In the Name of God, the Most Compassionate, the Dispenser of Grace
Hajj as a Journey of Self-Reflection and Spiritual Rejuvenation
ألله أكبر، الله أكبر، الله أكبر،
الله أكبر ولله الحمد
God is Greater than; God is Greater than; God is Greater than
All Praise, Thanks and Gratitude belongs to God Alone
وَأَذِّنْ فِي النَّاسِ بِالْحَجِّ يَأْتُوكَ رِجَالًا
وَعَلَىٰ كُلِّ ضَامِرٍ يَأْتِينَ مِنْ كُلِّ فَجٍّ عَمِيقٍ
لِيَشْهَدُوا مَنَافِعَ لَهُمْ
Call people to perform the pilgrimage (Hajj) They will respond to this call on foot and with every conceivable means of transport. They will respond to your call from every corner of the Earth, so that they might take part in rites that shall be of benefit to them…. (Surah al-Hajj, 22:27-28)
Today is a day of celebration, a day of delight and enjoyment and a time to express our thanks and gratitude to Allah, the Most High, for being able to celebrate `Id al-Adha in unison and solidarity with the pilgrims (hujjaj). We may be physically far away from Makkah, but our hearts are with the hujjaj (pilgrims) thinking about them and praying for them. Yesterday, these blessed hujjaj returned from the sacred plains of `Arafat in compliance with the most important symbolic rite pertaining to the pilgrimage (wuquf al-`Arafat). The Prophet Muhammad (may Allah’s everlasting peace and blessings be upon him) has proclaimed in an authentic prophetic tradition (hadith):
The Pilgrimage (Al-Hajj) is `Arafah
(Reported by the companion `Abdurrahman bin Ya`mur and recorded in Sunan al-Nasa’i and in the Musnad of Imam Ahmad)
We pray and make du`a that Allah, the Answerer of all Supplications (Mujib al-Da`wat), grant all those who were blessed with being present on the sacred plains of `Arafat yesterday, an accepted hajj (hajj mabrur), forgives their sins (dhanb maghfur), and allows them to return to their homelands as true ambassadors of Islam.
A great Muslim ascetic Hasan al-Basri was once asked, “What is meant by al-hajj al-mabrûr?” (i.e. a divinely accepted pilgrimage) and he answered, “Returning [from the pilgrimage] in a state of zuhd (asceticism)” i.e. an awareness of the transient nature of worldly material things which are insignificant in relation to permanence of the life of the hereafter. For 1.8 billion Muslims around the world, the hajj is considered a spiritual pinnacle and transformative experience.
Most literature and lectures discuss the external rites (manasik) of the hajj. That is, how to perform these rites correctly according to the various schools of Islamic law (madhabs) and the example (sunnah) of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Other books focus on personal accounts and practical tips. Very few books or lectures, however, deal with the philosophy and symbolic significance behind the various rites pertaining to the hajj. Even fewer deal with the inner and spiritual dimensions of the hajj experience. This gap in the literature on hajj is emblematic of the contemporary crisis in Muslim thought and praxis. We have reduced our understanding and practice of Islam to its external features (i.e. the fiqhi or legal dimensions), and neglect the inner transformational dimensions of the hajj. In order to balance this perspective on the hajj, over the past decade in my own khutbahs and hajj seminars I have emphasized the “socio-spiritual dimensions of the hajj,” and reflected on how it is a “powerful, collective experience.”
While all of these dimensions of the hajj are significant and necessary for a full appreciation of the manifold benefits of the hajj, what I would like to do in this khutbah is to reflect more intensively on hajj as a journey of self-reflection and spiritual rejuvenation. One of the major effects and consequences of performing the hajj is to place the pilgrim in a temporary state of exile, away from the preoccupation with the normal routine of his or her life. This temporary state of exile provides the pilgrim with an ideal opportunity to engage in an intensive process of self-reflection and spiritual renewal. Hence, in my khutbah today I want to reflect on the spiritual virtues (fada’il) and personal growth (manaf`i) that the pilgrim can procure from the hajj experience and the lessons we can take from it. I have drawn inspiration for these reflections from the following quotation from Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d.1111): “Hajj is an inward journey” (See English translation of parts of Imam Ghazali’s Ihya `Ulum al-Din titled Inner Dimensions of Islamic Worship by Muhtar Holland (Leicester, UK, Islamic Foundation, 2013).
