Inclusion of Arab world in summit raises hopes
# Palestinian negotiator welcomes Syrian, Saudi participation in summit
# Saeb Erakat says Arab presence will correct “mistakes” of past meetings
# Syria to send deputy foreign minister for Tuesday’s talks in Annapolis, Maryland
# Talks aimed at triggering final status agreement between Israel and PalestiniansA top Palestinian official has hailed the fact that representatives of Arab countries will attend Tuesday’s summit in Annapolis, Maryland.
“After seven years of total stalemate, President Bush with [Secretary of State Condoleezza] Rice are providing an opportunity for us and the Israelis to resume the negotiations,” Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said.
Police have tentative ID on girl found dead in box
# Woman, boyfriend arrested after a tip led to search
# Police believe child found dead in box is Riley Ann Sawyers, 2
# Body of little girl was found in box that washed ashore last month
# Police asked public for help identifying girl they dubbed “Baby Grace”The toddler whose body washed ashore in Texas last month has been tentatively identified as a 2-year-old girl, and her mother and a man identified as her boyfriend were arrested Saturday, the Galveston County Sheriff’s office said Sunday. Investigators believe the child they dubbed “Baby Grace” is actually 2-year-old Riley Ann Sawyers, the Galveston County Sheriff’s office said Sunday.
The child’s mother, Kimberly Dawn Trenor, 19, and a man identified as Royce Clyde Zeigler II, 24, were arrested Saturday on charges of injuring a child and tampering with physical evidence, the sheriff’s department said.
It’s official: Oprah to hit the trail
(CNN) – Sen. Barack Obama dropped the hint last week, but Monday his presidential campaign made it official: talk show host Oprah Winfrey will join him on the campaign trail next month. The campaign said Oprah will make four appearances with the Democratic presidential candidate in three key early states: Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Work off those holiday calories fast
ST. LOUIS, Missouri (AP) — This shouldn’t come as a surprise: Thanksgiving is not the green light to a six-week indulgence that precedes the waddle back to the gym Jan. 2. Experts advise Americans not to throw good habits out the window on Turkey Day and into the holiday season. Instead, choose carefully, eat slowly, and savor. “It’s normal and expected that most of us are going to overeat over the holidays,” said St. Louis dietitian Diane Zych.
The holiday season that starts with Thanksgiving (or even Halloween) and ends with New Year’s is a slippery slope, said Barry Popkin, who directs the University of North Carolina Interdisciplinary Obesity Center. He said studies have shown that seasonal weight gain can be significant — up to 10 pounds.
Bush and Olmert express hope for peace
WASHINGTON – Hours before the opening of a high-stakes international conference on the Middle East, President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert expressed hope Monday that peace finally could be achieved. A senior member of the Palestinian delegation said an elusive joint statement on the contours for future talks was within reach.”I’m looking forward to continuing our serious dialogue with you and the president of the Palestinian Authority to see whether or not peace is possible,” Bush said after meeting with Olmert in the Oval Office ahead of the conference. Bush had a similar meeting scheduled with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas later in the day. “I’m optimistic,” Bush said. Olmert said that international support — from Bush and also, presumably, from the Arab nations that will attend the conference in Annapolis, Md. — “is very important to us” and could make all the difference.
“This time, it’s different because we are going to have a lot of participation in what I hope will launch a serious process negotiation between us and the Palestinians,” Olmert said, referring to the talks expected to begin in earnest after this week’s U.S.-hosted meetings. “We and the Palestinians will sit together in Jerusalem and work out something that will be very good.”
Iraqis may offer US deal to stay longer
BAGHDAD – Iraq’s government, seeking protection against foreign threats and internal coups, will offer the U.S. a long-term troop presence in Iraq in return for U.S. security guarantees as part of a strategic partnership, two Iraqi officials said Monday.The proposal, described to The Associated Press by two senior Iraqi officials familiar with the issue, is one of the first indications that the United States and Iraq are beginning to explore what their relationship might look like once the U.S. significantly draws down its troop presence. In Washington, President Bush’s adviser on the Iraqi war, Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, confirmed the proposal, calling it “a set of principles from which to begin formal negotiations.”
In a televised address Monday, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said his government will ask the U.N. to renew the mandate for the multinational force for one final time, with its authorization to end in 2008.
Plot suspects want access to evidence
MOUNT LAUREL, N.J. – Three of the five men charged with plotting an attack on the Army’s Fort Dix have asked a judge to move them out of a high-security prison unit, saying they were being illegally denied the right to see all of the evidence against them.In legal filings over the past week, the men repeat a complaint that their lawyers have made before: In the Special Housing Unit of the Federal Detention Center in Philadelphia, they are not being given enough access to the government’s evidence in their case. The defendants’ lawyers want the men moved to the prison’s general population. They also want them to hear — and in some cases, see — about 200 hours of audio and video recordings the government made while investigating the case. They are getting access to the recordings only sporadically, their lawyers have said.
