The Hajj: Understanding Sacrifice as Premise

The Hajj is a simultaneous demonstration of many things: a demonstration of creation, of history, of unity, of Islamic ideology and of the Ummah. But this demonstration is also one that can, at once, gladden and sadden a lover of Islam, writes BIJU ABDUL QADIR.


The Hajj – the annual pilgrimage made by Muslims to the Ka’bah, the symbolic House of God at Makkah – is, apart from other considerations, a commemoration. It is a commemoration of a life among lives, a family among families, an event among events, and a sacrifice among sacrifices. It is a commemoration of the trials of Ibrahim among men, of his family among families, of the building of the Ka’bah among buildings, of a human offering substituted by an animal at a trial among trials.

The Prophet, the Patriarch, Ibrahim, on whom is peace, was a model.

A community by himself.

An Ummah, or a nation, as the Last Revelation called him.

If the Last Revelation called him that, the Last Messenger was told to imitate his Millah – his tradition – for he was the Haneef. The Haneef, the one who stood upright, steadfast, without turning his back on what he believed to be true.

Such was Ibrahim, no matter what his steadfastness called for.

No matter what the cost.

No matter what the sacrifice.

Sacrifice: the word which, in its completeness, was the very characteristic of which Ibrahim’s life was the ultimate personification. A life that was lived through the fire and fury of trials and tribulations, for his faith still to come out unscathed, indeed strengthened, and glowing to the core. A life sublimated by the purifying touch of consistency amidst adversity.

Of persistence amidst challenges.

Of perseverance amidst distractions.

Indeed, of patience amidst tribulations.

Ibrahim and his first-born, Ismail, were divine gifts for mankind. In Ibrahim’s readiness to leave his wife and son – born to him in old age – in the wilderness of a hostile, unyielding, Arabian desert; in Ibrahim’s willingness, at the command of God, to take the life of this first-born yet again several years later; in the erection of the Ka’bah’s walls by this remarkable pair of father and son, and the consecration of the Hajj as an annual pilgrimage for the homecoming of the heart for millions of believers for all time, Ibrahim and Ismail remain our beacons, our institutions, of guidance.

Did not Ibrahim belong to that tradition of the Prophets which prompts one to declare: “Truly, my prayer and my service of sacrifice, my life and my death, are (all) for Allah, the Cherisher of the Worlds”? Clearly, this was no idle comment, for few men in history have been as sorely tested for compliance as was Ibrahim, the Haneef.

From his first realizations of what constituted the true Reality of existence, from his first steps towards the obedience of the One besides whom there is nothing worthy of worship, Ibrahim charted out his path separate, distinct and away from that of his idolatrous father and people. For, in the uncompromising submission to the One did Ibrahim draw the line between himself and none less than his own father, the one closest to him by blood, indeed his progenitor. Therein was Ibrahim’s first offering, his first sacrifice, for what he believed in. And God accepted it of him, and made of it an example for believers.

For eternity has it been marked in the Last Revelation:

“There is for you an excellent example in Abraham and those with him, when they said to their people: ‘We are clear of you and of whatever ye worship besides Allah: we have rejected you and there has arisen, between us and you, enmity and hatred forever, unless ye believe in Allah and Him alone.’”

Ibrahim would break their idols, leaving alone the biggest to be questioned later, to show them the futility of their ways, and in turn, they would hurl him into a fire-pit for his transgression. The fire-pit of Nimrod, the Tyrant, who ruled the domain of idolatry and in whose service was Ibrahim’s father.

Doubtless, distance from home and family is an ordeal. A sacrifice.

And Ibrahim would go through ordeal after ordeal.

Through sacrifice after sacrifice.

To prove his trust and his tryst.

His trust in the Divine.

And his tryst with Destiny.

In Ibrahim’s old age did Hajirah, his wife, conceive Ismail as their first-born. Ismail: the fruit of a yearning that spanned a lifetime, the fruit of prayers, and of two hearts that ached for an offspring, even if that was to come in the evening of their lives. And come it did, with divine grace.

Still would God try Ibrahim, when He required of him to cast away his wife and infant son in the barrenness of the desert, away from home and habitation, away from his love and life. And the Haneef obliged with this sacrifice, unflinchingly, unhesitatingly, obediently. Hajirah, his wife, only but wanted to know whether it was, or was not, God’s command. Once her doubt was laid to rest in the belly of the arid desert, she of the Egyptians, bid her husband go away in peace.

