The Humble "I"

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The Beginning, the Void & Islam’s Cosmic Question

Apart from being story-telling creatures, we humans are also meaning-seeking creatures. Once we’re fed, clothed and sheltered, we have an inner tendency to want to find purpose and meaning in things. No matter how much we’re surrounded by comforts, or how much our needs and wants are catered for, we have an innate drive and hunger to find meaning; especially in terms of life’s meaning and purpose. This article addresses the heart of such thirst, by explaining how Islam says everything came to be, and why? That is, we shall try and address Islam’s big cosmic question:

The meaning-seeking drive in us humans can be seen in the following hadith report: Abu Razin once inquired: O Messenger of Allah ﷺ, where was our Lord before He created the creation? He replied: ‘He was in obscurity [lit. clouds] (kana fi ‘ama), with no wind (hawa) below Him and no wind above Him, and He created His Throne over the water.’1

In another hadith, we are presented with a somewhat more elaborate account of the great cosmic ‘How’ and ‘Why’ questions – how did we, and all of this stuff around us, get here; and why are we here? We read about the how question:

‘Imran b. Husayn relates: I was once sitting with the Prophet ﷺ when some people from the tribe of Tamim came to him. He then said to them: ‘Receive the good news, O tribe of Tamim.’ They said: You have given us good news, so grant us [something else]. Just then, some people from Yemen entered, so he said: ‘Receive the good news, O people of Yemen, for the tribe of Tamim did not accept it.’ They responded: We accept it! We have come to you in order to become versed in the religion, and to ask you concerning what was the beginning of this affair? He ﷺ answered: ‘Allah was, and there was nothing before Him. His Throne was over the water, He then created the heavens and earth and wrote down everything in the Register [the Preserved Tablet].’2

It has also been recorded with the following wording: ‘Allah was, and there was nothing other than Him.’3 Which suggest that Allah, the Creator, had not as yet created anything. He then created the water, Throne, Pen, Preserved Tablet, the heavens and the earth, and all things in them. There’s also this hadith to add to the jigsaw puzzle: ‘Allah decreed the measure of all things fifty thousand years before He created the heavens or the earth; and His Throne was over the water.’4

What empirical evidence has allowed us to understand is that the creation of the heavens and the earth wasn’t an instantaneous event, but instead it was a long drawn out process spanning aeons. Currently, the best scientific model we have that describes the origin and growth of our universe is the Big-Bang theory. As science goes, it’s a fine and exhilarating piece of detective work, the outlines of which go something like this:

In 1927, George Lemaitre, whilst studying Einstein’s new theory of relativity and gravity, deduced that if the theory was right (and there had been good evidence for it since 1919), then our universe was not static (as people had believed since the time of the early Greek philosophers). Rather it was expanding! Unfortunately, he had no empirical data to prove this, so his idea was ignored. Even Einstein felt uneasy about endorsing this implication of his general theory of relativity.

By 1929, we learnt that galaxies were rushing apart from each other at incredible speeds, thanks to the American astronomer, Edwin Hubble. Lemaitre used Hubble’s observations as clear proof for his theory of an expanding – not an eternal, unchanging – universe.

By 1931, Lemaitre explored the consequences of an expanding universe and proposed that the universe must have originated at a finite point in time. He argued that if the universe is expanding, it must have been far smaller in the past. If we keep rewinding the cosmic clock, going further and further back in time, our universe would have been smaller and smaller still. So much so, that there must have been a point in time when all of the matter and energy in the universe must have been densely packed together in a single point – the “primeval atom” as he called it – which then exploded, giving birth to time and space and the expansion of the universe. Lemaitre also proposed that there should be some leftover heat from the Big-Bang, which would have rapidly cooled with the expansion, to leave our universe with an overall uniform temperature. This Belgian priest-cum-astronomer would have to wait some decades before he was proven correct about the heat left over from the birth of the universe.