- terrorists target Army base — in Arizona
Fort Huachuca, the nation’s largest intelligence-training center, changed security measures in May after being warned that Islamist terrorists, with the aid of Mexican drug cartels, were planning an attack on the facility. Fort officials changed security measures after sources warned that possibly 60 Afghan and Iraqi terrorists were to be smuggled into the U.S. through underground tunnels with high-powered weapons to attack the Arizona Army base, according to multiple confidential law enforcement documents obtained by The Washington Times.
“A portion of the operatives were in the United States, with the remainder not yet in the United States,” according to one of the documents, an FBI advisory that was distributed to the Defense Intelligence Agency, the CIA, Customs and Border Protection and the Justice Department, among several other law enforcement agencies throughout the nation. “The Afghanis and Iraqis shaved their beards so as not to appear to be Middle Easterners.”
According to the FBI advisory, each Middle Easterner paid Mexican drug lords $20,000 “or the equivalent in weapons” for the cartel’s assistance in smuggling them and their weapons through tunnels along the border into the U.S. The weapons would be sent through tunnels that supposedly ended in Arizona and New Mexico, but the Islamist terrorists would be smuggled through Laredo, Texas, and reclaim the weapons later.
Older white women join Kenya’s sex tourists
MOMBASA, Kenya (Reuters) – Bethan, 56, lives in southern England on the same street as best friend Allie, 64. They are on their first holiday to Kenya, a country they say is “just full of big young boys who like us older girls.”
Allie and Bethan — who both declined to give their full names — said they planned to spend a whole month touring Kenya’s palm-fringed beaches. They would do well to avoid the country’s tourism officials.
Also, the health risks are stark in a country with an AIDS prevalence of 6.9 percent. Although condom use can only be guessed at, Julia Davidson, an academic at Nottingham University who writes on sex tourism, said that in the course of her research she had met women who shunned condoms — finding them too “businesslike” for their exotic fantasies.
Putin accuses US of undermining parliament polls
President Vladimir Putin on Monday accused the United States of attempting to “discredit” Russia’s upcoming parliamentary elections, claiming Washington had pressured international monitors to boycott the polls. Putin made his accusation during a campaign trip to his hometown Saint Petersburg ahead of Sunday’s polls, and in the wake of a violent police break-up of opposition protests and the jailing of chess legend Garry Kasparov at the weekend.
Putin said that monitors from the respected Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) cancelled a planned mission to Russia “on the recommendation of the American State Department. We will take this into account in our inter-state relations.”
- Study Calls HIV in D.C. A ‘Modern Epidemic’
The first statistics ever amassed on HIV in the District, released today in a sweeping report, reveal “a modern epidemic” remarkable for its size, complexity and reach into all parts of the city. The numbers most starkly illustrate HIV’s impact on the African American community. More than 80 percent of the 3,269 HIV cases identified between 2001 and 2006 were among black men, women and adolescents. Among women who tested positive, a rising percentage of local cases, nine of 10 were African American.
The 120-page report, which includes the city’s first AIDS update since 2000, shows how a condition once considered a gay disease has moved into the general population. HIV was spread through heterosexual contact in more than 37 percent of the District’s cases detected in that time period, in contrast to the 25 percent of cases attributable to men having sex with men.
“It blows the stereotype out of the water,” said Shannon Hader, who became head of the District’s HIV/AIDS Administration in October. Increases by sex, age and ward over the past six years underscore her blunt conclusion that “HIV is everybody’s disease here.”
The new numbers are a statistical snapshot, not an estimate of the prevalence of infection in the District, which is nearly 60 percent black. Hader, an epidemiologist and public health physician who has worked on the disease in this country and internationally, said previous projections remain valid: One in 20 city residents is thought to have HIV and 1 in 50 residents to have AIDS, the advanced manifestation of the virus.
Almost 12,500 people in the District were known to have HIV or AIDS in 2006, according to the report. Figures suggest that the number of new HIV cases began declining in 2003, but the administration said the drop more likely reflects underreporting or delayed reporting. A quarter-century into the epidemic, the city’s cumulative number of AIDS cases exceeds 17,400.
- Huckabee: America Enslaved to Saudi Oil
WASHINGTON (AP) – Consumers are financing both sides in the war on terror because of the actions of U.S. ally Saudi Arabia, Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee said Sunday. The former Arkansas governor made the comments following what he suggested was a muted response by the Bush administration to a Saudi court’s sentence of six months in jail and 200 lashes for a woman who was gang raped.
