Ethnic, linguistic and cultural diversity is a conspicuous feature of Muslim societies not only globally but also within nations, regions and groups. The Muslims of China, for example, are ethnically heterogeneous and are divided into more than a dozen communities. The Berber Muslims of North Africa are divided into two dozen ethnic groups. Mosques represent a central institution in Muslim societies across the world. However, there are significant and interesting variations in the architecture of mosques in the Muslim world. The architectural patterns of mosques in China, Indonesia and Africa, for example, are remarkably different from those of mosques in the Middle East.
However, the diversity of Muslim societies is overshadowed by a deep and pervasive unity. Ernest Gellner, a perceptive observer of Muslim societies, has remarked that “for all the indisputable diversity, the remarkable thing is the extent to which Muslim societies resemble each other.” This uniformity is all the more puzzling, Gellner adds, in the theoretical absence of a Church and hence of a central authority. An eminent scholar, T. B. Irving, says that “one great characteristic of Islam has been its universal appeal to widely divergent peoples living all over the globe.”
An overarching system of beliefs and doctrines, moral and normative principles, social institutions and cultural patterns knit together Muslim societies across the world. This unity is embedded in the foundational sources of Islam – the Quran and Hadith. The fact that the foundational sources of Islam were written down and memorised and thereby preserved for posterity during the lifetime of the Prophet and his Companions and transmitted in a remarkably uninterrupted manner from generation to generation has a close bearing on the universality and resilience of the Islamic faith and on the unity of Muslim societies across the world. The common threads that are shared by Muslim societies around the world are universal and trans-ethnic in the sense that they transcend the distinctions of race, nationality, ethnicity and culture. The core Islamic beliefs and doctrines include the unity and oneness of God, belief in the Quran as the last divine revelation, the prophecy of Muhammad (SAAW) and the primacy of Shariah as a perennial source of guidance.
The “Five Pillars” of Islam (the confession of faith, the mandatory daily prayers, fasting in the month of Ramadan, charity (zakat) and pilgrimage to Makkah) reinforce the unity of Muslim societies. The mosque occupies a central place in the spiritual and social life of Muslims around the world. It represents not just a sacred space for daily prayers but also serves as an institution that fosters social interaction, fellow-feeling and brotherhood. Attendance in mosques and participation in the congregational prayers fosters religious reaffirmation and identification. Another universal institution in Muslim societies (including the Muslim communities living in Europe, North and Latin America and Australia) is the madrasa or the Islamic school where basic Islamic instruction, particularly the reading and recitation of the Quran in Arabic, is imparted. Madrasas have played a highly important role in the preservation, transmission and dissemination of Islamic learning and in training religious functionaries such as ulama, imams, qadis and teachers.
Two major feasts, Eid al-fitr and Eid al-adha, are universally celebrated by Muslims all over the world. The practice of ritual circumcision of the male child is universally prevalent in Muslim societies around the world. Muslims around the world bury their dead. A set of taboos, such as the prohibition of alcohol, pork, gambling and illicit sex, are universally avoided by Muslims. Ernest Gellner has rightly observed that Islam is not just a set of beliefs and doctrines but a “blueprint of a social order.” He perceptively and rightly speaks about “Islam’s social pervasiveness.”
In Islamic tradition, the Hajj is viewed as a cherished legacy of the Prophet Ibrahim. The Prophet Muhammad held the Prophet Ibrahim in great esteem and urged Muslims to follow his example. Three points in this connection are particularly note-worthy. First, the appropriation of the Hajj by the Prophet Muhammad points to the universalist and inclusionary view of divine revelation and prophecy in Islam. The Quran explicitly says that God has sent prophets and messengers to all societies and in all ages (35:24). Muslims are required to believe in all the prophets and messengers who were sent down to earth in different ages and in the scriptures that were revealed to them. The Prophet Ibrahim, who is frequently mentioned in the Quran and in the Old Testament, occupies a place of distinction in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition.
Secondly, the rites and rituals that are performed during the Hajj represent a symbolic retracing and re-enactment of the actions of the Prophet Ibrahim and his wife Hajar as well as those of the Prophet Muhammad.
The foundations of the Ka’bah were laid by the Prophet Ibrahim, who lived in the 18th century BCE. It is reported that after erecting the walls of the Ka’bah, he circumambulated the holy shrine. Circumambulation (tawaf) of the Ka’bah is an integral part of the Hajj pilgrimage. Pilgrims circumambulate the holy shrine at least seven times in an anti-clockwise direction in commemoration of the action of the Prophet Ibrahim.