Ironically, in a 1949 broadcast for BBC Radio, the English astronomer Fred Hoyle coined the term “the Big Bang” for that initial cosmic explosion. The irony being that Hoyle did not believe in Lemaitre’s theory. Hoyle was an ardent believer in the Steady State theory of the universe: i.e. the universe was static, wasn’t expanding, and had existed from eternity. The term, however, caught on and stuck.

The deal-sealer came in 1964, when two American radio-astronomers Penzias and Wilson stumbled across the cosmic background heat, or radiation. This radiation was acting as a source of excessive noise in a radio receiver they were building. Despite taking all possible steps to eradicate this strange buzzing sound; even removing some nesting pigeons from the antenna, the noise still persisted. Again by sheer chance, they learned that a group of Princeton astrophysicists were researching for means to detect the residual radiation left over from the Big Bang. As it happened, the radiation detected by Penzias and Wilson was the very same Cosmic Background Radiation that earlier astronomers and physicists had predicted, and which the researchers were looking for. This accidental discovery, along with the fact that our universe is expanding, put the big bang theory firmly on the map, as well as make history.

Currently, astrophysicists and cosmologists put the age of the universe at 13.8 billion years old. The planets in our solar system, including our own, are around four and a half billion years old. Although there are a few alternative models that attempt to explain the genesis and growth of the universe, none have as wide an acceptance as the big bang theory.

One last matter. Merely because we now have a good scientific model which explains the mechanism behind the universe’s origins, it doesn’t mean that there was no agent behind the birth of the universe. To think otherwise would be like believing that just because we know the inner workings of an iPhone, that there was no Steve Jobs as the agent behind that tech. That is to say, knowing the mechanism, doesn’t necessarily negate there being an agent behind it. So having discussed a bit about the mechanism that got the universe going, let’s talk about the Agent behind it and why the universe and us are here:

That Allah kana fi ‘ama – was in some kind of veiled or clouded obscurity before creating creation – ties in with a very popular hadith, usually found in sufi literature, which is the “Hidden Treasure” hadith. This is the hadith that ascribes the following words to Allah: ‘I was a treasure unknown, then I desired to be known. So I created creation to make Myself known; they then knew Me.’ According to the hadith specialists, however, this hadith is a fabrication.

In his compendium of hadith forgeries, Mulla ‘Ali al-Qari wrote: ‘Ibn Taymiyyah asserts: “These are not the words of the Prophet ﷺ, and nor does it have any chain, be it sound or weak.” Al-Zarkashi and al-‘Asqalani state the same. Its overall meaning, though, is sound and takes its cue from Allah’s words, exalted is He: I only created jinn and men that they may worship Me. That is, “that they may know Me” – as was explained by Ibn ‘Abbas, may Allah be pleased with him.’5 This echoes the Qur’an when it says: Allah it is who created seven heavens, and of the earth a similar number. His command descends throughout them, that you may know Allah has power over everything and that He encompasses all things in knowledge. [Q.65:12] The point being made here is that Allah can only be worshiped after knowing Him. Which is why He created the heavens, earth and whatever is between them, as pointers to His oneness, divinity, glory, majesty and might.

An even more wondrous way that promotes li ta‘lamu – “that you may know” Allah – is the way in which Allah made Man. Ibn Taymiyyah wrote: ‘Now Allah manifested some of His tremendous power and astounding wisdom through righteous humans – via prophets and saints – in ways He hasn’t done so, not even via angels. For He united in the former, qualities that are dispersed throughout the other types of creation. So Allah created man’s physical body from the earth, while his spirit (ruh) was created from the Highest Assembly of Angels. That is why it is said: “Man is a microcosm, but contains the macrocosm (huwa al-‘alam al-saghir huwa nasakhah al-‘alam al-kabir).”’6 If we add to this the fact that we’re divinely designed with a spiritual heart (qalb) that can truly know Allah and can yearn to seek intimacy with Him, and an intellect that above all other creatures can grasp Allah’s signs and infer their meanings, then each of us are endowed with the potential to be what we are called upon to be: knowers, worshippers and lovers of God!

