The Principal Duties of Islam


1. The Ceremonies of the Muslim Pilgrimage.

The fifth pillar of Islam is the obligatory pilgrimage which every Muslim, who is able to afford it, must make at least once in his lifetime. In the Qur'an much is said about the Hajj (literally a "setting out towards" a place, in this case Mecca) and it is made obligatory in these verses:

In the Hadith the pilgrimage is also made incumbent on every Muslim "Ibn 'Abbas reported the Apostle of Allah (may peace be upon him) as saying: Islam does not allow for failure to perform the Hajj" (Sunan Abu Dawud, Vol. 2, p.454). The Hajj can only properly be performed on the eighth, ninth and tenth days of Thul-Hijjah, the last month of the Muslim year.

The actual pilgrimage begins just outside Mecca where there are various mawaqit ("stations" - singular, miqat) where the pilgrims must change into two strips of white cloth known as the ihram (the word means "prohibiting", indicating that the pilgrim is now on sacred service and is prohibited from various activities). This obligation applies to men only - women need merely be modestly and appropriately attired: At this point the pilgrim must recite a declaration that he about to embark on the Hajj, known as the talbiyah ("standing for orders"). He follows the words attributed to Muhammad:

The first part reads in Arabic Labbaika Allahumma, Labbaik - Here I come, O Allah, here I come". He then enters Mecca and performs the tawaf, a sevenfold "circling" of the Ka'aba, always going anticlockwise around it This ritual is known as tawaful-qudum (the tawaf of "arrival") and begins at the famous black stone built into the east corner of the Ka'aba, of which more will be said shortly. After this comes the sa'y, a "running" between Safa and Marwa, two small hills now enclosed within the Great Mosque precincts. This ritual commemorates Hagar's search for water for Ishmael which supposedly took place between these hills. The well she is supposed to have found is the Zam Zam Well just to the east of the Ka'aba within the mosque precincts as well This running must also take place between the hills seven times The Qur'an has an interesting verse relating to this rite:

The last sentence implies that there were Muslims who had believed that this practice was wrong. In the Hadith we are told that some of the Ansar, prior to their conversion to Islam, worshipped the idol Manat and, unlike the other pagans prior to Islam, would not run between Safa and Marwa. These men long after accepting Islam, were apparently still unwilliing to perform the ceremony until this verse recommended it (Muwatta Imam Malik, p. 171). It is hard to believe that there is any truth in this story. If the scruple was purely a sectarian bias in favour of the idol Manat, why would they maintain it long after their conversion to Islam, especially when the ceremony was practiced by the other Muslims? There is a more probable reason for the unwillingness of some of the Muslims to perform the sa'y until it was sanctioned in the Qur'an:

Another writer tells it slightly differently: "Asaf and Nayelah, the former the image of a man, the latter of a woman, were also two idols brought with Hobal from Syria, and placed the one on Mount Safa, and the other on Mount Merwa" (Sale, Preliminary Discourse to the Koran, p. 22). It is far more likely that Muhammad simply retained the custom of running between the two hills as part of his overall adoption of the pagan Arab pilgrimage into the rituals of Islam. As said earlier in this book, he destroyed the idols in Mecca but retained the ceremonies of the pilgrimage. While it may have been a magnanimous gesture to the inhabitants of the city, it seems to have disturbed his older and more steadfast companions from Medina until the Qur'an assured them there was no sin in the practice.

The story in the Hadith appears to be purely an attempt to explain away an awkward expression in the Qur'an ("The implication in the last part of the verse is that a pagan practice is being retained, but that its retention is approved" Levy, The Social Structure of Islam, p. 161). Nonetheless it does openly admit that the practice of running between Safa and Marwa was one of the ceremonies of the idol- worshipping Arabs prior to Islam.