Wuquf al-`Arafah – Pausing in the Quest for Self-Knowledge
A useful starting point is to reflect on the symbolic meaning of the prophetic teaching (hadith) and praxis that the hajj is `Arafah. Without pausing or halting at the sacred plains of `Arafat at the appointed date and time of the 9th of the Dhu al-Hijjah, technically known as wuquf al-`Arafah, the hajj is rendered null and void according to the consensus (ijma`) of all the schools of Islamic law (madh-dhahib). It behoves us therefore, to reflect more deeply on what the pausing on ‘Arafat symbolizes in order for us to fully appreciate the meaning of the prophetic saying: ‘the hajj is ‘Arafah’.
The Arabic word `Arafah is derived from the trilateral verb `a-ra-fa meaning “to know”. The most primary source of Islamic guidance, the Glorious Qur’an, beckons us to get to know God by reflecting on God’s signs in the universe and within ourselves, and also getting to know God through our compassionate relationships with others. In Surah al-Ghafir, chapter 41 verse 53, Allah, the Sublime, proclaims:
سَنُرِيهِمْ آيَاتِنَا فِي الْآفَاقِ وَفِي أَنْفُسِهِمْ
حَتَّی يَتَبَيَّنَ لَهُمْ أَنَّهُ الْحَقُّ
أَوَلَمْ يَكْفِ بِرَبِّكَ أَنَّهُ عَلَی كُلِّ شَيْءٍ شَهِيدٌ
We shall show them Our Signs in the universe and within themselves, so that the Truth (of their Lord) becomes clear to them. Is it not sufficient as proof that your Lord is a witness over all things? (41:53)
And in Surah al-Hujurat, chapter 49 verse 13, Allah, the Sublime, proclaims:
يَا أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ إِنَّا خَلَقْنَاكُم مِّن ذَكَرٍ وَأُنثَى
وَجَعَلْنَاكُمْ شُعُوبًا وَقَبَائِلَ لِتَعَارَفُوا
O Humankind, we have created you into males and females, and fashioned you into nations and tribes so that you may come to know each other (li ta`arafu) (Q49:13)
While knowledge of the four dimensions (God, self, others and the universe) is equally important, some scholars, such as Imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d1111) propose that the primary quest should be getting to know the self. According to Imam Ghazali, by starting with the self, the other three become illuminated. In this regard, Muslim mystics (ahl al-tasuwwuf) often quote the Sufi teaching: ‘Whosever knows the self has indeed known their Lord and Sustainer’ (man `arafa nafsahu fa qad `arafa rabbahu).
Taking this literal meaning of `Arafah i.e. “to know” as our cue, we may safely conclude that engaging in a deeply introspective process of getting to know oneself, and thus God, is integral to the performance of the hajj. The central pilgrimage rite of Wuquf al `Arafat is thus a ritual through which the pilgrim can escalate and intensify the life-long journey of getting to know ourselves, and ultimately God. The pilgrim does so by recognizing their divinely endowed potentials and talents, but `Arafat is also a moment of pausing within which the pilgrim can acknowledge and own his or her human frailties and weaknesses in character. It is particularly through recognizing and transforming our human frailties and shortcomings that we become better persons and live up to our divinely endowed potential and talent. It is therefore no small wonder that the major activity the pilgrim is expected to occupy him/herself with on the sacred day of `Arafat is pausing in order to reflect and earnestly seek Allah’s forgiveness for his or her shortcomings and transgressions.
Yawm al-`Arafat is pre-eminently a day of forgiveness. Allah, al-`Afuw – the Pardoner who loves to Pardon, forgives all pilgrims who pause for self-reflection and atonement on the plains of `Arafat. Pilgrims thus return home liberated from all past transgressions, but not free from human frailties and character weaknesses. Returning pilgrims and indeed all conscientious believers are not expected to be infallible, but rather to recognize our human imperfections and to work on self-reform and spiritual rejuvenation. This is indeed our ongoing quest for God consciousness through getting to know ourselves. The pausing on `Arafah is thus symbolic of the moments of self-reflection that we should engage in throughout our life journeys.
Pelting of the Jamarat: Engaging in the Jihad al-Nafs
The struggle for self-reform known in Islamic terminology as the jihad al-nafs has been described by Muslim scholars, such as Imam Ghazali, as the greater jihad (jihad al-akbar), because of its great difficulty and life-long pursuit. The most repeated of all the hajj rites, namely that of the pelting of the jamarat, symbolically reflects this jihad al-nafs; a relentless and never-ending struggle against our character weaknesses and human frailties. The pelting of the jamarat is done several times and is aimed at three symbolic pillars, each representing three different dimensions of the self that we need to be self-conscious of in order to exercise self-restraint and or self-reformation. On the basis of my own study of the Islamic sources I identify these three dimensions of our inner selves that stands in need of self-restraint and or self-reformation as shahawat (our physical desires), shakila (our nurturing and life experiences) and tabi`a (our innate character traits which are often genetically transmitted).