Profounder still is what our Prophet ﷺ taught us about Man in this next hadith: ‘Indeed Allah created Adam in His own image.’7 As to what this theomorphic nature of the human creature actually is, our ‘ulema have a few views concerning this:8

One view holds that the word “image” (surah) refers to: “attributes,” like hearing, seeing, knowledge and speaking. In other words, Adam, upon whom be peace, was created with certain attributes Allah also describes Himself with; although the attributes of the former are created and imperfect, whilst Allah’s attributes are eternal, perfect and absolute; and bear no resemblance or likeness to any of the creation, save in name: There is nothing like unto Him, and He is the All-Hearing, All-Seeing. [Q.42:11]

A second view has it that what is intended by “image” is Adam, peace be upon him, being created in a direct way by Allah, without the usual human birth process; and that he was endowed with the same form or image on earth, as he had in Paradise.

A third opinion simply insists in issues like this: amirruha kama ja‘a bila kayf – ‘Let it pass as it came, without inquiring into how.’ Most of the early believers accepted such hadiths (or verses) concerning Allah’s attributes on trust, and were content to leave any apparent anomaly or mystery unexplained. In fact, a number of early scholars have cited an actual consensus, or ijma‘, on this approach.9

All this is with the assumption that the pronoun in ‘ala suratihi – “in his image” – returns back to Allah, and not to another human; as held by some. Such are the opinions offered to explain the intent behind the words: ‘Allah created Adam in [H]is own image’ or, as per the hadith (if sound): ‘Do not say [to another]: “May Allah disfigure your face;” for the son of Adam was created in the image of the All-Merciful.’10

This theomorphic nature of having been created in His image finds its practical expression in another spiritual principle of the faith: takhalluqu bi akhlaqi’Llah – “Adorn yourselves with the qualities of God[liness]” Although it is not a hadith by any stretch, it forms a core aspect of Islam’s spiritual ethics.11 Imam al-Suyuti explains that: ‘Its meaning is to adorn oneself with praiseworthy attributes and rid oneself of the blameworthy ones. Its meaning isn’t that we [try to] usurp any of the divine attributes.’12 Teasing it out a little more, Ibn al-Qayyim wrote:

‘He [i.e. Allah] is compassionate and loves those who are compassionate; merciful to His servants who show compassion. He conceals [faults] and loves those who cover the faults of His servants. He is clement and love those who pardon; forgiving and loves those who forgive; gentle and loves those who are gentle to others. But He is angered by those who are rude, rough or hard-hearted. He is companionable and loves companionship [among people]; forbearing and loves forbearance; good and loves goodness and its doers; just and loves justice. He loves to accept excuses and loves those who excuse others. Thus He recompenses His servant inasmuch as these attributes are present or absent in him.’13

It may likewise be said that we are something or nothing inasmuch as such attributes are present or absent in us. The Holy Qur’an teaches us that we are obliged to choose between being something or being nothing! Created, according to the hadith, in Allah’s image – a theomorphic being – our natures are such that we, above all creatures in this vast cosmos, can reflect, as in a mirror, the names or attributes of our Lord. In practice, it means that the believer’s heart should be like a mirror; such that when God gazes at it, He sees – as it were – His own reflection!

To sum-up: There was Allah, He that is One, and nothing else was with Him; and He was as yet unknown. He then created creation in order to be known. First came the water, Pen and Throne (though not necessarily in that order), and then the heavens and earth. Long ages passed as the heavens and the earth took form; and as the earth was being prepared to receive Man. Such was the jewel in the crown of the divine plan. So when the time was right, and what was destined for Adam and his wife overtook them, they were both sent down to earth to dwell therein: to live, cultivate and to bring forth new life in the reverent worship, knowledge, and gratitude of God.