Pilgrims briskly walk seven times between the hillocks of Safa and Marwah, which are located approximately 150 yards from the Ka’bah. This act is meant to commemorate the actions of the Prophet Ibrahim’s wife Hajar, who frantically ran between the two hillocks in search of water for her infant son Ismail. This act of walking briskly between Safa and Marwah is called s’ai.
According to Islamic tradition, when Hajar was frantically and desperately running between the two hillocks in search of water, a spring miraculously gushed from the desert sand. When Hajar saw the spring, she was overcome with joy and she rushed to fetch it to quench Ismail’s thirst. The spring, called zamzam, is now located within the precincts of the Ka’bah. Pilgrims drink the refreshing, cool water of zamzam to their hearts’ content.
According to Islamic tradition, God wished to test the Prophet Ibrahim’s devotion and so He appeared in his dream and told him to sacrifice something that was the dearest to his heart – his son. When Ibrahim was taking his young son Ismail to an isolated place for sacrifice, Satan tried to dissuade him from doing so. Undeterred, Ibrahim rebuked him and threw stones at him to drive him away. At the last moment, the Archangel Jibreel swiftly brought a lamb for the sacrifice. Pilgrims sacrifice an animal in commemoration of the action of the Prophet Ibrahim.
There are three stone pillars at Mina, which symbolise the location where Satan tried to dissuade the Prophet Ibrahim. Pilgrims throw pebbles at these pillars from the 10th of Dhul-Hijjah through the 13th in commemoration of the action of Ibrahim.
The third important point is that some of the rites of the Hajj are a symbolic re-enactment of the actions of the Prophet Muhammad. The Hajj rites commence from the 8th of Dhul-Hijjah. Before the commencement of the Hajj, pilgrims are required to wear a simple, white, unsewn garment called ihram. The ihram consists of two pieces of cloth, one of which is wrapped around the midriff to cover the lower part of the body while the other piece is draped around the shoulders. For ladies, a simple, unostentatious piece of clothing can serve as ihram.
The Hajj rites commence on the 8th of Dhul-Hijjah with a stay at Mina, a location in the desert that lies approximately 3 miles from Makkah. Pilgrim offer the five daily prayers here and spend the night there. The next day, on the 9th of Dhul-Hijjah, they offer the pre-dawn (fajr) prayers at Mina and leave after sunrise for Arafat, a vast, barren plain located at a distance of about 9 miles from Makkah. When they reach Arafat around midday, they gather at Masjid al-Nimrah, where the call to prayer (azan) is announced, following which the Imam delivers the sermon. After the conclusion of the sermon, the pilgrims offer the zuhr and asr prayers at the same time. Following the prayers, the pilgrims spend four or five hours at Arafat, offering prayers and supplications to Allah and reading the Quran. At sunset, the pilgrims leave Arafat for Muzdalifah, which lies midway between Mina and Arafat. After reaching Muzdalifah, they offer the maghrib and isha prayers at the same time. They spend the night at Muzdalifah.
The 10th of Dhul-Hijjah is called the Day of Sacrifice (Yawm al-nahr) when pilgrims leave Muzdalifah for Mina after daybreak. After reaching Mina, they throw pebbles at the Satan Pillars. The act of throwing pebbles at the Satan Pillars takes place on four consecutive days, on the 10th, 11th, 12th and 13th of Dhul-Hijjah. Following the act of throwing pebbles at the Satan Pillars on the 10th, pilgrims sacrifice an animal in commemoration of the action of the Prophet Ibrahim. The sacrifice can be offered during the stay at Mina from the 10th to the 12th. After the sacrifice, male pilgrims get their heads shaved off or their hair trimmed. Trimming just about an inch of their hair suffices for female pilgrims. After this the pilgrims return to Makkah for a while for the purpose of performing the circumambulation of the Ka’bah. Then they return to Mina.
While performing these actions, the pilgrims follow in the footsteps of the Prophet Muhammad. The Prophet used to kiss the Black Stone (al-hajar al-aswad), which is embedded in the south-east corner of the Ka’bah, at the beginning and end of every circumambulation (tawaf). Pilgrims emulate the example of the Prophet while carrying out the circumambulation.
