When we look at the surface of the current state of the ummah then we see a landscape foreboding and dense with shadows. These are not the happiest and most celebratory of moments in our history.
But should we despair? Should we turn our backs on the state of Muslims and Islam?
I have a distaste for pessimism. And so I find myself instinctively opposed to these attitudes. But my distaste is not my own. It has been cultivated by my readings of the Quran, the Ahadith (sayings) of the Prophet (saw) and by that radiant trajectory of wisdom that stretches and arcs across a millennium of Muslim civilisation – the wisdom of our saints and sages.
So when we look at the current landscape, what do we do? We could turn to the cliché of the bottle and the water. Is it half empty or half full? To the pessimist the answer is obvious. There is only one answer. To the optimist the question only starts at its being half full. Many other possibilities present themselves and spring to life. They may be the acknowledgment of the miracle of water itself. There may be the marvel of human invention in the design of the bottle. Apart from the act of drinking, there are the numerous possibilities to which the water may be put to use in unique and creative ways.
In this regard I am reminded of a most inspiring quote by Marcel Proust: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” It is not what we look at, but how and why we look at things that are the more important. We cannot always dismiss the “what”, but we ignore the “how” and “why” at our peril.
Today there are many Hujjaj (pilgrims) and potential Hujjaj who are seeking restitution, and, like all people subjected to exploitation, humiliation and degradation, restitution they must receive. But beyond the walls of restitution and requital there is yet a universe of beauty and liberating spirituality. All we need do as Muslims is never to allow ourselves to fall into that state of forgetfulness where we fail to renew and refresh our vision of things. The Quran promises us that “We shall reveal to you our signs on the horizons and within yourselves until it becomes manifest to you that He is the Truth.” And the Truth has declared itself as that which is Beautiful and that which loves beauty. “Hatta yatabayyan” (until it becomes manifest) is an emphatic imploration that we need to strive towards a continued renewal of envisioning and re-envisioning. In other words, to relentlessly strive towards seeing with “new eyes”. The multiplicity of signs that infuse the “horizons” remains the same; likewise the innate goodness (or Fitrah) that resides in every human being as the makhluq (unique creation) of Allah (swt), and which bestows upon him or her, his or her dignity and honour, remains the same. “Kullu mawludin yawlad ‘ala l-fitrah… (Every human being is born in a natural state of goodness…).
When we turn and look at the Hajj we observe five features that enable us to re-open our eyes and to reawaken our hearts to the wonders of this event.
These are the ideas of Tadhiya or Udhiya (sacrifice) – upon which the ‘Ayd al-Adha (The Feast of Immolation) is premised – Maghfirah (forgiveness), Tawbah (repentance), Rahmah (mercy) and Ma’rifah (knowledge of the Divine). These may be conceived as five constellations in the universe of Islamic Spirituality or Tasawwuf – which constitutes the essence, not only of Islam, but of every authentically revealed religion across the ages.
In the majestic spiritual and spiritualised event of the Hajj, in all the grandeur of its dignified humility, all five of these aspects emerge in one of the most fascinating interplay of juxtaposed alterities and opposites. We shall look at these sequentially.
1) The Prophet Ibrahim’s (as) First Encounter:
a) The Prophet Ibrahim (as) and the opposition he encountered from Nimrod who considered himself a god. Here the former stands as the archetype of good – the divinely inspired representative of Allah on earth; the latter stands as the archetype of evil – the one who believed he was a little god.
The majority of exegetes are of the view that the following encounter recounted by the Quran occurred between the Prophet Ibrahim (as) and Nimrod:
Have you (Muhammad) not turned your vision to the one who disputed with Ibrahim about his Lord, because Allah had granted him power?
And Ibrahim said (to Nimrod): “My Lord is the One who gives life and death.” He replied: “I am the one who gives life and death.” Ibrahim said: “It is Allah who causes the sun to rise from the East. Could you, then, cause it to rise from the West?”
Thus was he confounded who (in arrogance) rejected faith. Nor does Allah give guidance to a people unjust.” (Quran, 2: 258).
