Muslims taking part in the annual haj pilgrimage often say they have no words to describe the spiritual experience they have. Their practical struggles with the logistics are another thing altogether.
Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah looks determined to get his proposal for an unprecedented Muslim- Christian-Jewish dialogue off the ground. A three-day conference in Mecca to discuss this ended with a soaring declaration of goodwill and benevolent intent. Saudi media reported that Muslim clerics from around the world had supported the call and confirmed that dialogue with other faiths was legitimate in Islam.
There were interesting words on interfaith dialogue from Mecca and Rome today and London yesterday. Efforts to improve contacts and understanding among the main monotheist religions have been gaining steam recently and we’re starting to see some concrete steps. But, as a meeting in Mecca showed, the road ahead could still be quite rocky.
Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government has just published a study called “Estimating the Impact of the Haj: Religion and Tolerance in Islam’s Global Gathering.” The pilgrimage is often described as the highpoint of a Muslim’s religious life. Media reporting usually stresses the experiences of the people taking part in it. But what is the longer-term effect of participating in such a massive and moving pilgrimage? This study, based on data from over 1,600 applicants to Pakistan’s haj visa allocation lottery in 2006, had some interesting conclusions:
So what exactly were more than two million Muslim pilgrims doing on the plain of Arafat outside Mecca on the afternoon of December 18, also known as the 9th of Dhul Hijja? I was there too, among them, so I should know, shouldn’t I? I must have seen many thousands of them close up on the haj this year, looked into their faces and tried to guess what they were thinking.
If you’re going on the haj pilgrimage, be fit and bring a sturdy pair of sandals. As with any pilgrimage, walking long distances is hard to avoid. The alternative is to sit in endless traffic jams inhaling diesel fumes. I didn’t walk as much as the real pilgrims did on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, but when I fell asleep at 7 a.m. in a resthouse, I had been walking since 1.30 a.m.
“Now’s the moment to say special prayers, for your family or anyone else you want to pray for,” said my Lebanese companion Ahmed. As he spoke, we caught a first glimpse of the black cloth cover of the Kaaba through the arches of the King Abdul Aziz Gate into the Grand Mosque in Mecca. I tried to remember all the people who had asked for prayers and mentally checked off their names, just in case. We picked our way through the crowds, some in the plain white cloth worn by pilgrims, others in ordinary street wear, according to their status under the complicated rules of the haj pilgrimage.
The cautious Vatican reaction to the dialogue appeal from 138 Muslim scholars has prompted one of the signatories to question whether the top Catholic official for relations with Muslims understands Islam. More specifically, Aref Ali Nayed has asked how Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran can say that a serious theological dialogue with Muslims is not possible because they will not discuss the Koran in depth. This debate (discussed in an earlier post here) is dense and highly specialised. But it may be at this level that this unprecedented dialogue could take off or fail to ignite.