Peace, one and all…
During the Christmas vacation, I was watching Sh. Yasir Qadhi’s programme on the Life of the Prophet (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam), on the UK-based Islam Channel. The topic being discussed was the Prophet’s (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) life before the advent of revelation. Specifically, the programme explored the Hajj pilgrimage before Islam. As I was watching this programme, one thing struck me as particularly profound. Although the Qurayshi Arabs also made the Hajj, they refused to stop at the plains of Arafat. That is, according to the Islamic reading, they neglected to stop for the rites of Arafat, preferring instead to go directly on to Mina.
The apparent reason for this refusal was simply that the Quraysh tribe felt themselves to be above such things. In other words, they believed themselves to be too pure, too exalted, to require such trivialities. The rites of Arafat were, in other words again, seen as being for ordinary people and not for the ‘elite’. By contrast, the Prophet (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) seems to have made a point of always stopping at Arafat. Why?
To understand the significance of this action, it is important to first understand what the rites of Arafat are held to symbolise. In the Islamic understanding, the Day of Arafat marks the culmination of the entire Hajj. It marks the quintessential moment of the whole pilgrimage: it is that moment when the pilgrims assemble as one on the plains of Arafat to seek God’s forgiveness and mercy. In the midst of the plain of Arafat stands Jabal al-Rahma, or ‘the Mount of Mercy’, which pilgrims attempt to climb.
This suggests a number of profound symbolic truths to me. Firstly, the gathered pilgrims stand before God in open acknowledgement of their sins, in a manner reminiscent of the Last Day. Secondly, the pilgrims stand together, wearing the same clothes, underlining our common humanity in the face of God’s judgement and mercy. It also underlines the important notion that our common humanity is what truly uites us. Whether we are rich or poor, strong or weak, old or young, able-bodied or disabled, we are all human beings and we share our human orientation towards God. Remembering the unity of our origin and our shared humanity is thus crucial in and of itself.
Thirdly, ascending Jabal al-Rahma strikes me as a symbol of our lifelong, uphill climb towards God. We all go through life looking for mercy and compassion; we all go through life looking for love and acceptance. Although we all struggle to climb, or in truth to understand, loving kindness in all its majesty, on the plains of Arafat our climb is made easier by being cast into physical, symbolic form.
That the Prophet (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) always stopped at Arafat also underlines two further important points. Firstly, it shows the Prophet’s rejection (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) of elitism; divisions based solely on money and social status are hereby firmly rejected. It also shows the Prophet’s care for the ordinary person (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam). That is, Islam is for all people and is not restricted to certain classes. Indeed, reading Islam carefully shows that it has a very strong egalitarian and when necessary, revolutionary streak.
I have always felt the following verse of the Quran to be a very strong critique of this kind of elitist thinking (I have written a few thoughts about this verse elsewhere):
‘And when they are told, “Believe as other people believe,” they answer, “Shall we believe as the weak-minded believe?” Oh, verily, it is they, they who are weak-minded – but they know it not!’ (Surat al-Baqarah 2: 13, trans. M. Asad)
And my last prayer is in praise of God, the Sustainer of All Being.