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Quranic Meditations: Preparations for Pilgrimage & Piety

5474572170_0b950a3b02_bThe Qur’an says of itself: [This is] a Book that We have sent down to you, full of blessings, that they may meditate upon its signs, and that those possessed of understanding may take heed. [38:29] The Quranic insistence on tadabbur (to ‘meditate’, ‘reflect’, ‘ponder’ upon the Qur’an) is one of the three essential states our hearts should be in for them to be enriched, illuminated and guided by Allah’s words. The venerable scholar and pietist, Imam al-Nawawi wrote: ‘It is essential for the reciter [of the Qur’an] to be in [a state of] humility, contemplation and submissiveness. Such is the sought-after goal. For by it will breasts expand and hearts be illumined. The proofs of this are too numerous or well-known to recount. A group of the salaf would spend the entire night, or the best part of it, listening to one of them recite just one single verse while the rest meditated upon it.’1

What follows is hopefully the first of a series of brief meditations upon various verses and passages of the Holy Qur’an. Given that close to three million pilgrims are now beginning to converge upon Makkah, to enact the rites of the hajj in a sea of loving submission, the first verse to merit meditation shall be the one that offers instruction on the ethical and spiritual state of the pilgrim:

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The Pilgrimage is [in] the appointed months. Whosoever undertakes the duty of Pilgrimage during them, then there is no lewdness, wickedness or disputation while on the Pilgrimage. And whatever good you do, Allah knows it. And make provisions; but the best provision is piety. Therefore be mindful of Me, O people of understanding. [2:197]

Asking Allah for aid and tawfiq, these meditations are:

1 – This is the second of eight consecutive verses concerning the Pilgrimage or hajj: its rules (ahkam), rites (manasik) and decorum (adab). It tells us that the Pilgrimage takes place in the appointed months – which could just as equally be translated as: ‘the well-known months’. Yet the Qur’an nowhere identifies the names of these months. Why? Because they were so widely known and established among the Arabs; and had been ever since the Prophet Abraham’s time. These appointed months are: Shawwal, Dhu’l-Qa‘dah, and the first ten days of Dhu’l-Hijjah (or the whole of it, according to another valid scholarly opinion).2

2 – That we only know the names of the appointed months through an unbroken chain of practice reaching all the way back to the Abrahamic age, as well as unbroken chains of hadiths via the Prophet ﷺ confirming that he continued giving these months legal sanction, must give us pause for thought. It should caution against the “Qur’an only” interpretation of Islam, or any approach which rejects unbroken chains of practice, or sound hadiths and scholarly insights that clarify the meanings or intent of individual Quranic verses. Without a chain of practice or prophetic report, we can’t know when hajj season actually is.

3 – What follows is that those unhinged from the chain (sanad) tradition – in terms of initiation,  authorization and transmission – yet insist on joining the scholarly debate on renewal or revival, are wittingly or unwittingly enemies to the Islamic story. ‘This knowledge will be carried by the trustworthy ones of every generation: they will expel from it the distortions of the extremists, the fabrications of the liars, and the [flawed] interpretations of the ignorant,’ is what the Prophet ﷺ said.3 Only the sanad can sort out the wheat from the chaff, the qualified from the cowboy.

4 – Once the intention is made and the ihram, the pilgrim’s garb, donned, one enters into a state of inviolability and the duty of Pilgrimage begins in earnest. For putting on the pilgrim’s dress is like ridding oneself, for a while, of whatever links the pilgrims to their usual material life: with its attendant desires, pretensions and distractions. This allows the heart to be in a state where it may be occupied solely with Allah.

5 – Being in a state of ihram, it then says: there is no lewdness, wickedness or disputation while on the Pilgrimage. This is a call to refrain from any behaviour, whether in word or deed, that conflicts with the spirit of wholehearted devotion or obedience to Allah. Scholars explain that lewdness refers to the act of sexual intercourse, and even talk of sexual intimacy, while in the state of ihram. What is meant by wickedness is any sin or act of disobedience. Disputation is any quarrel, row or wrangling which gets the blood boiling, stirs enmity and schism, or breeds hostility and ill will.4 Now that the pilgrim is a “guest of God”, as it were, it behoves him or her to behave with the utmost adab, decency and mindfulness towards God. For it would be the height of impertinence to behave indecently when invited to the House of a generous Host.

