In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful
Hajj is a journey that each capable Muslim is required to embark upon at least once in his or her lifetime. Most of the Hajj rituals relive the story of Ibrahim and his son Ismail, peace be upon them. This story involves Ibrahim leaving his son and wife in a deserted land, building the foundation of the Ka’bah, and going through the experience of the sacrifice.
Following the methodology of Ibrahim, in which Allah’s commands and decrees are consistent with His creation, one might wonder what is special about this story that requires every Muslim to experience it. Why was Ibrahim asked to sacrifice his son? Why did he leave his family behind in a deserted land? And how can all of this relate to us today?
The story of Ibrahim, Ismail (Ishmael), and the sacrifice had preceded Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, by almost two thousand years. To understand its significance, one has to fast forward to the point in time when the Prophet was about to encounter the Meccans in the battle of Badr. At this incident, the Prophet made a supplication that is stunning by all measures; he asked Allah to give him victory as if the Muslims were to perish that day then Allah would never be worshiped on earth again!
اللَّهُمَّ إِنْ تَهْلِكْ هَذِهِ الْعِصَابَةُ مِنْ أَهْلِ الإِسْلاَمِ لاَ تُعْبَدْ فِي الأَرْضِ
O Allah, if you allow this small band of Muslims to perish, then you will no longer be worshiped in the earth.
Sahih Muslim 1763
This supplication demonstrates that there was only one opportunity in the history of mankind when the true message of monotheism could have gone global. If that opportunity in time was missed, the word of Ibrahim and the message of monotheism would have been obscured forever.
So what was special at the time of the Prophet that made it the only opportunity for monotheism to take off or not at all? Upon closer examination of the circumstances surroundings of the advent of Prophet Mohammad, we will see that only in this time were three critical elements present for the word of Ibrahim to be realized.
Those elements are as follows: First, the preservation of the word of Ibrahim, the theory of monotheism passed down through his son Ismail; this was the seed. Second, an environment of novices, the pre-Islamic Arabs, who were free from the entrenched cultural barriers that might prevent societal change; this was the soil. Finally, the sending of Prophet Muhammad with his distinguished charter and leadership abilities to build a nation based upon the word of Ibrahim; this was the harvest.
The story of Hajj starts with the very end of history in mind; the standing on mount Arafat resembles the Day of Resurrection where all mankind will stand to be judged by their Creator. With this end in mind, all the rituals of Hajj relate to how the message of monotheism came to be established through Ibrahim and his son, rituals such as the sacrifice, stoning the devil, and the circling of the Ka’bah. Hopefully we can shed new light on these ancient rituals by reflecting upon natural law and their significance for resurrecting the true moderate message of Islam through the practice of Prophet Muhammad.
The preservation of the authentic understanding of monotheism began when Ibrahim, at the command of His Creator, left his wife Hajar (Hagar) and their son Ismail in a deserted land that would later be called Mecca. This land was exceedingly harsh and absent of every sign of life including water. Hajar was understandably confused and alarmed by her husband’s actions. She pleaded with him not to abandon them to die in the wilderness but she when asks him if he was commanded to do so by his Lord, which he confirmed, she accepted her fate.
Hajar began to run hastily back and forth between the two mounts Safa and Marwa looking for any sign of life until a spring of water began to gush forth from beneath her son’s feet. This spring of water, known as Zamzam, is what has sustained the people of Mecca and its surroundings until today.
As the Arab tribes were in continuous pursuit of new water sources, a tribe named Jarham passed by Hajar and her son and they noticed the spring of water. They resided in this place to make use of the water in exchange for taking care of Hajar and her son, and thus the soil of a novice culture was cultivated.
The culture of the Arabs was established by Ibrahim’s son Ismail but without an abundance of prophets and scriptures like the Israelite culture going back to Ibrahim’s son Ishaq, or Isaac. The conflict between heritage and values unfolded among the decedents of Ishaq as the Israelites grew more attached to their culture at the expense of losing the universal values of Ibrahim. While the Israelites had received many divine revelations, their culture accumulated and absorbed man-made distortions of the message to the point that entrenched social barriers, such as the stubborn high class of priests and scribes, prevented the original form of monotheism from being renewed. Just as weeds might prevent a gardener from reaping a full harvest of fresh fruit, the human distortions of monotheism, marred by petty bias and self-interest, would prevent the message from taking root in that same soil. It would take the novice culture of the Arabs to act as a clean slate, a chance at a fresh start, for the message to be accepted and take root once again.
