2020: Year Without Hajj
‘Why not undertake an inner hajj?’
Saudi Arabia's restriction on the 2020 hajj came as no surprise. After all, history records that it has been cancelled due to armed conflicts, political disputes and disease. Even the Prophet (peace be upon him) advised Muslims not to travel from or to a place where a plague has broken out. Yet the news understandably saddened prospective pilgrims for this year. Interestingly, the sadness recedes and new vision arises as I reflect on this ritual's origin and the eternal desire to perform it.
The obvious imagery, such as the Kaaba and performing the requisite rituals, doesn't include the pilgrims' spiritual longing to continue their "never-ending journey of [the] soul," which is the flaming origin of all hajj longing (Bianchi, "Guests of God," 2008, p.25). To facilitate this soul's journey in the most anticipating way, the Kaaba appears as an airport and hajj rituals act as enablers of that excursion.
In the Kaaba's premises, millions rush and run over one another like in an airport to perform tawaf or kiss the Black Stone. Everyone supplicates in their own language, recites from the Quran, meditates, rests or even sleeps--just like in an airport's waiting lounges. The areas for drinking Zamzam water resemble the quick-stop coffee shops found in every terminal. Such analogies don't undermine the House of God's sanctity, but discern its subtle role and the pilgrims' ultimate goal.
An airport, beneath the chaotic scene, appears to be the most liminal area, exists between cities, flights, appointments and so on. Similarly, the Kaaba exists between the seen and unseen worlds, the physical and spiritual realms and one's vertical and horizontal journeys -- a transitory passage that begins the most engaging journey to God. Every ritual, from wearing Ihram, to circling around the Kaaba, going to Arafa to Muzdalifa to Mina and back to Kaaba, further facilitates the unworldly journey, but none of them represents the actual journey itself.
This blissful and eternal journey locates "the home of the Hereafter" (Quran 28:77, 29:64; 33:29). Pilgrims physically reach the Kaaba, where their souls begin journeying toward a new sanctuary in afterworld (Maybudi, "Unveiling the Mysteries and the Provision of the Pious," trans. William C. Chittick, 2015, p.68), completely immersed in His presence (Quran 89:28, 5:119). To Maybudi, this inner sanctuary is the locus of Lights - "and he [pilgrim] is upon a light from his Lord" (39:22). The desire to immerse themselves in that light and trace the path to the sanctuary makes pilgrims passionate about hajj. They cherish each ritual.
However, performing hajj doesn't readily permit pilgrims to experience that effable journey. Rather, it takes their souls to a mystical airport. Their ability to perceive the unseen world produces their portion of light, illumes their path to the sanctuaries and initiates the journey toward God. In Muslim eschatology, this is a post-death journey (2:28).
Unfortunately, such parallelism often demoralizes materialistic people (Bianchi, pp.33-34), who barely have time to focus on anything beyond the rituals. Deprived of their historical and spiritual significance, these rituals become superficial and hard to understand. Since hajj is once in a life time obligation, it naturally overwhelms pilgrims to focus on the rituals, but inadequate spiritual reflection endangers their spiritual ascension. To avoid such traps, pilgrims must prepare themselves beforehand by transcending their earthly bonds. Now that the pandemic has separated us from our usual lives and provided us with a great deal of free time, we can engage in prolonged reflection.
Pious predecessors like Abu Hamid al Ghazali or Ayatullah Husayn Mazaheri, among others, contends that this spiritual aptitude is a prerequisite for making hajj. In Mazaheri's words, "Cutting off affinity from all things with the exception of Allah in order to reach to Allah" is the first step to avail the highest spiritual ascension during Hajj. Such extensive detachment from worldly engrossment eventually reiterates the metaphorical death from which we often shy away.
For us, Bronislav Ostransky explains the parable of death here doesn't mean to annihilate oneself or promote passivity, but to enable a self-righteous activism to easily travel to the unseen world during hajj. As the sole source of continuity between these two realm is death (Ostransky, "The Soul's Journey to the Next World," 2015), we need to explore the life after death. Thus our objective isn't death, but rather to perceive the post-death world in order to undertake our soul's journey beyond the physical Kaaba.
Dwelling in this duality also becomes simpler if we think alike Rumi, who explains, everything in this world "has its root in the unseen world; The form may change, yet the essence remains the same" (Rumi, "A Garden Beyond Paradise"). What better time than now to search for those roots and thereby help our souls ascend?
We can begin to complete the integration between these two worlds by performing Islam's most fundamental duties (Ostransky, 2015). For example, deep reflection can provide us with a spiritual ascension equal that of any hajj ritual. Every dua and dhikr can evoke the same solemnity as the talbiya. Fasting can exemplify wearing the ihram. Our prayers, just like the manasik, can help us progress toward Him. We can maximize our charity and voluntary engagement to relive the actual pilgrims' exhaustion, impatience and expense.
The poet-philosopher Iqbal succinctly expresses this idea by explaining that the Kaaba and Makka are icons that can be created symbolically in any place to ward off materialism and instill Islam's principles within us (Mohammad Iqbal, "Secret of Collective Life," Chapter 19; E. J. Brill, 1963). Covid-19 has exposed the menace of shallow materialism, so why not develop an iconic Kaaba at home to further our own spiritual progress?
The outer sanctuary is temporarily closed, but the inner sanctuary is permanently open. Deeper reflection will help us bypass the above-mentioned airport while moving toward our inner sanctuary.
Rasheed Rabbi is a Washington-based Bangladeshi academic and columnist.