6 – Notice the eloquence of the Qur’an in the matter. For it doesn’t just forbid these three acts: lewdness, wickedness or disputation. Instead it wholeheartedly negates them. The Qur’an could have spoken in prohibitive terms; it could have said: ‘there is to be no lewdness …’ Instead, it utilises a complete negation: there is no lewdness … It is as if the Qur’an is saying that to commit any of these indecencies is unimaginable for the one who has donned the pilgrim’s garb and is in the state of Pilgrimage – which is a more forceful way of stating the point; one that appeals to our innate sense of honour and godliness. Such things blind or busy the heart from God, and offend His majesty and holiness; which run contrary to the aim and intent of hajj.

7 – After its prohibitive mood, the verse goes on to encourage the doing of good – any good – linking it to being mindful and vigilant of Allah’s all-encompassing knowledge of things: And whatever good you do, Allah knows it. With Allah’s reassurance that He is always aware of the good we do, the pilgrim increases in doing and spreading good. Along with fulfilling the obligatory rites of hajj, with as much outward conformity to the shari‘ah and inward sincerity, humility and loving submission as can be mustered; the pilgrim seeks to draw closer to Allah by performing optional acts of worship. One cannot and should not neglect goodness and service to fellow pilgrims too.

8 – Pilgrimage requires a certain amount of detachment from the created order so as to nurture attachment to the Creator. It involves detachment from home, homeland and familiar comforts, as well as from everyday preoccupations and distractions. This, however, doesn’t imply tark al-asbab – forsaking lawful means. It is for this reason the verse says: And make provisions. Ibn ‘Abbas narrates: ‘The People of Yemen were in the habit of going to the Pilgrimage without taking any provisions with them. They used to claim: “We are the ones who trust in Allah.” But once in Makkah, they used to beg from people. So Allah, glorious and majestic is He, revealed: And make provisions; but the best provision is piety.5 Thus there are two kinds of provisions that a pilgrim must prepare: physical provisions for the journey to Allah’s House in Makkah, and spiritual provisions for the journey to Allah’s Presence in the Hereafter.

9 – The verse concludes with proclaiming the essence of things: Therefore be mindful of Me, O people of understanding. The Arabic word for being ‘mindful’ is taqwa; which can also mean: being ‘aware’, ‘obedient’, ‘pious’, ‘guarding against sin’. Taqwa, in other words, is to be mindful of Allah’s demands, and to be aware of Allah’s presence; trying to mould one’s life around such mindfulness and awareness. On returning home from the Pilgrimage, after days of physical rigour and spiritual uplift, pilgrims are radically transformed. The overwhelming sense of contrition and repentance they bring back, and their deepened sense of taqwa, become visible in their lives.

10 – The conclusion of this verse is addressed to: people of understanding. The word used for understanding is albab, which is the plural of lubb. In Arabic, lubb refers to the ‘core’, ‘essence’ or ‘best part’ of a thing. The human intellect is described as lubb as it is the best part of a person – especially if it is led by the light of divine guidance, and not by the ego, desires, or baser self-interests. The ulu’l-albab, in terms of Pilgrimage, refers to those who understand that hajj is more than fulfilment of rituals. At its heart is the cultivating of taqwa and loving submission to Allah. They may even see that the entire Pilgrimage is a series of rites that are infused with profound metaphysical and symbolic meaning. The ihram, for instance, symbolises the burial shroud, detachment from the world, and remembrance of death. The tawaf, or circuits around the Ka‘bah, is symbolic of one’s heart and life revolving around the holiness of Allah. The sa‘y, the running between the two hills of Safa and Marwa, suggests that life moves between the two aspects of Divine Compassion and Divine Rigour. The wuquf, the standing at the plain of ‘Arafah, brings to mind the day on which Allah will resurrect us all and the time to repent shall be irrevocably past. Stoning the jamarat, the pillars symbolising Satan, signifies repelling the devil and his whisperings and taking him as an avowed enemy. As for the udhiyah, slaughtering a sacrificial lamb, this recalls how our entire life should be given over to Allah in service and sacrifice for Him.

