The Spiritual Benefits of Hajj

Announce the Hajj to mankind. They will come to you on foot and on every sort of lean animal, coming by every distant road so that they can be present at what will profit them (22:25-26)

As for those who honour Allah's sacred rites, that comes from the taqwa in their hearts. (22:30)

Their flesh and blood does not reach Allah but your taqwa does reach Him. (22:35)

Abu Hurayra said, "I heard the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, say, 'Whoever goes on hajj for the sake of Allah alone and does not have sexual intercourse or commit any outrage will return as he was on the day his mother bore him.'" (Bukhari)

"The Hajj is the demonstration of the reality that in Islam all roads lead to the House of Allah, where nationality, race, and difference of doctrine are all blown away. The hajjis come from everywhere, from every country, every continent and every background. They come flying, sailing and by land. But whoever they are, wherever they come from and however they come, they are drawn by only one thing and to only one point – their desire to worship Allah at His House and perform the rites of the Hajj.

"From the moment he sets out with the intention of performing Hajj, the hajji's journey is in one sense not his own – in that he is just one of millions of others doing exactly the same thing – and yet in another sense it is uniquely his own – since within that great gathering he will stand alone face to face with his Lord in the unfolding of his own unshared individual destiny. He becomes one of the many elements heading for the crucible of Makka where the great fusing of the Muslim community takes place, where all the parts are thrown together under the most intense conditions, mixed, melted together and then finally separated out again and returned to their homes never quite the same as when they left."

I have taken these words from an account written by a friend of mine, Abdalghaffur Mould, after he returned from hajj in 1976 and although that is quite a few years ago now hajj is timeless in many ways and they are certainly as true today as they were then. All of us have met people on their return from hajj and, from our own experience, I think that all of us will affirm along with Abdalghaffur that almost no one comes back unaltered. And it is precisely in this alteration that the profit spoken of by Allah ta'ala in one of the ayats I quoted at the beginning manifests itself and where the spiritual benefits of hajj can be clearly gauged. With some returning hajjis the change is only superficial; the gloss disappears quickly; and within a very short time they are exactly as they were before. Others, however, come back utterly transformed, their lives take on a new and more meaningful quality; they are those the Prophet, salla'Llahu 'alayhi wa sallam, was referring to as new born; for them the hajj really has acted as a new beginning to their lives.

The difference between the two groups lies firstly in what we looked at earlier, the strength of their intention, and secondly in what Allah ta'ala so clearly states in the other ayats about hajj I quoted at the beginning, the need for taqwa to make the actions performed on hajj truly meaningful. It is not sufficient just to participate passively in the rites of hajj, just to get swept along with the flow like a piece of flotsam; you have to bring something to them from within yourself and that "something" is taqwa, fearful awareness of Allah. The rites are not magical, by which I mean that they have no automatically beneficial effect on those who perform them. Certainly there is great baraka in them stemming from the ancientness of their Divine prescription and billions of believers who have participated in them down through the centuries. But the benefit you personally will derive from them is directly proportional to the amount of taqwa you bring to them.

Perhaps the most comprehensive statement ever made concerning this inward dimension of hajj was made by Junayd al-Baghdadi, the great 3rd century faqih and sufi.

A man came to visit Junayd and Junayd asked him where he had come from. He replied that he had just returned from hajj. Junayd said to him, "From the time you left your home did you also leave behind all wrong action?" "No," replied the man. "Then you never really left at all. At every stop you made on the way, did you also advance another stage on the path to Allah?" "No," came the reply. "Then you did not really make the journey. When you put on your ihram at the miqat, did you discard the attributes of selfhood as you took off your ordinary clothes?" "No." "Then you did not really take on ihram. When you did tawaf of the Ka'ba, did you witness the beauty of Allah in the abode of purification?" "No, I did not," said the man. "Then you did not really do tawaf. When you did sa'y between Safa and Marwa did you reach the rank of safa (purity) and muruwwa (virtue)?" "No." "Then you did not really do sa'y. When you went out to Mina did your muna (desires) cease?" No, they did not." "Then you never really went to Mina. When you stood on 'Arafa did you experience even a single moment of ma'rifa (direct knowledge) of Allah?" "No." "Then you did not really stand on 'Arafa. When you stayed the night at Muzdalifa did you renounce your love of this world?" No, I did not." "Then you did not really stay at Muzdalifa. When you stoned the Jamra, did you cast away from yourself everything that stands between you and your Lord." "No." "Then you did not really do the stoning. When you made your sacrifice, did you offer up your lower self to Allah?" "Then you did not really make a sacrifice and the truth is that you have not properly performed hajj at all. Return and do the hajj again in the manner I have described so that you may finally truly attain to the Maqam of Ibrahim."