After this the pilgrims return to the Ka'aba to perform tawaf again and on the following day go to perform the wuquf (the standing ) at Mount Arafat, a plain ten miles east of Mecca. Here the pilgrims stand in prayer during the day and listen to the pilgrimage sermon read on a small mound on the plain known as Jabalir-Rahmah (the "Mountain of Mercy") where Muhammad himself preached to his companions during his farewell pilgrimage.

At the end of the day the Muslims hasten back on the road to Mecca to "celebrate the praises of God at the mash'aril-haraam" (Surah 2.198), the "Sacred Monument" of Muzdalifah, where they spend the night. The next day, the Yawman-Nahr (the "Day of Sacrifices"), they continue back towards Mecca and at Mina perform ramial-jimar, the stoning ceremony, of which more will be said shortly. The pilgrimage officially closes at this point and is followed by the Eidul-Adha festival at Mina where animals are sacrificed (a pre-Islamic pagan custom at the end of the pilgrimage now said to be commemorative of Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son, believed by the Muslims to be Ishmael), and a final circumambulation of the Ka'aba known as tawaful-wada (the tawaf of "departure").

A faithful Muslim will then make a respectful visit (a ziyarah) to Medina where Muhammad is buried in the Prophet's Mosque alongside his successors Abu Bakr and Umar.

2. Al-Hajarul-Aswad - The Black Stone.

In our study of the early period of Muhammad's life we noted an incident which occurred some five years prior to the beginning of his mission, namely the occasion when he was requested to place the Black Stone (al-hajarul-aswad) in the Ka'aba. When all the idols of the building were destroyed at the conquest of Mecca, this stone was preserved and every pilgrim to Mecca endeavours to kiss it in emulation of his prophet's practice. Why do they do this? One Muslim writer says of this rite:

It is believed that the stone was sent down from heaven and that it was originally crystal-clear. "Moslems agree that it was originally white, and became black by reason of men's sins. It appeared to me a common aerolite covered with a thick slaggy coating, glossy and pitch-like, worn and polished" (Burton, Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to AI-Madinah and Meccah, Vol. 2, p.300). The Qur'an teaches that the Ka'aba was originally built by Abraham and Ishmael (Surah 2.125) and it is said that the stone, once embedded in the shrine, became black as it took the sins of those who kissed it. One writer says:

There is no evidence of an historical nature in pre-Islamic records to back up the suggestion in the Qur'an that the Ka'aba was built by Abraham or that he practiced its pilgrimage rites. Historically the shrine and its ceremonies can only be traced to the pagan worship of the pre-Islamic Arabs. One can only express extreme scepticism at the hypothesis that the stone "must have been there" in Abraham's time.

As the Arab idols were generally made of stone - some fashioned into various forms, others unshapen - is it not probable that the Black Stone itself was an idol worshipped by the pagan Arabs? As the custom of kissing it has been retained in Islam the suggestion naturally appalls Muslims.

Why, then, did the pagan Arabs make a special point of kissing it as Ali himself admits? What significance did it have for them if it was not an idol? It is, perhaps, too remarkable to believe that it was not worshipped as an idol. After all, stone gods were the very thing the Arabs reverenced, whether shapen into some form or not. Another Muslim writer says:

One understands the Muslim determination to absolve Islam of a relic of idol-worship in its pilgrimage rites but it does seem most improbable that this stone, one of the sacred stones built into the Ka'aba by the pre-Islamic Arabs, just somehow happened to be exempted from the adoration and worship afforded to the others. This seems even more improbable when we remember that it was over this stone that they argued even before Muhammad's mission when rebuilding the Ka'aba, finally requesting Muhammad himself to replace it. This clearly shows that they regarded it more highly than all the other idols in the shrine and it is most unlikely that it escaped the worship paid to them. It seems far more probable that it was a "fetish pure and simple" (Gairdner, The Reproach of Islam, p.156) and that it was, if anything, the chief idol in the shrine, a stone worshipped like all the others. At least one Muslim writer has admitted as much:

As the Arabs worshipped all the stone idols of the Ka'aba it seems historically more probably that this worship has a legacy in the reverence paid today to the Black Stone rather than the Arab worship of stones arose out of the sanctity of the Black Stone which somehow escaped this worship and adoration.