1. Al-Adhkar (Jeddah: Dar al-Minhaj, 2008), 197.

2. See: Ibn Juzayy, al-Tashil li ‘Ulum al-Tanzil (Beirut: al-Maktabah al-‘Asriyyah, 2003), 1:183; Ibn al-Jawzi, Zad al-Masir (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 2002), 116-17.

3. Al-Bayhaqi, Sunan, 10:209. The hadith is a candidate for being hasan because of its collective chains of transmission. Cf. al-Albani, Takhrij Mishkat al-Masabih (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1979), no.248; ‘Ali al-Halabi (ed.), Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah, Miftah Dar al-Sa‘adah (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn ‘Affan, 1996), 1:500.

4. As per Ibn Kathir, Tafsir Qur’an al-‘Azim (Alexandria: Dar al-‘Aqidah, 2008), 1:374-7. As for the detailed rulings related to the ihram and other rites of Pilgrimage, one can find them codified in basic fiqh texts and hajj booklets. Whenever unclear or in doubt about any issue, one refers to qualified scholars on the matter.

5. Al-Bukhari, no.1523.

Dhu’l-Hijjah: Honouring the Days of Abraham

Belly_PilgrimsGoingToMeccaThe sacred month of dhu’l-hijjah (the last month in the Islamic calendar) is upon us, bringing with it all its virtues and blessings. It is the month of the pilgrimage or hajj, in which God has marked out, for pilgrims and non-pilgrims alike, some exceptionally blessed days. The Prophet, upon whom be peace, taught us the spiritual courtesy that Muslims should seek to nurture in themselves in respect to such heavenly downpour; he informed: ‘Indeed your Lord has, in these days of your life, [divine] gifts, so present yourself to them.’1 Among the month’s blessings and lordly gifts that should be avidly sought are:

1. The Ten Best Days of the Year: The Prophet, peace be upon him, said about the first ten days of dhu’l-hijjah: ‘The best days in the world are the [first] ten days.’2 According to most of our Quranic exegists, it is by these very same days that God has taken the following oath: By the dawn and the ten nights. [89:1-2]3 The significance of these ten days lie in the fact that they are intimately connected with the Prophet Abraham and all that the rites of the pilgrimage he instated symbolise – in terms of the oneness and holiness of God, and the life lived in loving surrender to Him. 

2. Rewards of Doing Good Deeds in These Days: Given that the first ten days of dhu’l-hijjah are the choicest and most virtuous of the entire year, it won’t come as a surprise that one hadith tells us: ‘There are no days in which deeds are more loved by God than these [ten] days.’4 Another hadith says: ‘There are no days greater with God, nor in which good deeds are more loved by Him, than these ten days. Therefore, increase in glorifying God (tasbih), praising Him (tamhid), declaring His unity (tahlil) as well as extolling His greatness (takbir).’5 Just as pilgrims discharge their duty by making the journey to Makkah so as to give expression to the love that drives them to draw closer to God; so too can non-pilgrims express their yearning by honouring these days and increasing in acts of worship, reverence and remembrance.

3. Fasting the Day of ‘Arafah: The rites of the pilgrimage reveal that Abraham, peace be upon him, is a constant point of reference. It starts with the tawaf, or seven circuits of the Ka‘bah. This is followed by the sa‘y, a speedy walk between the hillocks of Safa and Marwa,  commemorating the desperate search of Hagar, Abraham’s handmaiden, for water for her infant son Ishmael. Another rite occurs at Mina, where pilgrims cast pebbles at three stone pillars that symbolise Satan, whom Abraham had repudiated at these three places. It is on the open plain of ‘Arafah, however, that the culminating rite of hajj unfolds. Here the pilgrim, already focused on God by days of uninterrupted worship, have time to look deeply into one’s life. What have we done in the service of God and humanity? What recurrent weakness must we strive to combat? Whom have we wronged? What is holding us back from the purity which is the prerequisite of spiritual knowledge?6 ‘Arafah, then, is the place of profound introspection, cleansing, petition and prayer.