The Hajj pilgrimage presents a fascinating spectacle of harmony, simplicity, order and discipline, which are not enforced by an external authority or the state, but is the outcome of an inner impulse, which is rooted in faith. The unpretentious Hajj garment – the iharm – is an epitome of simplicity. The stay at Arafat in the open and in Mina in make-shift tents in the desert, without worldly comforts, reflects the simplicity of the Islamic faith.
The unity, equality and brotherhood of mankind, regardless of the distinctions of birth, class or caste, are among the cardinal principles of the Islamic faith. The universal appeal of these principles has drawn and continues to draw hundreds of thousands of people from diverse ethnic and national backgrounds across the world to the fold of Islam. In spite of occasional deviations from the ideal, the principle of egalitarianism has remained a beacon of inspiration for generations of Muslims across the world.
The Quran says that all humans have been created from a single primordial pair, Adam and Eve, and are therefore equal (49:13). Islam considers the distinctions of birth, lineage, class, wealth or caste inconsequential. The only worthwhile distinction or honour, according to the Quran, is piety and moral virtue. Thus, the Quran says: “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, so that you may know each other. Verily the most honoured amongst you in the sight of God is the one who is the most righteous of you” (Quran 49:13). In his sermon during the Last Pilgrimage, the Prophet declared: “O people! Verily, your Lord is One and your father (Adam) was one. Verily, an Arab is not superior to a non-Arab nor is a red-skinned person superior to a dark-skinned person, nor is a dark-skinned person superior to a red-skinned person, except in respect of piety and righteousness. All Muslims are brothers unto each other.” Though Islam takes cognizance of social differentiation and the existence of groups that are based on descent, kinship ties and tribal affiliations, it emphasizes that that such distinctions are meant to serve the purpose of social identification and that they must not be used as a criterion of ranking or hierarchy. Islam recognizes distinction and privilege only in respect of righteous deeds, piety and learning (Quran 49:13; 58:11).
The Hajj congregation epitomizes the fundamental Islamic tenet of equality and brotherhood. It reinforces and sustains this ideal in the consciousness of pilgrims in particular and the Muslim ummah in general.
The celebrated French sociologist Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) emphasized that the collective sharing of beliefs, rituals and ceremonies infuses a community with a strong sense of social cohesion and solidarity. The participation of pilgrims in the rites of the Hajj sustains and reinforces their religious and cultural identity that transcends the distinctions of race, ethnicity, colour, caste and class. It also strengthens communitarian bonds and sentiments of brotherhood.
The moral dimensions of the Hajj pilgrimage are equally significant. The rites of the Hajj are not supposed to be performed mechanically. Rather, while performing these rites, one should remember that he/she is retracing or re-enacting the actions of the prophet Ibrahim and his wife as well as those of the Prophet Muhammad. For example, while walking briskly between Safa and Marwah, one should visualise the agony and distress of Hajar. This visualisation produces the sentiment of empathy and compassion.
In Islamic view, good and evil are invariably embedded in human nature. At the same time, however, man has been endowed with an innate ability to differentiate between good and evil and the moral freedom to choose between either of them. Throwing pebbles at the Satan Pillars at Mina symbolically reminds the pilgrims that evil is to be shunned and repudiated. The essential purpose of the Hajj is to seek forgiveness from the Almighty for one’s sins of omission and commission, to cleanse oneself of wicked impulses, tendencies and traits and to affirm one’s sincere devotion to one’s faith. The Hajj pilgrimage remains incomplete without a visit to the tomb of the Prophet Muhammad, where pilgrims offer salat to the Prophet and ask him to intercede on their behalf in seeking God’s forgiveness.
From the first century of the Islamic era, the Hajj pilgrimage has served as a site or avenue for the transmission and dissemination of Islamic teachings, particularly Hadith. During their month-long stay at Makkah and Madinah, groups of pilgrims gather in small circles at the Masjid al-Haram in Makkah and at the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah, where learned men offer discourses on Islamic teachings. The Hajj also serves as a meeting place for scholars and seekers of Islamic learning from different parts of the world, when they renew friendships, reminisce about their teachers and mentors, share their knowledge and exchange views and news about the Islamic world. Since early times, the Hajj has provided a valuable opportunity to students and seekers of knowledge to learn from renowned teachers and scholars, especially the scholars of Hadith, and to obtain their permission for the narration and transmission of Hadith on their authority.