The Muslim Pilgrimage: A Struggle for Radical Remembrance

For the worldwide Muslim community, the last week of this month marks the annual season of pilgrimage (Hajj), an opportunity to remember and put into practice two radical aspects of our faith that we are increasingly being pressured to forget.

The end of the Hajj season is celebrated with a symbolic sacrifice to honour the willingness of Abraham and Ismael to sacrifice everything they held dear for the Love of God. The celebration is known as Eid el Hajj or Eid el Qurban. This year, it falls right after the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah, the celebration of victory over oppression, and Christmas.

In all three traditions, women have played key and significant roles. Yet their places in history and in the development of faith are all too often glossed over if not entirely forgotten.

For the sake of our common history and our common struggles for a just and peaceful future, is a time to remember the courageous Mothers of our faith-especially Hagar, mother of Ishmael, Sarah, mother of Isaac, and Mary, mother of Jesus.

For Muslims, the hajj is a reminder of the equal worth of all humans across lines of gender, race, culture, economic and social status, and the importance of respecting and celebrating rather than eliminating differences.

While visiting the Grand Mosque (Ka’ba) at Mecca , pilgrims customarily reenact the ancient plight of Hagar (Hajjar), may peace be upon her, the slave-turned-freedwoman who bore Abraham’s eldest son Ishmael. Hagar’s descendants would form the Bedouin communities of Arabia and include the Prophet Mohammad, while Sarah’s progeny would become the tribes of Israel and include the Prophets Moses, David, and Jesus.

Hagar was left alone in the desert, far from home, with her infant son. In a desperate search for water, she ran back and forth seven times between two hills until her baby’s heel struck the ground and let loose a flowing spring abundant enough to sustain not only Hagar and Ishmael but subsequently a trading crossroads called Mecca. The spring of Zamzam continues to flow today.

It is interesting to point out the striking parallels between the stories of Hagar and the Virgin Mary (Maryam) in the Qur’an, especially since Hajj occurs during the Christmas season this year. Both women showed tremendous courage and strength as they brought their babies into this world alone, under very trying conditions. During her agonizing labour pains, God sent a flowing stream and dates to nourish and sustain Mary. While Hagar had a marginal place in society as Sarah’s slave-woman, Mary was the subject of scorn for having a baby before marriage. Despite these societal obstacles, both women persevered in dignity due to their incredible faith in God.

The Ka’ba was built by Ishmael and Abraham as a place for worshipping the One God. Over the centuries, the Arabs forgot this and installed many idols in the Ka’ba. The message sent through the Prophet Mohammad, may peace be upon him, was a call to remember. Near the end of his life, Mohammad and his fledgling community were able to clear away those idols and reclaim the Ka’ba for its original purpose. Today, over 2 million Muslims from more than 125 countries gather every year to remember the foundations of their faith. Women and men pray side by side in a circle around the Ka’ba, and run back and forth seven times in Hagar’s footsteps. Sadly, in much of contemporary Muslim discourse, the centrality of Hagar’s place in the Hajj and its rituals is glossed over, barely acknowledged, in favour of Abraham and Ismael.

Muslims and others would do well in understanding that the Hajj is also a time to remember Islam’s radical vision of equality combined with the celebration of differences. Pilgrims shed both fine garments and humble rags so that all are dressed in clothing that is basic and indistinguishable in terms of wealth or status. Yet solidarity is not meant to create a community of clones. Muslims have always been far from monolithic. Rather than promoting assimilation, the Qur’an says in 49:13: “O Humankind! Behold! We have created you male and female, and have made you into nations and tribes that you may know one another.” Hajj has long been the largest global forum for the exchange and cross-fertilization of ideas, scientific developments, spiritual insights, and goods, preceding by centuries organizations such as the United Nations and World Trade Organization.

Now, some are trying to revise history and deny a central part of this powerful ritual of remembrance-reverence for Islam’s mothers-by sweeping women out of sight and out of memory. Three months ago, there was an attempt by the all-male Saudi committee that oversees the holy sites to remove women from the main prayer area at the Ka’ba and relegate them to a remote and secluded corner. After 1400 years of women and men praying together at Islam’s holiest shrine, the Saudis apparently now consider this prominent symbol of women’s and men’s spiritual equality to be “impure.”

While the unbelievable arrogance of this move sparked an international outcry that prevented its implementation for the moment, it is part of a disturbing wider pattern. The Saudi regime has already imposed many restrictions on women praying in the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina . Saudi publishers print classical Islamic literature with large sections removed that may promote women’s freedom or diversity of opinion. Islamic history is being insidiously purged of the stories of its exemplary women, including women prayer leaders (imams). The Saudi regime has also wantonly destroyed historical sites such as grave markers and the dwellings of the Prophet’s family, which have been particularly important to mystics. Clearly, it is a misnomer to term these unprecedented and destructive impulses “conservative.”

It is not only in so-called Muslim societies that we find ideologies promoting misogyny, racism, religious intolerance, and the privileging of rich over poor. What all these ideologies have in common is they urge us to forget our history. During this season of Hajj, Christmas and Hanukkah, let Muslims, Christians and Jews together pose a radical challenge to those destructive ideologists by remembering our common Abrahamic roots, heeding the call to universal respect and dialogue, and revering the tremendous Mothers of our faiths as embodied in the persons of Mary, Hagar, and Sarah, may God be pleased with them and upon whom be Peace.