The ubiquitous tension between justice and tyranny, between the humble that chooses dialogue and argument and the arrogant – those moronic purveyors of human perversity – that chooses force and coercion, is revealed in this Quranic story in stark aphoristic terms. “For, Ibrahim was indeed” as the Quran states elsewhere, “forbearing, compassionate, and humbly observant of Allah.” (Quran, 11; 75).
b) The Prophet Ibrahim (the destroyer of idols), and his father Azar, (the sculptor of idols). This is a story, once again, captured by the Quran in an interplay of ostensibly irreconcilable alterities. “O my father” says Ibrahim, “knowledge has reached me that has not reached you. So follow me, I will lead you to a way that is straight.” (Quran, 19: 43).
A number of verses later – designed to declare the inspired attitudes of Prophethood deeply blessed and infused with the characteristically benign sense of the sacred – the Quran reveals the Prophetic Way with consummate finesse against the belligerent obstinacy of his father:
(The father) replied: “Do you reject my gods, O Ibrahim? If you cease not then I will indeed stone you. So depart from me for a very long time.
Ibrahim said: “Peace be upon you, I will implore my Lord to forgive you; for He, indeed, is most gracious to me.” [Italics mine] (Quran, 19: 46-7)
c) The Prophet Ibrahim (as) and the fire. “We said: ‘O fire, be cool and a source of peace for Ibrahim.” (21: 69).
To punish with fire is one of the most deplorable acts in Islam. The order to execute Ibrahim (as) by burning occurred after he had destroyed all the idols except one – the largest of all. On being questioned about the act he invited them to seek their answer from the one remaining idol. Unable to respond to the request he once again questioned the sagaciousness of believing in something that can neither produce anything good nor harmful. “Burn him!” they clamoured “if there is anything that you deem fit to do.” (Quran, 21: 68).
The heat of the burning pyre of fire was transmuted into a source of comfort for him. The power of the spirit was made to triumph over that of the material. By Divine Intent this is a demonstrative example that neither the flames of hatred in this world nor those of the next are able to touch the myriad contours of a secure, caring and loving faith. The fires of belligerence, prejudice and bigotry simply disintegrate beneath the towering efflorescence of the lasting light of secure faith.
2) Into Makkah:
a) After his migration with Hajir (as) and his son the Prophet Ismail (as), to a land (Makkah) described as a place bereft of water and vegetation (la ma’a fiha wa la zar’a) – barren and inhospitable – he was commanded to separate from them. The severe trials to which Ibrahim (as) was subjected seemed endless; the separation was painful; but he was forbearing and reaped the rewards. “And remember when Ibrahim was tried by his Lord, he fulfilled them.” (Quran, 2: 124). After multiple separations between Makkah and Hebron the ultimate purpose of these arduous journeys found their fruition. They found their consummation in the establishment of the Ka’aba – the epicentre of Islamic worship and spirituality. The moment is lauded in the Quran in the following verse: “And when Ibrahim and Ismail raised the foundations of the House, they prayed, ‘Our Lord, accept this duty from us, for indeed, You are the Hearing, the Seeing.’” (Quran, 2: 127). And the zeitgeist for its establishment, not only for that moment, but for all time, is captured in the prayer of Ibrahim (as): “My Lord! Make this a region of security (and peace) and provide its people with fruits, such as those who believe in Allah and the Last Day.” (Quran, 2: 126). True union, it appears, can only come after a painful but patient endurance of separation.
b) The barrenness of Makkah and the spring of Zam-Zam.
Hajir (as) and the young Ismail (as), were left alone in an arid wasteland. When Ibrahim took leave of them Hajir enquired from him whether it was a personal decision of his or whether it was an order from Allah. “It is an order from Allah” he replied. She accepted. When the food and water were exhausted and the child began to cry, she took to the hillocks of Safa and Marwa, desperate in her search for nourishment. Seven times she traversed the hillocks when her gaze fell upon a bubbling spring of water at the feet of Ismail (as). Through her frantic prayers, through her consummate faith, Heaven had touched earth. And through this meeting of Heaven and earth the perennial waters of Zam-Zam flowed. Heaven is, because we are. Other than that, heaven serves no purpose; nor Hell, for that matter. Hajir (as) is the archetypal symbol of relentless hope and faith and stands at once as both a deeply immersed and deeply interfused embodiment of the Quranic verse: “Do not despair of the Mercy of Allah.” (Quran, 39: 53). The rejuvenation of life itself, we learn, is possible under the bleakest of conditions. For this reason alone the memory of Hajir has been immortalised in the sa’y (traversing the distance between the hillocks of Safa and Marwa seven times) as one of the integrals of the rites of Hajj. The sa’y itself is a majestic symbol of the near imponderables of Feminine hope, faith, courage and spirituality. Males – and particularly those with a dim view of our female counterparts – would do well to remember this. Perhaps then we might rediscover the vitalising potential of hope, faith, courage and spirituality within our own lives. Without this perception and understanding, the sa’y itself might prove to be quite unremarkable, let alone an integral.