Now obviously we cannot take this literally – I doubt that these days even one hajj a year would be acceptable according to Imam Junayd's stringent criteria – but what his words do indicate very clearly is that there is an essential inner dimension to the hajj. At the same time it is vital to point out that Imam Junayd's words do not involve any kind of inward/outward dichotomy, some kind of inward meaning to hajj separate from the outward form. They rather show that, like all our acts of 'ibada, every outward act of the hajj has a corresponding and inseparable inner reality without which cannot be considered complete, just as an egg without its white and yolk is no longer properly speaking an egg but merely an eggshell. This is the element of ihsan which the Prophet, salla'Llahu 'alayhi wa sallam, declared to be an integral part of our deen in the famous hadith related by 'Umar ibn al-Khattab, radiya'Llahu 'anhu. Ihsan, he said, was "to worship Allah as if you could see him, for though you cannot see Him, He sees you." The awareness of Allah ta'ala that this predicates is precisely the taqwa which Allah demands from us in connection with the rites of hajj and without it our hajj will definitely be deficient and we cannot expect the great reward promised to those who truly go on hajj for the sake of Allah alone.

We have already discussed the necessary inward dimension to the act of going into ihram which takes the form of that intention on which the very validity of our hajj depends and which should be projected forward into all the rites we are expecting to fulfil so that the whole of our hajj will be imbued with it. After ihram Imam Junayd asks about tawaf, the act of circling Allah's House which is another of the essential components of our journey. When one enters the great wheel which night and day incessantly revolves around the Ka'ba, the central focus of all who truly worship Allah on the surface of the earth, it is all too easy to become distracted by the amazing sight it represents and the inevitable pushing and shoving which is the necessary accompaniment of so many people moving round in a limited space and which becomes particularly vigorous in the vicinity of the Black Stone. For this reason it is extremely important to keep a watch on your heart, and one way to do this is to choose a simple formula of dhikr and to repeat it continually, remembering to change it to the Qur'anic du'a recommended by the Prophet between the Yamani corner and the Black Stone. The circle of the tawaf is perhaps the place on hajj where one is most aware of being a citizen of the world. Every continent, race, and nation is represented and, extraordinarily, the specific characteristics of each is evident in the way they perform the rite.

On another level the act of tawaf can be seen as a reflection of our lives. If you look carefully at your life you will see that it is not so much an unbroken progression from beginning to end as a series of cycles which tend to bring you back and back again to the same point in a kind of repeating pattern. This pattern has its high point and low point, a little like a comet whose orbit comes close to the sun and then whizzes back off into deep space before returning once more to the light. This is mirrored in the tawaf by the passing of the Black Stone and the energy generated when that happens. What is to be desired both in our lives as a whole and in our tawaf is that our circling should not, as it were, remain always at the same level but should rather take the form of an upward spiral so that each time we pass the same point we have come that much closer to Allah than we were the previous time round. Our tawaf ends with two rak'ats at the Maqam of Ibrahim and this really is an exercise which has great meaning for our lives at large. Somehow, in the midst of all the hustle and bustle of the haram, at the edge of, or even within the compass of, the endless wheeling of the tawaf crowd, we have to carve out a space for ourselves and locate a few moments of stillness and concentration in which we can stand and bow and prostrate and devote ourselves to the worship of our Lord.

