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.
- Pure, monotheistic belief in the Creator
- Performing the five daily prayers
- Fasting in the month of Ramadaan
- Giving a specific portion of your wealth to the needy in charity, and
- 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.
* 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.