This year, one of the most important religious events in the world falls during the month of August, the 19th through the 24th. This is the Muslim pilgrimage known as the Hajj, during which some 2 million Muslims from all over the world arrive in Saudi Arabia to participate in this annual communal ceremony in and around the city of Mecca. Even though one quarter of the world’s population follows the religion of Islam, the vast majority of us in the West know little about Islam and this event called the Hajj. This is unfortunate.
Unfortunate because a better understanding of the Hajj would lead to a better understanding of Muslims and their faith. It is a powerful and wonderful event. One of the most moving parts of the Hajj is the requirement that everyone who is heading to Mecca must, at a certain point during the approach, remove all regular clothing and put on a simple white wrap without seams or decoration of any kind. The point of this is so that everyone, male and female, regardless of their country of origin, language, and socioeconomic standing will participate as equals. The Great Mosque in Mecca becomes filled with millions of white-clad participants, who walk in circular lines seven times around the Kaaba, the ancient small stone structure at the center of the mosque — this massive building can accommodate 2 million or more worshipers.
The Kaaba was already an ancient structure by the time of Muhammad. In his time, it was dedicated to a whole pantheon of 360 polytheistic gods. In the year 629, CE Muhammad removed all the pagan gods’ images and statues from the Kaaba and rededicated it to the monotheistic supreme God Allah. “Allah” is the Arabic word for “God” and for the Latin-based “Deo/Dios.” “Kaaba” is the Arabic word for cube, since it is a cube built of stone, roughly forty feet on each side and in height. The religion of Islam holds that Adam, the first monotheist, built the original Kaaba and then Abraham (often spelled as “Ibrahim” in Arabic) and his son Ishmael restored it into the building basically as it stands today, with minor repairs. The Quran explains that on account of humans’ inclination to fall into paganism, over the centuries after Abraham the Kaaba became a pagan polytheistic temple. The prophet Muhammad, according to Islamic teaching, merely re-instituted monotheism at the Kaaba, as monotheism was always the original religion of humankind — he did not create a new religion.
Yes, this is the same Abraham of the Judeo- Christian Bible, and the same son Ishmael — and Ishmael’s mother was Hagar rather than Sarah. In Judeo-Christian scripture, Abraham is the “founding father” of monotheism, and both Jews and Christians consider themselves “Children of Abraham.” Muslims are also children of Abraham, but through the Hagar line rather than the Sarah line. There is no getting around the fact that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are “Abrahamic” religions and that they are in service to the same monotheistic supreme God. Anyone who tries to tell you otherwise is profoundly and dangerously misinformed. These religions have much in common.
If you speak Arabic and you happen to be Christian (yes, there are Arabic-speaking Christians) you call God “Allah,” that’s the word. During the time of Muhammad there were a good number of Jews and Christians living in his region of Arabia, and when they spoke and wrote in Arabic, they called the Judeo-Christian God “Allah.” This is not just theory or wishful thinking; we have texts from the 7th century that prove this fact.
But equally important for our understanding of Islam is the fact that the vast majority of Muslims in the world are not Arabs and do not speak Arabic. Only a little more than 10 percent of the world’s Muslims are Arabic speakers living in the Middle East. Because of the way our American news media cover just about anything to do with Islam, Americans tend to think of Muslims as “Arabs.” And we tend to equate Islamic culture with Arabic culture. That is way off base. The fact is that the annual Hajj in Mecca is one of the most multi-cultural, multi-ethnic human gatherings on Earth. Right up there with the pilgrims in Rome’s St. Peter’s Square at Easter — a much smaller number by the way, usually around 150,000 people.
In addition to their faith, is there something else that the multi-ethnic Muslim peoples of the world have in common? Yes, 98 percent of them come from countries in the so-called Global South. And this is important. As the great Middle Eastern scholar Edward Said (of Columbia University) made so clear in his masterpiece “Orientalism,” we cannot understand Islam and Islam’s relationship with the West without taking into account the history of the Global North’s economic and colonialist domination of the Global South. It is by no means an accident that the vast majority of the areas in the world where there is Islamic extremism are those areas most negatively affected by Western European and American imperialism.
How can we sit here so comfortably in the affluent United States and European Union and not remember every day the damage that European and American intervention into the Muslim world has wrought? The very borders of almost all the countries of the Middle East and Africa were artificially drawn up by Europeans and Americans after the First and Second World wars — after years and years of Western economic and colonial exploitation. Even down to today, the British and American controlled world economic system, set up at the 1944 Bretton Woods Conference (in New Hampshire, by the way, at the Mount Washington Hotel) has guaranteed the dominance of New York-and London-based financial centers over almost all the planet. This has weakened only slightly in the last few years. The Global South and the Muslim world have paid a price for this economic order for three quarters if a century.
The international Muslim Hajj should be a reminder to us of the power, beauty and strength of the real Islam (very much opposite to the extremist fringe) that has been and remains — when viewed from a worldwide perspective — a force for cooperation, tolerance, altruism and peace. Islam has had a tough row to hoe. This faith has had to give succor and support to millions upon millions of (non-white) peoples in the most severely disadvantaged places in the world.
The time is overdue for us in the West to appreciate and applaud the Hajj for the powerful and uplifting sacred ceremony that it is. As God directs Muslims in the Quran: “People, We have created you and made you nations and tribes so that you may know and recognize each other (49:13). “Had God willed, He could have made you one religious community, but He wanted to test you — so compete with each other in doing good” (2:148).
As they say on the Hajj, “As-Salaam Alaikum.” Peace be with you.
John Nassivera is a former professor who retains affiliation with Columbia University’s Society of Fellows in the Humanities. He lives in Vermont and part-time in Mexico.