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A Minox in Mecca

A Minox in Mecca

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Seasons photoessay on Hajj from Spring 2007 issue along with essay by Ibrahim N. Abusharif.
Seasons photoessay on Hajj from Spring 2007 issue along with essay by Ibrahim N. Abusharif.

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12/10/2012

On Immortality

From the Koran
Amherst D. Tyssen (1843-1930)
Who’ll bring the dead to life, The grave’s dark prison burst? Why, He that on the dead Conferred their life at first. ’Tis strange that fleeting souls Again to-day should wake, But no less strange that here They once their sojourn make. Behold the human form With strength and skill bedight, Endowed with mind and will, With hearing, speech and sight. ’Tis God’s o’erruling power Has caused with wondrous care These mortal frames to grow Of water, earth and air. Then cannot God preserve Alive the soul He gave, And bear it safely through The crisis of the grave?
seasons | spring 2007 |

Oh, yes, our spirits draw Their essence from on high, Of heavenly nature wrought, Too noble e’er to die.

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Oneness of God and Humanity
Reflections on Hajj
Photographs by Aasil Ahmad
Indeed, the first temple set up for humankind
was the one at Mecca, as blessing and guidance for all beings.
(q u r ’ a n 3 : 9 6 )

Then I saw the Ka’ba, a huge black stone house in the middle of the Great Mosque. It was being circumambulated by thousands upon thousands of praying pilgrims, both sexes, and every size, shape, color, and race in the world…. My feeling there in the House of God was numbness. My Mutawaf led me in the crowd of praying, chanting pilgrims, moving seven times around the Ka’ba. Some were bent and wizened with age; it was a sight that stamped itself on the brain. I saw incapacitated pilgrims being carried by others. Faces were enraptured in their faith.
malcolm x of the united states of americ a, 1964

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seasons | spring 2007 |

And We made the House a place of gathering for humanity, and security.
(qur’ a n 2:125) There it [the Ka’ba] stood, almost a perfect cube (as its Arabic name connotes) entirely covered with black brocade, a quiet island in the middle of the vast quadrangle of the mosque, much quieter than any other work of architecture anywhere in the world. It would almost appear that he who first built the Ka’ba … wanted to create a parable of man’s humility before God. The builder knew that no beauty of architectural rhythm and no perfection of line, however great, could ever do justice to the idea of God: and so he confined himself to the simplest three-dimensional form imaginable—a cube of stone.
muhammad asad of galicia, 1927

And it is a duty of humanity to God that whoever is able make a pilgrimage to the temple….
(q u r ’ a n 3:97) The scene around this [the Ka’ba], the most sacred spot in the Islamic world, was one of amazing commotion and confusion, which suggested to a European mind thoughts of traffic regulation, barriers, and turnstiles. But a little thought was enough to convince me that nothing of the kind was either feasible (though practicable enough if desired) or desirable. It would go against the basic principles of Islam which, though essentially a democratic and socialist creed, does prescribe and inculcate one element of individualism, which at certain moments—and only at those moments—makes the human ego all-important above the claims of society, race, and even family. Each Muslim, man, woman or child, is personally responsible for the achievement of his own salvation at all costs. That is not only his responsibility but his bounden duty to be performed without regard to the consequences to himself or others.… At such moments spiritual energy transcends the intellectual, and those who believe in the basic doctrines of Islam can scarcely wish it otherwise.… What matter then if a pilgrim occasionally loses control at the sublime moment of his ecstasy? What matter if he crowds and crushes when a little self-restraint, universally practiced, would create a steady and unimpeded flow at the physically narrow centres of exaltation and self-realization?
harry st. john philby of great britain, 1931

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It is here that the grand spectacle of the pilgrimage of the Musselman must be seen—an innumerable crowd of men from all nations and of all colors, coming from the extremities of the earth through a thousand dangers, and encountering fatigues of every description, to adore together the same God, the God of nature…. All look upon each other as brothers, or individuals of the same family united by the bands of religion…. No, there is not a religion that presents to the senses a spectacle more simple, affecting, and majestic!