Human shahawat or physical desires such as the need for sleeping, eating and sexual intimacy are natural according to the teachings of Islam. We are not expected to annihilate or deny them but rather to express them in ways which are dignified and lead to healthy social norms. An instructive prophetic tradition (hadith) usefully captures the Islamic approach to fulfilling our physical desires. In it the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) reprimands a group of his companions who vowed to pray all night, fast every day of the year and not get married, and counsels them to be diligent in the performance of their prayers but also to take time out for resting, to fast some days and enjoy eating on others and to get married. (recorded in Sunan al-Nasa’i)
From human nurturing, childhood experiences and the cultural and ecosystem within which we were raised each person develops an inward disposition i.e. a set of personality traits and characteristics that subliminally drives our instinctive human behaviour. In surah al-Isra’, chapter 17 verse 83 the Qur’an refers to this dimension of the human personality as shakila:
قُلۡ كُلٌّ يَّعۡمَلُ عَلٰى شَاكِلَتِه
فَرَبُّكُمۡ اَعۡلَمُ بِمَنۡ هُوَ اَهۡدٰى سَبِيۡلًا
Say: Everyone acts in accordance with their own disposition (shakila), and your Lord knows best who is on the most guided path” (Q17:83)
Finally, the Qur’an in Surah al-Mu`minun, chapter 23 verse 12 also refers to the physical or material substance from which the human being is created:
وَلَقَدۡ خَلَقۡنَا الۡاِنۡسَانَ مِنۡ سُلٰلَةٍ مِّنۡ طِيۡنٍ
We created the human being from a quintessence of clay (Q23:12)
Contemporary genetic research indicates that genetic patterns in our biological make up may not only predispose us to certain physical features and diseases but may also affect our so-called psychic disposition and behavioural patterns. In the Arabic language this is known as tabi`a; one’s “physical stamp” that influences one’s human temperament.
These three levels of our being that shape our personality and behaviours together constitute what the Qur’an in surah Yusuf, chapter 12 verse 53, describes as the lower self (al-naf al-`ammara bi su`). These three levels of the self should be the target of jihad al-nafs. The disciplining and restraining of the expression of these three dimensions of the self is the object of jihad al-nafs.
Scholars of human behaviour inform us that much of our instinctive human behaviour are driven by our unconscious selves which are our shahawat (desires), shakila (life experiences) and tabi`a (genetic traits). Becoming self-conscious involves intimately getting to know these unconscious impulses that drive our instinctive behaviour and to engage in self-reform is a gradual and painstaking process of rehabilitative actions that will bring us closer to God. Imam Ghazali offers a sobering caution by reminding us that self-reform does not happen in a one-night vigil. Self-reform is a gradual process of growth, and much like the example of an athlete training for their next athletics meeting, the training programme is arduous and painstaking. The ultimate goal of the self-reform process is to behave gradually less from unconscious impulses and more self-consciously using the inner resources of what is known in the Qur’an as the nafs al-lawwama (the reproaching and moral self).
Returning to the symbolism underlying the meaning of the pelting of the jamarat, this ritual of the hajj should thus not only be viewed literally as an external rite but also as an inward act of casting out the personal hubris that the pilgrim is expected to recognize during his or her repentance supplications at `Arafat.
In the final part of this khutbah I would like to make a few modest and practical recommendations for how each one of us can engage the jihad al-nafs i.e. struggle for self-reform and spiritual rejuvenation.
Practical Suggestions for Engaging in Jihad al-Nafs
First, in order to decrease the extent of our unconscious subliminal behaviour we need to consciously track our daily conduct. Such a daily exercise in self-reflection technically known as muhasabah need not be a long and tiresome task but rather a few minutes at the end of each day spent thinking about how our day has passed, bringing into consciousness how we responded to challenges of the day, how we interacted with close associates or with strangers on the day, how we exercised restraint or lost control of our lower selves, and to what extent we drew on our nafs al-lawwama, our inner moral compass, to get through the day. In a khutbah delivered on the last Friday of the 2018 Gregorian year I expounded on the central Islamic concept of muḥāsabah. In it I suggested that during the muhasabah process we look inward and we look back, and in doing so we find important tools and keys with which to build the foundation for growth and the journey forward.