Being a theomorphic creature, made in His image, the divine hand made of man a work of art. The human soul, when purified of its ego and opposition to the divine will; and when enrobed in the akhlaq of Allah, becomes the highest embodiment of beauty in the created order, reflecting something of the Divine Beauty. For the goal of Islam’s spiritual path is not to acquire the attributes of divinity, but to embrace our full humanity. And this is done by being steered by the attributes of Lordship and making Allah’s acts the basis for one’s own. Such is the implication of our theomorphic nature.

To be something, or nothing: that seems to be the question. Whether to grow and nurture our theomorphic potential and be lifted to a station loftier than that of angels, or to live in pursuits of whims, desires and distractions and thus sink to the lowest of the low, is the choice before each of us. All other concerns must surely take a lower priority?

Wa’Llahu’l-hadi ila sawa’ al-sabil.

1. Al-Tirmidhi, no.3109, who graded it hasan.

2. Al-Bukhari, no.7418.

3. Al-Bukhari, no.3191.

4. Muslim, no.2653.

5. Al-Asrar al-Marfu‘ah fi’l-Akhbar al-Mawdu‘ah (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1986), no.353; Ibn Taymiyyah, Majmu‘ Fatawa (Saudi Arabia: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 18:122.

6. Majmu‘ Fatawa, 11:96.

7. Al-Bukhari, no.6227; Muslim, no.2841.

8. Consult: al-Munawi, Fayd al-Qadir (Cairo: Dar al-Hadith, 2010), no.3928; al-‘Asqalani, Fath al-Bari (Damascus: al-Risalah al-‘Alamiyyah, 2013), no.2559, 8:167-68; no.6227, 19:6-7.

9. See the article on this blog: Doctrine of the Divine Attributes.

10. Ibn Abi ‘Asim, Kitab al-Sunnah, no.517; and al-Tabarani, al-Mu‘jam al-Kabir, no.13580. Despite the narrators being highly reliable (thiqah), al-Albani showed how its chain has four ‘ilal, or hidden defects, and is therefore da‘if, in Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Da‘ifah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1988), no.1176.

11. Ibn al-Qayyim called it batil in Madarij al-Salikin (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Arabi, 2003), 3:226-27; al-Albani declared it to have no chain at all (la asl lahu) in Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Da‘ifah (Riyadh; Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 2000), no.2822.

12. Ta’yiyd al-Haqiqat al-‘Aliyyah (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 2006), 84-5.

13. Al-Wabil al-Sayyib (Beirut & Damascus: Maktabah Dar al-Bayan, 2006), 79.

Islam: Veiled by Ruthless Tyrants & Extremist Miscreants

With everyone offering their opinion about what Islam is really about, with even far-right voices cashing in on the furore, Muslims are in danger of allowing the essential message of their religion to be drowned out in all the hullabaloo. And while it’s not always easy to essentialize the faith, to sort out Islamic principles from Muslim practices, this much has to be clear:

A Muslim, by definition, is anyone who has sincerely uttered the Declaration of Faith; the shahadah: bearing witness to the fact that God is One, unique, perfect, having no partner or associate, with none deserving to be worshiped except Him; bearing witness also that Muhammad is His final Messenger sent to all humanity. Since we cannot rip open hearts to read their secrets (unless they are explicitly or unequivocally revealed through word or deed), judgement about sincerity is left with God. These words of the Prophet ﷺ speak to the reality that la ilaha illa’Llah isn’t something to merely be uttered by the tongue, with no understanding of its meaning or sincerity to its demands: ‘The person most delighted by my intercession on the Day of Resurrection will be the one who says, la ilaha illa’Llah sincerely from his heart.’1 And this: ‘Whoever bears witness to la ilaha ila’Llah, sincerely from his heart, will enter Paradise.’2 Also these words: ‘Whoever dies knowing that there is no god [deserving of worship] except Allah, will enter Paradise.’3

