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November 18, 2009

The Hajj in the shadow of the H1N1 virus

The Canadian Charger

MeccaEach year, over 4 million Muslims, including 5000 from Canada, descend on Mecca, Saudi Arabia for the annual Muslim pilgrimage, or Hajj.

The largest gathering of humanity in any one time or place is the culminating spiritual experience for a Muslim.

The Hajj has been performed by Muslims every year for the past 14 centuries.

This year, as he does every year, Dr. Munir El-Kassem, a professor of Dentistry at the University of Western Ontario, is escorting a group of 450 pilgrims – the largest Canadian contingent – to the Hajj.

He said the pilgrims he leads receive an intensive Islamic course in the field.

“I go over to provide religious guidance for people not fully aware of the rituals and the meaning of the rituals,” Prof. El-Kassem said.

“They (pilgrims) are exposed to different important locations that witnessed events in the life of the prophet Muhammad. I give them the major historical facts about what happened there in order to build the spiritual aspect of the place. I take people to what is believed to be the first house of worship ever established for the worship of One God on earth (The Ka'ab in Mecca). I also try to prepare them to face different customs and habits because not all people are as educated or as familiar with technology as they are.”

He added that because the Hajj is a spiritual uplifting hat can last a lifetime, many of these first-time pilgrims go back again.

The Hajj takes place on the 9th of the lunar month of Thul-hijjah (started the 18th of November this year, while Eid-ul-Adha is celebrated on Friday November 27).

All the pilgrims stand on the plain called Arafah, which is believed to be the place where Adam and Eve met after they descended from heaven. They descended in different places; looked for each other and found each other at Arafah.

“Arafath is the starting point of human history. We stand for half a day and invoke God's praises. We attempt to reconnect with God,” Prof. El-Kassem said. “Physically it looks like a mini-day of judgment.”

During this assembly, the pilgrims sacrifice their comfort, including sleep, as they associate their assembly on the plain of Arafah with Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son, at God's behest.

“We believe it was Ismael, not Isaac (Abraham's sons) who was to be sacrificed. God wanted Abraham to know what kind of person he was so he put him to the ultimate test, which no human can be expected to be put to. As he (Abraham) was preparing to scarify his son, God presented him with a sacrificial animal, which became the symbol which pilgrims sacrifice at the end of the pilgrimage. Then they distribute the meat to needy people to show care and sympathy for people less fortunate,” Prof. El-Kassem said.

It's hard for westerners to imagine this scene: About 4 million people standing in a space about 1/5 the size of London, Ontario. During this meeting, the men shed sown clothes, replacing them with two sheets of white cloth, which Prof. El-Kassem said is to show uniformity before god: no one has special status.

The women all wear the same style of Islamic dress, which doesn't include the burqa. Prof. El-Kassem said if they are wearing a burqa they must take it off because it's not part of Islam: it's a cultural practice only, observed by some, but not all Muslims.

After circling the Ka'ba seven times while invoking praises of God, the pilgrims drink from the Zamzam well, which dates back to the time of Abraham and Ismael, Prof. El-Kassem said.

“It has the 16 elements found in the human body, in the same proportion,” Prof. El-Kassem said. “Mohamed said the water in the Zamzam well is good for whatever intention it is drunk for. It has healing powers. There are many examples – it's documented - of people with cancer who went there and then their cancer was gone. Medicine said it was the end but the problem was reversed. Some medical professionals say an imbalance of minerals and ions causes illness. When we drink this water, the energy we feel is indescribable.”

One of the five pillars of Islam, the Hajj is an observance that every Muslim is expected to make at least once in a lifetime, if he or she is able to.

The pilgrimage is closely connected to the word Islam, which means attainment of inner peace through total subjugation to the will of God, Prof. El-Kassem said.

“Abraham was the first person to use this (Islam as a word). We believe that all the prophets worship the same god. They have the same relationship with god, and as such are referred to as Muslims.”

Just as the life of Abraham depicted continuity of religious thought and affiliation from one generation to another, Prof. El-Kassem said the pilgrimage depicts certain lifestyle expectations.

“The Hajj demonstrates that we are as one human family and how we can live together under one God. It's a slogan for the oneness of God.”

This year's Hajji will have an additional element to deal with: the increasingly virulent H1N1 virus.

Prof. El-Kassem gives a Muslim perspective on this:

“Canadians, whether Muslim or not, have demonstrated the potential to panic. The Qur'an says humans are created with a nature prone to panic. They lose control when they have difficulties and good fortunes they tend to keep to themselves, except those who are regular with their prayers.

The five daily prayers include the act of cleansing the nose and mouth: the only two portals the H1N1 virus can enter the body through. Doctors suggest cleaning hands and gargling with warm salt water, and the same for the nostrils, to get rid of the H1N1 virus.

Get vaccinated if you can; but if you can’t; don't panic because the act of prayer is a preventive measure that should help you stay healthy. Take precautions, but have faith in God. Leave the rest to him. So I don't think this pandemic will affect the pilgrimage this year.”

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