Monthly Archives: December 2011

Part 1: The basics

Do you know what that is? Looks like a big, black box – doesn’t it?

Who are all those people? Muslims? What’s the deal with them and this box? Why are they worshipping it? What’s so special about it?

That “black box” is not really a box – but a cube-like building. It’s called the ‘Ka’bah’ in Arabic, and is believed by Muslims to be the first house of worship established on earth. It was established for the worship of the Almighty, One True God, the Creator of all existence.

Muslims don’t worship the building – but it’s a structure that every single Muslim faces during in their prayers – wherever they are on Earth. One of the wisdoms of this – as relates to the prayer – is the unity it portrays: no matter where a Muslim comes from, no matter what age or social status, everyone – together – is considered as a single nation; all facing one specific spot on the planet, all praying in one language (Arabic), and all worshipping One Creator.

As part of the Islamic pilgrimage – called Hajj – Muslims go to this ancient building, completing some of the rites which re-enact events in the life of the so-called ‘Father of the Prophets’ – Abraham (may peace be upon him*).

 

A short introduction to Islam
Before we get any further, I’d just like to give a very brief intro to the religion of Islam – since it’s the foundation of the journey this blog hopes to chronicle.

The Arabic word ‘Islam’ means peace. Specifically, it means peace through submission to the Creator of everything – Almighty God, Who in the Arabic language is called ‘Allah’ (which can be translated as ‘the worshipped one’).

As a strictly monotheistic religion, Muslims believe in just one, absolutely perfect Creator – Who has no partner, no father, and no children. Absolutely no one and nothing else that shares in the power of the Creator. Muslims believe that everything in existence – including humans, the Earth, and animals – was created, and is being sustained, by a single, universal, all-knowing, supreme Creator – Allah. Allah is the same Creator that Jews and Christians believe in – and even Arab Christians use the word ‘Allah’. Allah is the same Creator that all the Prophets – such as Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhummad (may God’s peace be upon them all*) – called people to.

For a more professional presentation on Islam’s core beliefs, you can check out the informative documentary titled: The Fog is Lifting: Islam in brief.

The key in this definition is the term ‘submission’.

Muslims believe that submitting to the will of the Creator – doing what He wants – is the way to achieve success both in this life and an eternal life to come after death. To use an analogy: if you think of any machine – an appliance, for example – you’ll know that it has a maker; a manufacturer. The manufacturer designed it, built it, and knows best how the appliance should be used and how it should not be used. It knows the maintenance instructions for the appliance, what will make the appliance function to optimal performance levels, and what will damage or destroy the appliance. If you need to know anything about that appliance, the best person or entity to ask is the manufacturer.

Similarly, in Islamic belief, we humans are like the appliance – and the Creator, Almighty God, is the manufacturer. He designed us, brought us into being, and knows what type of behaviour will allow us to live optimal lives (i.e. peaceful, happy, harmonious lives), and what type of behaviour will lead us to miserable, unhappy lives. So for Muslims, it’s common sense that the Creator knows the creation best – and if we want to be successful, we find guidance by submitting to the Creator.

The exact way of submission is given in religion. Different religions were sent to different groups of humanity, at different times – via prophets and messengers. Though the specific acts of worship differed, and rules and regulations also differed, the core principle was always the same: strict monotheism – believing in, and worshipping only One Creator – and nothing else.

Muslims believe that one final prophet – one final messenger – was eventually sent, with the religion that was to be set as God’s chosen religion and way of life for all groups of humanity; for as long as people would remain on Earth. That messenger was Muhammad (peace be upon him), and the religion was Islam – which was revealed through a Holy Book (The Quran), and the example of the messenger (known as the sunnah).


Hajj – a pillar of Islam

Islam has many religious practices, but to simplify things down to the very basics, there are only five essentials – commonly referred to as the ‘five pillars’ of Islam.

These are:

  1. Pure, monotheistic belief in the Creator
  2. Performing the five daily prayers
  3. Fasting in the month of Ramadaan
  4. Giving a specific  portion of your wealth to the needy in charity, and
  5. Performing the pilgrimage to Makkah – in present-day Saudi Arabia

The fifth pillar is known as Hajj, and is obligatory on all Muslims at least once in their life – provided they have the financial means to go, and the physical capability. The term Hajj means to travel towards God. The trip itself is both a physical journey – to the first house of worship of God, and a spiritual one – where the pilgrims exert themselves to get rid of all their bad qualities and habits, and draw closer to their Creator; in the hopes of returning to the spiritual purity they had at birth.

It’s a journey of tremendous sacrifice, where more than three million Muslims – from all over the world – gather to respond to the call of God, wearing special, simple clothing that strips away all distinctions of wealth, status, class and culture – signifying that all humanity stands is equal before the Creator.

The rites of Hajj date back to the Prophet Abraham (peace be upon him), and his family – who are tremendously revered in Islam due to the sacrifices and exertions they undertook in submission to God. Although most pilgrims travel to the Holy Lands for a period of a few weeks (six weeks in my case), the actual period of the Hajj is only five days – with the preceding time serving as a physical and spiritual preparation for the main event.

The Hajj itself involves pilgrims going to a series of places in and around Makkah: the plains of Mina – which houses thousands of tents and acts as the base for the five days; the desert plain of Arafah – which hosts the peak of the Hajj; the open lands of Muzdalifah – where pilgrims spend a night resting; the Jamarat – where pilgrims re-enact stoning of the devil; and the Holy Mosque in Makkah – which houses the Ka’bah and the hills of Saffa and Marwah, which have their own historical significance.

As we progress in this series of posts, God-willing, I’ll be describing these places – including pictures – and attempting to give insight into their spiritual and historical significance.