Of course – and rightly so, few would consider this is sufficient in practice, unless such a Declaration is taken to include affirming the necessary consequences which flow from it. One of Islam’s early pietists, Wahb b. Munabbih, was once asked: ‘Isn’t la ilah illa’Llah the key to Paradise?’ To which he explained: ‘Indeed! But there isn’t a key, except that it has incisions (asnan, lit. “teeth”). If you bring a key that has [the right] incisions, the door will open; if not, it won’t!’4 What is meant by these “incisions” are the duties and obligations instated by the faith. In other words, while the Muslim believes in the One true God, in the angels, in all the messengers sent to mankind for their guidance from the beginning of the human saga, and in the divinely-revealed books – the Qur’an being the final Word of God, unaltered and unalterable; Muslims also believe in the obligation to uphold the religious obligations, at the head of which are the “Five Pillars” of Islam which are: the Declaration of Faith, the five daily prayers, the payment of zakat, the fast of Ramadan, and Pilgrimage to Makkah by those physically and financially able to do so. A Muslim may, to their own harm or ruin, neglect to practice one or more of the pillars (except the first one), or fail to fulfil one or more of the religious obligations, and still be counted as a Muslim; albeit a sinful one. But if he denies their necessity; their obligatory nature, he has placed himself beyond the community of believers and outside the fold of Islam.

The world would indeed be a fine place if people only judged Islam by its clear, normative teachings, instead of how Muslims may or may not have practiced it throughout the ages. Nor does a writer have any duty to defend or justify the way in which Islam is practiced in any historical period by those of its followers whose blips show up on the radar of history. For when it comes to human beings, good men and women are by no means thick on the ground. And vice learnt a long time ago that it could pay its tribute to virtue by dressing in the garb of religion. Which brings me to my main point:

It wasn’t so long ago when Muslims would still identify a person by the religion they were born into, rather than their nationality or ethnicity. In such a weltanschauung, Europeans were habitually described as Christians, even if large swathes had forsaken their ancestral religion for no religion or for atheism. For their part, the ‘Christian’ West usually regarded anyone from a Muslim majority country to not just be Muslim, but to somehow represent the ‘Muslimness’ that Islam as a religious way of life extols – whether that person was an ordinary citizen, filthy rich playboy or tycoon, or shabby tyrannical head of state! During the latter part of the 20th century, the image of Islam was veiled behind the daily tabloid escapades of Arab tycoons, playboys, dictators or despots. But the faith has seldom been discoverable in the lives of such tycoons, leaders and official spokesmen – but those who seek it, will surely find it.

Of course, 9-11 changed that; not just in the West, but globally. Islam’s image would now be associated primarily with acts of terror and violence of the al-Qaeda or ISIS type. Some will say that this is the default perception of Islam’s image in the West. For if it isn’t the Muslim terrorist blowing up people, it’s Muslim fundamentalists on the rampage, burning some innocent book or publication. And if not that, it’s ruthless dictators; or even earlier still, the image of the Muslim Saracen with his menacing face, wielding his sword against the innocent ‘infidel’! The West, it seems, can’t stop caricaturing the entire global Muslim population in one negative way or another. Beneath the surface, however, and invisible to the media or to the wider public, are the countless ordinary men and women – exemplary Muslims, faithful and compassionate – whose lives could help redeem much of this false image, if godliness and humility were commodities that sold newspapers, made headlines or attracted social media clicks and likes!

