulfilling the command of his Maker.
A journey that is almost always expected to be one way.
The road that would carry the pilgrim to salvation and offer hopes of a rebirth, free of sins.
Of a Renaissance Spiritual.
And then of the expectant return unto the Maker in as clean an image as the one in which He first created His servant.
Except, of course, in one instance: the one in which the pilgrim embarked on the pilgrimage without having settled dues that he owed to any other of his own kind.
Dues in cash and in kind.
Dues in insult and harm done.
All had to be atoned for.
All had to be forgiven by men before the rest could be forgiven by God.
Yes, the pilgrim could always return from his pilgrimage and seek this forgiveness so essential, but what if he never came back home from his pilgrimage?
What if he was to pass away into the presence of his Maker en route to the completion of this physical pilgrimage of the body?
What if the physical pilgrimage of the body was to lead to the spiritual pilgrimage of the soul even before its last rites were completed?
Who could then atone for his sins of commission to those whom he had to pay up?
So, logic dictates that the pilgrim must settle scores before he, or she, sets out for the pilgrimage. That one’s Maker may accept one as sinless should he, or she, be destined to meet with death on the way: incidentally the longing of the ideal, true, pilgrim.
There is no theme within the symmetric perfection of Islam that more fully portrays inherent symbolisms as do the rites of Hajj.
Indeed, the Hajj is replete with symbols and suggestions.
Symbols pointing to the eternal struggle that is always the lot of Man in his movement towards God.
Suggestions evocative of the sacrifice that must necessarily dot human life as it progresses to meet its Maker.
But what really shook Max, once the Wayfarer informed him of it, was the symbolism of the Tawaf, or the movement around the Ka’aba. With his explanation, the Wayfarer had pointed out the dual implications of the term ‘revolution’. In one very obvious sense, the circumambulation around the Ka’aba marked a pilgrim’s revolution around it. But this was never to be a static revolution, for the objective of the pilgrim’s revolutionary path was undoubtedly its centre. A centre occupied by the House of God, the slightest touch of which was every pilgrim’s fondest desire. For the mere sight of which the pilgrim would have traversed half the world on his meager resources.
But then, ‘revolution’ has meant dynamic, drastic change in the state of affairs as well. It has always meant change and, almost always, for what was apparently better. It has always meant a transition from ‘what is’ to ‘what ought to be’. Thus, every true revolution implies a movement towards the ideal at the Centre. Much like every circumambulation implies a desire, and an effort, to shorten the radius to the Ka’aba, the metaphoric House of God.
So as to get to the home of the pilgrim’s heart.
So as to seize the idols erected therein with the passage of time and of memory.
So as to break those idols into a thousand pieces against the barren floor of unadulterated monotheism, even as one did of old.
So as to erect anew, within the pilgrim’s aching heart, the Temple of Love dedicated to the singular, sole, worship of the one True God: the Owner of the Ka’aba, Object of the Pilgrim.
‘Is it a coincidence then that most systems in the Universe revolve around an axis?’ the Wayfarer had asked Max.
Of course, the earth went around the sun like the other planets, while the sun itself moved around an axis along with the entire galaxy in an ever-expanding universe.
‘And Max, there is the Sign of the Right, too.’
‘The Sign of the Right, Wayfarer?’
‘Yes. In the Islamic scheme, one is supposed to begin with the right always.’
‘Alright. But what of it, Wayfarer?’
‘The Tawaf, Max. How do you start it? Clockwise or counter-clockwise?’
‘Counter-clockwise, of course. But what’s your point, Wayfarer?’
‘What’s counter-clockwise, Max? Is that going from right to left, or left to right?’
‘Right to… But, of course!’
‘Coincidence, then, Max?’
‘Very unlikely, Wayfarer. Very unlikely, indeed!’
And if all that was not enough, there was the symbol of the sacrifice. For, every pilgrim was to sacrifice an animal as part of the rites of the Hajj.
A sacrifice that was commemorative of an event where a father relented to sacrifice his only son at the altar of God’s command. It was in memory of the patriarch, Abraham, who offered to sacrifice Ishmael, his beloved son born to him in old age, in compliance with the order of his Maker.
Abraham had had his faith tested severely on several occasions in the past: indeed, his whole life had been one epic of endurance under the most exacting of trials and tribulations. But this was perhaps the ultimate test: and one in whose execution Abraham stood true to his Maker.
Abraham: the upright, the Haneef.
And Ishmael: ever the worthy son of a worthy father. One who asked his father to be patient and firm in the execution of his duty.
In the execution of his only, beloved, son.
It was a test wherein both father and son proved their credentials as torchbearers of the prophetic tradition; proved themselves worthy combatants who took the sword and the fire into the Demon’s lair.
The pilgrim has ever since, in making his own sacrifice of the animal during Hajj, commemorated this event of joy and of victory.
But has he ever gone out in search of the true meaning of sacrifice?
Has he ever realized the pain that separation from his beloved implies?
‘Have we even started looking out for our Ishmaels?’ Max had asked himself then.
‘Yes, Max. You realize then that you, too, have Ishmaels, don’t you?’ asked the Wayfarer.
‘Of course, Wayfarer. There are the smaller Ishmaels and the bigger Ishmaels, too. The only problem, though, is that we still haven’t started looking at the bigger ones up front. We are still held up with the smaller ones all the time. The smaller Ishmaels that we haven’t learned to let go.’
‘You have learnt well, Max.’
‘Yeah, now I have to just put it into practice. That’s all.’ Max had hardly hid the sarcasm in his voice.
‘Indeed! For, learning without action is like the blind holding aloft the torch to see in the darkness.’ The Wayfarer commented, ignoring Max’s sarcastic remark.
The man at the computer stared and stared at the screen searching in vain for now he knew not what. His eyes blinded by the fires set ablaze by the rapidity and content of his thoughts.
‘The Ka’aba, of course. Yes, that was it.’
‘Yes. That, indeed, was it.’