millions of pilgrims from all over the world will be converging on makkah in the coming days. they will retrace the footsteps of millions who have already made the spiritual journey to the valley of makkah since the time of adam.
hajj literally means "to continuously strive to reach one's goal." it is the last of the five pillars of islam. (the other four are a declaration of faith in one god and in prophet muhammad, the five daily prayers, offering regular charity, and fasting the month of ramadan.) pilgrimage is a once-in-a-lifetime obligation for those who have the physical and financial ability to undertake the journey.
hajj is essentially a reenactment of the rituals of the great prophets and teachers of faith. pilgrims symbolically relive the experience of exile and atonement undergone by adam and eve after they were expelled from heaven. they also retrace the footsteps of hajar as she ran between the hills of safa and marwah, searching for water for her thirsty baby. lastly, the pilgrims also commemorate the willingness of abraham to sacrifice his son for the sake of god. god later substituted a ram in place of abraham's son.
yet, hajj is more than these rituals. the faithful hope that it will bring about a deep spiritual transformation, one that will make him or her a better person. if such a change within does not occur, then the hajj will be merely a physical and material exercise devoid of any spiritual significance.
as all great religions teach, we are more than mere physical creatures in that we possess an essence beyond the material world. indeed, this is why all great religions have a tradition of pilgrimage. in the islamic tradition, hajj encapsulates this spiritual journey toward this essence.
the current state of affairs — both within and outside the muslim world — greatly increases the relevance of some of the spiritual and universal messages inherent in the hajj. as islamic scholar ibrahim musa asks rhetorically, "after paying homage to the two women eve and hajar in the rites of pilgrimage, how can some muslims still violate the rights and dignity of women in the name of islam? is this not a contradiction?"
indeed, the qur'an teaches:
[i will not waste the work of a worker among you, whether male or female, the one of you being from the other.] (aal `imran 3:195)
clearly, the white sea of men and women side by side performing tawaf around the ka`bah should lay to rest any claim that islam, as opposed to some muslims, degrades women.
the fact that millions of muslims transcending geographical, linguistic, level of practice, cultural, ethnic, color, economic, and social barriers converge in unison on makkah, attests to the universality of the hajj. it plants the seed to celebrate the diversity of our common humanity. pilgrims return home enriched by this more pluralistic and holistic outlook and with a new appreciation of their own origins.
one of the most celebrated western pilgrims is the african-american civil rights leader el-hajj malik el-shabbaz, more commonly known as malcolm x. the man who was renowned for preaching that whites were "devils" — especially the blond, blue-eyed ones — profoundly reassessed these views during the hajj. this transformation, of course, sealed his break with the black nationalist movement of the nation of islam.
contrary to the teachings of the nation of islam, he concluded that islam encompassed all of humanity and transcended race and culture. malcolm x later said, "in my 39 years on this earth, the holy city of makkah had been the first time i had ever stood before the creator of all and felt like a complete human."
in makkah, he discovered himself mixing with, "fellow muslims, whose eyes were the bluest of blue, whose hair was the blondest of blond, and whose skin was whitest of white." malcolm x was so inspired by what he witnessed, that, in letters to friends and relatives, he wrote, "america needs to understand islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem."
upon returning to america, he embarked on a mission to enlighten both blacks and whites with his new views. malcolm x understood that in order to truly learn from the hajj, its inherent spiritual lessons must extend beyond the fraternal ties of muslims to forging a common humanity with others.
in fact, as part of the spiritual experience, the pilgrimage links people across religions through a past shared by several abrahamic traditions. this combined with the islamic teaching of the common origin of humanity holds out much hope. indeed, the qur'an teaches:
[we created you from a single pair of a male and female (adam and eve), and made you into nations and tribes that you may know each other. the most honored of you in the sight of god is the most righteous of you] (al-hujurat 49:13)
this is a great celebration of the differences and, at the same time, the unity of all of humanity.
another essential spiritual message of the hajj is one of humility to god and his supremacy and control over all. the multitude of people and their inner beliefs and practices are all to be judged by god and god alone in his infinite wisdom and full knowledge. indeed, as the qur'an insists, [let there be no compulsion in religion, truth stands out clear from error.] (al-baqarah 2:256)
the result of a successful hajj is rich inner peace, which is manifested outwardly in the values of justice, honesty, respect, generosity, kindness, forgiveness, mercy, and empathy. and it is these values — all attributes of god almighty — that are indispensable to us all if we really want to get along in this world.