Some two million Muslims are descending upon Mecca for the Hajj, Islam's annual pilgrimage. While these Muslims strive to deepen their connection with God and strengthen their faith through the rigorous Hajj rituals, the rest of the world's Muslim community remains home, trying to capture the spirit and essence of the Hajj from afar. But this can be a challenging task.
Nearly 1.6 billion Muslims--more than 99 percent of the global Muslim community--don't make it to Hajj each year. For the majority of those who stay home, especially those in non-Muslim countries, the only news of the Hajj they get through the mass media is when it starts, when it ends, and if there are any tragic deaths. For many, there is little sense of connection to the rituals being performed in Mecca. Moreover Eid ul Adha, the celebration marking the end of the Hajj, can be low-key compared to the satisfaction and joy of Eid ul Fitr, the holiday that marks the end of Ramadan.
This is doubly true for young people who have never been to Hajj, according to participants at a week-long Muslim Youth of North America camp held recently in northern Ohio.
"You can almost forget Hajj going on," said Aisha Khan*, of Dayton, Ohio. "On TV, you see that Hajj is starting, and then before you know it, it's Eid. It's like, what happened? Did [the pilgrims] even do Hajj? The only time you hear about it is when people die in a fire or a stampede or something."
Salma Butt*, of Cincinnati, agreed. "It's kind of sad, but until you actually go for Hajj, it's like this kind of foggy thing. I mean, of course, you know people are going to Mecca and they go around the Ka'ba seven times, and they run back and forth between Safa and Marwa, and go to Mount Arafat and throw pebbles at the pillars that represent Shaitan [Satan]."
But Butt said that it's not very clear what happens when--which day the pilgrims go to Arafat, when they do their tawaf (circling the Ka'ba) and other rituals. "I think that's part of the reason we don't feel connected to Hajj the way we do during Ramadan," she said. "During Ramadan, everyone is fasting together. During Hajj, most of us don't even really know what's going on."
"I know it's hard for the Hajjis," said Sarah Islam*, of Columbus, Ohio, admitting at the same time that she didn't really know what makes Hajj difficult.
The teens all agreed that it would be good to feel more in touch with what was happening in Mecca. "My mom calls Eid ul Adha, Eid al Akbar [The greater Eid], and in her country [Egypt] it's more important than Eid ul Fitr," Butt said. "But in this country, Eid ul Fitr is more meaningful."
Eid ul Adha, however, is traditionally considered more significant than Eid ul Fitr by most Islamic scholars. According to Imam Zaid Shakir of the Zaytuna institute, "Eid ul Adha is called the Great Eid. It occurs at the culmination of the Hajj, and is the culmination of the first ten blessed days of Dul Hijjah, days which have been described by our beloved Prophet (Peace and Blessings of Allah be upon Him) as the best days of the year, exceeding even the days of Ramadan in their virtue."
Dr. Louay Safi, head of the Islamic Society of North America's Islamic Leadership Development Center, and a prominent author on Islamic topics, said part of Eid ul Adha's significance stems from the fact that it accompanies the Hajj, which is a meaningful and rare act. "Hajj is a once-in-a-life-time journey. And especially in the past it was something quite difficult--taking a lot of time, money, and energy--and was quite rare."
Keeping this in mind, Safi said the celebration of something that exceptional, which can change people's lives, is more significant than celebrating something that happens every year. Another plus factor is the anticipation of the Hajjis return to family and friends with new status, Safi added.
And because the celebration includes the sacrifice of an animal to commemorate Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son, Ismael, for Allah--and Ismael's willing submission to God's command--Safi said Eid ul Adha could be considered more important than Eid ul Fitr, which is more of a pure celebration.
Zahra Islam*, Sarah's mother, still believes finding a spiritual connection is difficult for both kids and adults. "It's hard to know how to help kids relate to Hajj. We teach them the basic rituals, but it's confusing to them. Even for an adult, it's a lot to remember. And most people, until they are ready to go for their own Hajj, they take the attitude that `I don't have to know about that yet. I'll learn about it when I'm ready to go.'" And for kids it's even harder, Islam said. "It's like getting a job or having grandkids--something so far away it almost doesn't seem real."
The elder Islam said Islamic scholars haven't been of much help in guiding Muslims how to connect with the spirit of Hajj. "I looked on some [web]sites, to get some ideas. Most of them focused completely on people going for Hajj; a few suggested things like fasting during the first nine days of Hajj, doing extra prayers, reciting more surahs (Qu'ranic verses), and asking for forgiveness from Allah," she said. They are all good ideas, but not specific enough to the Hajj: "It's good to do [those things] all the time," Islam said, adding that the best suggestions she had heard were to read The Prophet Muhammad's last sermon--which he gave at Arafat in his last Hajj--and Malcolm X's letter from Mecca.
Safi and Shakir said that it is important for Muslims who are not on the Hajj to rededicate themselves at this time of year and to try to capture the essence of the pilgrimage in their own ways. Shakir pointed out that it is sunnah (recommended) to fast the days preceding Hajj, and that there are great rewards for good deeds performed during the first ten days of Dul Hijjah. He also recommended reading the Qu'ran, especially the verses pertaining to Hajj, and getting familiar with the Hajj rituals and their significance.