Many of the world’s religions attach spiritual significance to particular places. Journeys are undertaken by pilgrims to shrines, tombs of saints and certain sacred landmarks for the sake of devotion, as acts of thanksgiving, or to seek supernatural help.Pilgrimage may serve as a test and demonstration of a worshipper’s devotion to their faith. It may also serve to progress one’s faith as they confirm their belief in a holy context and environment. Whatever the purpose of pilgrimage may be in various religions today, the very presence of this concept in almost all major world religions is a phenomenon that surely signifies its importance to belief. Pilgrimage to the holy land of Makkah, known as Hajj, is an age old practice that pre-dates Islam itself. Over a period of centuries before Islam, Hajj was subjected to many changes and transformations, which included the addition of elements opposing tauheed—the Unity and Oneness of God. With the advent of Islam, the same rites carried out during Hajj were retained and kept intact but were reformed and purified of any and all such elements, thus restoring it to its original state.
Pilgrimage in World Religions
Pilgrimage in Hinduism is known as tirhayatra, which means a journey to a ford or safe place to cross a river. Popular pilgrimage locations are tirthas, or ‘crossing places’. Fords are believed to literally and metaphorically represent crossing over from one world into another and as such, popular pilgrimage sites are located on the banks of great rivers. Varanasi, located on the holy Ganges River, is an important pilgrimage site for Hindus and the Ganges River, in which pilgrims bathe, is believed to be especially purifying at this site. Many places are also common pilgrim destinations due to their association with Hindu legend, personalities and significant events. Kurukshetra, the site of a great war mentioned in the Mahabharata, and Mathura, the birthplace of Prophet Krishnaas, are popular pilgrimage places. A journey to four sacred temples in the Himalayan Mountains, known as Char Dham, is also a famous pilgrimage made by Hindus. Journeys undertaken by pilgrims to visit sacred sites are seen as purifying forms of meditation and asceticism.
In Buddhism, following the demise of Prophet Buddhaas, places that were sites of the spiritual development and important phases during his life became popular Buddhist pilgrimage locations.Four sites in particular are regarded as primary pilgrimage locations:
The garden of Lumbini and the nearby town of Kapilavastu– where Prophet Buddhaas was born and raised.
The Bodhi tree at Bodhgaya– where he attained enlightenment.
The Deer Park at Sarnath– where he gave his first sermon.
The village of Kusinagari– where he passed away.
In Prophet Buddha’sas life story, ‘where’ something happened is as significant as ‘what’ happened there. Consequently, Prophet Buddhaas is said to have advocated pilgrimage to these four sites himself. Pilgrims visit these locations and recall events and experiences in Prophet Buddha’sas life.
In Judaism, pilgrimage to the Temple of Jerusalem was prescribed for every male Israelite three times a year.These pilgrim festivals are called Pesah, Shavout and Sukkoth. The Pesah celebrated for seven days, commemorates the Jewish Exodus from Egypt, and is the most significant commemorative holiday as it celebrates the very inception of the Jewish people. Shavout is celebrated for one day and commemorates the revelation of the Torah on Mount Sinai. In liturgical texts it is described as the “season of the giving of the Torah” and many Jews spend the entire Shavout night studying Torah scripture. The Sukkoth (‘booths’) is celebrated for eight days and commemorates the booths, or fragile dwellings, that the Jews lived in for decades after the Exodus from Egypt. For the duration of the Shavout pilgrimage, pilgrims are to reside in booths—walled structures covered with thatched roofs. Today, the remains of the destroyed Temple continue to be a popular site for Jewish pilgrims. Since Jewish law requires visitors to express grief at the sight of the destroyed temple, the Western Wall—the only remaining part of the Second Temple—is popularly known as ‘The Wailing Wall’.
For Christians, the chief attractions for pilgrims in medieval times were the Holy Land, Santiago de Compostela in Spain, and Rome.Perhaps the most famous of the early pilgrimages was that of Emperor Constantine’s mother, Helena, who travelled to Jerusalem and identified sacred sites associated to Prophet Jesus’as life there. Churches and shrines were constructed to mark the locations and they became sites for pilgrimage. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher was commissioned to be built by Helena near the site where Prophet Jesusas is said to have been crucified, interred, and resurrected. This Church has become the focus of millions of Christian pilgrims.In Christianity, tombs and shrines of saints and Biblical prophets are also popular pilgrimage locations.
