MOST prominent TV channels have special coverage of the Haj pilgrimage, and thousands of viewers from all over the world tune in to Saudi TV’s live broadcast of the pilgrimage through satellite channels and the Internet.
The sight of hundreds of thousands of believers from every nation of the world, united in their intention and actions, dressed in the same simple, unstitched white garments, calling out the Talbiyah (Here I am O Allah, Here I am!) going through the various stages and rituals of the Haj has been known to move even the most apathetic of viewers.
The curiosity generated by the Haj is not a new phenomenon, it is said that Ludovico di Varthema, an Italian traveler entered Arabia under the name of Yunus from Damascus, and made the journey to Makkah and Medina disguised as a Mamluk escort of a Haj caravan (1503 CE). He described the chief pilgrim sites with great accuracy, piquing the interest of others.
Centuries later, Sir Richard Burton described the same journey in his ‘Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madina and Makkah’ (1853 CE). Addressing the question of how ethical it was for him to masquerade as a believer in order to gain entry into Islam’s holiest sites, he wrote: “The fact is, there are honest men who believe that Al-Islam with its capital tenets approaches much closer to the faith of Jesus (peace be upon him) than do the Pauline and Athanasian modifications, which in this day and age have divided the Indo-European mind into Catholic and Roman, Greek and Russian, Lutheran and Anglican[…] Practically, a visit after Arab Makkah to Anglo-Indian Aden with its “priests after the order of Melchisedek” suggested to me that the Moslem (sic) may be more tolerant, more enlightened, more charitable than many societies of self-styled Christians.”
There are several verses of the Qur’an that indicate that the Haj has signs and benefits for humanity as a whole, which point to the truth of Islam, and that the Haj rituals have been prescribed so that “they [people] may witness the benefits (provided for them), and to celebrate the Name of Allah…” (22:28).
Ibn Abbas (may Allah be pleased with him) in his explanation of this verse said, “This means benefits in the world and the Hereafter.” In his exegesis of this verse, Abdullah Yusuf Ali says: “There are benefits both for this, our material life and for our spiritual life. Of the former kind, are those associated with intercourse, which furthers trade and increases knowledge. Of the latter kind are the opportunities of realizing some of our spiritual yearnings in sacred associations that go back to the most ancient times. Of both kinds may be considered opportunities which the pilgrimage provides for strengthening our international brotherhood.”
Interestingly, some non-Muslim writers have attempted to go beyond the physical and visual ‘spectacle’ aspect of the Haj, in an attempt to understand its spiritual significance for Muslims and its underlying message to the rest of humanity.
In ‘Understanding the Islamic Experience’, John Renard writes: “No community of faith has developed a stronger sense of pilgrimage’s literal and symbolic centrality than has Islam […] Haj epitomizes their sense of identity as a unique community of faith[…] Islam has thought of itself as both a “middle community” and an unswervingly centered community […] Perhaps more than any other tradition of Islamic tradition, pilgrimage symbolizes the community and equality of persons before God, and embodies the intense longing many Muslims feel for a humanity healed (of) its divisions.”
The fact that non-Muslim authors have taken the road to understanding as opposed to outright antagonism and apathy in the past might seem incongruent and out of place in our tumultuous times, when there is so much ignorance and deliberate misinformation perpetrated about Islam.
However, this is the need of the hour – to invite fair-minded, unbiased people to examine and understand the precepts and practice of Islam – so that a clear, unbiased picture emerges instead of the grotesque caricature that is passed off these days.