Restrained of the pain of separation, restrained of the agony of the future, and of the motherly concern for her infant’s life, would Hajirah bear in patience and perseverance as she ran between the hills of Safa and Marwa for that which would quench her son’s thirst and wet her own spirits. Seven times would she run between Safa and Marwa in hope and fear until God, by His grace, delivered her from her predicament, through the spring of Zamzam that sprang forth with life near the infant Ismail. Ismail – whose very name meant ‘God will listen’ – was, after all, the fruit of God’s acceptance of the prayer of Ibrahim and Hajirah; the son about whom Ibrahim was given advance notice as a ‘Ghulaam-un-Haleem, as a child most forbearing.

If the commemoration of Hajirah’s faith and perseverance – and, thereby, the lofty position that the fairer sex occupies in Islam – occupies an important part of the meaning and message of the Hajj, the acute consciousness of the Brotherhood of Man is another of its lasting contributions. One division there would remain, however: the division between mankind based on God-consciousness, or Taqwa. This aside, there is to be no superiority of the white man over the black, the brown over the yellow, the Arab over the Ajam, the rich over the poor: the simple Ihram of the pilgrim at Hajj where both prince and pauper stand shoulder-to-shoulder in that self-same attire with the common, leveling, refrain – ‘Labbaik Allahumma! Labbaik!’ (At Thy command, O God! Here am I!) – on their lips, remaining the iconic symbol of this equality. This egalitarianism of Islam is, of course, the main highlight of the Hajj.

The main event, as it were.

It is sometimes said that the Hajj is a simultaneous demonstration of many things: a demonstration of creation, of history, of unity, of Islamic ideology and of the Ummah. For the Hajj is, indeed, a great demonstration, but it is also one that can, at once, gladden and sadden a lover of Islam.

The Hajj as a model of the ideal, and fraternity, of Islam that is lived up to every year by more than two million people from across the globe is, indeed, an invigorating sight for those with hearts to see. Hajirah’s faith and perseverance, Ismail’s unconditional acceptance of his life as an offering for the Divine, and, of course, over and above all else, the unbending will of the Haneef in executing the will of his Creator, despite the many promptings of the Satan: all are enacted in conscious memory through the instituted rites of the Hajj by the two million odd pilgrims to the House of God. These enactments, in themselves, constitute a spectacle of great symbolic significance.

The demonstration, however, saddens when it is just that – a mere demonstration. Unfortunately, this is how the believers of today have reduced their religion and made of it an enduring falsehood. They have reduced it to its very husk, through their display of its elements and its symbols, on occasion, through year after year. As at the time of the weekly Jum’uah congregation, as at the time of the annual month-long fasts of Ramadan, so also at the time of the Hajj: Islam is on display, without its soul.

Would to God, that this demonstration be changed from a soulless one to a living reality as is the need today, and everyday.

Would to God, that this demonstration of ‘what ought to be’ be transformed to the vibrant, soul-stirring, reality of ‘what is.’

Not what once was.

As much as it hurts to say it, and as much as one could wish for it to be otherwise, we are confronted with this reality: the ‘Muslim’ mind, today, is on vacation. To be sure, it has been on vacation since a long time – a few hundred years, to be precise. For the Hajj, on the other hand, we are required to go with our hearts and our minds, not just our bodies. But for many, the Hajj is just the physical journey, a soulless movement of the body among bodies.

Of the ego among egos.

Only in learning to let go of his dearest possessions can the pilgrim to God – the migrant to God – hope to go through life in submission to the Divine will. It is only through a life lived with a constant readiness to sacrifice anything and everything for the pleasure of God that the pilgrim will ever understand what evolutions are symbolized in the Hajj, indeed, what revolutionary evolutions of the heart in its movement towards God as the centre of all existence. Even as the Tawaf, or the movement of the pilgrims around the Ka’bah, implies.

Bereft of the intense desire to please God, come what may, the Muslim’s effort at Islam today will remain marginal.

Devoid of the selflessness of its followers to sacrifice their Ismails in the cause of God, their ‘Muslim’ religion will testify against them for the marginal faith that they have made of it.

No amount of pleading and praying and standing at Arafah, on the Day of Arafah, among the Days of the Hajj, will absolve them of this crime of having made of Islam a marginal faith.

On the contrary, given such partial commitments, all acts of apparent righteousness will but remain a testimony against the breach of the sacred covenant between Creator and created outside of the Salah, the Sawm, the standing at Arafah, indeed, outside of the Hajj. A testimony against the actors who have made of Islam a marginal faith.

A marginal faith offering marginal fruits.

On the margins of time and history.

Where the cry of ‘Labbaik’ goes unheard.


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