c) His dua’s (prayers) for a son and the subsequent command to sacrifice him.
Ibrahim (as), whose hands were raised in earnest appeal for a child, was now commanded to slaughter that very child. While the life of Zam-Zam flowed for Hajir and Ismail the sacrificial blood of Ismail now had to flow for the sake of the Divine. Beyond every test for the Prophet Ibrahim (as) and Sayyiditna Hajir (as) this is the one that evinces the greatest sense of pathos. The joys, pleasures and bliss of parenthood can be wonderful and inspiring. But the pain and burdens may often be greater. It is difficult to imagine the pain and burden of these two great people now called upon to sacrifice a child they had sacrificed so much for.
d) The Prophet Ibrahim (as) and Iblis: The Nur (Light) of Prophethood and the Thulm (darkness) of Iblis. Confronted with this daunting task to sacrifice his son Iblis conspired to dissuade him. It was but a “dream” (ahlam) Iblis averred. What rational, what sane, what compassionate human being could allow him/herself to succumb to such an unimaginable perversion through the promptings of a mere dream? The extraordinary irony of this moment is inescapable. Here we have the archetype of corruption and perversity masquerading as the humane voice of mercy, compassion and respect for life. In contrast, the “voice” of the Divine is cast as a mere delusion – a deceptive dream, specious and spurious deserving of little more than acrid contempt. In this extradiegetic Quranic account of Ibrahim (as) and Iblis (in the theatre of this “Divine Tragedy”) light is presented as darkness; and darkness as light – a condition that both presents that primordial condition of the ultimate tension of duality in a world of a unifying diversity. The reality of te spiritual way – we learn from this story – is that the spiritual way, the way of ruhaniyyah, is that where there is light, darkness always lurks. But it is a darkness that often lurks in the vestments of light – a condition not unlike much of what modern hubris often pretends to be. As modern “owners” of this planet – and not like the ‘ibad ar-Rahman (the Bondsmen of the Merciful) we ought to be and who ought to walk upon the earth with humility (Quran, 25: 63) – we often miserably misread the darkness of our egos for the light of rationality and liberated progress. Revelation belongs to the realm of ahlam (dreams); humane rationality to that of ilham (inspiration) – a singular perversion of contrasts. We often appear condemned to confusing the satanic with the Adamic.
e) Divine purpose in the form of Ibrahim (as) contrasted with human perversity in the form of Nimrod and satanic perversity in the form of Iblis: between Hebron and Makkah, Ibrahim (as) alternated between a human tyrant who imagined himself as a god and a supra-terrestrial being who had in fact witnessed God yet remains the archetypal symbol of all that rejects God. In other words, witnessing God as Iblis did is no guarantee of belief. His kibr, his arrogance alone in refusing to bow to Adam (as), declared him a kafir.
a) The expulsion of the Prophet Adam (as) and Hawa (as) from Jannah (the Paradisal Abode) and their meeting at Jabal Rahmah on ‘Arafah.