Another writer is probably close to the mark when he says that the Black Stone was "the great fetish, the principal though not the only divinity of the Quraish clan" (Lammens, Islam: Beliefs and Institutions, p. 17). In any event, there appears to be no point in kissing the stone and Muslims will be hard-pressed to find a really sound reason for the perpetuation of a practice more suited to primitive pagan idolatry than the true spirit of monotheistic worship.

Even one of Muhammad's closest companions, the second caliph Umar, had his own doubts about the wisdom of this ceremony and had some interesting things to say to the Stone. It is recorded in many works of Hadith literature and reads:

Umar's description of the stone as that which can "neither do good nor harm" is very similar to the description of pagan idols in the Qur'an ("unable to help you, and indeed to help themselves" - Surah 7.197). We have already given the most likely reason for Muhammad's retention of this rite in Islam - the occasion when he was honoured with the task of placing it in the Ka'aba, an event which almost certainly influenced his later convictions that he had been singled out to lead his people. This incident probably led him to believe that, as he had been chosen to replace the stone, it was to be identified with his prophetic call and had a special significance apart from the place it had in the regular pagan idolatry.

The tradition that the stone originally came down from heaven seems to account for its origin and eminence. Burton believed it to be an aerolite and it is highly probable that it was quite simply a meteorite which, because it had fallen out of the sky, was treated with awe by the primitive Arabs. One is reminded of the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus which was highly esteemed because it contained, "the sacred stone that fell from the sky" (Acts 19.35). The Black Stone, in all probability, was simply a meteorite reverenced as a god in the same way by the Arabs. Its retention in Islam, especially the primitive custom of kissing it, speaks volumes for the pagan character of the Hajj Pilgrimage as a whole.

3. The Stoning of the Demons at Mina.

The ramial-jimar ceremony at Mina, like many other ceremonies in the Hajj, places a great emphasis on stones - further evidence of pagan Arab practices survivng to this day for the pre-Islamic idol-worshippers worshipped not only stones but had a stone-throwing ceremony in their rites.

At the small village of Mina each pilgrim must, on the third day of the Hajj, cast seven small pebbles at a stone pillar known as Jamratul-Aqabah as a sign of his rejection of the ways and influence of the devil. For this reason the pillar has become known as ash-Shaytanul-Kabir ("the Great Satan"). It used to be a simple pillar at ground level but, the crowds to Mecca being what they are these days, it is now a huge pillar with platforms at different levels to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who endeavour to pelt it. Each pilgrim must collect sixty-three small stones while at Muzdalifah for, when the final tawaf is completed, he must return to Mina to once again stone the pillar as well as two others nearby, known as Jamratul-Awla and Jamratul-Wusta respectively (though some gather only forty-nine stones and others seventy. The number must be a multiple of seven as seven pebbles are to be cast at each pillar in turn). Like many other rites in the Hajj, this one too has been dislocated from its pre-Islamic pagan status and is now said to be an act of piety which follows the example of Abraham who supposedly thrice stoned Satan as he tried to stop him sacrificing his son (believed by the Muslims to have taken place in the valley where Mina is situated)

It is no mean feat to succeed in striking the pillars with the pebbles as each pilgrim has only a random chance of even getting near them. Over a million pilgrims today all seek to stone the great pillar, have their hair cut (a sign that the rites are officially completed), perform the Eid sacrifice, and visit Mecca once more all in a single day. Even in days when the pilgrims to Mecca were only a fraction of what they are today European travellers who succeeded in performing the Hajj had some awesome tales to tell about this rite. One relates his experience as follows:

Another traveller to Mecca in later years just before the Great War (Burton went to Mecca in 1853) also tells of the hazards and mixed fortunes of those who were able to get close enough to the pillar to hit it:

Muslim guidebooks state that it does not really matter whether the stones strike the pillars or not. As long as they fall somewhere nearby, the rite is properly executed. One can well imagine what a heap of pebbles lies about the pillars at the end of the ceremony. Tradition has it that the angels descend and remove the stones, casting them about Muzdalifah in preparation for the same rites a year later!

