This week, the Saudi government announced that, due to the coronavirus, only a few thousand local residents will be allowed to perform the hajj pilgrimage, effectively cancelling one of the main pillars of Islam. the hajj, which usually draws 2.5 million people worldwide, is incumbent on every able-bodied, adult Muslim who is able to afford the journey.
The Saudi announcement has been met with sadness, not only for the loss of a timeless ritual, but also for the lost opportunity for pilgrims – some of whom have waited patiently to participate in the journey of a lifetime.
During the hajj, pilgrims retrace the footsteps of the Prophet Abraham and his wife Hagar while performing acts of monotheistic worship. Male pilgrims are required to wear a simple two-piece white garment as a reminder of their equality before God. Women also wear simple garments, combined with the raiment of humility required of all hajjis.
It is a profoundly spiritual experience which leads to transformations from within. And how can it not? Witnessing the diversity of humanity, exchanging ideas and co-operating across diverse cultures, races and languages – while being reminded of the inherent equality of all – surely impresses on the mind that there are many paths to life, not just one’s own. Imagine realizing your most cherished ideals have a breadth and depth even larger than you could have imagined.
Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government analyzed the impact of the hajj in 2008, based on a random sampling of more than 1,600 Pakistani Muslims who had applied for a hajj visa. They compared the attitudes of those who received the visa (and thus performed the hajj) with those who did not. Researchers found that the hajj led to more favourable attitudes toward women, including greater acceptance of female education and employment. The Pakistani hajjis also demonstrated increased belief in peace, and harmony toward different ethnic groups, Islamic sects, and adherents of different religions.
I performed the hajj in 1995 myself, and came away a changed person. I was profoundly impressed by the many acts of kindness I witnessed, and since then, I have come to believe in the inherent goodness of all people. I also witnessed the sublime power of uniting people through a common purpose, which impelled me to never take Canadian unity for granted again. Months later, I joined fellow Canadians during the massive pro-Canada rally in Montreal before the Quebec referendum. It reminded me of the hajj – a sea of individuals from near and far, united in their love for a noble ideal. Differences melted into a shared vision of the future.
Perhaps one of the most famous transformations occurred in 1964, as described by Malcolm X in his letter from Mecca. Previously, Malcolm had broken from the Nation of Islam. While the group advocated Black self-sufficiency, it espoused a strident anti-white ideology. Yet, while performing hajj, Malcolm X wrote: “Never have I witnessed such sincere hospitality and overwhelming spirit of true brotherhood … They were of all colours, from blue-eyed blondes to black-skinned Africans. But we were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to believe never could exist between the white and non-white … I could see from this, that perhaps if white Americans could accept the Oneness of God, then perhaps, too, they could accept in reality the Oneness of Man – and cease to measure, and hinder, and harm others in terms of their ‘differences’ in colour.” His experience caused him to change his own views on race, reflecting the words of Prophet Muhammad: “There is no superiority for an Arab over a non-Arab, nor for a non-Arab over an Arab. Neither is the white superior over the black, nor is the black superior over the white – except by piety.”
At the core of these transformations is the recognition that each person has an inherent dignity by virtue of being human. Each of us should be treated fairly, as we should treat others, irrespective of race, class, wealth, or other societal markers.
Echoes of Malcolm’s message reverberate through the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s more than just about police brutality. It’s about treating people with respect, cognizant of the tremendous harm that centuries-old attitudes have wrought on certain communities – harms which continue today. It’s about uniting people to recognize and dismantle systemic racism so that our children, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
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