seasons | spring 2007 |

ali bey al-abassi of spain,1807

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Note that the mountains Safa and Marwa are among the emblems of God: so whoever makes the seasonal pilgrimage to the House, or an off-season pilgrimage, it is not held against anyone if he circles them both. And if anyone willingly does what is good, God is appreciative and cognizant. (q u r ’ a n 2:158)

Pilgrim’s Progress
Ibrahim N. Abusharif
Abusharif wrote this piece after returning from Hajj in January, 2007. It is a Muslim’s sacred duty to live for a few days as a pilgrim, a reasonable requirement for a lifetime. The pilgrimage or the Hajj is a composite of rites that are essentially reenactments of events of the distant past and, at one point, a grand dress rehearsal for what is to come. Adam, Abraham, Hagar, Ishmael f, and the Prophet Mu^ammad s are the names most closely associated with this rite, and what is asked of the pilgrim is simply to emulate them, for the reason that their deeds, however ordinary they may appear, were connected to a higher realm. The response to this call remains a marvel, especially in an era in which there is enormous pressure to be devotees of the material world and to succumb to the spiritual sloth this engenders. Despite this, each year millions of people drop everything in order to make the pilgrimage, which has difficulty and expenses. All are partners in a ritual that remarkably still matters. One of life’s principal struggles is to pierce outer forms and imbibe the interior meanings. But the struggle is magnified when living in a context in which unexamined information is constantly available and when personal quiet and retreat are becoming oddities to pursue. vac ation To call the Hajj experience a “vacation” would put off a lot of Muslims, who would consider the label a slight. But what I wanted out of Hajj was precisely a vacation, but in the original sense of vacating my mind of the assumptions we absorb as passive consumers of modernity, and vacating the ephemeral identities we attach importance to. One of the graces of the pilgrimage to Mecca and its surroundings pertains to a kind of anonymity that strips us down to our indelible identity as creatures of a great Creator. For a number of days, millions of people of all races and status converge for a single purpose. The pilgrim, by choice, is one face among millions of faces of all hues and textures. In the crowd, I can bump into a CEO, a leader, an academic, or a beggar; there’s no way to really tell the difference. Rank and pomp are divorced of status. Ego is dispossessed of platform. In this condition, the Hajj does its work. the “art of waiting” The movements of the Hajj rites are not very time-consuming. Surprisingly, what takes up most of the time are the long stretches within and between the rites that can be easily mistaken as times to “wait.” It is possible to miss the point of the pilgrimage if we are not adept in the “art of waiting,” as a sage once said. In fact, what a pilgrim does during the “wait” will largely inform the success of the journey. Pilgrims do what this place silently expects of them: supplicate to the unseen God, remember Him in the holy precincts. And so they ask for a good life, another chance, forgiveness and mercy for themselves and those they left behind (for the living and the dead), knowledge, success, succor, or for unaffected glimpses of reality, sifting out the real from the fake. The movements of the pilgrims are not as choreographed as one would think, even though everyone goes to the same stations and performs similar acts. What goes on in the mind and in the heart, the inner motions, ranges. The dress, the motion, the crowds, the “meanwhile,” and the heightened sense of purpose and of the imminence of our ultimate return draw out from the pilgrim levels of resolve. For a precious few days one almost becomes a seer. Suddenly, no sham paradigm is safe. We wish it can last. The rites are capped off with farewell circuits around the Kaaba back in Mecca, where it began days before. The pilgrims then get around to board the buses, and slowly the former identities begin to emerge as we prepare our papers and “ID’s” to board a plane. It’s the daunting challenge of the pilgrim to give honest reflection to the questions provoked by the ritual, especially when he or she is back home driving a car, mowing the lawn, waving at a neighbor, or simply reading a newspaper. the effect of reenactments We make seven circuits around the tall cube-shaped Kaaba, the first man-made