In contrast to the Israelites, the Arab culture lacked a strong heritage which, although it might seem at a disadvantage, eventually shielded them from accretions that could effectively resist and obstruct the revival of pure monotheism. Ismail learned Arabic from the tribe that resided in Mecca, a language that was not his father’s native tongue. He grew up with them and took them as family even though they were not his blood relatives. His mother was from a humble background and he was known and honored by people for who he was, not merely because of his lineage.
The story continues when Allah ordered Ibrahim to visit Ismail when he was a young man. During that visit, both Ibrahim and Ismail would lay the foundations of the Ka’bah, the center of Islamic worship today, marking the place where the first mosque was established for people:
وَإِذْ يَرْفَعُ إِبْرَاهِيمُ الْقَوَاعِدَ مِنَ الْبَيْتِ وَإِسْمَاعِيلُ رَبَّنَا تَقَبَّلْ مِنَّا ۖ إِنَّكَ أَنتَ السَّمِيعُ الْعَلِيمُ
Mention when Ibrahim raised the foundations of the House with Ismail, saying: Our Lord, accept this from us, for you are hearing and knowing.
Surat Al-Baqarah 2:127
This was also when the words of Ibrahim were ingrained within himself. However, the most memorable incident during that visit was the trial of the sacrifice:
فَلَمَّا بَلَغَ مَعَهُ السَّعْيَ قَالَ يَا بُنَيَّ إِنِّي أَرَىٰ فِي الْمَنَامِ أَنِّي أَذْبَحُكَ فَانظُرْ مَاذَا تَرَىٰ ۚ قَالَ يَا أَبَتِ افْعَلْ مَا تُؤْمَرُ ۖ سَتَجِدُنِي إِن شَاءَ اللَّهُ مِنَ الصَّابِرِينَ فَلَمَّا أَسْلَمَا وَتَلَّهُ لِلْجَبِينِ وَنَادَيْنَاهُ أَن يَا إِبْرَاهِيمُ قَدْ صَدَّقْتَ الرُّؤْيَا ۚ إِنَّا كَذَٰلِكَ نَجْزِي الْمُحْسِنِينَ إِنَّ هَٰذَا لَهُوَ الْبَلَاءُ الْمُبِينُ وَفَدَيْنَاهُ بِذِبْحٍ عَظِيمٍ وَتَرَكْنَا عَلَيْهِ فِي الْآخِرِينَ سَلَامٌ عَلَىٰ إِبْرَاهِيمَ كَذَٰلِكَ نَجْزِي الْمُحْسِنِينَ إِنَّهُ مِنْ عِبَادِنَا الْمُؤْمِنِينَ وَبَشَّرْنَاهُ بِإِسْحَاقَ نَبِيًّا مِّنَ الصَّالِحِينَ وَبَارَكْنَا عَلَيْهِ وَعَلَىٰ إِسْحَاقَ ۚ وَمِن ذُرِّيَّتِهِمَا مُحْسِنٌ وَظَالِمٌ لِّنَفْسِهِ مُبِينٌ
When he reached with him the age of exertion, he said: O my son, I have seen in a dream that I must sacrifice you, so see what you think. He said: O my father, do as you are commanded. You will find me, if Allah wills, among the steadfast. When they had both submitted and he put him down upon his forehead, We called to him: O Abraham, you have fulfilled the vision. Thus, We reward the doers of good. Verily, this was the clear trial, and We ransomed him with a great sacrifice, and We left favor for him among later generations: Peace upon be upon Ibrahim. Verily, We reward the doers of good. Verily, he was among Our believing servants. We gave him good tidings of Ishaq, a prophet from among the righteous, and We blessed him and Ishaq. But among their descendants are those who are good and those who are clearly unjust to themselves.