Second, we need to undertake regular spiritual retreats of solitude for self-care and introspection. It is well-known in history that our beloved Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) used to go on spiritual seclusions and retreats in the desert. This is not surprising since time-out is a peaceful practice and apart from simply easing the mind and soul, it is an opportune time to set new goals, abandon bad habits and build new good habits, practices and routines. Taking time out from our daily routines and regular schedules is an important exercise and could vary from a single day to that of a weekend or even an entire month. Such retreats could be aimed at spiritual renewal, spiritual healing or rehabilitation and could be combined with a comprehensive training programme which includes intensive study periods and appreciating the wonders of the natural environment. Ramadan `itikafs i.e. seclusion in the masjid and the night vigil prayers (tahajjud) are also important ways of being self-reflexive and introspective.
Third, our daily acts of worship (`ibadah) should be revitalized such that it is not reduced to empty external rituals but becomes acts of self-reform. In this regard, we should not become fixated on how many extra salawat one performs, but rather focus on the quality of these acts of worship. The purpose of acts of worship, including our hajj rituals, is to fully recognize Allah, have a spiritual journey towards Allah, and be absorbed in boundless joy as a result of our closeness to Allah.
Fourth, we need to link our practical actions for self-reform with that of social actions that bear witness to Divine attributes such as Love, Mercy, Compassion and Justice. In other words, as much as self-reform and the jihad al-nafs is an inner journey, it should never be blind to the social environment in which we find ourselves. Our jihad al-nafs is intimately connected to how we interact with others in our social spaces, and how we respond to human suffering and injustices around us. The challenge is to find the delicate mizan (balance) between self-reform and spirituality and social reform and justice. Such a position is strikingly annunciated in the following verse of the Glorious Qur’an:
اعْدِلُوا هُوَ أَقْرَبُ لِلتَّقْوَىٰ
Be just it is the closest thing to Piety (Quran 5:8)
Last but not least, we need to supplicate and earnestly seek Allah’s compassion, forgiveness and grace. By constantly praying for forgiveness for our acts of commission and omission we acknowledge our human imperfection and assume a disposition of self-abnegation and humility. We are informed by authentic ahadith traditions that the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), our exemplar, sought Allah’s forgiveness sometimes 100 times a day.
In conclusion, the day of ‘Id is a day on which we remember the deceased, spend time with our family and friends, visit the sick, overlook faults and forget feuds, help the needy and show kindness and generosity to all. I believe that doing this exemplifies the spirit of sacrifice and `Id al-Adha. And if we are able to make this sacrifice at the time of `Id, then we are setting ourselves on a path of goodness and rectitude and may find it easier to navigate through various struggles in our lives.
Today we also spare a thought for all oppressed people who continue to face the ravages of war and political instability in their countries. We pray particularly for the people of Kashmir who are currently under siege and curfew by the Indian army. We also pray for an end to the current spike in gang violence on the Cape Flats. During this month in which we celebrate Women’s Day, we also pray for the protection of vulnerable women and children and for an end to the scourge of gender-based violence that continues to plague our communities We pray that wisdom guide the leadership of our country, province and city to fashion a more compassionate, just and caring South Africa.
On this great day of ‘Id al-Adha, while we are celebrating the conclusion of the hajj, a symbol of global Muslim unity and amity, I call on you to join me in making a special supplication for our hujjaj:
اَللّٰهُمَّ اجْعَلْنَا حَجًّا مَّبْرُوْرًا
O Allah! Grant our pilgrims an accepted hajj
And let their strivings and endeavours be rewarded
And forgive them their sins and trespasses
وَعَمَلًا صَالِحًا مَّقْبُوْلًا
And accept their good deeds
وَتِجَارَةً لَّنْ تَبُوْرَ
And protect their belongings
يَا نُوْرَ النُّوْرَ
O Light upon Light
يَا عَالِمَ مَا فِى الصُّدُوْرِ
O Knower of all that is in our hearts
اَخْرِجْنَا يَا اَللّٰهُ مِنَ الظُّلُمَاتِ اِلَى النُّوْرِ
Lead us forth from Darkness unto Light
I greet you all:
‘Id Sa’id Wa Mubarak
Kullu ‘Am Wa Antum Bikhayr Ma’as-Salamah Was-Sihhah
May your entire year be filled with Goodness, Peace and Health