Introduction to the fifth pillar of Islam: the pilgrimage to Mecca

Introduction to the fifth pillar of Islam: the pilgrimage to Mecca

As the hajj approaches, which should start on July 17 and end on July 22, we suggest you read this explanatory article on the fifth pillar of Islam.

“Truly, the first Temple that was founded for men was that of Mecca, which is a blessing and a good direction for the Universe. Land of sacred signs, it is also the Oratory of Abraham. Anyone who enters will be safe. Making the pilgrimage is a duty towards God for anyone who has the opportunity. As for the infidels, let them know that God willingly does without the whole Universe! » (Quran, 3:96-97)

The pilgrimage to the holy places of Mecca and its surroundings (hajj) is a duty to be accomplished, at least once in their life, by every Muslim who has the spiritual, physical and material possibility.

For centuries before the advent of modern transportation, Muslims traveled to Mecca on foot, on horseback or on camels, sometimes covering enormous distances. The arrival in the holy city was the culmination of a journey which lasted several months, sometimes even one or two years. What the current pilgrim, for whom the stay is now condensed into two or three weeks, can no longer have any idea. It was then a complete break from daily life for a very long period of time, which required a considerable investment. The stay in the holy places could also sometimes last several years. It was also not exceptional that some people came to die there. The pilgrims, before leaving, had to put their affairs in order as if they were preparing to leave this world for good. The pilgrimage was then experienced as a true rite of passage. What remains, however, but which current conditions of comfort make less immediately perceptible.

The pilgrimage is an extraordinary journey, in time and space, in the footsteps of the prophets, within a sacred territory whose history dates back to Adam and Eve, to Abraham, to Hagar and Ishmael, to Muhammad and his companions. The pilgrimage is the return to the Origin, the return to the Center, the return to the heart. It alone sums up the purpose of existence according to Islam: to serve God in order to know and meet Him.

The Ka'ba

In the middle of the courtyard of the great mosque of Mecca is the Ka'ba, the “house of God” (bayt Allah), Spiritual center of the world to which Muslims turn daily during their daily prayers, as a symbol of the orientation of the heart towards God. It is towards it that hundreds of thousands of faithful converge for the pilgrimage, it is around it that they carry out their ritual circumambulation (tawaf). One can only enter its enclosure after having put oneself in a state of ritual purity. In the northwest corner of its facade is embedded the Black Stone (al-hajar al-aswad) brought by the archangel Gabriel to Adam which, according to myth, was originally a white pearl that the sins of men turned black. According to another symbolism, this Black Stone or Corner Stone (rukn) is said to have “pierced” the firmament so that it is through this “hole” that the celestial ascent takes place through the axis connecting the Ka'ba to the divine Throne.

Built by Adam with the help of angels, raised to heaven during the Flood, the building of the Ka'ba will be rebuilt by Abraham and his son Ishmael then, after other alterations, finally restored by the Quraysh, before the Prophet Muhammad did not restore to the primordial Temple its nature as a place devoted to the worship of the one God. According to tradition, it was Muhammad himself who completed this restoration. At that time he had not yet received the revelation, but his fellow citizens already recognized him as al-çadiq al-amîn, the truthful and trustworthy man. Following floods which damaged the Ka'ba, Mecca notables undertook restoration work. But a disagreement broke out between the main clans: each wanted to have the honor of putting back in its place the Black Stone normally enshrined in one of the corners of the Ka'ba. After several days of tension, the dispute risked degenerating into armed conflict. The oldest proposed to take as arbiter the first person who would enter the sacred enclosure. The first to enter was Muhammad. ” It is al-Amin, he's the man you can trust! » they exclaimed with joy. Once informed of the situation, Muhammad asked for a coat to be brought and placed on the ground. He took the Black Stone, placed it in the center of the cloak, then instructed the representatives of each clan to grab a corner of the cloak. He then asked them to raise it together to the height of the wall being built, and he himself put the Black Stone back in place. Thanks to this initiative, the feud ended and war was narrowly avoided. Muhammad satisfied each of the rival clans, without elevating any of them above the others. On the contrary, he helped them to cooperate in peace and to rise together for good.

The pilgrimage, a prophetic itinerary

The hajj takes place during the first days of dhu-l-hijja, the last month of the Muslim year. Outside of this time, the Muslim has the possibility of making a “pious visit” ('umrah) in Mecca and Medina, a small pilgrimage which includes fewer rites than the hajj itself. When the pilgrimage season arrives, pilgrims from all over the world head to Mecca, responding to God's Call to join His sacred House and encounter His mysterious Presence in the heart of creation. They are, in this Ancient dwelling, “the guests of the Merciful,” says the Prophet.

The pilgrimage to Mecca is a practice well before the Islamic tradition. Its rites follow a defined path and precise rules, taught by the Prophet himself, in the lineage of Abraham and his son Ishmael. Islam presents itself as the last reminder and the ultimate expression of the immutable and primordial Religion (al-dîn al-qayyim) which has manifested itself in different forms throughout the sacred history of humanity, since Adam, the first man and first prophet. Islam also aims to be a return to the model and ancestral tradition of Abraham (millat Ibrâhîm), which the Quran says was hanif muslima pure worshiper oriented exclusively towards God the One, subject in all things to His will.