One other definite spiritual benefit connected with the House of Allah has as much to do with people who are not there as those who are. The short length of wall between the door of the Ka'ba and the corner containing the Black Stone is known as al-Multazam. If you look at a picture of that side of the Ka'ba you will always see people spread-eagled against the wall at that point, almost as if they are trying to enter the House directly through the wall, and when you are there you will hear and feel the intensity of the supplication in that place and there is scarcely an eye that will not be flooded with tears. It is said that all du'a made there are answered and many people at some during their visit to the Masjid al-Haram try to take advantage of the opportunity it offers to ask Allah's help and blessing, not just for themselves but also for those they left behind. There are, of course, endless chances during the hajj in many of the holy places to make such du'as, and in this way something of the spiritual benefits of hajj reach many people who are not there to profit from the experience in person.

After tawaf comes sa'y which in a way always reminds me of the rush hour in one of the great cities of the world. An endless seething mass of people flooding ceaselessly backwards and forwards in a paradoxical integration of confusion and order. Sa'y is a re-enactment of the desperate search for water by Hajjar, the wife of Sayyidina Ibrahim, 'alayhi salam, when she and her young son 'Isma'il were placed by him in the Hands of Allah in the barren valley of Bakka. She ran backwards and forwards between the two rocks of Safa and Marwa, climbing first onto the one and then onto the other searching every horizon for that group of travellers who would save them from their plight. In the end, as we know, what they needed appeared literally under their feet with the emergence of the spring of Zamzam. How often we do the same thing in our own lives. We cast about here and there, desperately seeking help of one kind or another from this one or that one, usually forgetting that Allah ta'ala is very well aware of our circumstances, and then Allah's help arrives from right under our noses or sometimes even from within ourselves and the situation is resolved.

Like all the rites of hajj the act of sa'y is packed with wisdom and many different insights can be gained from its performance. Shaykh Abdalqadir as-Sufi has this to say about it in his seminal work The Way of Muhammad:

When the hajji begins his sa'y, he joins an already moving bank of people between the two rocks of Safa and Marwa, so that the stream of people between the two Waymarks is endless. As you fall into that sea of activity rushing from here to there and there to here, and the ocean of faces washes past you, some seen again and again, others seen once and for all, the rhythmic running from a place to a place takes on the impulse of activity that has governed all one's life of forgetfulness. All the struggle and fretfulness of existence, all the coming and going, becomes condensed into these seven terrible flights from A to B and from B to A. Seven times is enough for the life of one to be exposed to one's palpitating heart.

The next step on the hajj is the move to Mina. It is perhaps at Mina that the reality of the Umma of Islam is most clearly to be seen. People tend to be camped according to the geographical area of the world from which they come so that at Mina all the races and nations of Islam more or less preserve their ethnic and national distinctions and yet are all in close juxtaposition to one another within a very confined area. So for a few precious days communities normally separated by thousands of miles find themselves right next door to one another and in the benign atmosphere of hajj that brotherhood of Islam, which is so elusive in today's artificially divided world, finds genuine and heart-warming expression, as Muslims from every part of the globe meet and enjoy the pleasure of one another's company. What is also made apparent is how much was stolen from us by the break-up of the khilafa and how much we stand to gain from the political reunification of the umma once more under one khalifa.

The Prophet, salla'Llahu 'alayhi wa sallam, said, "Hajj is 'Arafa," so it is evident that the great gathering of the hajji's on the plain of 'Arafa is the core rite of hajj. This is what everyone has come for. There is no doubt that in an almost explicit way it prefigures that Final Gathering which all of us will inevitably attend on the Last Day. It is there at 'Arafa that the reality of the state of ihram is made most manifest. The lives of all who are present are stripped down to the barest essentials. All distinctions are removed. Wealth and poverty, every kind of class distinction, all the things which normally set people apart from one another in their worldly lives, all these things are set aside and all that remains is the simple fact of our common humanity. All we have is our actions, what we have done with ourselves up to that point, what we have turned ourselves into by what we have done, nothing more and nothing less than what we truly are. It is a priceless opportunity to take stock. We stand there, as it were, naked in front of our Lord, with all the normal distractions and cushions taken away, face to face with Allah with nothing in between but the veil of our own existence.

