(PHILOSOPHICAL) REFLECTIONS ON THE ISLAMIC PILGRIMAGE

The following text is some kind of experiment. There are philsophical reflections on basically everything, but there is still little compared to the size of the religion reflected here, namely Islam. Since I am not a representative of Islamic Theology (kalām), I neither present any school of Islamic thinking nor school (madhhab) of Islamic law (fiqh). By reflecting on Islam I hope not to hurt anyones feelings and I am fully aware of the fact that the following relatively short text is unable to do Islamic thinking any justice at all. Still, I hope to encourage people to reflect on all the fascinating aspects of the second largest religion in this world and share their ideas.

PART I – the Tawāf around the Ka‘bah

(Although I do not intend to write about the following topic from a scholarly perspective, I guess it is important to provide some information for the reader, since the reader might not be all too familiar with the topic and its context.)

At the center of Sunni Islam there exist five essential concepts one should follow, which are called pillars or arkān. Those pillars are no decrees you have to believe in, but things you are obliged to do. One, to be exact the fifth of those pillars of Islam is the seven days long pilgrimage, in Arabic hajj, in and close to Mecca—the other pillars are the confession (shahādah), the prayer (salāh) five times a day, the alms-giving (zakāh), and the fasting (sawm) during the month of Ramadān. This pilgrimage should be done once in a lifetime by every adult Muslim, no matter the age or gender, who is physically and financially capable of going on this journey to the harām ash-sharīf, the holiest place in Islam. Once you reach the harām, you will find in its center a nearly 50 feet (ca. 15 meters) high building, which looks like a cube and therefore is called “cube” or Ka‘bah. The Ka‘bah is made of volcanic stone and shrouded in a black veil, embroidered with passages from the Qur’ān in gold. Built into its structure on the Ka‘bahs eastern edge one finds a black stone, probably a meteorite—the meteorites frame is made of silver.

In pre-Islamic times, Muslims until today call this era pejoratively jahiliyya, the time of ignorance, the Ka‘bah was the house of many Arabian gods. After Muhammad along with his followers conquered Mecca in 630 CE, the year eight according to the inner-Islamic calculation of times, he emptied the Ka‘bah, which means that he removed all of the 300 pre-Islamic gods or from a Muslim perspective, idols. According to tradition, after the Ka‘bah was emptied and purified, only an icon of Maria (Maryam) with her baby boy Jesus (‘Isā) remained. From the Muslim perspective, the Ka‘bah was ever since the house of Allāh, the Arabic word for God.

Like in pre-Islamic times, the whole complex of hajj’s rituals, starts with the so-called tawāf, a seven times counter clockwise circling around the Ka‘bah, which is a kind physically expressed focus on something particular. If there is something like a local center of Islam—originally Jerusalem until the second half of the 620s—then it is the Ka‘bah and not just once in a lifetime, but in fact five times a day during prayer. This means where ever you as an observant Muslim are on planet earth, Antarctica or Europe, Asia or America, Africa or Oceania, you are directing yourself towards Mecca for prayer. The caput mundi for Muslims, the capital or center of the world, is neither Jerusalem nor Rome as each of them is for Jews and Christians, but the Ka‘bah in Mecca. Interestingly, the Ka‘bah does not loose its gravitational pull the moment the observant Muslim comes as close to the black veiled cube as to be able to touch it. What I mean by this is that the focus on the Ka‘bah remains while circling around it. But at the center of this center, there is nothing, the inside of the Ka‘bah is empty. Of course, according to Muslim tradition, the Ka‘bah is the house of God, but God is neither living inside the Ka‘bah in a literal sense nor condescending right in it. In a strict sense this means, that there is nothing. There is nothing inside, which does not mean that there is nothingness. Following Emmanuel Levinas (Dieu, la Mort et le Temps 1993), nothingness is inevitable bound to being: “All nothingness is the nothingness of something—and this something of which nothingness is nothing remains thought.”

As I said before, according to the Muslim tradition, the Ka‘bah is—and remains—the house of God, although God is neither living inside the Ka‘bah nor condescending inside of it. To put it simple: God is not there! Therefore, the Muslim, who is focusing him- or herself on the divine during prayer five times a day all year long or by doing the tawāf is doing so by directing him- or herself towards nothing, which is the void inside the Ka‘bah. Again, there is nothing, but there is not nothingness. Hence, by focusing on a locality, which is is fact a space for nothing objectifiable or if you like to personate it, no one objectifiable, one might to come the conclusion that the Muslim focuses on nothing. But since there is also not nothingness, in fact the Muslim directs his focus towards something, namely the Ka‘bah, so there is something, which is the veiled “cube” (Ka‘bah) and there is even more, which is the void of the inside of this unique cube. There is not nothingness, because in the moment of directing the focus towards this particular cube and its interior, the human intentionality is being carried away by something which is not there. This is only possible, if there is something to be inherent in the Ka‘bah, which is the trace of what is not there, or the trace of the one not being there. Or to put it differently, Allah—God—left a trace in a particular empty place, which he, according to tradition, had chosen. And the trace God left behind, leads the Muslim to search for God or to search for the trace of God, maybe not even consciously knowing that he or she is searching for it. Again, God is not being present, no matter what, apart from the trace he left.

Some might think, what kind of outrageous sacrilege is this, but it isn’t. In fact, by making it plain that the Ka‘bah is empty, that there is nothing inside, the Islamic religion immunize itself against every worldview, which assumes that God is a product of man or an object among objects. But in order to not just underline the otherness of God, but also in order to protect his sovereignty as creator, God cannot be a material part of the world he, according to tradition, created. And that is why it is impossible to encounter him somewhere in this world, which includes the most holy sanctuary of Islam—the Ka‘bah.

