Islamic Perspectives

The Hajj: Understanding Sacrifice as Premise

But for many, Hajj is just the physical journey, a soulless movement of the body among bodies. Of the ego among egos.

The Hajj – the annual pilgrimage made by Muslims to the Ka’bah, the symbolic House of God at Makkah – is, apart from other considerations, a commemoration. It is a commemoration of a life among lives, a family among families, an event among events, and a sacrifice among sacrifices. It is a commemoration of the trials of Abraham among men, of his family among families, of the building of the Ka’bah among buildings, of a human offering substituted by an animal at a trial among trials.

The Prophet, the Patriarch, Abraham, on whom is peace, was a model. A community by himself. An Ummah, or a nation, as the Qur’an so pithily called him.

If the Last Revelation called him that, Muhammad, the Last Messenger, was told to emulate his Millah – his tradition – for he was the Haneef. The Haneef, the one who stood upright, steadfast, without turning his back on what he believed to be true. Such was Abraham, no matter what his steadfastness called for.

No matter what the cost. No matter what the sacrifice.

Sacrifice: the word which, in its completeness, was the very characteristic of which Abraham’s life was the ultimate personification. A life that was lived through the fire and fury of trials and tribulations, for his faith still to come out unscathed, indeed strengthened, and glowing to the core. A life sublimated by the purifying touch of consistency amidst adversity.

Of persistence amidst challenges. Of perseverance amidst distractions. Indeed, of patience amidst tribulations.

Abraham and his first-born, Ishmael, were divine gifts for mankind. In Abraham’s readiness to leave his wife and son – born to him in old age – in the wilderness of a hostile, unyielding, Arabian desert; in Abraham’s willingness, at the command of God, to take the life of this first-born yet again several years later; in the erection of the Ka’bah’s walls by this remarkable pair of father and son, and the consecration of the Hajj as an annual pilgrimage for the homecoming of the heart for millions of believers for all time, Abraham and Ishmael remain our beacons – our institutions – of guidance.

Had not Abraham prayed out to God:

“Verily, my prayer, my yearnings, my life and my death are all hereby consecrated to God, the Lord of all the worlds. For, in this, have I been instructed, and therein am I the first to submit myself (in total submission)”?

Clearly, this was no idle comment, for few men in history have been as sorely tested for compliance as was Abraham, the Haneef.

From his first realizations of what constituted the true Reality of existence, from his first faltering steps towards the obedience of the One besides whom there is nothing worthy of worship, Abraham charted out his path separate, distinct and away from that of his idolatrous father and people. For, in the uncompromising submission to the One did Abraham draw the line between himself and none less than his own father, the one closest to him by blood, indeed his progenitor. Therein was Abraham’s first offering, his first sacrifice, for what he believed in. He had given up his relations with the closest of his relations, and God accepted it of him, and made of it an example for believers.

For eternity has it been marked in the Last Revelation:

“Verily, you have in Abraham and those that stood with him, an excellent example when he turned to his father and his people and declared, ‘Today has there come up a wall between us and you, which will not be breached until you accept God alone as worthy of worship.'”

Abraham would break up their idols leaving alone the biggest to be questioned later, to show them the futility of their ways, and in turn, they would hurl him into a fire-pit for his transgression. The fire-pit of Nimrod, the Tyrant, who ruled the domain of idolatry, and in whose service was Abraham’s father. But the fire burned Abraham not; instead, it would be the fire of his unflinching faith that would quench their fire-pit and the tyrannies of the Nimrods of History.

Doubtless, distance from home and family is an ordeal. A sacrifice. And Abraham would go through ordeal after ordeal. Through sacrifice after sacrifice. To prove his trust and his tryst.  His trust in the Divine. And his tryst with Destiny.

In Abraham’s old age did Hagar, his wife, conceive Ishmael as their first-born. Ishmael: the fruit of a yearning that spanned a lifetime, the fruit of prayers, of tears and two hearts that ached for an offspring, even if that was to come in the evening of their lives. And come it did, with divine grace.

Still would God try Abraham, when He required of him to cast away his wife and infant son in the barrenness of the desert away from home and habitation, away from his love and life. And the Haneef obliged with this sacrifice, unflinchingly, unhesitatingly, obediently. Hagar, his wife, only but wanted to know whether it was, or was not, God’s command. Once her doubt was laid to rest in the belly of the arid desert, she of the dark-skinned Africans, bid her husband go away in peace.

