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October 30, 2011

Hajj is a spiritual journey of the first order

The Canadian Charger

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On November 5th, millions of Muslims who made the pilgrimage of Hajj will gather for prayers on the Plain of Arafat at the foot of the Mount of Mercy, located just outside the holy city of Mecca. The next day, they will celebrate Eid-Ul-Adha, joining the world community of Muslims everywhere who could not perform the Hajj this year.

More than three million pilgrims -- including some 5,000 Canadians – are expected to be in Mecca this month, representing every nationality on our planet. It is the single most humanly diverse meeting-place for the all races on earth.

I have performed the Hajj twice in my life, once with friends twenty years ago, and the second time with my wife in 2006. I do not know if I am physically fit enough to make it again but spiritually, it is something I long for, because every time one undertakes this journey it reveals more discoveries about the absolute, this life, and about oneself and others.

Each pilgrim returns home with vivid memories and impressions of a spiritual experience that will last a lifetime. In the Muslim world, returning pilgrims are called Haji, and in rural areas of Muslim nations, whole villages turn out to celebrate their home coming.

Making a physical pilgrimage to Mecca is the Fifth Pillar of Islam, a religious obligation that every financially and physically able adult Muslim must undertake at least once in their lifetime. Today, the two-week trip costs more than $7000, putting it beyond the reach of far too many Muslims.

However, for those who can go, the pilgrimage to Mecca means many things.

It is in essence a return journey to the centre of the faith, to the earthly House of God, for Mecca is where Abraham and his son Ishmael first proclaimed to humanity the original message of Islam; to worship One God. Modern science has also proven that Mecca sits at the geographic centre of the total land mass comprising our planet Earth.

Mecca was also the city chosen by God Almighty to renew the message of monotheism, or the worship of a single universal deity, through divine revelation to the Prophet Muhammad, who followed up on what was preached by Moses and Jesus.

In Mecca, the ancient Kaaba is the designated House of God, and the first ritual for a Hajj pilgrim is to circle the Kaaba seven times. Men perform this rite dressed in two simple pieces of coarse white seamless cloth, one for the lower body and another for the upper. Women wear their traditional clothing, usually in white. The vast visual image of white-garbed circling humanity sends a powerful sensory and spiritual message, affirming that all human beings are created equal in the eyes of God and that only God can judge them.

Every pilgrim chants a special phrase in Arabic, which translates as: "Oh Lord, here I am! Oh Lord, No partner have You, here I am! Yours the praise and the grace! Yours the kingdom! Here I am!"

In another ritual, the pilgrims walk the distance between the two hills of Safa and Marwa in remembrance of God’s mercy and to honour the love of mothers everywhere. These are the same hills where Abraham’s Egyptian wife Hagar ran desperately to and fro to find water for her infant son Ishmael, in danger of dying of thirst in the desert. He was saved by the sudden miraculous gushing of water from a spring, which came to be named Zamzam. Since that ancient time, the waters of Zamzam have never ceased to flow; pilgrims today drink from it to obtain Barakah, or blessings.

The meaning of sacrifice and the significance of following God’s commands are highlighted on Eid-Ul-Adha (the Feast of Sacrifice), a celebration day on which millions of sheep are sacrificed so that their meat may be given to the poor worldwide. This ritual is done in commemoration of Abraham who, on the command of God, was prepared to sacrifice his son Ishmael. Instead, God caused a ram to appear in exchange so that Ishmael was spared.

In essence, the Hajj is a regeneration of the spiritual being within you. It teaches us all how insignificant human existence is, as well as reminding us that we are not alone on this planet.

God is always here for us, but an experience like the Hajj reinforces the basic learning that we must refine our human receivers - our innermost hearts - to truly hear His Word.

By Dr. Mohamed Elmasry wrote this oped on the day he left Canada for his third Hajj.

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