As I type these lines, some 2.5 million men, women, and children are gathered at Mina, the tent-city on the outskirts of Makkah. They have come from all over the world, not on lean camels and horses, as they used to, but on planes, ships, boats, and vehicles of all kinds. They are all there for one reason: Hajj.
Mina is no more what it used to be when Prophet Ibrahim, upon him peace, took his young son there to sacrifice him because he had seen a dream in which he was commanded to do so. That enormous act of faith, enshrined in rites and sanctified by none other than Allah, the Most High, has remained central in the lives of believers ever since that day. Year after year, the Hajj brings to a very large number of humanity fruits of spiritual revival which no other religious ritual does. This very special and transforming aspect of Hajj has been the experiential basis of certain mystique which the returning Hujjaj continue to narrate. Something happens to them during the three days they spend in Makkah, Mina, Arafat, and Muzdalifa; something so deep and so transforming that thousands of men, women and children return from the Hajj and start to live a different kind of life, different from what it used to be before their Hajj.
There are no words to narrate the experience of Hajj, but the transformed men, women, and children are seen by all, walking in the streets of almost every city and locality throughout the Muslim world. Their faces reflect it; their words state it; their deeds communicate it. Somewhere in the process of performing the rites of Hajj, something very deep takes hold of them and transforms them, cleaning decades of rust from their hearts and renewing their commitment to their Creator to live a life of piety, justice, and high moral order.
If every single person who performs Hajj were to experience this and return to his or her homeland as a transformed person, the entire Muslim world would be transformed in a few decades. Obviously, this is not the case. Thousands of pilgrims return home just as they had left, with only a superficial coloring of the experience which does not take long to disappear. What is the difference between those who return transformed and those who do not? What happens to some and not to others and why?
There is no way to analyze this. Only the pilgrim and his or her Creator know this most intimate situation, but the tradition point to several factors: intention, abidance of rules, and striving (juhd). If something is missing from these three important aspects of Hajj, one is denied the benefits.
The greatest of all rites of Hajj is, of course, the standing-vigil at Arafat, as “there is no day on which Allah frees a greater number of His slaves from the Hellfire than the Day of Arafat, Sayyida A’isha, may Allah be well-pleased with her, narrated from the Prophet: “Allah draws near to His slaves and boasts about them to the angels and asks [a rhetorical question]: ‘What is their desire?’” (Sahih Muslim)
The Prophet also said: “The best supplication is the one on the Day of Arafat, and the best thing that I and other Prophets before me have said is: There is no deity except Allah; He has no partners; to Him belong the dominion and all praise; He has power over all things.” (Mu’ata, Imam Malik)
It is at Arafat that the last verse of the Qur_?_?n containing legal injunctions was revealed on the “day of two Ids, as Ibn Abbas, may Allah be well-pleased with them both, called that Friday, when, shortly after the delivery of his Farewell Sermon at Araf_?t and while he was still sitting on his camel Qaswa, the Prophet received the third verse of Surat al-Ma’ida—a verse which Ibn Kathir calls the “greatest blessing of Allah on this Umma”: …today I have completed your religion for you and have bestowed upon you the full measure of My blessings; and it has been My pleasure to choose Islam as your religion… .
I was with the Prophet on the Farewell Pilgrimage,” related Asma bint Umays, may Allah be well-pleased with her, “we were moving when suddenly Jibril, upon him peace, came; and the Prophet leaned down on his camel and the camel started to bend down with the weight of the revelation and I put my shawl over the Prophet” (Tafsir al-Tabari).
Fourteen hundred and twenty years after the first and the only Hajj of the Prophet, it continues to be the greatest annual gathering of Muslims in one place and one time. Just like the time of the Prophet, upon him be peace, this greatest gathering of Muslims also continues to be a barometer of the spiritual state of the Ummah as a whole, for there is no other time or place where one can find a representative sample of all men, women, and children who make up the Ummah—the community of believers now living one of the most difficult times of its existence.
If dysfunctional institutions, political anarchy, illiteracy, ignorance, violence and poverty are indicators of the state of the Muslim world, there is, simultaneously, the silver lining of a rite which can (at least potentially) transform each and every pilgrim, and thereby revive the Ummah. There would never be a time when every returning pilgrim would be a revived person, as experience tells us, but may be this year the benefit of Hajj will spread far and wide and deep in the body politic of the Muslim world. May be, just may be.
Muzaffar Iqbal is the founder-president of Center for Islam and Science (www.cis-ca.org), Canada, and editor of Islam & Science, a semi-annual journal of Islamic perspectives on science and civilization. He holds a Ph.D. in chemistry (University of Saskatchewan, Canada, 1983), but most of his published work is related to Islam and various aspects of Islamic civilization, including the Islamic scientific tradition.
Born in Lahore, Pakistan, he has lived in Canada since 1979. He has held academic and research positions at University of Saskatchewan (1979-1984), University of Wisconsin-Madison (1984-85), and McGill University (1986). During 1990-1999, he lived and worked in Pakistan, first as Director (Scientific Information) for the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) Committee on Scientific and Technological Cooperation (COMSTECH) and later as Director (International Cooperation), Pakistan Academy of Sciences.