Pilgrimage in Islam
Islam, being a religion of unity and global integrity, assigns Makkah as the one single place where Muslims are to gather in an annual pilgrimage called Hajj. Although the concept of Pilgrimage is found in all religions of the world, their places of Pilgrimage are dispersed in various countries. Islam is unique amongst world faiths in that there is a single location where Muslims from across the globe are required to congregate for the sake of God. The pilgrimage itself, its objectives, and the rites it entails, are founded upon deep philosophical aspects of spirituality, self-reformation, and human integration that extend well beyond the prescribed days of Hajj.
The Three Objectives of Hajj
Hajj is not merely a physical journey that a pilgrim embarks upon simply to discharge his or her duty as a Muslim. Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmadas, the Promised Messiah and Founder of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, states that every Islamic ritual has a philosophy and an underlying spirit behind it. Performance of worship is like a body—it has a spirit functioning in it as well. He who does not take care of the spirit (of worship) and loves the body only, is as if he worships a corpse. Expounding upon the true objectives of Hajj in light of Qur’anic teachings, Hazrat Mirza Bashir-ud-Din Mahmood Ahmadra, the Second Khalifah of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, has stated that the objectives and reforms that are intended to be achieved through Hajj are as follows:
Reformation and purification of the self and one’s ego
Establishment of a sincere relationship with Allah the Almighty
Establishment of a healthy relationship with mankind
In fact, these three objectives and reforms address all types of sins that are expected to be cleansed and reformed i.e. sin either relates to one’s self, one’s relationship with God and in following His commandments, or in relation to other creatures of God. Thus if a Muslim pilgrim completes the outward rites of Hajj yet fails to achieve these three intended objectives, they will have simply succeeded in embarking upon on a long, tiring and costly journey— and nothing more.
Self Reformation and Establishing a Sincere Relationship with Allah
The deep wisdom and philosophy underlying the landmarks, rites and actions carried out during Hajj are the true essence of the pilgrimage. If landmarks visited during Hajj were insignificant and if every rite carried out was meaningless, then Hajj itself would be an irrelevant and futile journey. But, as the following list shows, the wisdom behind different aspects of Hajj truly facilitate the purification of one’s self and the establishment of a sincere relationship between a pilgrim and God:
Mecca: When a pilgrim tiredly journeys from afar and finally lays eyes on the sandy hills of Mekkah, he realises that God does indeed protect those who make sacrifices for Him. He is reminded of the fact that it was precisely in this dry and barren land, which was completely bereft of food and water, that God Almighty saved Prophet Ishmaelas and Hagarra. This historical truth coupled with the fact that the pilgrim witnesses the very land upon which the miracle originally occurred, increases one’s love for God and certainty of belief.
Mina: The name Mina is derived from Umniyyah, which means desire and purpose. This is representative of the true purpose and intentions of a pilgrim completing the Hajj, which is to meet their Lord. Consequently, this refers to the fact that a pilgrim’s visit to Mina is symbolic of their achievement of this purpose—meeting with Allah whilst totally departing from Satan.
Arafat: the Arabic root of this name means to recognise and identify. Visiting Arafat signifies that the pilgrim has now identified and recognised Allah and has met Him.
Muzdalifah: The name Muzdalifah denotes nearness. Visiting Muzdalifah signifies that the objective of which the pilgrim was in search of is now very near in proximity.
Ka’bah: When a pilgrim first sets their gaze upon the Ka’bah, an ancient house from the time of Prophet Adamas, they are emotionally charged and realise that they are part of a chain of generations of people who visited this structure as an expression of God’s love. Reverence for the Ka’bah as the holiest symbol in Islam gathers and focuses the attention of the pilgrim to God and God alone.
Kissing the black stone (Hajr-e-Aswad): The irregular shaped stone is symbolic of the unity of God, since idols are carved, cut and fashioned by man. Kissing the stone is an expression which means that the pilgrim does not want to be removed from it i.e. the Unity and Oneness of God.