“Every time we put our credit card in the gas pump, we’re paying so that the Saudis get rich – filthy, obscenely rich, and that money then ends up going to funding madrassas,” schools “that train the terrorists,” said Huckabee. “America has allowed itself to become enslaved to Saudi oil. It’s absurd. It’s embarrassing.”
Huckabee said “I would make the United States energy independent within 10 years and tell the Saudis they can keep their oil just like they can keep their sand, that we won’t need either one of them.”
Taser man stunned … 50 times
Antoine di Zazzo says he has been ‘tasered’ more than 50 times and never felt the worse for the ordeal. One of the biggest Taser representatives outside the US, Di Zazzo also gave a surprise blast of the stun gun to French far-right politician Jean-Marie Le Pen and offered a test dose to Nicolas Sarkozy before he became France’s president.
Sarkozy diplomatically declined, according to di Zazzo, but the president’s no-nonsense law and order tactics are one reason why the engineer businessman is confident of huge demand for the gun, despite controversy over its use in North America and being declared a form of torture by a UN committee.
National Front leader Le Pen, who was 79 at the time, went to inspect the gun last year because of the headlines it made when Sarkozy made his pledge as interior minister. “He did not want to try it but I took him a bit by surprise,” said di Zazzo.
“He has special protection because he is a leading politician but I got round them and fired into his shoulder. He fell over but got up again and then went around telling people: ‘You are shaking the hand of the man who has tried Sarkozy’s toy’.”
- Sharif’s triumphant return from exile adds to Musharraf’s woes
The woes of President Pervez Musharraf deepened last night after one of his most determined opponents returned to Pakistan from exile. Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who was ousted by General Musharraf’s military coup in 1999, flew into Lahore and was welcomed by thousands of supporters who broke through police barriers to greet him.
When Mr Sharif, the head of the Pakistan Muslim League, and his brother, Shahbaz, appeared, the crowds broke out into exultant cheers of “Nawaz Sharif Prime Minister” and “Musharraf is a dog”. A sweaty and clearly emotional Mr Sharif then mounted a platform to denounce “dictatorship”. He declared: “I have no lust for any post or power. I have come to serve the people and save Pakistan.” He also called for the state of emergency declared on 3 November by President Musharraf to be lifted.
Opinion polls suggest that support for Mr Sharif, who unlike Ms Bhutto has always refused to deal with President Musharraf, has grown in recent months. Any decision that he and Ms Bhutto make to work together in the coming days could prove to be crucial. A spokesman for Ms Bhutto last night welcomed Mr Sharif’s return saying: “All the leaders of the political parties must be allowed to take part in the political process.”
Hijab – A State Choice? “A kind of aggression.” “A successor to the Berlin Wall.” “A lever in the long power struggle between democratic values and fundamentalism.” “An insult to education.” “A terrorist operation.” These descriptions–by former French President Jacques Chirac; economist Jacques Attali; and philosophers Bernard-Henri Levy, Alain Finkielkraut and Andre Glucksmann–do not refer to the next great menace to human civilization but rather to the Muslim woman’s headscarf, which covers the hair and neck, or, as it is known in France, the foulard islamique.
In her keenly observed book The Politics of the Veil, historian Joan Wallach Scott examines the particular French obsession with the foulard, which culminated in March 2004 with the adoption of a law that made it illegal for students to display any “conspicuous signs” of religious affiliation. The law further specified that the Muslim headscarf, the Jewish skullcap and large crosses were not to be worn but that “medallions, small crosses, stars of David, hands of Fatima, and small Korans” were permitted. Despite the multireligious contortions, it was very clear, of course, that the law was primarily aimed at Muslim schoolgirls. The decade-long debate in France over the foulard was marked by three specific controversies. The first erupted in October 1989, when Ernest Cheniere, the principal of a high school in Creil, north of Paris, expelled three students: Samira Saidani and Leila and Fatima Achaboun. The reason for the expulsion, Cheniere claimed, was that he had to enforce laicite, the French notion of secularism, in the school. The national debate that followed took place within the context of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie and the West’s confrontation with Iran, on the one hand, and the celebration of the bicentennial of the French Republic, on the other.
At the time that France’s attention was focused on three teenage girls with headscarves, the country had more than 3 million Muslims. French-Algerian novelist Leila Sebbar, writing in Le Monde, qualified the controversy as “grotesque.” In the end, the Socialist Lionel Jospin, who at that time was minister of education, chose to let the courts decide the case. The Conseil d’Etat eventually ruled that students could not be refused admission simply for wearing headscarves, but it also gave teachers and principals the power to decide, on a case-by-case basis, whether such signs of religious affiliation were permissible.
