Bringing Back Right Lessons

Although the Haj is a strictly Muslim experience, many hajis find it affects the way they also see interfaith relations. In “Estimating the Impact of the Hajj: Religion and Tolerance in Islam’s Global Gathering”, a 2008 study of Pakistani pilgrims by the Weatherhead Center of International Affairs at Harvard University, the authors found that performing the haj “increases pilgrims’ desire for peace and tolerance toward others”–Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

By Kalsoom Lakhani

Published: Fri 4 Dec 2009, 11:10 PM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 12:48 AM

The study compared successful and unsuccessful applicants in a lottery used by Pakistan to allocate Haj visas and the personal accounts of pilgrims.

Starting on November 25, up to three million Muslims from around the world gathered to perform the haj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. The journey is the fifth pillar of Islam. All Muslims who are able-bodied and can afford to travel to Mecca must complete it at least once in their lifetime.

The haj is the journey of the individual, within and without, amid the collective. It is about sacrificing human comforts to achieve a higher, spiritual closeness with God and create a strong bond with fellow human beings.

Purity and peace are central to the pilgrimage. According to Mosharraf Zaidi, a Pakistani columnist for the English-language daily The News who performed the haj last year, the ihram was a fascinating part of the journey. Ihram is both a physical and mental state of purity, and is outwardly expressed by wearing special white robes. “In ihram, you cannot lose your temper or do anything that would disturb your own peace, or the peace of anyone around you,” he said.

All Muslim men must wear the same clothing to enter into this state: two sheets of plain white, un-hemmed cotton; Muslim women must be dressed modestly, covering their bodies and heads but keeping their faces uncovered. The attire signifies equality among all pilgrims in the eyes of God, eliminating differences based on class, sect, ethnicity and nationality–prejudices that too often cloud our judgment in the world beyond the Haj.

“Haj is probably the strongest equaliser that I’d ever participated in,” said Shirin Elkoshairi, an Egyptian-American consultant based in Virginia, who performed it in 2004. The haj, she said, “deeply imprinted a sense of being connected to many different ethnicities, nationalities, languages, cultures and experiences.”

This sense of spiritual clarity and unity feeds into the culmination of the haj, known as the Day of Arafat. On the dawn of this day, Muslims make their way to Mount Arafat, where the Prophet Muhammad delivered his farewell sermon some 1,400 years ago, and where it is believed all will gather on the Day of Judgment.

During the sermon, he emphasised the importance of tolerance and unity, saying, “All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab except by piety and good action. Learn that every Muslim is a brother to every Muslim and that the Muslims constitute one brotherhood.”

In light of this spirit, Muslim pilgrims come together this day to pray and seek repentance. For many, it is their most humbling and cleansing experience.

During the haj, spiritual clarity is an individual experience, but is also mirrored in the journey of all pilgrims, a reflection on how ideas of personal accountability, tolerance and humility are universal qualities of Islam. Often, however, many of these lessons can be forgotten once the ihram is no longer present and pilgrims resume their daily lives, as some who have returned have noted.

In a world burdened with violence and intolerance, it is important to harness lessons from the Haj to tackle these issues and foster greater mutual respect among Muslims as well as between Muslims and non-Muslims. Networks of hajis should be developed to sustain the sentiment of tolerance and equality brought forth by their pilgrimage, especially in light of the aforementioned study’s finding that pilgrims are 22 per cent more likely to say that people of different religions are equal. Hajis should also help educate others who were not part of the journey and act as leaders within their own communities, thereby bringing the lessons of their journey home.

Kalsoom Lakhani is the director of Social Vision, the strategic philanthropy arm of ML Resources, LLC. She also runs the CHUP! - Changing Up Pakistan blog. This article first appeared in Washington Post/Newsweek’s OnFaith and was written for the Common Ground News Service

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