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About twenty of us Muslims who had finished the Hajj were sitting in a huge tent on Mount Arafat. As a Muslim from America, I was the center of attention. They asked me what about the Hajj had impressed me the most. One of the several who spoke English asked; they translated my answers for the others. My answer to that question was not the one they expected, but it drove home my point. I said, “The brotherhood! The people of all races, colors, from all over the world coming together as one! It has proved to me the power of the One God.” malcolm x building put into the service of reminding people of their servitude to God. Later we walk seven times between two hillocks, the course that Hagar j took in her desperate search for water, only to be guided to the very spot of the great well of Zamzam, which to this day offers drink to thirsty travelers from all corners of the earth. The walk between the two hillocks is called sa¢y, which means striving, and it is an essential rite of the Hajj. But as we walk Hagar’s path, we ourselves are not desperate, nor are we out of water. If we tire, we can stop for rest, sip some water, and then resume without the peril that Hagar j � faced. Hence, there must be important value in reenacting Hagar’s walk, however symbolic it may be. We may fairly conclude that the materials and strict rationality of the duny¥ (the ephemeral world) are poor ushers in the sacred climb. Instead, we are advised that the invisible realm of sincerity, intention, and symbolism are required accoutrements for the piercing of the materialistic veil. So we make circuits around the ancient House, walk a path between two hills, and, in Mina (a few kilometers away), toss seven pebbles at three pillars that mark the spots where Satan tried to tempt Abraham e away from God’s obedience. These are rites of worship filled with symbolism meant to quicken our spiritual selves. mt. mercy The heart of the Hajj, its proving ground and day, is at Mt. Arafat. On its plains, slopes, and peak, millions of people (can’t help but repeat that number) gather from dawn to sunset for supplication and remembrance. The scene is almost supernatural. The importance of the Hereafter is stressed nearly on every page of the Qur’an and countless statements of the Prophet s. Firm belief in the Hereafter is expected of us in the here and now. Yet nothing in our normal everyday lives compares to the spectacle of all of humanity standing before God for ultimate judgment. The Arafat experience offers something for our imaginations, a glimpse of the inevitable. It helps us to map additional meaning to the words we read in the Qur’an—helps us to tease out greater sense from the descrip-

And I, too, moved slowly forward and became part of the circular flow around the Ka’ba. Off and on I became conscious of a man or woman near me…. Among the many people in front of the Black Stone, a young Indian woman: she was obviously ill; in her narrow, delicate face lay a strangely open yearning, visible to the onlooker’s eye like the life of fishes and algae in the depths of a crystal-clear pond. Her hands with their pale, upturned palm were stretched out toward the Ka’ba, and her fingers trembled as if in accompaniment to a wordless prayer.… muhammad asad tions the Book reveals. There is a glow and ease associated with Arafat, which abruptly alters at sunset when the throngs of humanity board buses, SUV’s, and sandals and head for Muzdalifah, an extensive plain that looks like a large parking lot of gravel and stones. There we wait until dawn before we head to Mina, tent city, where the population (comparable to Chicago) will cram together in an area the size of a large mall. As citizens of Mina for a few days, we are shown the full range of human virtues and fallibilities. Each day of our stay at Mina we take small stones and toss them at large pillars that represent Satan’s guile—small stones doing mighty work. medina People of all races, headdress, and determination converge in Medina to visit the Arabian Prophet s, which is not a formal part of the Hajj. These folks are driven to Medina by their love of the Prophet s, which they imbibed through the curious method of education. But you sense nothing rote in their visit nor in their emotions. And since when can an emotion be passed down and kept strong enough to drive people to make the journey to the Prophet’s tomb? Love cannot be taught, as they say. And this is true. But when one learns more of the life of the Messenger s, love seems to be the crest of the education, where all facts and roads lead. This is the Prophet’s grace. Yes, Mecca is a majestic city. If you knew nothing and merely opened up your heart and stood on its hallowed ground, you'd sense that this is a sacred center, alive in more than one realm. It is kingly. You feel you are in the presence of the August, the Wise. Medina, though, is a light. It is friendly. You come with your flaws and feel welcomed nonetheless. Your humanity is accepted. Just come with a willingness to climb. Greet the host of the house, convey your regards and prayers of peace, and he will respond. Walk up to him, and he will know. Sit anywhere and reflect or read or thumb your beads or raise your hand in sure supplication or simply relax—it is all accepted. It's all good. It is a gracious place. The guests do not feel self-conscious. You are who you are.

