On a recent trip to England, Michael Calabria, OFM, came as close as he ever will to experiencing the Hajj, a pilgrimage to Mecca reserved exclusively for Muslims. While exploring an exhibit in the British Museum in London, he reflected on the similarities between Islam and Christianity, describing the experience as “poignant part” of his Lenten journey.
Christians are accustomed to speaking of Lent as a spiritual journey. During this Lent, I had the opportunity to make a spiritual journey — or at least a vicarious one — at a much-anticipated exhibit at the British Museum in London called “Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam.”
Comprising manuscripts, maps, photographs, textiles, coins, ceramics and various other objets d’art, the exhibit described the history, rituals and experience of the Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. For non-Muslims, it is the closest they will ever come to experiencing the Hajj, since it is the one requirement of the faith that is absolutely reserved to Muslims alone, just as Eucharist is in various Christian denominations. For Muslims, the Hajj is perhaps the most eucharistic experience they will have in that it uniquely communicates to them the power and presence of God, not only as individuals, but as a community — a community that, during the Hajj, comprises more than two million pilgrims from countries around the world.
Making the Hajj
Although the rituals of the Hajj are particular to Islam, the underlying motivation and significance of this pilgrimage are universal. As Karen Armstrong writes in her introduction to the exhibit catalog: “If we look at the history of human spirituality, the Hajj is profoundly typical … the remarkable similarity of pilgrim theology and practice across the board suggests that we are dealing with something more fundamental.” As with other religious quests and traditions, she says, the Hajj begins with “the perception that something is wrong … Hence pilgrims seek a place where the sacred is known to have broken through to our flawed and mortal world.”
That sacred place for Muslims is al-Masjid al-Haram. This “Sacred Mosque” in Mecca encompasses the axis mundi of the Islamic world: the Ka’ba, literally “the Cube,” the stone sanctuary which Muslims believe was built by Adam as the “House of God,” and then rebuilt by Abraham and his son Ishmael. It is to the Ka’ba that Muslims turn in prayer five times daily wherever in the world they are.
To make the pilgrimage to the Ka’ba then is to return to humanity’s very origin as God-centered creatures, molded by God from the clay of the earth, the earth to which Muslims touch their heads in prayer, remembering God and our own humble state in one profound gesture. To make the Hajj is also to walk in the footsteps of Abraham, who exhorted his people to the worship of the one God and professed his devotion to that God with the words uttered today by every pilgrim to Mecca: “Here I am, O God, here I am…”
Ten miles outside of Mecca, beyond the walls of the Sacred Mosque, however, pilgrims face the reality of their struggle against sin and evil. This is the spiritual and literal high point of the Hajj, the standing at Arafat on Jebel al-Rahmah, the “Mount of Mercy.”
It is here, Muslims believe, where Adam and Eve were reunited after their Satan caused them to “slip” (as the Qur’an describes it), where they repented and were forgiven by God. Here is where the modern-day children of Adam and Eve likewise repent of their sins, praying for forgiveness as if they are standing before God on the Day of Judgment. Before returning to the Sacred Mosque, as a sign of their determination to cast evil out of their lives, pilgrims cast pebbles at three pillars, just as Abraham successfully drove Satan away when tempted to defy God’s command.
Relating Islam to Christianity
While the Hajj to Mecca is a quintessential Muslim observance, there are several Christian connections. The Ka’ba, the focal point of the Hajj and Muslim prayer, apparently once contained an icon of the Virgin Mary and the infant Christ. When Muhammad ordered the removal of pagan images from the walls of the Ka’ba in 630 A.D., he placed his hands over the icon so that the image would not be erased.
Perhaps the most precious objects in the exhibit, both in terms of religious significance and monetary value, are the glittering panels from the kiswa, the cloth that covers the Ka’ba inside and out. These large pieces of black, red and green silk are embroidered with chapters (surahs) from the Qur’an in silver and gold thread, including those titled “Mary” (19) and “(The Family of) Amran” (3) which contain accounts of the Annunciation to Mary and the births of Jesus and John the Baptist not unlike the versions in the Gospel of Luke. Although today the kiswa is made in Saudi Arabia, in earlier centuries this luxurious cloth came from a variety of workshops including the Coptic textile factories of Damietta, Egypt — the city where Francis encountered the Sultan al-Kamil in 1219.
Not all textiles associated with the Hajj are as ornate as the kiswa, however. The plainest textiles seen during the Hajj are those worn by male pilgrims themselves — two seamless pieces of white cloth, one worn around the waist and the other over the shoulders. Thus, every pilgrim is stripped of signs of wealth and status and becomes indistinguishable from the millions of other pilgrims — not unlike our own Franciscan habit. And like our Franciscan habit, the white clothing of the pilgrim — called iHram — is intended to serve as the outward expression of an interior disposition of prayer and penance, chastity and non-violence — also called iHram.
A journey back to one’s spiritual center. A journey of repentance. A journey away from sin and towards God. A journey we make with one another. A journey not unlike Lent. Although my pilgrimage to Mecca was a vicarious one, it nevertheless has become a poignant part of my Lenten journey this year. As Karen Armstrong has observed, “Perhaps in studying the Hajj, therefore, we can learn not only about Islam but also to explore untraveled regions within ourselves.”
— Fr. Michael, a lecturer of Arabic and Islamic studies at St. Bonaventure University, has traveled extensively in the Arab world and speaks frequently on Christian-Muslim relations. He has degrees in Egyptology and Near Eastern studies and is working toward a doctorate in Arabic and Islamic studies through the University of Exeter, England.