Originally written in December 2011 following our hajj experience. O you who have believed, respond to Allah and to the Messenger when he calls you to that which gives you life. And know that Allah intervenes between a man and his heart and that to Him you will be gathered.
Barefooted, I moved to reclaim a view of the crowd. Men and women, young and old, black and white, rich and poor, arab and non-arab – each clamouring against one another, stretching and fighting for position at the front line. Hundreds of people pushed forward together with fists full of stones, eager for the confrontation. But Ibrahim’s army was in complete disarray. People angrily pushed their way forward to the wall, the weak were cast aside and in-fighting in the ranks was all too apparent. Weary faces moved without purpose. Shaytan, it seemed, was in the advantage.
I was unsure of what to make of this moment. My eyes were searching through the crowd for a realization of what this was all to mean. More than anything I can confess to wanting to be satisfied in some way by my effort – to feel the stoning of my ego and own self-deceit. But the disorder of the moment, the frantic nature of the ritual and the weaknesses of my soul made it a challenge to come to grips and truly realize the inner dimension of what was happening around me. My mind was tugging at my heart, desperately trying to wake it from slumber. I wanted to rise above the Hajj of the jurist, a Hajj of rituals and prohibitions and be consciously immersed in an intimate spiritual journey to enliven my soul and respond to the call of Allah ...
We were waiting. I ran my fingers across my lips, disturbing harden shreds of skin and dust. The rays of the sun were punishing. We had just passed the ritual stoning of al-Kubra and were seeking confirmation that our sacrifice had taken place. But time decided to stop – neither was there word about if the sacrifice had taken place, nor did we have any idea of how long it would take. We were without water and without a sense of what was to come.
I thought to myself: the time of sacrifice had itself become a sacrifice. What a strange but honoured occurrence. It was as if the whole process was turned inside out – the exoteric (al-thaher) was substituted for the esoteric (al-batin). Rather than being thrust into a symbolic ritual, we were forced to seek its meaning. I began to search within myself and to reflect on my own Isma’il. The precious people, places and ideas that make life gratifying and enjoyable raced through my mind. I was remembering the beauty of life and the limitlessness of opportunity. And now – the moment demanded I offer it all.
In the heat and exhaustion of the Mina amidst the flow of restive pilgrims, I was beginning to slowly understand the purpose of Ibrahim’s struggle. His appetite for sacrifice was a meditation on the tension between the temporal and the eternal. What is beloved by and to man is to be exchanged for the Beloved. Never will you attain righteousness until you expend from that which you love. And whatever you expend - indeed, Allah possesses knowledge of it. It is not a blind exchange – it’s a trial not for one’s commitment to something unknown, unheard or unproven but one’s commitment to one’s own self. An exchange aimed at perfecting the soul through the elimination of all dependencies on the temporal. Of that which can be transformed, removed or perished. That which is from the outward. And now it has become clear to me not as an idea to assimilate as knowledge as I had done before Hajj but as a moral principle to uphold and practice: Man’s perfection comes not from outward but from within. Isma’il is all that is beloved to man that is perishable – this was a sacrifice to achieve an eternal love bound not by the rays of the Sun, the herbage of the earth or the confection human ingenuity. I was coming to the understanding that this eternal love was bound by nothing but my own self. To perfect the soul was to capture this eternal love that lay dormant within me, quietly escaping with each transgression of the mind and hand. Hajj was not a journey to meet or understand my Creator in a way unattainable before, for he reminds us And to Allah belongs the east and the west. So wherever you may turn, there is the Face of Allah. Coming to Mecca, donning the garb and professing the intention of the muhrim -- all of this was a journey within me to bridge the temporal world of my attachments with the Ultimate Reality.
Never in my life had I been bald like that before. I felt like a child again – fresh and free. I couldn’t wait to shower! It was a moment I want to relive again and again. I couldn’t resist grazing my hands over the freshly exposed skin of my head. It was as if I had grown a new body part and was examining it for the first time. It was such a wonderful experience – an unusual but apt symbol of relief and triumph after an exhausting day. The most arduous stations of the Hajj had been completed: al-Arafat, Muzdalifah, Jamaraat al-Kubra, and Halaq.
From Mina we carefully walked amidst the debris of empty plastic water bottles and discarded razor blades, passing through the commercial areas of a bustling Mecca. The Sanctuary of Allah forever but the city of trade always. Finally we reached the main road. The chorus of car horns greeted us as the traffic stammered on. As I stepped onto the bus I could feel my heart smile – I knew then that the mysteries of what had just happened were not apparent to me, but my mind had captured each moment and I would have a lifetime to decipher them to uncover their meanings. But the fatigue was wrestling with me and I was forced to submit, postponing the work for another time. As I prepared for sleep, I felt overcome by calm and serenity – it was like being in a warm, tight embrace. To rest, it felt, was to dig deeper into the embrace. Hajj was nearing it's end -- and it's beginning.