Some Muslims will insist that image doesn’t matter; it shouldn’t bother us what the non-Muslims think of us. And that’s true: but only partially. It’s true in terms of the message and its content. We cannot change Islam or water down its teachings merely to please peoples’ whims or sentiments, or to better our liberal credentials. Islam is what it is, and that’s that! To this, the Qur’an states: Perhaps you might feel the inclination to omit part of what is revealed to you, and be distressed because they say: ‘Why has no treasure been sent down to him, or why has no company of angels been sent with him?’ You are only a warner, and God is a Guardian over all things. [Q.11:12] In other words, wisely and faithfully deliver the message as it is, then leave the rest to Allah. Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad strikes the right chord when he explains: ‘[I]t’s human nature, given that we’re weak, to crave praise, and to have arguments that are publicly respected. And when we’re not praised, but despised – or the victims of Islamophobia, or whatever you choose to call it – where our arguments are not respected, the ego is dented. And that can be dangerous and that can lead to aberrant behaviour in our communities, or depression, or lead to a determination to change the religion in order to please the people who are regarded as having opinions which matter. And all of this is subversive. But the real Muslim really doesn’t care what people think; he only cares about what Allah, subhanahu wa ta‘ala, thinks.’5

As for how the message and its content are to be delivered, then image – or perhaps we can say: presentation – does indeed matter. Here, one does have concern for form, not just content. The Holy Qur’an stresses: Call to the way of your Lord with wisdom and beautiful exhortation, and reason with them in the most courteous manner. [Q.16:125] A healthy share of Islamic knowledge, wisdom, gentleness, the art of persuasion, prioritising the contents of the message, and a familiarity with audience type are core qualities necessary to make the call conform to the above Quranic description.

We ask Allah, the Gracious Lord, for His kindness.

1 Al-Bukhari, no.99.

2. Ibn Hibban, Sahih, no.7, and its chain is sahih. Consult: al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1991), no.2355.

3. Muslim, no.26.

4. Al-Bukhari, in ta‘liq form, preceeding hadith no.1237; commencing the Book of Funeral Prayers. The complete chain is given in his al-Tarikh al-Kabir, no.261.

5. The citation is from a 2013 lecture entitled: Master Classes on Imam Al-Ghazali – 3. The clip starts at 34:55.

Most Comprehensive Verse in the Qur’an: A Brief Reflection

This Five Minute Meditation is a short reflection on, possibly, the most comprehensive, all-inclusive verse in the Qur’an. It touches upon the meaning of justice and what Islam sees as the greatest and most obligatory act of justice, as well as its opposite: injustice and oppression. It also deliberates on the Islamic obligation to show kindness to family, kith and kin; as well on the dangers of how sins can be normalised or trivialised. Watch here.

 

Some Limericks to Engage the Faith-Based Mind

Here are a collection of limericks, short and snappy, through which a variety of religious themes and faith-based issues are served-up as quirks, curiosities and, of course, food for thought:

I

A lad who watched Starsky & Hutch,
Then got the Khawarij-like touch.
As his raged unfurled,
He said: ‘I must change the world.
‘I can’t, coz I love it too much!’

II

A young man from near Runnymede;
Said we must now all reject taqlid.
I asked him the proof,
He then hit the roof,
‘I don’t know,’ he said, ‘I can’t even read!’

III

A bro who once lived with his mummy;
Wanted street cred more than some money.
‘Shall I be a mufti,
Or takfiri jihadi?’
So he went and bought Islam for a Dummy.

IV

An unemployed man called Nabeel,
Said, ‘counter terrorism’s a lucrative deal’.
He kicked up a storm,
Called for Islamic reform,
He’s now so rich, it’s unreal.*

V

There once was a sufi with beads,
Who was terribly impressed with his deeds,
The salafi, he scorned;
‘You’ve no purity,’ he warned;
With his self he was O so well-pleased.