Ihram: Two seamless shrouds worn by male pilgrims remind them of death and are symbolic of similar shrouds that Muslims are wrapped in after their demise. When millions of pilgrims gather in sites such as Mina and Arafat wearing the Ihram, a scene is created comparable to the Day of Reckoning and it seems as if pilgrims have just risen from their graves to be presented before God.
Tawaf (Circumbulation): When a pilgrim circumbulates the Ka’bah along with thousands of other pilgrims and prays alongside them, they feel as if they have been cut off from the world, are truly in the presence of God, and now must humble themselves and prostrate before Him. The tawaf is an expression of deep and genuine love for God. The Promised Messiahas, regarding the philosophy of circumbulation, states that it “is a sign of the lovers of God. The lovers go round it, as if they are left with no will of their own and around Him they lay down their lives.”
Sa’yi (running between the hills of Safa and Marwah): While running between Safa and Marwah, a pilgrim recalls the incident of Hagarra desperately searching for water at that exact place, long ago. The pilgrim realises that if they too were to make a similar sacrifice for God—abandon everything and set up camp in the middle of a desert—He would not let them go to waste just as He did not waste the sacrifice of Hagarra and Prophet Ismailas.
Ramyal Jamar (throwing pebbles): Throwing pebbles at three pillars which are symbolic of Satan, signifies total rejection of Satan’s onslaughts. The three pillars are erected at Mina in spots where Abrahamas is said to have totally rejected the onslaughts of Satan three times. The three pillars are symbolic of the stages of man’s life i.e. life in the material world, the purgatory state after death, and the eternal afterlife. Pelting each pillar with pebbles symbolises that the pilgrim will be far removed from Satan in this life, remain purified as he enters a purgatory state, and will finally enter the hereafter in such a condition that he will be pure of the effect of Satan.
Zabeehah (Sacrifice of an animal): Sacrificing an animal serves as a reminder to the pilgrim that they should be ever-ready to give and spend their life in the cause of Allah if ever the need arises.
Maqam-e-Ibrahim (The Station of Abrahamas): Praying at the ‘station’ or ‘place’ of Abrahamas is symbolic of the spiritual status that Prophet Abrahamas achieved which is the goal of every Muslim—after having removed all barriers, shunning away all mundane connections, and abandoning their desires for Allah’s sake, they attain the station of being in harmony with God and performing worship in the most perfect manner.
When a pilgrim understands the wisdom behind a chosen landmark and the philosophy underlying a specific rite of Hajj, it gives the pilgrimage a deep spiritual dimension that would otherwise be lost. Therefore, when Hajj is carried out with meaning and while striving towards a superior motive, it allows pilgrims of Islam to not only reform their egos but also establish a lasting relationship with their Creator.
Establishing a Healthy Relationship with Mankind
Where Islam stresses the need for man to reform and give Allah His due rights, it also lays great importance on the rights of fellow human beings and building a healthy relationship with mankind. Hajj grants Muslims from every corner of the Earth an opportunity to congregate in a single gathering to build strong ties of love and brotherhood and to remove all feelings of hate and enmity. The wisdom behind spending three days in the valley of Mina during the pilgrimage is so that along with remembrance of Allah, Muslim scholars and leaders may meet each other, build bridges of understanding, and work collectively towards peace amongst Muslim nations. At such a time, Muslims are also urged to discuss and seek strategies to remove any dishonor that has unfortunately been linked with Islam and thereby work to spread and give rise to Islam.
It should be noted, however, that the scope of peace affiliated with Hajj does not merely extend to Muslim nations but rather to all nations regardless of creed. Interestingly, according to Qur’anic scripture, one of the very objectives of the construction of the Ka’bah is to unify the world and establish world peace. Hazrat Mirza Nasir Ahmadra, the Third Khalifah of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, expounding upon chapter 2, verse 126 of the Holy Qur’an, states that no organisation in the world, no matter how it endeavors, can achieve world peace unless it follows the teachings presented by the Prophet raised from this House of Allah.The Holy Qur’an lays down the five fundamental principles of establishing world peace and until and unless international organisations abide by these five principles, they cannot succeed:
Preference should not be given to one nation over another
Dispute should be resolved the moment it begins
Regional prejudice is detrimental to international treaties, rather it is fatal
When disputes arise, punishments should not be proposed for nations out of sheer prejudice—they should be reconciled
Every nation will have to make a sacrifice to maintain global peace.
