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Hajj Suit Raises Host of Questions

WASHINGTON (RNS) In 2008, Safoorah Khan, a math teacher in Illinois, asked for 15 days of unpaid leave (19 days including weekends) to make a pilgrimage to Mecca, an obligation for all Muslims.

The local school board refused, but the Justice Department stepped in last December and sued on behalf of Khan, saying she was denied “reasonable accommodation” to perform a duty of her faith.

Since then, a number of questions have arisen about the hajj and whether the Justice Department should have backed the teacher.

“Correct me if I’m wrong, which I’m not,” Rush Limbaugh said on his radio show last Friday (March 25). “Teachers have summers off… Muslims are urged to travel to Mecca at least once in their lives. Not during a specific time frame, like the end of the school marking period.”


On Tuesday, at a Senate hearing on the civil rights of American Muslims, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., accused the Justice Department of taking “the wrong case.”

“Can she go on the hajj during the summer?” the senator asked Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general for civil rights, who testified at the hearing. “Is there a requirement that she go for the three weeks that she chose during the middle of the school year?”

According to Islamic scholars, making the hajj during summer vacation would have required Khan, 29, to postpone her trip for nearly a decade.

“If she waits, and she gets sick and dies, how will she be able to explain why she did not do it?” said Sayyid Syeed, who directs interfaith and community affairs for the Islamic Society of North America. “There is a compelling passion to go as soon as possible.”


The hajj commemorates the trials of the biblical patriarch Abraham, who Muslims consider a prophet, and takes place over five days during the 12th month of the Islamic year.

The date of the annual pilgrimage shifts because Islam is guided by a lunar calendar; last year, 2.8 million Muslims from around the world traveled to Mecca, in Saudi Arabia, Nov. 14-18. About 20,000 Americans complete the hajj yearly, according to Syeed.

Muslims can travel to Mecca throughout the year, but these trips are not considered a fulfillment of the hajj obligation. Asking a Muslim to move the pilgrimage to summer is like asking a Christian to celebrate Christmas in July, said Syeed.

Along with believing in monotheism and Muhammad’s prophecy, praying five times daily, giving alms, and fasting during the holy month of Ramadan, every Muslim is required to make the pilgrimage at least once.


According to the hadith, a collection of teachings by Prophet Muhammad and his companions, Muslims who do not make the hajj should not be considered Muslim.

Muhammad also said that those who have the health and “means” to undertake the journey but fail to do so “die on the branches of ignorance,” said Shaykh Abdool Rahman Khan (no relation to Safoorah Khan), the resident scholar at the Islamic Foundation in Villa Park, Ill.

Before airplanes and boats, Muslims would set out by foot or camel on a trip that might take years and prove perilous. In many parts of the world, Muslims save for a lifetime before they have enough money to make the trip.

Their relative affluence puts pressure on young American Muslims to perform the hajj as soon as possible, even with lives crowded by family and work obligations.


“In American society, perhaps, people are confused about whether they should give up everything because (Islamic tradition) says so, or whether they can apply their own wisdom,” Khan said.

Muhammad was referring to more than finances when he said all Muslims who have the “means” must perform the hajj as soon as possible, he said.

“You have to look at a variety of factors: Do you have enough security in what you are doing with your job and your family?” Khan said. “Practicing religion is not ignoring everything else. You have to balance it all.”

– DANIEL BURKE, Religion News Service

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Henrietta22

    Why is it always the Republicans who divide? Oh, I forgot it’s because the Justice Dept. is in this Democratic administration. First of all she didn’t go for three weeks that would have been 21 da., she went for 14 days, and four of them was on a weekend, so she lost 10 days of teaching. I had substitute teachers that taught for that many days when the reg. teacher was out for an operation or sickness. She was trying to comply with her religion, had this been a Catholic thing I don’t think it would have been denied.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment nnmns

    “If she waits, and she gets sick and dies, how will she be able to explain why she did not do it?”

    Clearly she would not be able to. Fortunately she would not need to. She’d be dead.

    Rush, of course was wrong. But the amazing thing would be if he were not wrong.

    I suspect Henrietta is right, that if it were e.g. a Catholic requirement it would have been allowed. But we don’t know that.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Henrietta22

    I really didn’t mean to pick on the Catholics, on reading it over it sounds like I did. I just think that the Muslims religion and how they worship is so new to Ameericans that it is easier to discount how they live their beliefs. We are used to RC, and all their pagentry of how they live it. This teacher would have to live ten yrs. before she can expect to go on this holy trip on her summer vacation. This does not seem logical to ask someone to do this in America.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Mordred08

    I’m sure Rush celebrates Christmas in July, as well as several other times each year. Since he’s so good and wholesome, you know.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Heretic_for_Christ

    There is a simple means of determining which religious traditions and obligations should be accommodated: Does it interfere with other people’s lives and freedom, and does it interfere with the believer’s performance of his or her job? If the answer to both questions is no, the tradition can be accommodated. Orthodox Jews can wear caps indoors and Christians can wear an unobtrusive crucifix as a pin or pendant because such trappings do not interfere with anyone else and do not interfere with job performance.

    For a teacher to disappear in the middle of the school term would clearly interfere with job performance. If the school board thinks so highly of the teacher that they are willing to accommodate the request, fine. But if not, I see no reason why they should be obligated to do so. Freedom of religion in America does NOT mean that every religious tradition must be respected. Indeed, we are a secular nation that allows people to follow whatever faith they want to follow, but that is kind of like saying that people can study whatever they want to study in school and enter into whatever profession they want to enter. Government may not dictate such matters to people, and government may not set up separate rules to accommodate the choices people make on these matters. If an atheist teacher requested unpaid leave in the middle of the school term, not for any emergency but simply because he has always wanted to visit some foreign country in the middle of April, would his request be honored? If not, then neither should a request made on a religious basis. If we accommodate one such request because it is religious but deny another because it is not religious, we will have formally established separate classes of citizenship with separate rules and policies, based on the religious beliefs of people.
    It comes down to this: freedom of religion does not mean special privileges for religion.

  • Jackie

    I support the teacher who needs to take the time off. HfC correctly notes that our freedom should not interfere with others. But, in “Western” society, we have pre-set days off (especially in the schools) that already correspond to the main religious holidays. Additionally, here in South Florida, it is very very very common to have “Professional Day” in the colleges for either High Holiday that falls on the weekday – and for the days to be outright off for K-12 students (ie – Rosh Hashanna or Yom Kippur.) The reason these get put into the calendar is so we do not have to choose secular or religious (or vice versa.) Why should a person of a non-majority religion in the area be not allowed to take her own time off for a specific holiday on specific dates for her faith. (It is not just an “anytime” event.)

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Henrietta22

    I understand your thoughts HfC, but if Atheists were having an important gathering in Europe, or Wiccans were attending Worldwide gathering at the “Stones”, that Pagansister mentions, and the teacher would not be able to travel for 10 yrs. when the date falls on her vacation it would be wrong to not let he or she attend. The schools close for a week because of Christmas no matter what all believe. Substitute teachers are employed by school districts for all manner of interruption, and we loved having a new teacher for awhile when I was a kid, the same with our kids.

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