Restrained of the pain of separation, restrained of the agony of the future, and of the motherly concern for her infant’s life, would Hagar bear in patience and perseverance as she ran between the hills of Safa and Marwa for that which would quench her son’s thirst and wet her own spirits. Seven times would she sprint between Safa and Marwa in hope and fear until God, by His grace, delivered her from her predicament, through the well of Zamzam that sprang forth with life near the infant Ishmael. Ishmael – whose very named meant ‘God heard’ – was, after all, the fruit of God’s acceptance of the prayer of Abraham and Hagar; the son about whom Abraham was given advance notice as a ‘Ulaam-un-Haleem, as ‘a son most forbearing.’

Hagar’s function in history, however, had not come to an end. In time, she would die and be buried near the Ka’bah that Abraham and Ishmael raised up from its foundations. Her resting spot would be visited by generations upon generations of mankind as long as the Hajj remained, as long as the last believer remained.  That a woman – and a dark one at that – was bestowed this honour speaks volumes not only for the position of woman, but also for the absence of the racial divide in Islam. One division there would remain, however: the division between mankind based on God-consciousness, or Taqwa. This aside, there is to be no superiority of the white man over the black, the brown over the yellow, the Arab over the Ajam (or the non-Arab), the rich over the poor: the simple Ihram of the pilgrim at Hajj – where both prince and pauper both stand shoulder to shoulder in that self-same attire with the common, leveling, refrain, ‘Here am I at Thy service, O God! Here am I!’ (Labbaik Allahumma, Labaik!) on their lips – has remained the iconic symbol of this equality. This egalitarianism of Islam is, of course, the main highlight of the Hajj.

The main event, as it were. The greatest show ever.

Ali Shariati once wrote that ‘the Hajj is a simultaneous show of many things: a show of creation, a show of history, a show of unity, a show of the Islamic ideology and a show of the Ummah.’ In writing that, Shariati was right in more ways than one. For the Hajj is, indeed, a show, but it is a show that can, at once, gladden and sadden a lover of Islam.

The Hajj as a model of the ideal, and fraternity, of Islam that is lived up to every year by more than two million people from across the globe is, indeed, an invigorating sight for those with hearts to see. Hagar’s faith and perseverance, Ishmael’s unconditional acceptance of his life as an offering for the Divine, and, of course, over and above all else, the unbending will of the Haneef in executing the will of his Creator, despite the many promptings of the Satan: all are enacted in conscious memory through the instituted rites of the Hajj by the two million odd pilgrims to the House of God. These enactments, in themselves, constitute a show of great symbolic significance.

The show, however, saddens when it is just that – a show. Unfortunately, this is how the believers of today have reduced their religion and made of it an enduring falsehood. They have reduced it to its very husk, through their show of its elements and its symbols, on occasion, through year after year. As at the time of the weekly Friday Jum’uah congregation, as at the time of the annual month-long fasts of Ramadan, so also at the time of the Hajj: Islam is on show, without its soul.

Would to God, that the show be changed to a show-casing!

Would to God, that this show of ‘what ought to be’ be changed to a show-casing of ‘what is’!

As much as it hurts to say it, and as much as one could wish for it to be otherwise, we are confronted with this reality: the ‘Muslim’ mind, today, is on vacation. To be sure, it has been on vacation since a long time – a few hundred years, to be precise. For the Hajj, on the other hand, we are required to go with our hearts and our minds, not just our bodies.

But for many, Hajj is just the physical journey, a soulless movement of the body among bodies. Of the ego among egos.

Only in learning to let go of his dearest possessions can the pilgrim to God – the migrant to God – hope to go through life in submission to the Divine will. It is only through a life lived with a constant readiness to sacrifice anything and everything for the pleasure of God that the pilgrim will ever understand what evolutions are symbolized in the Hajj, indeed, what revolutionary evolutions of the heart in its movement towards God as the centre of all existence. Even as the Tawaf, or the movement of the pilgrims around the Ka’bah, implies.

Bereft of the intense desire to please God, come what may, the Muslim’s effort at Islam today will remain marginal.

Devoid of the selflessness of its followers to sacrifice their Ishmaels in the cause of God, their ‘Muslim’ religion will testify against them for the marginal faith that they have made of it.

No amount of pleading and praying and standing at Arafah, on the Day of Arafah, among the Days of the Hajj, will absolve them of this crime of having made of Islam a marginal faith.

On the contrary, the Day of Arafah will then be a testimony against them in how they forgot their sacred covenant with their Creator outside of their Salah, their Sawm, their standing at Arafah, indeed, outside of their Hajj. And, in so doing, how they made their Islam a marginal faith.

A marginal faith offering marginal fruits. On the margins of time and history. Where their cry of ‘Labbaik, Allahumma! Labbaik!’ goes unheard. Unheeded.

Managing Editor at IQRA Publications, Bangalore and can be reached at biabqa[]

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