Surat As-Saffat 37:102-113
Significantly, Ibrahim consulted his son on what appeared to be an order from Allah. This important detail shows us that part of the purpose of the sacrifice was that they would both submit their wills to the Creator, even if they did not readily understand what it meant. After Ismail was saved, Ibrahim would not see his son ever again. The wisdom in the absence of the father from his son, as commanded by Allah, was that the Arab culture would develop several centuries later to be ready for the final prophet to all humanity.
That is not to say that Ibrahim was entirely absent or disinterested in his son’s life. Prophet Muhammad relates the story, as recorded in Sahih Al-Bukhari, that Ibrahim would occasionally visit his son’s home while he was not there and deliver messages to him through others. Good family relations is one of the cornerstones of monotheism and social stability, so even though Ibrahim had a specific prophetic mission that necessitated unusual living arraignments, he still provides us with an excellent example of a caring father and family man.
In the eternal struggle between good and evil, there is no goal greater to Shaytan (Satan) than disrupting people on the path towards authentic monotheism:
قَالَ فَبِمَا أَغْوَيْتَنِي لَأَقْعُدَنَّ لَهُمْ صِرَاطَكَ الْمُسْتَقِيمَ ثُمَّ لَآتِيَنَّهُم مِّن بَيْنِ أَيْدِيهِمْ وَمِنْ خَلْفِهِمْ وَعَنْ أَيْمَانِهِمْ وَعَن شَمَائِلِهِمْ ۖ وَلَا تَجِدُ أَكْثَرَهُمْ شَاكِرِينَ
Satan said: Since you have lead me astray, I will lie in wait from them upon your straight path.
Surat Al-A’raf 7:16
Since there would only be one chance in the history of humanity for the message of monotheism to spread globally, Satan would try his best to disrupt the three elements necessary for it to succeed.
First, Satan attempted to sow doubt in the mind of Ibrahim when he was determined to sacrifice his son, hoping to destroy the seed of monotheism before it could take root. Each time Satan approached him, Ibrahim would throw small stones at his whisperings and continue moving forward. The ritual of stoning the devil, in which the Muslims at Hajj throw pebbles at a pillar representing Satan, is the outward acknowledgement that evil in the world exists and must be rejected. More deeply, it shows us that the devil can never overcome the will and plan of the Creator.
Second, Satan inspired the king of Yemen to attack the environment, or the soil, in which the seed had been placed. The king and his army were determined to destroy the House of worship in Mecca, whom the Quran referred to as the “people of the elephant,” (105:1) since they marched upon the city with their war elephants. The king did not want to merely destroy the building, as it had been demolished and rebuilt several times, but rather to destroy the purpose of the place itself, for he intended to replace the pilgrimage site with a different pilgrimage to a temple devoted to the worship of Jesus, peace be upon him, or rather devoted to the worship of a flawed caricature of Jesus in their own making that they imagined to be God.
Finally, Satan tried hard to persuade the Meccan aristocrats to discredit, attack, and even kill Prophet Muhammad, the leader who would act as a harvester to bring the seed and soil to fruition. The Meccans hurled as sorts of logical fallacies against the Prophet: attacks on his character (ad hominem), appeals to mockery (ab absurdo), appeals to emotion (ad passiones), appeals to the authority of their forefathers (ad verecundiam), the threat of force (ad baculum), and so on. But the Noble Quran’s appeal to reason and the higher spiritual aspirations of humanity proved to be too powerful of an idea for the aristocracy to defeat.
In each case, Satan tried to derail the teachings of monotheism from reaching every corner of the planet, but in every instance Allah protected His message and His messengers.
The Hajj pilgrimage, in which Muslims relive the story of Ibrahim and the great prophets, certainly has many things to teach us. Among the lessons is that the seed (the idea), the soil (the environment), and the harvester (the leader) all contributed to the phenomenal success of Islam as a world religion and historical force. Muslims today in some places have accumulated cultural accretions that obscure the message of monotheism, such as the presence of racism, tribalism, or violence. These additions act as weeds and prevent people from seeing the true message and bearing the fruit of the harvest. It may take a new generation of Muslims, born free from such cultural baggage, to cut through the weeds and renew the message once more.
Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.