The rite at the Holy Mosque in the footsteps of Ishmael’s mother
Why should one undertake a pilgrimage? To where? With what intention? Moreover, what will change afterwards? There is one woman’s story, of Hagar, which helps us reflect on these questions and more besides.
An Egyptian slave, who belonged to Sarah, wife of Abraham, to whom was born a son, was considered a “second class” woman, not only in married life but also in social life. Despite this, she is presented, proposed and indicated in a clear and evident way as an example to imitate and follow.
Hagar is a woman on a journey. She was ordered to make a pilgrimage; infact, she had no choice, she had to leave, to emigrate, and it was even the good prophet of the time who ordered her to break away from everyone and everything. She was abandoned in an arid land taken into the desert, but she was not alone, as with her was baby Ishmael, the beloved son of the prophet. One might say that life sometimes leads us to perform irrational acts, like that of Abraham.
However, where does pain take us? The suffering? Toward whom or what? Moreover, why?
Lost in the desert, Agar could not even cry out since there was no one who could hear her. She could just lay down and wait to die. And, why not?
Instead, here is the Woman! A sign and example of fertility, life, acceptance, nourishment, love, courage, faith and hope.
Hagar is not overcome by adversity; she cannot cry out but she can walk, run for water and hold on, for her son and for herself.
For the Islamic pilgrimage rite of the Al Hajj, the pilgrims coming to Mecca, be they women or men must imitate Hagar in order to perform the religious act correctly and completely.
Her effort to run seven times between the two hills of Safa and Marwa in search of water, and they must run having in mind her and her path, her faith, her courage, her love. Moreover, her hope.
The name Agar means “pilgrim”. On the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, she who appears as the guide, the lighthouse, the authentic model of a true believer. This woman is an example for men and women of all times and places. She represents the feminine force, the one who first offers life itself through the welcoming space of her womb and later, during the journey of existence, she gives the vital space of her soul and her perseverance to believe and hope.
Hagar is the woman who does not give up, who believes and hopes in the resurrection. With her immense will, she makes the Muslim’s pilgrimage a free path towards faith and hope. A pilgrimage to find, rediscover, know, meditate, discover and perhaps touch the meaning of the mystery of pain. The Islamic rite of pilgrimage indicates the direction of life. To walk and not stop, have a sublime goal on their way, and, having reached Mecca, meet God in their brothers and sisters and achieve a vision of unity. This is how the great Persian mystic poet Jalāl al-Dīn Muhammad Rumi contemporary of St Francis of Assisi describes the meaning of pilgrimage:
“There are many paths of quest, but the quest is always the same. Perhaps you do not see that the roads leading to Mecca are different, one coming from Byzantium, another from Syria, and still others passing by land or sea? As a result, the distance to travel is different each time, but when they reach the end, the disputes, arguments, and differences of view disappear, because hearts are united. This impulse of the heart is neither faith nor disbelief, but love”. (Rumi, Fihi-ma fih, The Book of Inner Depths).
Today, Muslims from the four corners of the earth travel to Mecca in the pilgrimage month to perform a religious act. Everyone dresses the same, whether they are women, men, young, and old, rich, poor, rulers or subjects; everyone wears a white cotton robe and circle the Ka’ba, bayt Allah house of God, seven times. The pilgrims repeat Allahumma labbayk, “Lord here I am”, and walk around a cube form which is 15 meters high. Inside this cube? There is nothing inside! The image seen from above is that of a white wave in movement, from which rises a constant sound: “Here I am”. A sea of women and men who have their fellow Muslims in front, behind and beside them, the Ka’ba is empty. In this way that “Here I am” reaches the ears of a fellow pilgrim. A movement of harmonious unity despite the many diversities of color, languages, traditions and backgrounds.
For fourteen centuries, the Islamic pilgrimage has sought to teach the faithful to imitate Hagar’s steps. The message is: be like her, a courageous mother and woman with a steadfast faith despite everything. Today, the faithful drink from a fountain called Zemzem that recalls the miraculous sparkling of water under the feet of the child, Ishmael.
Agar becomes central in the Islamic pilgrimage not only because the rite is not completed without running seven times between the two hills as she did, but also because it becomes an integral part of God’s own house in Mecca, which is the to where the canonical prayer of about two billion Muslims on earth is directed. In the north-west, part of the Ka’ba there is a semicircular wall called hijr-Ismail. According to tradition, it was in this area that Hagar lived and was then buried, and later Ishmael too. Out of respect, we cannot walk on it.
The message goes beyond ritual, symbols and gestures. Once again, Rumi draws the intelligent gaze towards a penetrating reading of ritual. To see and find in oneself and in one's neighbor the face of God.
“O people set out on pilgrimage! Where on earth are you, where on earth are you?
The Beloved is here, come back, come back!
The Beloved is your neighbor, live wall to wall,
What is the idea of wandering in the desert of Arabia?
On closer inspection the formless form of the Beloved,
The Master and the House and the Ka’ba is you!
Try once from this house to climb to the roof!”.
(Rumi, Poesie mistiche [Mystical Poems], BUR)
by Shahrzad Houshmand Zadeh
Saudi Arabia, women travelling to Mecca without a guardian
Last year, the Saudi Arabian authorities decreed that women could take part in Al Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, for the first time without the obligation of being accompanied by a man.
They can leave for the holy city without a mahram, a man or a first-degree relative of the woman who acts as guardian and chaperone. To do so, however, they have to abide by the condition of traveling as a group.