For non-pilgrims, ‘Arafah (the 9th day of the month) is a highly recommended day of fasting. The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, was asked about fasting the day of ‘Arafah, to which he replied: ‘It expiates the sins of the previous year and the coming year.’7 Another hadith on the matter says: ‘There is no day in which God frees people from the Fire more so than on the day of ‘Arafah. He draws close to those [at ‘Arafah] and then revels to His angels, saying: What are these people seeking?’8

4. Offering the Sacrifice: The tenth day of the month is the Day of Sacrifice (yawm al-nahr) which, again, is a commemoration of the Prophet Abraham, peace be upon him. For it was he who, in devoted obedience to God’s command, was about to sacrifice his son (which according to the majority of Muslims scholars was Ishmael, not Isaac), for whom a ram was miraculously substituted at the very last moment: 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. What think you?’ He said: ‘O my father! Do what you are commanded. God willing, you shall find me steadfast.’ Then when they had both surrendered to God, and he had turned him down upon his face, We called him: ‘O Abraham!’ You have fulfilled the vision. Thus do We reward those who are excellent.’ That indeed was a clear test. Then We ransomed him with a great sacrifice. [37:102-7]

The Prophet, peace be upon him, said: ‘The greatest day of the pilgrimage is the day of sacrifice.’9 The day of sacrifice (yawn al-nahr) is also called ‘id al-adha: “the Festivity of Sacrifice”. It is the day where the head of the house slaughters a camel, cow, sheep or goat in commemoration of Abraham’s sacrifice. Most scholars say that it is highly desirable to offer a sacrifice, if one has the means to do so. Another group of scholars holds it to be obligatory, based on the hadith: ‘Whoever can afford to offer a sacrifice, yet does not do so, then let him not approach our place of prayer.’10 There is also this injunction expressed in the following hadith: ‘When the ten days commence and one of you intends to sacrifice, let him not cut his hair or nails.’11

5. Extolling the Greatness of God: Starting from the day of ‘Arafah, up until the ‘asr prayer on the 13th, believers are urged to extol God’s greatness (takbir), with as fervent a passion as Abrahamic monotheists can muster. Ibn Taymiyyah said: ‘The soundest view about the takbir – which the majority of the salaf, jurists from the Companions, and leading imams were upon – is to commence proclaiming it from fajr on the day of ‘Arafah, till the last day of tashriq (the 13th day), after each prayer.’12 And although nothing authentic has been related from the Prophet, peace be upon him, in terms of how the takbir should be worded, it is authentically established from Ibn Mas‘ud that he would say: ‘God is great! God is great! None deserves to be worshiped except Him. God is great, God is great. To Him belongs all the praise (Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar la ilaha illa’Llah wa’Llahu akbar Allahu akbar wa lil’Lahi’l-hamd).’13

Nasala’Llahu’l-tawfiq wa’l-taysir.

1. Al-Tabarani, Mu‘jam al-Kabir, 19:234.

2. Al-Bazzar, no.1128; Ibn Hibban, no.3853. Al-Mundhari graded the chains to be hasan and sahih respectively in his al-Targhib wa’l-Tarhib (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 2013), no.1150.

3. Cf. Ibn al-Jawzi, Zad al-Masir (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1984), 9:103-4; al-Qurtubi, al-Jami‘ li Ahkam al-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1996), 20:27.

4. Al-Bukhari, no.969.

5. Al-Tabarani, al-Kabir, 3:110, with a hasan chain, as per al-Mundhari, al-Targhib wa’l-Tarhib, no.1148.

6. See: Shalabi, Islam: Religion of Life (USA: Starlatch Press, 2001), 77.

7. Muslim, no.1162.

8. Muslim, no.1348.

9. Abu Dawud, Sunan, no.1945. It was graded sahih by al-Albani, Irwa al-Ghalil (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1979), no.1101.

10. Ibn Majah, Sunan, no.3123, and it is sahih. Consult: Sahih al-Jami‘ al-Saghir (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1986), no.6490.

11. Muslim, no.1977.

12. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 24:220.

13. Ibn Abi Shaybah, Musannaf, 2:1:2; Hakim, Mustadrak, 1:300, with a sahih chain – as per al-Albani, Irwa al-Ghalil, 3:125, no.653.

* This is a piece I wrote for www.islamicate.co.uk reposted with kind permission.

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