There is nothing to do there but turn to Allah with complete sincerity and to call on Him making our din sincerely His, hoping for His forgiveness, longing for His mercy and yearning for the vision of His noble Face; and truly there is nowhere and no time on earth where our prayers are more likely to find acceptance. Jabir reported Allah's Messenger, salla'Llahu 'alayhi wa sallam, as saying:

When the Day of 'Arafa comes, Allah descends to the lowest heaven and praises the people there to the angels, saying, "Look at My servants who have come to Me dishevelled, dusty and crying out from every deep valley. I call you to witness that I have forgiven them." Then the angels object, saying, "But my Lord this man has done such and such a thing and also that womanÉ" Allah, Who is great and glorious replies, "I have forgiven them."

Shaykh Abdalqadir says about 'Arafa in The Way of Muhammad:

It is a rite that takes man back to his origin, for 'Arafa is the meeting point, the point of the reunion on earth of Adam and Hawwa, peace be upon them. It is the source point of the human situation. The meaning of the Hajj and its reality lies in this 'moment', this time at the source of life itself, and what the hajji does is stop. Stand on 'Arafa – it was for this that the journey was undertaken. Alone on a wide desert plain surrounded by a throng of others identical to yourself, bare-headed and draped in two white cloths – many there will be buried in these same cloths – you just come to a halt – quite simply, exhausted, dazed, you stop. At that moment there is absolutely nowhere to go. You are there. With Allah. The journey is accomplished. After that everything is purification and supplication.

The three rites of the eid at Mina are stoning the Jamrat al-'Aqaba, sacrificing an animal and shaving the head. All of them represent very specific actions and in one way the meaning of them is inextricably bound up with the actual doing of them and unfolds for every individual as they take place. But, of course, much has been written about them over the centuries and all of us inevitably reflect on their significance before and after actually performing them. Stoning the jamras is often referred to as stoning Shaytan. Allah warns us against Shaytan and informs us unequivocally that he is our enemy and perhaps one lesson we can learn is that even on this most blessed of days, the Eid al-Adha, we are not safe from Shaytan's insinuations and must protect ourselves from them. Shaykh ibn al-'Arabi al-Hatimi takes that one step further in his explanation of the rite. He says that at 'Arafa we purify our understanding of tawhid and rid ourselves of shirk and that in throwing the seven stones the next day we are casting out of ourselves certain Shaytan inspired thoughts that make us associate other things with Allah and that is why we call out the takbir as we throw – by declaring Allah to be greater we are disassociating Him from the tendency to commit shirk which Shaytan has tried to instil into our thinking process. So rather than throwing stones at Shaytan we are casting out from ourselves shaytanic thoughts.

As we saw in the ayat which referred to it, Allah tabaraka wa ta'ala is Himself concerned that we understand that the important element in the rite of sacrifice is that awareness of Him in us which must accompany the physical act and which alone imbues it with meaning. We should remember that it commemorates the occasion when Sayyidina Ibrahim, 'alayhi salam, was absolved from having to sacrifice his beloved son and given a ram to sacrifice in his stead. So what the rite indicates is our preparedness to give up what is most precious us for the sake of Allah. The thing more precious to us than anything else is our own selfhood, our own independent existence, and so, in its highest sense, the sacrifice represents our willingness to give up our own will and submit ourselves entirely to the will of our Lord and the truth is that by doing this we stand to lose nothing and to gain our heart's desire. Allah ta'ala says in Surat at-Tawba: "Allah has bought from the muminun their selves and their wealth in return for the Garden," and then at the end of the ayat: "Rejoice then in the bargain you have made. That is the great victory." (9:112)

The sheer physical relief of removing the accumulated dust and grime and dishevelment of our days in ihram in itself gives a more than adequate meaning to the act of shaving the head and the cleaning process which accompanies it. It really does give one a sense of starting life all over again. It is this very feeling which validates a slightly more symbolic interpretation of the rite which is, that in getting rid of your hair you are in a certain sense stripping away your past and that the new hair growth as it emerges truly is indicative of a new beginning to your life as a whole.