Abraham and Ishmael obeyed God's orders when they willingly accepted the ordeal of sacrifice and, later, when they rebuilt the Temple in Mecca, on the very spot where God had lowered a tent from Paradise for Adam and Eve, after their fall from Paradise. By their example and their teachings, all the prophets taught men the way of spiritual effort and trusting surrender to God. Pilgrims are thus led to participate in a supernatural order of things, where times, places and ritual forms are designed and arranged to allow them access to divine Grace and Presence.

The main stages of the pilgrimage

The pilgrim must first purify himself by performing a great ablution before reaching the limits of the sacred territory. The man then puts on two pieces of seamless fabric. The woman must have her face and hands uncovered. Excellence for men and women is to dress in white, because it is God's favorite color. Then the pilgrim puts himself in a state of sacralization (ihram) with the clear intention of answering the call and returning to God. In doing so, the pilgrim abandons the habits of ordinary life. A certain number of acts are therefore prohibited: having sexual intercourse, wearing perfume, carrying out grooming procedures, hunting or killing animals, etc. The pilgrim must also reject all bad behavior, erase all traces of pride. Like the newborn in his swaddle or the deceased in his shroud, the pilgrim's habit symbolizes humility, destitution, the desire to purify oneself by turning body and soul towards God. Labbayka Allâhumma, “here I am before You, O God! “, sing in chorus the pilgrims reciting the ritual formula called talbiya. This formula is as follows: “Here I am before You! O God, here I am before You! Here I am before You. You don't have a partner. Here I am before You! Truly, praise and goodness belong to You alone, as does royalty. You don't have a partner. »

Upon arrival in Mecca, the pilgrim enters the sacred enclosure containing the Ka'ba, the House of God. The pilgrim then performs seven circumambulations or ritual tours around the Ka'ba, in communion with the angels who constantly revolve around the celestial prototype of the Ka'ba, the “House frequented”, under the divine Throne, vertically from the earthly Ka'ba. He salutes the black stone descended from Paradise, and invokes the Name of Allah, Lord of the Universe. The pilgrim then performs a ritual prayer at the Oratory of Abraham.

After which he completed the race seven times (sa'y) between the hills of Safâ and Marwa, just like Hagar, the mother of little Ishmael, who ran like this when she sought help for her thirsty son. Divine grace then manifested itself through the source of Zamzam which miraculously gushed from this arid and deserted land and continues to water pilgrims to this day.

The 9th day of dhu-l-hijja is the culminating and central moment of the pilgrimage. The pilgrims go to the plain of 'Arafa, where the Mount of Mercy stands. Men and women, humbly dressed in white, stand there motionless, looking at the sky, in the middle of this semi-desert plain. They invoke and pray to God all day long for themselves and for their loved ones. They cry and implore His forgiveness, collected before the Majesty, the Power and the Judgment of God. The day of 'Arafa is like a foreshadowing of the Last Day.

The rites which conclude the pilgrimage are also highly symbolic and have no other purpose than to lead the pilgrims to act and live in constant remembrance of God: the stoning of the steles representing the demon, by which the believer rejects the evil which is first in him; the sacrifice of the sheep, which commemorates the gesture of absolute trust of Abraham, whom God had asked to sacrifice his son to Him; the haircut, which symbolizes the return to primordial purity; the farewell circumambulations, by which the pilgrim greets the Sacred House and gives thanks to God for His hospitality and generous gifts.

The pious Muslim does not fail, on the occasion of a pilgrimage, to go to Medina, the radiant city of the Prophet Muhammad (al-madîna al-munawwara), second holiest city of Islam, which is located approximately 500 km from Mecca. It is in Medina that the Prophet's mosque and his tomb are located. Pilgrims are keen to come and pray in this mosque, greet the Prophet and pay their respects at his tomb, signs of the love and obedience which bind the believer to the “Seal of the prophets and messengers”.

The pilgrim returns home with the hope of seeing his actions accepted and his faults forgiven, with the promise of returning as pure as a newborn. For Muslims, the pilgrimage is a profound and overwhelming experience: they are no longer the same men or the same women. Their hearts are transformed, they demonstrate a new vision of themselves and the world, a faith changed into certainty, an increased sensitivity to the sacred, a more acute awareness of the function of man in the world, as servant and lieutenant of God on earth. In their eyes, all of life is a pilgrimage. It only has meaning in the Presence of God, in each look and in each breath.

Abd al-Wadoud Gouraud

Member of the Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies (IHEI), honorary member of the International Association of Al-Azhar Graduates. This article constitutes an introductory text to the chapter devoted to 5e pillar of Islam within the treaty of 'Abd al-Wahhâb al-Sha'rânî, The secrets of the five pillars of Islameditions i, Paris, 2019.