City of Brass

City of Brass


the Day of Arafat: renewal

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

Today is the Day of Arafat, where the pilgrims arrive and engage in prayer while standing and facing towards the sun. Then in the evening they will depart for muzdalifah in time for Eid ul Adha the next day.

The Day of Arafat is a critical one, because it is at this point that the muslim is truly reborn, washed clean of sin and forgiven. It is a symbolic Judgment Day, and no muslim who experiences it comes away without at least some resolve to reform and renew themselves in their faith.
Interestingly, the Hajj as a whole has played an analogous role for Islamic culture as the Plain of Arafat does for the individual muslim. Those who embark upon Hajj, and stand upon Arafat, are changed, and they return to their homelands with that change in tow. The result is that Hajj reshapes the hajji, and the hajjis reshape the Islamic world.
My friend Razib Khan noted this trend a few years ago, while reading A History of Muslim Societies:

In the chapters in the above book on 19th century Indian Islam I noted something interesting: reformist neo-orthodox movements are repeatedly attributed to hajjiis, those who made the pilgrimage to Mecca,
in particular those who had resided in the city for long periods of
time. The prestige that they attained upon their return resulted in
their initiation of “reforms” to bring local practices (often loosely
classified as “Sufi”) into line with Meccan norms. The same “reforms”
were initiated by Hui
who had returned from Mecca. And sure enough, the chapter on Southeast
Asian Islam notes that the modernist reformist Muslims who rose to
challenge the traditional expressions of Javanese Islam were also
inspired by movements founded by hajjiis!

The impact of hajjis upon their home cultures is undeniable – hajjis are accorded a deference and respect simply by virtue of having literally completed a fifth of their total lifetime religious obligations in one grueling physical marathon. Razib assumes that hajjis tend to act as a normative force, bringing their diverse societies more into line with what they observed in Mecca, but I think he is mistaken – hajjis do not imbibe Meccan Islam, they actually bring their own traditions with them, so if anything Hajj is where the diverse strands of Islam mix and meet and evolve. The hajjis then take a bit of that diversity and adaptation home with them, where it influences their home cultures. 
The Saudi establishment may think it is succeeding in enforcing its normative vision of Islam during the Hajj, but all they really succeed in doing is inculcate a resentment against them and an undermining of whatever religious authority they may possess. For example, my friend Taha Raja, who performed Hajj in 1427, lamented how the Saudi authorities prevented Shi’a from paying their respects at the sacred burial ground of Jannatul Baqi:

the Saudi local police has a huge banner outside which says that one
should not consider coming to the gravesite anything but a reminder of
death and what it means to you. It says, paying respects to the dead
should not be more than just that. They misuse a hadith to make this
point. This is all well and good, but again Islam is a huge body of
people with many different interpretation. We are not here to debate
who is right and wrong but rather to allow muslims of various
traditions to express himself freely and show the beautiful diversity
of our culture. Why keep the Baqi grounds closed at all times except
for a meager 3 hours in a day? Why prevent people from allowing them to
pay their respect their way at the gravesite? What purpose does it
serve for the police other than impose and opress their own Muslim
brothers? 
[…]
It is sad that the Saudi government is trapped in
their Wahabi principles and are missing the opportunity to serve their
fellow brothers and show the diversity and yet unity in Islam. Instead
of receiving barakaat (blessings) of prayers from their Muslim brothers
for serving them, they receive the wrath of Millions of Muslims feeling
a little disappointed after every Haj. What a missed opportunity
indeed!!!

That resentment against the rigid doctrine of the Saudi authorities is a source of energy that helps keep these traditions alive. 
However, it is also true that performing Hajj does tend to increase the muslim’s religious orthodoxy (and thus, orthopraxy). The muslim comes away from Hajj with a sense of purpose and renewed determination for their religion. But the association between religious orthodoxy and religious intolerance of the kind promoted by the Saudi establishment is a false one:

Our recent study of Pakistani pilgrims shows that while performing
the hajj leads to greater religious orthodoxy, it also increases
pilgrims’ desire for peace and tolerance toward others (to read the
study, go to http://ssrn.com/abstract=1124213). And this greater tolerance is not just toward fellow Muslims  –  it also extends to non-Muslims.

Pilgrims are more observant of orthodox religious practice even five
to eight months after returning from the hajj. They are 16 percent more
likely to pray, 26 percent more likely to do so regularly in the
mosque, and double their likelihood of non-obligatory fasting.
Interestingly, however, pilgrims are less likely to believe and
participate in localized religious practices, such as using amulets.

What may be surprising to some is that the hajj makes pilgrims more
tolerant of both fellow Muslims and non-Muslims. The experience of
diversity on the hajj really does seem to matter: Hajjis have more
positive views about people from other Muslim countries and are more
likely to believe that different Pakistani ethnic and Islamic sectarian
groups are equal and that they can live in harmony. Despite non-Muslims
not being part of the hajj experience, these views also extend to
adherents of other religions: Pilgrims are 22 percent more likely to
declare that people of different religions are equal and 11 percent
more likely to state that different religions can live in harmony by
compromising over their disagreements.

Paralleling the findings on tolerance, hajjis report more positive
views on women’s abilities, greater concern for their quality of life,
and are also more likely to favor educating girls and women
participating in the workforce.

Hajjis are also less likely to support the use of violence and show
no evidence of any increased hostility toward the West. They are more
than twice as likely to declare that the goals of Osama bin Laden are
incorrect, more likely to express a preference for peace between
Pakistan and India, and more likely to declare that it is incorrect to
physically punish someone if they have dishonored the family. Hajjis
also become more sensitive to crimes against women.

It is clear therefore that Hajj represents an annual infusion not just of religious devotion, but also religious compassion and tolerance, into the broader muslim polity. 



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