One aspect of the journey to the Hijaz we have so far not mentioned at all is the visit to Madina al-Munawwara. This is strongly recommended to the point of being considered a sunna of the hajj journey. Qadi 'Iyad said about it, "Visiting the tomb of the Prophet, salla'Llahu 'alayhi wa sallam, is a sunna among the Muslims on which there is agreement. It is a virtue which is encouraged." If Makka is a crucible where the hajji is purged and purified, Madina is a pool of tranquillity where he finds peace and refreshment. Remember that it was in Madina that the social reality of Islam was first given form, where the justice and compassion of Allah's deen found their most perfect expression, that city about whose inhabitants Allah Himself said, "You are the best community ever to be produced before mankind." (3:110) What was latent and implicit during the long and difficult years in Makka, became realised and explicit in Madina and a community of human beings living according to the laws of Allah by following the example of His Messenger brought about the best human social situation ever to have existed on the surface of the earth. It is the resonance of this which emanates from the grave of the Prophet, salla'Llahu 'alayhi wa sallam, and still pervades the city which welcomed him and made it possible for Islam to be implemented in its totality.

One does not have to go too far to discover the spiritual benefits of the visit to Madina. What blessing could be greater than being greeted by the Messenger of Allah himself, salla'Llahu 'alayhi wa sallam, and as he himself said that is what happens to all who greet him in his grave. In the famous hadith from Abu Hurayra, radiya'Llahu 'anhu, related by Ahmad, Abu Dawud and al-Bayhaqi, he said, salla'Llahu 'alayhi wa sallam, "There is no one who greets me but that Allah will return my ruh to me so that I can return the greeting to him." And certainly there are very few hajjis who do not experience something of the sweetness of the Prophetic presence during their stay in Madina. So just as the hajj itself imbues one with a greater sense of the Divine presence and fosters love of Allah in the heart, the visit to Madina opens the heart to greater love for His Messenger and by extension to the whole Umma of Islam.

What I have hoped to do by talking of these things is, by drawing on my own experience and the experience of others with much greater knowledge and insight than myself, to indicate something of the inner dimension of the various rites of hajj. But in the end, although such indications may perhaps open a door or two to a deeper appreciation of the hajj, it is only your own tasting of the acts themselves which will really be of any use to you. It is only your direct experience of the rites of hajj which will actually constitute your hajj, and your hajj will inevitably be uniquely your own, totally different from everyone else's, even that of someone who may have been alongside you for most of the time you were there. This is because the hajj is as much an inward journey as an outward one and, as we have seen, it is that inward dimension, the unknowable amount of that outwardly indefinable but indispensable quality of taqwa which you bring to all the rites you perform, it is that and that alone on which the amount of benefit you receive from the hajj and its acceptability to Allah in the end depends.

The Prophet declared that one of the very best actions possible for a human is an accepted hajj and it is, therefore, devoutly to be hoped that all of those who go on it will bring to it the strong intention and the amount of taqwa they need to ensure that their hajj will find acceptance with their Lord. If they do they will find immediate evidence of it in their own being. They will find that their hearts have been filled with an unfading love for Allah and His Messenger and all the Muslims and they will find themselves determined to dedicate themselves from now on to the task of seeing the deen of Allah established to the fullest possible extent in their own lives and in the lives of their families and communities.

I will finish with the ayats with which Allah concludes the sura which He dedicated to the institution of hajj.

You who have iman, bow and prostrate and worship your Lord, and do good, so that hopefully you will be successful. Do jihad for Allah with the jihad due to Him. He has selected you and not placed any constraint on you in the deen – the religion of your forefather Ibrahim. He named you Muslims before and also in this, so that the Messenger could be witness against you and you could be witnesses against all mankind. So establish salat and pay zakat and hold fast to Allah. He is your Protector – the Best Protector, the Best Helper. (22:75-76)

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