A common question asked by non-Muslims is: what is the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca? There are specific rituals a Muslim is required to perform, but to explain them all would take more space than I have. On its most fundamental level, the Hajj is an individual Muslim’s demonstration of complete humility and submission before God -- in a gathering of 3-million other Muslims doing the same thing! It is also the greatest annual public event held in remembrance of one man who was tested by God and proven true in his love and obedience and who has been remembered throughout history. That man was Abraham (peace be upon him), a messenger of God.
Islamic history tells us that 4,000 years ago, Abraham and his son Ishmael rebuilt the Ka’aba on its original foundation from the time of Adam. Muslims believe the Ka’aba is the first house of worship built for the one, true God. After rebuilding the Ka’aba, Abraham prayed to God (Quran, 2:129-130) that his future generations be given a prophet to teach them their ways of worship and keep them righteous and submitted to God. Muslims believe that, in the 7th century AD (600 years after Christ), God fulfilled this prayer of Abraham by raising Muhammad (pbuh) in Arabia as the final Law-bearing prophet from the progeny of Abraham for all mankind.
When the Prophet and his followers became triumphant after 23 years of brutal persecution by the idol-worshiping Meccans, the first thing Muhammad (pbuh) did was enter the Ka’aba to cleanse it of all its idols. From that time on, the Ka’aba has remained the House of worship for only one God -- the God of Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad (peace be upon them all).
The Quran clearly defines Islam as “the religion of Abraham” in five separate verses (2:131,136 & 4:126 & 6:162 & 22:79). This is because Islam is not a new religion, but a fulfillment and completion of all earlier beliefs and of Judaism and Christianity in particular. This is why Muslims are required to believe in and respect previous messengers from God such as Jesus, Moses, Noah and Abraham. Muslims are also required to respect and protect against destruction the holy sites and houses of worship of other faiths. (Google “Charter of religious freedom for Christians” online for an example of this requirement to protect the worshipers and houses of worship of other faiths.)
Some outside observers question the slaughtering of animals as part of the Hajj ritual, calling it barbaric, cruel and unnecessary -- yet these same people will enjoy a steak they bought at the market without ever questioning the pain and cruelty involved in bringing it to their dinner plate.
At the Hajj (and elsewhere in the world where Muslims slaughter an animal as part of the ritual), the Halal method of slaughter is virtually painless, and Islam decrees that one-third of the meat be given to the poor, one-third to neighbors, and one-third kept for one’s family, friends and relatives. And during the Hajj, almost all the meat slaughtered there gets frozen and shipped all over the world to help feed the poor and needy.
Aside from the humanitarian act of providing food for hundreds of thousands of people, the sacrifice of animals also symbolizes a Muslim’s determination to kill his worldly and low desires and become more spiritual and devoted to God and to the service of His creation. The focus on sacrifice should also remind a Muslim of the service and sacrifices of the members of our armed forces, hospitals, police and fire departments. Their dedication and willingness to make sacrifices for others is something we should all be thankful for and strive to emulate and embody in our lives.
The lesson that Abraham teaches us is universal -- anyone can say they believe in God, but are they prepared to sacrifice what is most dear to them to prove it? It is never a real test of one’s faith if all that is required is a mere verbal profession of belief in God or one’s readiness to sacrifice everything for the sake of God. Until a person is actually put to the test, even that person cannot know for sure if God comes first. And, ultimately, that is the reason for such a test from God – to prove to the person being tested whether or not they are truly and completely submitted to God.
In the Islamic version of the famous Bible story, Abraham has a recurring dream where he is slaughtering his first-born son, Ishmael, as a sacrifice to God. When Ishmael attains the age of reason (12 or 13), his father tells him about the dream and asks him what he thinks. Ishmael does not hesitate but tells his father he is ready to submit to whatsoever his father believes he must do to please God. And because Abraham believed that it was his heavenly Father who was instructing him to sacrifice his earthly son, Abraham proceeded to ritually slaughter Ishmael.
Then, just as Abraham is about to sacrifice his son, God stops him and tells him to replace his son with an animal as a sacrifice instead. God does not desire human sacrifice – never has – but requires man to sacrifice his ego and carnal passions. The required slaughter of an animal in substitution (in both the Jewish and Islamic rituals) supports this belief. It also reflects God’s Mercy to mankind by forbidding human sacrifice and using the sacrifice of animals as the reminder of that Mercy.
Islam proclaims itself to be the religion of Abraham, and it is by living the lessons of Abraham that we can create the common ground where the seed of mutual respect and understanding can take root and blossom into the flower of peace. The children of Abraham are still one family. May we all learn from Abraham how to sacrifice our egos and worldly fears and concerns and submit ourselves completely to God. In that way, we can all live together in peace.
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------[ Ghosted with Imam Shamshad A. Nasir; ran in slightly edited version in The Inland Valley Daily Bulletin's From the Pulpit (religion section) as: "Pilgrimage honors Abraham" on Sat., Oct. 19th, 2013 and online at AhmadiyyaTimes.com at this link: http://ahmadiyyatimes.blogspot.com/2013/10/from-pulpit-islamic-pilgrimage-honors.html ]