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concluding remarks We each have a body, a fact we are constantly reminded of, and a body does have needs, organic and sensual, which we cater to day and night. But to submit to the curriculum of fundamentalist secularists that “body” defines humanity is a dereliction that revealed religion has always warned of. We are created from the clay of the earth but are also infused with a soul that has no material correlate in this world. Religion has recognized this duality, not as a glitch in our creation, but as a trial. Somewhere in the teachings of all the great ones (including Abraham, Moses, Jesus f, and Mu^ammad s), there is an unasterisked point: in negotiating the material and spiritual selves, one brushes up against salvation. The choice, they have stressed, comes down to the ques| spring 2007 | seasons

tion: what aspect of our humanity do we devote ourselves to? For the Muslim, the nurturing of the soul is paramount and is guided by what we offhandedly call in pamphlets the “Five Pillars of Islam,” essential rites of worship that have been passed down through the sound line of prophecy. These pillars start to lose their meaning when we forget a baseline understanding of religion: Islam insists that each of us is born into this world with a pure condition, a state of grace, in fact. While humans may be feeble, sometimes foolish, belligerent, and forgetful, our center was made uncorrupt. This is equally true for men and women. The rites of worship and the way of life they engender are meant to bring us closer to our original state because it is not confused about God nor indifferent to our role in His world.

[I] went off alone to the top of Mount Arafat…. As I looked down on the great throng, a grey rippling sea of black heads and white bodies extending from the sides of the hill, thickly clothed with men to a mile and a half off on the south and half a mile across, and remembered the distant countries from which they came and what brought them, it was impossible to help a feeling almost of awe. It set one thinking. Could all this be of no avail and all this faith be in vain? If so, it was enough to make a man lose faith in everything of the kind. john f. keane of anglo-india, 1877-78

During this period [of the Hajj] large crowds of pilgrims … were converging on the city in such numbers that only God could count them…. The learned doctors are right to compare it [Mecca] to the mother’s uterus that miraculously makes room for its child. ibn jubayr of spain, (1183-1184)

seasons | spring 2007 |

IBRAHIM N. ABUSHARIF
BORN AND RAISED IN THE CHICAGO AREA, IBRAHIM N. ABUSHARIF IS THE EDITOR OF STARLATCH PRESS AND A WRITER. HIS ARTICLES HAVE APPEARED IN THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR, THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE, Q-NEWS, AND DALLAS MORNING NEWS, AS WELL AS ON VARIOUS WEBSITES, INCLUDING ALTMUSLIM AND BELIEFNET. FOR NEARLY A DECADE, HE HAS WORKED CLOSELY ON A PROJECT TO TRANSLATE THE QUR’AN AND HAS RECENTLY COMPLETED AN EXTENSIVE INDEX TO THE QUR’AN. HE IS ALSO WORKING ON HISTORICAL NARRATIVES, AS WELL AS A NOVEL.

AASIL AHMAD: PHOTOGRAPHER
AASIL AHMAD LIVED IN THE OLD CITY OF FES IN MOROCCO FOR ONE YEAR. IT WAS THERE THAT HIS INTEREST IN PHOTOGRAPHY BEGAN. SINCE THEN HE HAS TRAVELED AROUND THE MUSLIM WORLD TAKING PHOTOGRAPHS. THE COLLECTION OF HAJJ PHOTOGRAPHS FEATURED HERE WAS TAKEN USING ONE OF TWO CAMERAS: EITHER THE NIKON FE2 OR THE MINOX ECX 8X11. AASIL ALSO STUDIES ART WITH MASTER CALLIGRAPHER MOHAMED ZAKARIYA. HE LIVES IN THE WASHINGTON, D.C. AREA WITH HIS CATS. MALCOLM X EXCERPTS FROM ALEX HALEY, THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MALCOLM X (NEW YORK: BALLANTINE BOOKS, 1992). QUR’ANIC VERSES RELATING TO HAJJ EXCERPTED FROM THOMAS CLEARY, THE QUR’AN: A NEW TRANSLATION (N.P. : STARLATCH PRESS, 2004). ALL OTHER QUOTATIONS FROM ONE THOUSAND ROADS TO MECCA: TEN CENTURIES OF TRAVELERS WRITING ABOUT THE MUSLIM PILGRIMAGE. EDITED AND INTRODUCED BY MICHAEL WOLFE (NEW YORK: GROVE PRESS, 1997).

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