Thanks for reading this first part, and feel free to leave comments, queries, or any other feedback in the Comments section. To receive an e-mail notification when the next post in the series is published, use the “Follow Blog via Email” link in the sidebar.

Footnotes:

* In Islam, Muslims believe in all the prophets sent by God – and hold all of them in the highest regard. So, whenever the name of a prophet is mentioned, Muslims add the phrase ‘Peace be upon him’ – out of respect for the individual.


Rebirth

First life

I was a latecomer to Islam. No – I didn’t convert into the religion. I was born a Muslim, but for most of my life growing up, I wasn’t really one – not the way I should have been, at least. I lacked the proper understanding, knowledge, and, most of all, commitment to the religion. As a result, much of my life was spent without real attachment to Islam – confined to merely ritualistic acts of worship I was expected to do, and not much interest beyond that.

As a child, I learnt Islam’s basics in Islamic afternoon school (madrassah) – like the beliefs, rituals, and how to read Islam’s Holy Book – the Quran. In addition to this, my family acted as a good moral compass in guiding me through the racially and culturally diverse society that was South Africa in the 1980s and 1990s. I had a lot of exposure to other religions – Hindu family friends, where I’d see their prayer lamps and idols; a Christian junior school, where every morning’s assembly included the Lord’s prayer; and my Jewish high school, where Jewish Studies was a compulsory subject for a couple of years.

I always had a conscience about Islam, and what my Creator expected of me as a Muslim. But without practical action, conscience can’t lead you very far. In school holidays, for Friday prayers, and on other religious occasions, I’d attend Islamic religious services, and hear the religious advice given by the religious scholars (imams and moulanas). I’d sometimes be inspired to want to be a better Muslim, but the feeling would fade a few hours later, and I’d continue as normal – not really thinking about my purpose in life or how I could better treat and serve my fellow human beings.

Turnaround

That changed ten years ago, when I reached a turning point – a ‘spiritual awakening’ that

changed my entire focus and orientation in life. Such events are common in any religion – not just Islam. Anything could act as a catalyst – from a near death experience, loss of a loved one, a period of desperation, or any other event. Different people have different experiences, yet the end result is the same: a movement from a state of heedlessness to one of consciousness.

Over time, I came to learn more about Islam, and firmly believe in its truth – understanding the wisdom behind its acts of worship and social values, and its timeless message of pure monotheism, which was the message of every prophet, including Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad (peace be upon them all). I came to understand how, as a comprehensive belief system, it links an individual to their Creator, without any intermediaries; guiding them to live in the way that would bring true happiness, inner peace, and success – both in life and in the realm beyond death.

Journey of a lifetime

A few weeks ago, I was honoured to perform the Islamic pilgrimage to Makkah – the Hajj. As mandatory religious activities go, it’s one of the most important acts in Islam. It’s a journey that re-enacts the life of Prophet Abraham and his family, and draws millions each year – promising great reward from the Creator; and immense liberation, such that the pilgrim returns from the journey completely forgiven from every sin – spiritually, like a newborn baby.

It’s a journey of sacrifice, self-purification, and great humility. Pilgrims leave their families and comfortable homes to go all the way to the Holy Land, spending days and nights in a simple, canvas tent – where the only physical comforts are a mattress, blanket, and pillow. They leave behind the ease of cars for a journey involving walking for miles and miles on dirty, congested roads, in huge crowds that they’d otherwise run away from. They shed the adornments of plush clothing to wear nothing but two white, unstitched pieces of cloth – wherein they’ll look exactly like everyone else, with nothing to distinguish between a king and a beggar. They go out to a flat, empty plain – in the middle of a desert – to stand in the scorching sun for a few hours, reciting a few words, pleading with their Creator, and crying their hearts out. And they walk around an ancient building, the first house of worship dedicated to the Creator, praising Him and supplicating for all that they desire.

Second chance

The experiences and lessons of Hajj are numerous, but for me, the most important result was the liberation I spoke of earlier – a second chance at life. A person who survives a near-fatal accident may relate, as could a reformed convict who leaves prison as a ‘new’ person.

After repentance on Hajj, the feeling of being completely forgiven – for every single sin you’ve ever committed – is truly amazing, and beyond words. It’s like a lightness of the soul – like there’s no longer this burden on your shoulders, and you literally feel pure and clean. Your mind feels more free, your spirit feels light, and you feel so much closer to your Creator. It’s really the most awesome feeling imaginable.

It’s also empowering, because you now have this ‘clean slate’ – this second chance to start your life again, from a state of purity. And with that feeling, you’re more sensitive to every wrong you do. You can recognize it more easily, and you feel the need to repent or make up for it immediately – because now that you’re ‘clean’, you want to stay that way, and never let any spiritual ‘dirt’ pollute your heart again.

Naturally, it isn’t possible to remain on such a high for a sustained period. And in the few weeks since Hajj, such feelings of spiritual euphoria have decreased. But the effects of those feelings, and that experience, remain with me, and have hopefully benefitted me as I returned to my normal environment and responsibilities.

In Muslim circles, it’s a common cliché to say that Hajj really begins once you get home – meaning that Hajj itself is not the main challenge. The main challenge is what becomes your life’s mission after Hajj: to ‘live’ that Hajj by taking forward what you’ve learnt, and being that better person you were inspired to be.

Thank you for allowing me to share this account with you, and I hope that – regardless of your religious persuasion or belief system – you can take some benefit from these words, and that you yourself will have an experience of such magnitude in your life, if you haven’t already.

Image source: http://stevelummer.wordpress.com/2010/02/27/life-cycles/

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