__________________
*Co written with Ozzy Nujjoo.

The Kaʿbah, the Abrahamic Call & the Spirit of Hajj:

The Qur’an relates to us this duʿa of the Holy Prophet Abraham:

رَبَّنَا إِنِّي أَسْكَنتُ مِنْ ذُرِّيَّتِي بِوَادٍ غَيْرِ ذِي زَرْعٍ عِنْدَ بَيْتِكَ الْمُحَرَّمِ رَبَّنَا لِيُقِيمُوا الصَّلاَةَ فَاجْعَلْ أَفْئِدَةً مِنْ النَّاسِ تَهْوِي إِلَيْهِمْ وَارْزُقْهُمْ مِنْ الثَّمَرَاتِ لَعَلَّهُمْ يَشْكُرُونَ

‘Our Lord! I have settled one of my offspring in a barren valley near Your Sacred House so that, O Lord, they may establish the prayer. Thus make the hearts of people incline towards them, and provide them with fruits, so that they may give thanks.’ [14:37]

This duʿa was made around 2000 BC. But let’s go even further back in sacred time to the dawn of man’s arrival on earth, to 3000 years earlier; or much more so:

It’s been said that Adam, the first man and prophet, having been told to leave Paradise for this dusty earth, was ordered to undertake a great journey.

Guided by Heaven, he travelled far till he came to the deserts of the Hijaz and stood, at last, in a valley ringed by mountains; a barren place of rock and sand. There he built a holy structure, a place of worship; and when this task of his was complete, he left. And for a great length of time, silence and stillness descended upon this sacred place, and windblown sand covered what Adam had built. The Qur’an says of this sacred House and valley:

إِنَّ أَوَّلَ بَيْتٍ وُضِعَ لِلنَّاسِ لَلَّذِي بِبَكَّةَ مُبَارَكًا وَهُدًى لِلْعَالَمِينَ

The first sanctuary ever built for mankind was that at Bakkah [Makkah], a blessed place and a guidance for the worlds. [3:96]

The hadiths about Adam’s role in erecting the Kaʿbah aren’t definitive, their soundness questionable. What is certain, though; what does constitutes sound sacred history, is that:

After long ages had passed, two people came over the desert into the Makkan valley, with a child. The one, an elderly man in his eighties, Abraham by name and a prophet by destiny. The other, Hagar, his Egyptian maid-servant who had borne him this child in his old age: Ishmael. Near the mound that now covered the Sacred House, Abraham left both Ishmael and Hagar to the divine mercy and under divine instruction, leaving with them a few dates and a water skin.

Thirsty, hungry and perhaps by now distraught, Hagar left the child under a sheltered spot and began looking for water and help. Following a path that led her to the hilltop of Safa, there she saw no spring nor signs of habitation. She ran to the neighbouring hilltop, Marwa; again she saw nothing. Seven times she ran between the two hilltops, calling on Allah for mercy. It was then she heard the sound of a voice. Hurrying back to her son, she saw standing besides him an angel who was now striking the earth with his wing so that water gushed forth. This was the spring of Zamzam, from which the pilgrims in their millions drink even today. Here it was that Hagar settled, and reared Ishmael, soon to be joined by a wandering tribe from the north, the Jurhumites; and it is here she died and here he thrived.

Abraham would often come back to Makkah. On one such return, when Ishmael had grown to manhood, both father and son set about rebuilding the Kaʿbah; repeating Adam’s deed, as all men must in one way or another. Father and son dug the earth, found the foundations of the original structure, and rebuilt the Kaʿbah as a simple structure of four walls, setting in one corner of this House a white stone:

وَإِذْ يَرْفَعُ إِبْرَاهِيمُ الْقَوَاعِدَ مِنْ الْبَيْتِ وَإِسْمَاعِيلُ رَبَّنَا تَقَبَّلْ مِنَّا إِنَّكَ أَنْتَ السَّمِيعُ الْعَلِيمُ

And when Abraham and Ishmael raised the foundations of the house, [they prayed]: ‘Our Lord! Accept from us [this act]; You are indeed the Hearing, the Knowing.’ [2:127]

On another earlier occasion, according to one of two authoratative readings, Abraham came to fulfill a dream about him and his first born, Ishmael:

فَلَمَّا بَلَغَ مَعَهُ السَّعْيَ قَالَ يَابُنَيَّ إِنِّي أَرَى فِي الْمَنَامِ أَنِّي أَذْبَحُكَ فَانظُرْ مَاذَا تَرَى قَالَ يَا أَبَتِ افْعَلْ مَا تُؤْمَرُ سَتَجِدُنِي إِنْ شَاءَ اللَّهُ مِنْ الصَّابِرِينَ. فَلَمَّا أَسْلَمَا وَتَلَّهُ لِلْجَبِينِ. وَنَادَيْنَاهُ أَنْ يَا إِبْرَاهِيمُ. قَد صَدَّقْتَ الرُّؤْيَا إِنَّا كَذَلِكَ نَجْزِي الْمُحْسِنِينَ. إِنَّ هَذَا لَهُوَ الْبَلاَءُ الْمُبِينُ. وَفَدَيْنَاهُ بِذِبْحٍ عَظِيمٍ.

And when [his son] was old enough to walk with him, [Abraham] said: ‘O my son, I have seen in a dream that I must sacrifice you, so what do you think?’ He said: ‘O my father! Do what you have been commanded. Allah willing, you shall find me steadfast.’ So when they had both surrendered to Allah and he had turned him down on his face, We called him: ‘O Abraham! You have fulfilled the vision. Thus We reward the doers of good.’ That was a clear test. Then We ransomed him with a great sacrifice. [37:102-07]

And then there is this duʿa spoken by Abraham, perhaps when he was leaving Makkah for the last time, or perhaps when he was back in the fertile land of Canaan:

رَبَّنَا وَابْعَثْ فِيهِمْ رَسُولاً مِنْهُمْ يَتْلُو عَلَيْهِمْ آيَاتِكَ وَيُعَلِّمُهُمْ الْكِتَابَ وَالْحِكْمَةَ وَيُزَكِّيهِمْ إِنَّكَ أَنْتَ الْعَزِيزُ الْحَكِيمُ

‘Our Lord! Raise from their midst a Messenger who shall recite to them Your signs, and teach them the Book and the Wisdom, and purify them. You are the August, the Wise.’ [2:129]

More than two millennia passed before Abraham’s prayer was answered. By that time, the worship of the One true God taught by Abraham was mixed with much idolatry, the Kaʿbah had been defiled with idols in and around it, and the pure white stone set in the eastern corner had been blackened because of the sins of men. Once more, the sacred House was largely forgotten, except to the Arabs and a few scattered tribes of nomads, of whom history took little notice.

But the time was at hand when the Abrahamic call would be reinstated, re-energised, and its scope made universal. And in the fullness of time, with destiny being ripe, there was born from Ishmael’s seed, among the Arabs, from the tribe of Quraysh and the clan of Hashim, a Messenger of God, a final Prophet, in a line of prophets extending all the way back to Adam and his descendents: Muhammad ﷺ – mercy to the worlds. Under the weight of the final divine Revelation, the Prophet ﷺ restored the primordial Adamic faith and reestablished the salvic truths of Abrahamic monotheism.1

The Pilgrimage to Makkah and to the Kaʿbah, as well as involving the continuity of a number of ancient rites, contains potent spiritual symbolism. The physical journey from one’s homeland is a reminder that one must eventually leave this world forever. Wearing the ihram reminds one that each will be buried in a shroud when they die and shall meet their Maker, shorn of any ability to hide behind clothes of pretension or of status. The huge multitudes of people camped out on the plain of Arafat, or under the desert sky of Muzdalifah, brings to mind the tumult and terror of the Resurrection, when all shall be marshalled together for judgement. But of course, the most potent symbol, and the one that most links us to the Abrahamic legacy, is the ritual sacrifice, in remembering Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son. For Abraham’s story is a story of loving submission – and it is loving submission and surrender that lie at the very heart of Islam.

1. See: Gai Eaton, Islam & the Destiny of Man (Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society, 1997), 46-48.

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