For millions of Muslims around the world, this weekend is the opportunity to fulfill one of Islam’s most sacred duties: The Hajj. The pilgrimage to Mecca is one of the five pillars of Islam – the other four being the proclamation of the oneness of Allah, fasting during Ramadan, giving money to the poor and prayer five times a day.
Now to many outsiders the sight of thousands of Muslims circumambulating in a counter-clockwise direction around the Kabba (the huge black stone) is a scary sight. We clearly project our fears onto such a grand and alien procession. Yet for Muslims, the hajj is an opportunity for social cohesion, spiritual rejuvenation and an anchoring of values. It is a journey, inward as outward, into the essence of Muslim existence.
I recently re-read Malcolm X’s autobiography. In it, he provides an account of hajj and the power it had on him. He writes:
Carrying my sandals, I follwed the Mutawad. Then I saw The Ka’ba, a huge black stone house in the middle of the Great Mosque.. It was being circumambulated by thousands upon thousands of praying pilgrims, both sexes, and every size, shape, color, and race in the world. I knew the prayer to be uttered when the pilgrim’s eyes first perceive the Ka’ba. Translated, it is “O God, You are peace, and peacedervies from You. So greet us, O Lord, with peace.” Upon entering the Mosque, the pilgrim should try to kiss the Ka’ba is possible, but if the crowds prevent him getting that close, he touches it, and if the crowds prevent that, he raises his hands and cries out “Takbir!” (“God is Great”) I could not get within yards. “Takbir!”.
My feelings there in the house of God was numbness. My Mutawaf led me in the crowd of praying, chanting pilgrims, moving seven times around the Ka’ba. Some were bent and wizened with age; it was a sight that stamped itself on the brain. I saw incapacitated pilgrims being carried bby others. Faces were enraptured in their faith. The seventh time around, I prayed two Rak’a, prostrating myself, my headon the floor. The frist prostration, I prayed the Quran verse” Say He is God, the one and only”; the second prostration: “Say O you who are unbelievers, I worship not that which you worship….”
In Campbellesque like manner, Malcolm is transformed by the physical and spiritual journey he takes. Reflecting on his experience, Malcolm continues:
Never have I witnessed such sincere hospitality and the overwhelming spirit of true brotherhood as is practiced by the people of all colors and races here in this Ancient Land, the home of Abraham, Muhammad, and all the other prophets of the Holy Scriptures. For the past week, I have been utterly speechless and spellbound by the graciousness I see displayed all around me by the people of all colors.”
In a letter to an American friend, Malcolm writes:
That morning [in Jedda] was when I first began to reappraise the ‘white man’. It as when I first began to perceive that ‘white man’ as commonly used, means complexion only secondary; primarily it describes attitudes and actions … In the Muslim world, I had seen that men with white complexions were more genuinely brotherly than anyone else had ever been. That morning was the start of a radical alteration in my whole outlook about ‘white’ men.
America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem. Throughout my travels in the Muslim world, I have met, talked to, and even eaten with people who in America would have been considered ‘white’–but the ‘white’ attitude was removed from their minds by the religion of Islam. I have never before seen sincere and true brotherhood practiced by all colors together, irrespective of their color.”
Anyone who is aware of Malcolm’s exclusionary and racist views prior to his experience in Mecca can appreciate the tremendous impact that the hajj had on him (see clip below). He was a leader with real moral courage, an authentic seeker of truth, who was not afraid to follow the sign-posts of reality wherever they led him. Sadly, at the age of 39, his inclusive outlook and rejection of the Nation of Islam cost him his life. One can only imagine how far Malcolm could have gone had he continued to live.