PART II – Sa’y

Following the tawâf around the Ka‘bah, the second main element of the hajj is called sa‘y, the seven times walk, rather a run, between the hills as-Safā and al-Marwa. It is said that Hājar,the biblical Hagar, the maiden of Sarah, Abrahams first wife, were out there in the desert, struggling to find water for her boy Ismael and herself after being forced to leave Abraham, with whom she had Ismael, and his tribe. Did Hājar walked seven times between those hills? Probably not! Seven is not a number, which should be taken literally—neither in the context of the Bible nor the Qur’ān. Things someone does seven times, or things lasting for an amount of seven aren’t meant to be taken literally. Rather “seven” means that something is to be done relentlessly, incessantly, ongoing, maybe even forever. Seven or a number made of seven, like seventy, means to be numerous.

Hence, the run between those two hills,u is not just a seven times run between two particular hills somewhere in the desert—it is not just to be taken literally, nothing to be done just seven times and then it’s done. The seven times running between those hills in a dry, life threatening, life rejecting environment, is teaching the one doing sa‘y what a huge part of life, especially in the desert, in the homeland of the Prophet, was and is about: Life is a relentless, ruthless and merciless struggle for survival and if you are persuaded that everything there is is governed and judged by the will of the divine creator, God or Allāh, the only way to survive is by the help of him. God either protects man and guides them out of their momentary misery to the well of life-sustaining water or ones life is forever forfeited.

But there is more to it. In a certain sense sa‘y could also be understood as the symbolic walk or rather the run fī sabīli llāh—on the path of God. According to Muslim tradition, there is only one right path in life to be taken, a straight path, given by God to man, so he won’t get astray as myriads of people before. Later this path will be codified, not in the literal sense of the word—there was no real codification. Therefore, we might call it an uncodified codification, which is widely known as the sharī‘ah, the divine law or the will of God for man to live on planet earth. Translating sharī‘ah literally into English is hardly possible. But you can try to convey the sense of it, which is the path to the water hole. Therefore, the Arabic root of the word, namely “sharaa” is to “penetrate into the water hole.” Not a momentary water hole, but a permanent one. Permanent water means to survive, means to live. Walking the straight path, given by God, is what it means to follow the sharī‘ah, following the sharî´ah means to walk the path to life. Walking on the right path, the path to the permanent water hole is meant to be ongoing, nothing to be done for a limited amount of time, but for as long as the time one is given to in dunya, the here and now. Running between as-Safā and al-Marwa is to remind the muhajjirûn, those who are on the pilgrimage, that life is an endless struggle and that following the path to the permanent water hole is a struggle as well, is struggle for ones whole life. But it also holds a promise to the one being on the right path, namely to be rewarded at the end and never be abandoned by God, who not just created man, but who is the only one who sustains man, keeps him alive, like he did for Hājar, and grants eternal life.

PART III – ‘Arafāt

As the nearly life-long struggle on the path to the permanent water hole is not the end of the human being, so isn’t sa‘y, the running between the hills as-Safā and al-Marwa, during the hajj. After someone passes away, a new path unfolds for him. According to Islam, death is not the end of everything related to the one, who passed away. Instead, the mu’min, the believer’s goal is to achieve jannatu llāh, the garden of God. But now he has to stand trial and is in dire need of God’s forgiveness. If divine judgement is in his favor, he will proceed to heaven, otherwise he has to endure punishment for earthly sins in jahannam—hell.

BThis passing from dunyā, the here and now, to al-‘âkhirah, the hereafter, is resembled by walking from Minā, nearly 5 miles in the east of Mecca, to a place called ‘Arafāt through the valley of Muzdalifah—another 9.3 miles away. The mu’minūn’s, the believer’s, goal is a particular mount called Jabal ar-Rahmah—the mount of mercy. On that very mount, the believers are standing, dwelling (wuqūf), waiting for the divine mercy to unfold. To enter paradise, the garden of God, one is in need of God’s forgiveness. The heavenly reflection of the longed for forgiveness of God in the hereafter is to be found on earth on the Jabal ar-Rahmah. Since every able Muslim should go on hajj once in life, every Muslim is at least once in life able to achieve God’s forgiveness. This is an important relict of a distant past. The entanglement of a pilgrimage and divine forgiveness was already existent in Ancient Israel, when the people traveled to the temple on a mountain in Jerusalem, spending the “Day of Atonement”, self-flagellating by fasting and praying for forgiveness, watching the high priest sacrificing animals, an element also being part of the hajj, and sprinkling its blood in the Holy of Holies—ritually atoning for the peoples’ transgressions. Achieving atonement or God’s forgiveness was the only possible option to get back into the order of life, once commanded by God in form of the Torah, in Arabic Tawrah, which was transgressed by man’s sins.

Once man intentionally or just by accident left the straight path to the permanent water hole, all he can do is to beg for God’s forgiveness. Hence, willingly dwelling in absolute passivity on the mount of mercy, waiting for God to grant forgiveness, reveals man’s absolute dependence on the divine and its judgement. Or in other words, it reveals man’s inability to buy himself a permanent residence permit for heaven. While waiting on the mount of mercy, for man time and space become meaningless. In that sense, the event on Jabal ar-Rahmah reveals the fundamental structure of the relation between the (human) creature, waiting for forgiveness and its creator, able to forgive because of his mercy. This structure is one of an ontological hostage-ness.