One of the five pillars of Islam is the pilgrimage of Haj. Muslims are required to make this pilgrimage if they are financially and physically able to do so. The word Haj, literally means, “to set out for a higher destination”. Haj is a set of rituals that takes place in and around Mecca each year in this month of Zil-haj, the last and 12th month of the Islamic calendar.
A whole chapter of the Quran is devoted to Haj and it warns of the Day of Judgment where each soul will have to account for its deeds. Haj is a spiritual awakening where pilgrims renew their covenant with Allah. It is intended to make one move away from the involvement of this world to an engagement with the almighty.
The two unstitched pieces of white cloth that men wear during the Haj, strips them of clothes that could reveal worldly status. This ihram, that male pilgrims wear resembles the shroud are wrapped up in before being lowered into their graves, a reminder of death and the afterlife. It is almost like a rehearsal for the Day of Judgment, where pilgrims leave the comforts of their home, and a sea of humanity from different countries and backgrounds come together on a desert land.
Haj has always been looked upon as a kind of death, because the Quran repeatedly mentions death as the meeting with God, and the Kaaba in Mecca is the house of God.
According to Islamic traditions, the Kaaba, a black cube like structure in Mecca was built by Adam. It was then destroyed in the flood during the time of Noah and later rebuilt by Prophet Abraham and his son Ishmael. An important ritual of Haj is running seven times between the hills of Safa and Marwa near the Kaaba. In this running, pilgrims are following the footsteps of Hajar, Abraham’s wife and mother of Ishmael, his first-born son. Abraham was commanded by God to leave mother and son in the barren valley near the Kaaba. When provisions ran out, Hajar became desperate for water to quench the infant’s thirst. Invoking God’s mercy, Hajar ran between the two hills. On her seventh round, water sprang from the ground where the baby kicked. This water source came to be known as the well of Zam Zam. Pilgrims carry this sacred water back.
The festival of Id al-Azha, the “celebration of sacrifice”, marks the culmination of the Haj pilgrimage, when millions of Muslims throughout the world join the pilgrims in their joy of completing the pilgrimage. The festival celebrates the overwhelming sincerity of Prophet Abraham’s devotion to God.
The Quran tells us that one day Abraham said to Ishmael: “O my son! I have seen in a dream that I am slaughtering you as a sacrifice to Allah, so what do you think?” The dreams of prophets being true, Ishmael understood the vision as God’s command and replied without hesitation: “Do what you are commanded, you shall find me patient and willing.”
Both father and son submitted to the will of God. Abraham laid his son down, put his forehead on the ground and directed a sharp knife towards his neck. At this very moment, Allah called him: “O Abraham, you have fulfilled the dream! Thus do we reward the good doers! That was a clear test.” A ram was sent down from heaven to be slaughtered instead of Ishmael. Abraham slaughtered the ram and both father and son shared the feast. It is this spirit of total submission to God that is celebrated on Id al-Azha.