“Modern Mecca,” Basharat Peer, The New Yorker, 4/16/2012.
I want to go on a hajj to Mecca. I want to put on an ihram and circumambulate the Kaaba seven times. I want to touch the Black Stone. I want to chant the talbiyah (“Here I am, O Allah, here I am.”) I want to shave my head. I want to stone the Devil in Mina. I want to sleep on a mat in a communal tent. I want to do it all.
You will, too, if you read the New Yorker article. Peer, the author, writes about modern Mecca from the viewpoint of his hajj, the Islamic pilgrimage. Someone has described the hajj as like twenty Super Bowls at once where all of the fans are part of the game, but from Peer’s description it also has elements of Woodstock—huge numbers of widely disparate people coming together for several days in unity and harmony. The rituals of the hajj, that look so meaningless to outsiders, produce an intense religious experience in virtually all of the participants.
The hajj is held on five days in the last month of the Islamic lunar calendar that is based on the actual observation of the crescent moon, so the final dates can vary. This year, it is expected to be October 24–29. The Islamic lunar year is shorter than an astronomical one, so it continually arrives earlier in the season. Not that it matters to me. Only Muslims are allowed in Mecca during the hajj, and the Saudi government rations even those by assigning quotas for each country.
The ihram is a men’s garment of two white sheets, one wrapped around the waist and the other over the shoulders, that designates the purified state of the pilgrim. Changing into it symbolizes leaving the material world and entering into a spiritual realm, but this standard, simple garment also unifies the widely diverse groups from different countries and economic backgrounds.
The circumambulation, a slow walk by everyone in a counter-clockwise direction seven times around the Kaaba, is the basic ritual of the hajj. During the circumambulation, the right outer shoulder is left bare as Muhammad once did to defy his enemies.
The Kaaba (also spelled “Kabah”), the cubical granite structure covered with mostly black silk (the top, not often seen in photos, is white) woven fresh each year for the hajj, was supposedly constructed by Abraham and Ishmael, although the site was holy even earlier. Violence of any kind in the area was always forbidden, so Mecca became an important trading place where even warring tribes could come together in safety. The Grand Mosque was eventually built to enclose the Kaaba.
Islam steadfastly warns against idolatry, and the physical structure of the Kaaba itself is not holy. It has been rebuilt several times. Only one stone, the Black Stone, framed in silver, is thought to date back to Abraham’s time, and it has turned black and concave from being kissed and touched so often. Because of the crowds, even Malcolm X could not get close enough to touch it; most pilgrims simply point to it on each circumambulation.
The Islamic aversion to idolatry is so strong even the Black Stone has little religious significance. An early caliph once said, “I know, without a doubt, that you are only a stone and can neither harm anyone nor benefit anyone. Had I not seen Allah’s Messenger [Muhammad] kissing you, I would not have kissed you.” The Koran reminds the faithful that the signs of God’s goodness are everywhere in the natural world, and that is what they should seek out and revere in their own lives.
The Kaaba is empty inside, signifying, “This is not your final destination; the Kaaba is a sign so that the way is not lost; it only shows you the direction.” Its emptiness symbolizes the importance of transcending all human expressions of the divine which must not become ends in themselves.
There is more to the hajj than visiting the Kaaba. The story of Abraham is central to rituals that occupy several days, and the pilgrims follow the route and routine of Muhammad’s hajj. It begins in Mecca with the circumambulation, then moves to the desert of Mina to spend the night in a tent as Muhammad had done, then to Arafat for a day-long vigil, then to the rocky plain of Muzdalifah to ritually stone the Devil (throwing pebbles at pillars representing the places where the Devil tried to interrupt Abraham’s sacrifice), then back to Mina for three days. Finally, at Mecca, pilgrims bid farewell to the Kaaba in a final circumambulation. All of this is often done under the direction of a tour guide. Women participate equally in the hajj and are not segregated.
The Saudi government considers the past (anything before the era of big oil) as an embarrassment of colonial subjugation, and many historic buildings continue to be unsentimentally torn down for the newly affordable opulence. Visitors to the recently expanded Grand Mosque that houses the Kaaba in its courtyard are startled to see even this huge structure dwarfed by the new, adjoining Mecca Royal Clock Tower. Described as King Abdullah’s gift to the world, the complex of buildings is the largest in the world, containing shopping malls, a hospital, hotels and parking lots. The Clock Tower, overlooking the Grand Mosque, resembles Big Ben, but is seven times taller. It is the second tallest building in the world, and its sign, “Allahu Akbar” in LED lights, can be seen for miles.
Not everyone is pleased with the nouveau riche developments, and dissidents support their displeasure with scripture. When the angel Gabriel asked when the world will end, Muhammad replied, “When destitute camel herders compete in building tall structures.”
Note, 3/27/2016: I recently came across this aerial photo of the completed Mecca Royal Clock Tower that gives a better idea of its immense size. The Grand Mosque is far below with the tiny Kaaba visible in the center (you can see its top covered with white silk). I want to go on a hajj even more, I kid you not.