Haj, a trip of a lifetime
You see a lot of pilgrims wearing white in Tunis- Carthage International Airport preparing to travel to Mecca to perform haj.
You see pilgrims smiling as they say their goodbyes as their loved ones shed tears to see them leave. The goodbyes are often long as those travelling and those bidding them farewell usually arrive at the airport well ahead of flight departure time.
The haj is a religious obligation for every Muslim who is able — physically and financially — to make the journey.
“Fortune comes to those who wait” is probably muttered by a lot of the pilgrims, many of whom had to wait decades to make the trip. Some had spent many years saving money for the trip, which this year costs about $4,500.
The majority of the pilgrims patiently waited in line under the seniority system, with their hearts yearning to follow in the footsteps of Abraham. They have longed to breathe the air of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.
It is indeed fascinating to see how millions of people, who by nature favour stability, travel to carry out a religious ritual in the same place and time as each other.
What is more fascinating is that many of those people, once they return home, feel a strong urge to visit the holy land again.
It is maybe because everything in Mecca — from trees to stones — and everything in the surrounding holy areas of Mina valley, Arafa and Muzdalifa evokes the early story of Islam. From Abraham to the Prophet Mohammad, peace be upon them, the intended message of Islam is knowing and loving the other as well as forgiveness.
The pilgrims, who are different in colour, heritage, traditions and languages, are all unified in the white garments that they wear. Their presence in one place is a symbol of accepting one another, a cohesion between civilisations.
The world’s largest annual gathering does not push individuals to form a consensus but rather stresses the right to be different — sociologically, historically and culturally.
The haj seeks to unify the Muslim nation by accepting individuals and not having a single view of what is Islamically correct.
The journey evokes the story of that patient woman, Hager, wife of Abraham. Millions of pilgrims — men and women — have to follow her footsteps between Safa and Marwa as part of their religious rituals. This alone is a testimony that the understanding of the Islamic faith should not be based on patriarchal biases.
Her original footsteps were in search of water to provide for the livelihood of her son Ismail — and this, too, has a lesson for us today.
Other rituals have their own symbolic messages. The circling of the Kaaba or the kissing of its black stone or the symbolic stoning of the devil — all indicate that what truly matters is not in the physical buildings but what they signify.
Those with Islamic State (ISIS) mentalities fail to see the symbolism beyond the stones. As they condemn the visiting of revered tombs, they forget that the significance is in the meaning and not the structure of the site.
Those who fight mere stones are themselves made of stone, while those who seek to preserve archaeological sites are made of the stuff that heritage is made from.
The haj journey is not just a physical experience but also a spiritual and an intellectual one. It is also one where people connect with their inner selves as well as with others. It is a true experience of rebirth.