After a moment of forgetfulness in eating from the “Forbidden Tree”, Adam (as) and Hawa (as), were expelled from Paradise. It is singularly significant that the word “human” translated into Arabic is “Insan”. The root word for “Insan” is nisyan (to forget). The human is a forgetful being that stands in need of dhikr (remembrance of Allah) to reconnect and remind the forgetful self of its ultimate spiritual vocation in gaining nearness to Allah. The Edenic celestial abode that Adam (as) and Hawa (as) inhabited was no guarantee against such forgetfulness. And so they were expelled to this earthly domain. But Allah’s Mercy perennially precedes His wrath. Written upon the Throne (’Arsh) of Allah are the words “My Mercy infinitely, precedes my Wrath.” And so it happened (by a Merciful Divine decree) that Adam (as) and Hawa (as) were reunited – after a long duration of earthly separation – on the plain of ‘Arafah, at a mount now called Jabal Rahmah (The Mount of Mercy). Once again Heaven touched earth and Mercy was triumphant. It is through the figuration of these two souls, fashioned with love and mercy, and re-united through love and mercy, that we honour our standing on ‘Arafah with the bedrock of Jabal Rahmah at its centre. The singular moral of this story is that Divine retribution holds within itself – unrelentingly – the promise of Divine Mercy.
b) It is partly for the above supernal act of divine Grace that it is haram (prohibited) to believe that maghfirah (forgiveness) will not be granted on ‘Arafah. The normal order of things is that we need to implore Allah for forgiveness; on ‘Arafah we are compelled to accept His forgiveness.
c) Unity and diversity on ‘Arafah: this symbolizes the fact that the complexion of Islam as a civilization of oneness is coloured by this complexion of diversity. The nature of Tawhid can only find its fruition in acknowledgement of that diversity. There is no room, no scope, for prejudice and bigotry in Islam.
The Quran states:
And so amongst people, and crawling creatures and cattle, are they of various colours. Those truly fear Allah amongst His servants who have knowledge, for Allah is exalted in Might, oft forgiving. (Quran, 35: 28).
And equally emphatically:
And of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the variations in your languages and your colours. Indeed herein are signs for those who have knowledge. (Quran, 30:22)
d) Knowledge and ignorance.
One of the root words for ‘Arafah is “Irfan” (or knowledge inspired and learnt from the Divine). The acquisition of knowledge is one of the most encouraged and emphatic demands of the Quran and the Way of the Prophet Muhammad (saw). Said the Prophet (saw): “The seeking of knowledge is obligatory upon every Muslim male and female.” An ignorant Muslim is an oxymoron. ‘Arafah stands as an immortalised symbol of that Divine imperative. This is a form of knowledge that is not merely limited to discursive reasoning and mechanical rationality; but one that sets out to embrace the wisdom behind the diversity of the created order. One that opens hearts and souls to the beauty of inclusion and that disbars the ravaging effects of bigoted and narrow exclusivism. It is a form of knowledge which, while paying homage to the particularities of any religious dispensation, places far greater importance on the war, embracing engagement of universalism.
Says the Quran:
O people, We have created you male and female and made you into nations and tribes that you may come to know one another (not that you may despise one another). Indeed, the most honoured in the sight of Allah is the most righteous amongst you. (49:13)
e) The deep, silent introspection, meditation and reflection of ‘Arafah precedes the activity of pelting the jamarat at Mina. Despite the millions of people, those who have been there will recall the all-pervasive silence and tranquillity that sets in after the Noon prayers. The echoing silence encourages, indeed demands, a moment of profound contemplation. It is a silence that tells us that there can be no productive action before the requisite reflection. Only souls purified by forgiveness (maghfirah), by an understanding of the human condition – male and female – as essentially equal in the “eyes” of Allah that are souls qualified to pelt shaytan. Other than that they need to to urn the stones and pelt the shaytan within themselves. Indeed, this is a moment where we need to reflect and recognise the importance of starving the go and feeding the soul.
4) Makkah – Symbolic acts and Sites:
a) The counter-clockwise movement around the Ka’ba instead of the usual clockwise movement.
This requires a suspension of linear and discursive thinking and symbolises a condition designed to arrest the march of time and return the devotee to the first primordial call of Ibrahim (as) reflected in the Quranic verse:
And proclaim the pilgrimage among people; they will come to you on foot and mounted on every kind of camel, lean on account of journeys through deep and distant mountain highways. That they may witness the benefits provided for them, and celebrate the name of Allah through the days appointed…” (22: 27-8).