4. The Pagan Origins of the Hajj Rites.

Throughout this section we have had occasion to point to the pagan origin of the Hajj ceremonies. It is surely significant that, as they are practiced to this day, these ceremonies are precisely the same as those practiced by the pagan Arabs. Are we to seriously entertain the suggestion that although they worshipped idols and stone images, the Arabs had somehow maintained the pilgrimage rites precisely as Abraham himself had practiced them some millennia earlier? Or is it not far more likely that Muhammad expediently retained the pagan customs, subtly giving them an Abrahamic emphasis? It seems hard to resist the conclusion that this "curious set of ceremonies of pagan Arab origin which Mohammed has incorporated into his religion" (Hurgronje, Mohammedanism, p. 160) is nothing more in Islam than "an extraneous chunk of heathenism" (Bell, The Origin of Islam in its Christian Environment, p.74).

Muslim scholars have also been constrained to admit that Muhammad adopted the pagan Arab pilgrimage en bloc into Islam, seeking to justify it on the historical fiction that Abraham was its originator and that later generations perverted its monotheistic origin and emphasis.

We cannot accept, however, the claim that the ceremonies as practiced today were first performed by Abraham. It is historically illogical to assume that they survived unchanged through centuries of pagan Arab custom while idol-worship became the order of the day. The most probable reasons for Muhammad's acceptance of the Hajj ceremonies have already been given in this book - the honour bestowed on him before his mission when he was appointed to replace the Black Stone in the Ka'aba and his constant search for a means whereby he might reconcile himself to his pagan countrymen. It is highly significant that Meccan opposition to Muhammad's cause collapsed immediately after he and his followers had performed the pilgrimage - the exact rites performed by the pagan Arabs, excluding the worship of their idols - a year after the Treaty of Hudaybiyah had allowed them to do so.

Perhaps the greatest irony of this whole ceremony is that its origin should be attributed to Abraham, a man who, according to the Qur'an, detested idols made of stone and destroyed them (Surah 37. 91-93). For the whole emphasis of the pilgrimage falls on stones. The Muslims circumambulate the Ka'aba, an empty shrine made of stones, kiss the Black Stone built into it, and pray at the maqam-i-Ibrahim in front of which stands a small shrine containing another stone (the qadam-i-Ibrahim) on which Abraham allegedly stood while building the Ka'aba (it is supposed to bear his footprint). Arafat is a plain on which the Mount of Mercy stands - covered with stones and a stone monolith commemorating Muhammad's farewell sermon. At Mina the pilgrims throw small stones at larger stone pillars. Surely it is almost ridiculous to believe that the great patriarch - the exemplar of true faith in those very early days - was the author of ceremonies whose rites were vested in stones, the very things from which the pagan idols were made.

One often sees posters of the Ka'aba in Mecca joined with Muhammad's mosque in Medina, Islam's two holiest shrines, in Muslim homes. A colleague of mine once coined a very apt description of the focal point of these sites, namely the Black Stone and Muhammad's tomb respectively - a dead stone and stone-dead! We say that a thing is "stone-dead" because stones are the most lifeless objects on earth, unable even to support life like the soil. The emphasis that falls on them in the Hajj exposes the lifeless character of the pilgrimage as a whole. They contrast sharply with the rivers of life, coming from the living Christ and flowing through the indwelling Spirit in the soul of a true Christian who does not need to make a journey to one of the moat desolate places on earth to supposedly draw near to the living God.

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