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October 31, 2002: Globe and Mail columnist Sheema Khan. Photo by Dave ChanDAVE CHAN/Handout

Last month, 2.5 million Muslims converged on the city of Mecca to perform the hajj.

The pilgrimage is one of the five pillars of Islam, required of every adult Muslim, male or female, who has the financial means. During the journey, pilgrims retrace the footsteps of the Prophet Abraham and his wife Hagira 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.

The arduous nature of the pilgrimage and a spiritual focus sustained over a number of days often lead to inner changes. In 2008, Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government published a study that analyzed the impact of the hajj, 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.

The results were eye-opening. Predictably, participation increased observance of Islamic practices such as prayer and fasting, while it decreased cultural practices such as the use of amulets and dowry. Surprisingly, researchers found that the hajj increased belief in equality and harmony among ethnic groups and Islamic sects, and led to more favourable attitudes toward women, including greater acceptance of female education and employment. Hajjis also showed increased belief in peace, and in equality and harmony among adherents of different religions.

The survey results imply that the transformation of Malcolm X during the 1964 hajj was not an isolated incident. Previously, Malcolm X had broken from the Nation of Islam, a group that claimed its leader to be a living prophet, contrary to the first pillar of Islam. While the group advocated black self-sufficiency, it espoused a strident anti-white ideology. Yet, while performing hajj, Malcolm X wrote: "During the past eleven days … I have eaten from the same plate, drunk from the same glass and slept on the same rug - while praying to the same God - with fellow Muslims, whose eyes were the bluest of the blue, whose hair was the blondest of blond, and whose skin was the whitest of white. … What I have seen, and experienced, has forced me to rearrange much of my thought patterns previously held, and to toss aside some of my previous conclusions."

Not only does the hajj challenge racism, but also sexism. Hajjis reported more positive views on women's attributes and abilities, with many concluding that women are spiritually better than men. For Pakistanis, the hajj offers a unique opportunity to interact with members of the opposite gender in a religious context, and to observe such interaction among Muslims from other places. During hajj, men pray beside women, travel together in groups and work co-operatively. These experiences were viewed positively by the pilgrims.

One would think that spending an intense period of time with a large number of co-religionists might lead to more insular beliefs and attitudes. The Harvard results suggest otherwise. 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 - not just one's own. Imagine realizing your most cherished ideals have a breadth and depth larger than imagined.

The next question is how the hajj model can be applied to secular societies to increase cohesiveness and tolerance. Conversely, does an absence of central gatherings lead to schisms? Studies suggest that models of social interaction should be based on a co-operative setting, which leads to favourable feelings toward other groups. Competitive settings lead to negative feelings.

In Canada, we have ample opportunities for co-operative gatherings. There are annual events, such as Canada Day celebrations. There are unique moments in history, such as the unity rally on the eve of the 1995 Quebec referendum, or the soul-stirring Olympic torch relay currently being held. Our reservoir of human diversity, talents and decency will serve us well in the 21st century, provided it is channelled in a co-operative way. Let's hope our politicians take heed.