Since the day the words “they will come to you” were revealed they have represented a metaphorical visitation of the maqam (station) of Ibrahim (as). And that maqam is the maqam of Peace and Salutations. It is well to remember that “salutations” do not only mean “greetings” but also “recognition”. At the physical “Maqam of Ibrahim” we should therefore stand in recognition of the one upon whom the peace and blessings of Allah were bestowed for his sacrifices, commitment and endurance. For those of spiritual insight it is quite irrelevant whether the physical maqam is on the exact location or not. It is important that we understand the meaning of our salutations at this station. In spiritual terms (or, more accurately, in tasawwuf or Sufism) a spiritual maqam is a status that marks a permanent condition of spiritual attainment (such as mahabbah – love for Allah and for one’s fellow human being, or sakinah – an inner state of tranquillity with oneself, with others and ultimately with Allah, the Exalted); as opposed to a hal (spiritual state) that marks a transitory phase of Divine inspiration).
Through recognition comes internalisation. It is in the internalisation of these above-mentioned values, those of sacrifice, commitment and endurance – and face-to-face with the maqam of Ibrahim (as) – that the pilgrim (Haj) finds his or her emancipation.
b) The Hajr al-Aswad.
The “Black Stone”, or Hajr al-Aswad, perched in a single corner of the Ka’aba at the most sacred centre of the Muslim world, stands darkened by the sins of humanity. Said the Prophet: “The Black Stone came down from Paradise whiter than milk, but the sins of Adam’s offspring turned it black.”
At the most sacred nexus in the world of Islam we are confronted with one of the most ironic juxtapositions of sin and salvation. Millennia of accumulated sins of forgetfulness, disobedience and transgressions lie ensconced in a canopy of mercy and forgiveness. Within the hallowed precincts of the Masjid al-Haram the Black stone stands almost indiscernible, yet alive in its presence, not because of the “sins” it has gathered and ingurgitated, but because of the fact that no sin, no matter how great in magnitude, can never supersede the overarching Mercy and Forgiveness of Allah. And so it is that the pilgrims rush and clamour to kiss the “Right Hand” of Allah – the Hand of Clemency and Compassion.
5) A Final Word:
Finally, when we depart for Hajj we depart in a state of penitence with the full consciousness of ourselves as erring and forgetful human beings. It is imperative before our departure to seek forgiveness from those whom we have wronged. But after a sincere and successful hajj, we return as pure as the day on which our mothers gave birth to us. Sid the Prophet (saw): Man lam yarfuth wa lam yafsuq, raja’ ka yawmi waladathu ummuhu – Those who do not engage in verbal and physical obscenities will return (to their homelands) as pure as the day their mothers gave birth to them. We return, in other words, on our original fitra (our natural, primordial state). We ought to return, therefore, as a guiding light of the lights of those five constellations of Tadhiya, Maghfirah, Tawbah, Rahmah and Ma’rifah. We ought to return, as it were, as repositories of mercy and gateways of blessings for those who now seek our dua’s (supplications).
6) A Quranic Postscript:
I conclude this talk with two verses from the Quran:
The first House of Worship appointed for people was that at Bakkah. Filled with blessings and as a guidance to the entire created order.
In it are signs manifest, such as the Station of Ibrahim… (3, 96-7)
And the heart of the message in situ:
He Ibrahim said: “I will go to my Lord! He will surely guide me. O my Lord grant me a righteous child.”
So We gave him the good news of a boy ready to suffer and forbear. Then when Isma’il reached the age of maturity and competence Ibrahim said: ‘O my son I se in a vision that I offer you in sacrifice. Now consider, what is your opinion?”
(Isma’il) said: “O my father, do as you have been commanded to do. You will find me, Allah willing, one steadfast and patient.”
So when they had both submitted their wills to Allah and he had laid him down on his face for the sacrifice, We called out to him: ‘O Ibrahim you have fulfilled the vision!”
Indeeed in this way do We reward those who do right. For this was obviously a test. And we ransomed him with a momentous sacrifice (of a ram). Then We left this blessing for him among generations to come in later times.
“Peace and salutations upon Ibrahim!”
In this manner do We reward those who do right. For he (Ibrahim) was one of the believing servants. (Quran, 37: 99-111).
It is because of this spirit of peace, salutations and Divine reward that we are compelled to acknowledge the greatness of Hajj – hence the importance of expressing joy in a spirit of celebration and elevated togetherness on the day of Eid.
And Allah knows best.
Shaykh Seraj Hendricks
6 November, 2011.