It is evident that this objective of the Ka’bah, the central and holiest site of Islam and the pilgrimage, serves to go well beyond the days of Hajj and aims to not only create world peace, but maintain it till the end of days.
Pilgrimages to sacred landmarks are a facet of almost every world religion. In Islam, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca provides an opportunity for Muslims to develop a lasting relationship with God and to be at peace with Him and His creation. The philosophy and wisdom behind every aspect of Hajj is so profound, and the scope of the pilgrimage itself is so vast, that it gives Hajj unique features and qualities that are not found in pilgrimages of other religions.
To complete this pilgrimage to Makkah—one which is accepted by God Almighty—is the ardent desire of every Muslim. But the truth is that unless a person performs Hajj of the heavenly House of Allah, his Hajj on Earth is not accepted—that is to say, Hajj remains meaningless unless one aims to achieve its true objectives of reformation. May Allah the Almighty enable Muslims to understand and appreciate the true philosophy of Hajj, Ameen!
Aizaz Khan is a final year student at the Ahmadiyya School of Theology (Jamia) in Canada. He is also the presenter of ‘Roots to Branches’ on MTA International.
1. Wendy Doniger, “Pilgrimage”, Britannica Encyclopedia of World Religions (Chicago, IL: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2006), 857.
2. W.J. Johnson, Oxford Dictionary of Hinduism (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009), 236.
3. John Bowker, “Hinduism”, World Religions: The Great Faiths Explored & Explained (New York, N.Y: DK, 1997), 34.
4. Stewart Murray et al., “Pilgrimages”, Atlas of World Religions: A Visual History of Our Great Faiths (Long Island City, NY: Hammond World Atlas, 2009), 379.
5. W. J. Johnson, Oxford Dictionary of Hinduism (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009), 236.
6. Wendy Doniger, “Pilgrimage”, Britannica Encyclopedia of World Religions (Chicago, IL: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2006), 857.
7. John S. Strong, “Life Story and Pilgrimage”, The Buddha: A Short Biography (Oxford: Oneworld, 2001), 7-8.
8. Exodus 23:17.
9. Matt Stefon, “Pilgrim Festivals”, Judaism: History, Belief, and Practice (New York: Britannica Educational Pub. in Association with Rosen Educational Services, 2012) 172-77.
10. Stewart Murray et al., “Pilgrimages”, Atlas of World Religions: A Visual History of Our Great Faiths (Long Island City, NY: Hammond World Atlas, 2009), 379.
11. Wendy Doniger, “Jerusalem, Temple of”, Britannica Encyclopedia of World Religions (Chicago, IL: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2006), 857.
12. Stewart Murray et al., “Pilgrimages”, Atlas of World Religions: A Visual History of Our Great Faiths (Long Island City, NY: Hammond World Atlas, 2009), 210.
13. Wendy Doniger, “Pilgrimage”, Britannica Encyclopedia of World Religions (Chicago, IL: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2006), 857.
14. Hazrat Hafiz Mirza Nasir Ahmadra, Twenty-three Great Objectives of Building the House of Allah (Tilford: Islam International Publications, 2012), 92.
15. Holy Qur’an, Surah Al-Baqarah, Verse 198.
16. Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmadra, Mir’atul Haqa’iq, Collection of Fatawa Ahmadiyya, Comp. Muhammad Fadl Changawi, Vol. 3.
17. Holy Qur’an, Surah Al-Baqarah, Verse 204.
18. Hazrat Hafiz Mirza Nasir Ahmadra, Twenty-three Great Objectives of Building the House of Allah (Tilford: Islam International Publications, 2012), 15.
19. Holy Qur’an, Surah Al-Baqarah, Verse 204.
20. Holy Qur’an, Surah Al-Baqarah, Verse 199.
21. Holy Qur’an, Surah Al-Baqarah, Verse 126.
22. Hazrat Hafiz Mirza Nasir Ahmadra, Twenty-three Great Objectives of Building the House of Allah (Tilford: Islam International Publications, 2012), 24-25.
23. Hazrat Hafiz Mirza Nasir Ahmadra, Twenty-three Great Objectives of Building the House of Allah (Tilford: Islam International Publications, 2012), 104-107..