The Hajj is Here
By Micah Halpern
Wednesday November 17, 2010
The Hajj is here. The Hajj has begun.
The Hajj, a central component of Islam, leaves many in the West befuddled.
Simply stated, Hajj means Islamic religious pilgrimage. But it is much more than the simple translation. Understanding the Hajj can help us better understand Islam.
Hajj is one of the Five Pillars, the five most essential tenets, of Islam. These tenets are enormously important for followers of Islam. According to this pillar, or tenet, Muslims are obligated to make the journey to important Islamic sites. That means that at some point before they die, Muslims must make pilgrimage to Mecca - one of those holy sites.
Contrary to popular opinion, the Hajj is neither grounded in nor revolves around Mohammed. The Hajj revolves around Abraham, known in Islam as Ibrahim, and around his son Ishmael.
Even the name proves this. The word "Hajj" comes from the shared Biblical and Koranic story of Ishmael. In the biblical version, Ishmael's mother was named Hagar. In Arabic Hagar is Hajjar.
Interestingly (but not importantly), Hajjar is never actually mentioned in the Koran. Nothing too much should be read into that because neither is Sarah mentioned in the Koran. Actually, in the Koran, very few women are mentioned.
The Koran refers simply to "Ishmael's mother." The name of Ishmael's mother, Hajjar, only enters Islamic tradition through the Hadith, the sayings and teachings of Mohammed as handed down and recorded after the Koran.
In both the Hadith and the Koran we see the combined story of Hajjar and Ishmael - and that story is a central component of Islam. Hajjar and Ishmael are abandoned by Ibrahim in the desert and eventually, while searching for water, they find a well. According to the most commonly accepted story, the well sprung forth when the angel Jibral tapped his heal. According to other versions, the angel Jibral tapped his wing. Still other versions of the Hadith tell of the child Ishmael crying and explain that the child pounded his foot on the ground in frustration and from there spouted a spring of water. That spring, in all versions, is called Zamzam
The spring symbolizes life. The spring symbolizes salvation. Because of the spring, Ishamel and Hajjar will live. Hajjar then walks back and forth and back and forth between the mountains seven times. She circles the well seven times. And that is the origin of another important Islamic tradition called the Tawaf ceremony - the circling of the Kaabah, the site located right next to the Zamzam well, seven times.
As the Hajji, the Muslim who has made the pilgrimage to Hajj encircles the Kaaba, he (it is always a "he", no women are counted in the Hajj) says: "In the name of God, God is Great, God is Great, God is Great and Praise be to God" In Arabic: "Bism Allah Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar wa lil Lahi Alhamd."
And on the following day the Hajji goes to Mount Arafat.
It is no coincidence. The first and foremost leader of the Palestinian people, Yasser Arafat, chose his name from this part of the Hajj. To not successfully fulfill this segment of the Hajj is to invalidate the entire Hajj.
Mount Arafat is also called Jabal al Rahmah, the mountain of forgiveness. Arafat means mountain of contemplation. It is at this spot that the Hajji must spend an entire afternoon until sunset reading from the Koran and praying privately. According to Islamic tradition Mount Arafat was the site of the Garden of Eden.
When The Hajji finishes his prayer, he is instructed to ceremonially stone the devil named Ramy al Jamaray. This is the devil who tried to challenge Ibrahim the father as he was taking his son Ishmael to sacrifice. The Biblical and Koranic stories of the sacrifice differ in names only.
When all the steps involved in performing the Hajj have been successfully completed, the festival of Id al Adah begins. Id al Adah reenacts the saving of Ishmael when a ram was found and offered as the sacrifice in place of the son. For Muslims, Id al Adah symbolizes Allah's mercy in having saved Ishmael. This festival, during which Muslims slaughter rams and partake of festive meals, is celebrated around the world.
Religiously, historically and ideologically, the Hajj is of central import to followers of Islam. It behooves us to understand what matters to Muslims. It weakens us when we do not.