(11) The Haj: A spiritual duty at the centre of Islam

The Haj: A spiritual duty at the centre of Islam

By:  Shaik Kadir

“Labbaika Allahhumma labbaik.”  (Here I am, O Allah, here I am). This is part of the talbiyah that pilgrims cry out in a respectful way the moment they are in ihram to perform the Haj, the world’s largest assembly of Muslims now underway in Mecca.

The talbiyah is the response to the divine call for the Haj or Umrah. “Pilgrimage to the House of God is a duty owed to God by all people who are able to undertake it.” (3:97)

My wife and I went to Mecca for the first time more than 20 years ago in 1992 to perform our Haj. “The cry of the talbiyah made by the multitude of pilgrims, whether they were in their vehicles or on foot, was made with their heart and soul.  When I hear it, I felt my blood rising in my head, and gooseflesh developing on my skin as the accented words of the talbiyah seized my consciousness.  The emotion of the talbiyah and the movement of the sea of humanity, moving on like a foaming, surging tidal wave, gripped me with increasing force,” I wrote in my book, “The Haj – the annual pilgrimage of Islam” (published in 1995).

Every year when would-be pilgrims make preparations for Haj, I too feel like undertaking the Haj – for a second time.  But I have to give the opportunity to those who have not even done once.  Instead, my wife and I performed the Umrah (a minor pilgrimage).

For this year’s Haj, a total of 680 Singapore Muslims are already in Mecca together with some 3 million Muslims from around the world.  

Due to the increasing number of pilgrims from all over the world in the last 20 years or so, tall modern hotels have sprung up around Masjidil Haram (the Grand Mosque) and great improvements made to the other ritual sites as well as facilities for the pilgrims.  The Grand Mosque has been expanded over the years.  Wide areas around the mosque, once sandy, have been cemented with cool marble flooring for late-comers to use for each of the five-times-a-day prayers.

An ambitious expansion project is now underway at the Grand Mosque. Due to the works, each country is allowed to send only 0.1 per cent of its Muslim population, forming a total of about 3 million pilgrims, though not all the pilgrims will have to be inside the mosque at any point in time during the entire Haj period.

Once the mosque expansion project is completed in a couple of years, the mosque itself will be able to accommodate two million Muslims.

The Haj is a personal spiritual obligation on every Muslim once in his or her lifetime.  It is one of Islam’s five basic requirements and becomes due when the conditions of financial affordability is fulfilled.   The other conditions include health and ability to travel.

The Haj, held annually in Zulhijjah, the 12th month of the Islamic calendar, peaks on 9th Zulhijjah, called Day of Arafah, a day when the pilgrims must be present (wukuf) in the Plains of Arafah to accomplish the Haj.  Elsewhere in the world, Muslims make it point to fast on this day as a sunnah (praiseworthy practice).

From Arafah, the pilgrims travel to Mina where, for three days from 10th Zulhijjah (coinciding with 15 October this year), the last two rituals of the Haj are performed:

  • Rami jamrah (melontar):  Pilgrims throw little pebbles at the three jamrahs (stone pillars) as a symbolic act to ward off satan and evil temptations.
  • Qurban (korban):  The Quran says: “Celebrate the name of God through the days appointed over the herds for sacrifice.  Then, eat and feed the unfortunate and the needy.” (22:28). Regarding the korban meat, Allah says:  “It is not (the animal’s) flesh or blood that reaches Allah.  It is your piety that reaches Him.”  (22:37) The korban ceremony is conducted at a location far away from the crowd, and the meat is deep-frozen and donated to the poor in other countries.

During the entire Haj period, the closeness pilgrims from  particular country experience with people of different nationalities, different cultures and different background enable them to enhance the bonds of a global Islamic ummah, thereby also gaining social benefits like charity, tolerance, kindness and friendship.

In Singapore, 21 mosques will conduct the korban ritual this year after the Eid ul-Adha (Festival of Sacrifice) or Hari Raya Haji prayers in the morning, observing strict animal welfare rules.

Increasingly, Singapore Muslims are performing the korban overseas on humanitarian reasons for the poor and victims of disasters. China, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia are popular countries where the Singapore korban is conducted.

For countries further away, canned or frozen korban meat is sent to countries like Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Gaza, Iraq, Kenya, Lebanon Pakistan, Somalia, Syria and Uganda, and this is often done directly from Australia.

In the past few years, I have been holding korban on behalf of my wife and me in other countries through Muslim organisations, such as the Religious & Education League of Radin Mas (BAPA), a non-profit social organisation established in 1957.   BAPA, in partnership with Muslim Aid Malaysia, offered help in the form of money and canned korban meat to the poor and needy of Somalia. 

Last year and this year we sent money though a relative of ours, Ustaz Zuhal, for the korban in Indonesia.  This year, he is bringing a group people for a “korban-n- tour” in Jogjakarta, Indonesia.  The 5-day package includes witnessing the korban ceremony, visiting an orphanage and sight-seeing.

A Singapore Chinese Muslim tour guide, Ms Maria Mah, has been organising “Korban tours” to China for a number of years now. She has previously organised a “korban tour” to the district of Yuxi.   The program included visits to two villages in this district, namely, Dian Bai Mu and Da Bai Yi, which has a total of about 10,000 Chinese Muslims.

Ms Mah, who I know personally, is organising a 6-day trip to Yunan this year with a programme that includes witnessing the korban ceremony and visits to a Quran-memorisation school and other attractions.

In 2011, my wife and I had the opportunity to witness our korban outside Singapore.  We followed my Indian relatives to a village in Kumbakonam in South India, where we sacrificed a total of 10 sheep.  It was heartening to see the poor villagers coming to witness the korban ceremony and taking away the meat in plastic bags.

The Haj is physically demanding.  Still, those who have performed the Haj once, have performed it again or have applied to do so.  To observe the restrictions imposed by the Saudi government because of the development that is going on in the Grand Mosque, Muis is giving priority to the many first-time applicants.  Repeat pilgrims have to wait several years before they are allowed to register for the Haj again.

People who perform the Haj or the Umrah multiple times point to the “lure of the Ka’aba” (pangilan Ka’aba) for doing so.  The problems of the distance, internal travel, heat and crowds fade away.  Their focus is on the spiritual obligation they have to fulfil at the very place where the message of Islam was first preached and from where the faith of Prophet Abraham was reinforced and spread to the world.

Unlike Eid ul-Fitri (Festival of Charity) or Hari Raya Puasa, Muslims celebrate Hari Raya Haji in a more personal way because the main thrust in this celebration is the korban.   The full spiritual impact of the occasion is actually felt by those pilgrims on the Haj, while those who have been on the Haj would always be nostalgic about it and those who have not performed it yet would always pray for the opportunity to be on their way.

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