Three American comics find Islamic audiences laugh too
Cairo – – The three young men have coffee-toned skin. They say they’re on “a mission.” They have a growing following in the Middle East, and they proudly proclaim themselves to be the “Axis of Evil.” Not the kind of boast you want to make around a TSG inspector at, say, LaGuardia Airport.
But the three comedians – Egyptian-American Ahmed Ahmed, Palestinian-American Aron Kader, and Iranian-American Maz Jobrani – have been playing packed houses in the US and are now on their first Middle Eastern tour.
In the West, the words “funny” and “Islam” rarely find a home in the same sentence. But these three comedians are working to change that. Their “mission” is to poke fun at Middle Eastern stereotypes. And even here, they are finding fertile ground in the anxieties of the post-9/11 world.
While the comedians had some fears that their acts would fall flat in Arab countries without a stand-up comedy tradition; in fact, they’ve found a ready audience this past week in Egypt, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates.
Audience members also say they appreciate the effort to pierce stereotypes with humor, and point out that jokes about treatment at airports are as relevant to Egyptians since Sept. 11 as they are for Egyptian Americans.
And the comedians have discovered they have powerful fans in the region. King Abdullah of Jordan nearly fell out of his chair laughing as he sat in the front row of the show in Amman last week, and later invited the comedians over to his office.
Kader says that after a little while the King’s secretary entered the room, and started pestering the Jordanian leader about a pending meeting with the Syrians. The king just waved her away and kept talking to the comedians. Kader didn’t think much of it until he picked up the Jordan Times the next morning and saw a photo of Abdullah shaking the hand of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
For example, take Kader’s bit about Vice President Dick Cheney’s accidental shooting of lawyer Harry Whittington on a hunting outing. When Mr. Whittington got out of hospital, he said he regretted the distress the incident had caused the vice president. “So I’m thinking he’s Palestinian. He has to apologize for getting shot,” says Kader to uproarious laughter.
There’s No Place Like … Iraq? Actually, yes. Refugees are returning—but it’s tough to resettle them without worsening sectarian divisions.
Dawood is happy to be back in Baghdad. Not that he had much choice. Late last year the cautious, soft-spoken Shiite fled to Syria and on to Lebanon, leaving his wife and their three children in relatives’ care while he looked for a safer home. He had begun getting death threats after helping create an Internet hookup for the U.S. Army base at Taji. Dawood (he won’t risk the use of his full name) is a 33-year-old IT engineer, but he couldn’t find work outside Iraq. His Lebanese visa ran out, and Canada refused his asylum application. So a few weeks ago, practically broke, he returned to Baghdad. His old district is torn by an ongoing Shia-Sunni turf war, but Dawood says he feels safe in the family’s new, mainly Shia area. His youngest child, now 3, called him “Uncle” at first, and he’s still looking for work, but it’s good just to be with his family. “I’ll tell you something about missing Baghdad,” he says. “When I’m in Baghdad, I don’t want to hear any Iraqi music. But when I’m somewhere else, all I want to hear is Iraqi music.”
Thousands of Iraqis are finally returning, lured by news of lessening bloodshed in Baghdad and increasingly unwelcome in the neighboring lands where they tried to escape the war. Although they’re scarcely a fraction of the roughly 2.2 million who have fled into exile since 2003, they represent a big shift: for the first time since the war began, more Iraqis seem to be re-entering the country than leaving. At the desert outpost of Al Waleed, the main crossing on the Syrian frontier, border police reported 43,799 Iraqis coming home in October—more than five times the number heading out, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Other statistics remain patchy at best, but the signs point toward home. “I can tell you this,” says Abdul Samid Rahman Sultan, Iraq’s minister of Displacement and Migration (the job title alone tells how bad the problem has been). “Flights from Syria are always full. Flights out are not.”
- Behind Mideast summit – the Iran factor
WASHINGTON – When the Bush administration holds a meeting this week to formally relaunch the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, one uninvited guest will be looming large over everyone’s shoulder: Iran. Tuesday’s meeting in Annapolis, Md., was once envisioned as a three-day conference to kick off the negotiation of final-status issues. It’s now an incredibly shrinking 24-hour gathering, but its occurrence at all is in no small measure a result of the rise of Iran and its brand of radical Islam in the Middle East.
•If President Bush has finally bought into a process he eschewed for seven years, it is not so much because he really believes now is a propitious moment for progress on peace. Instead, analysts say, Mr. Bush sees the need to contain Iran. He also sees how bringing Arab moderates to the table with Israel could work toward that goal.
•Saudi Arabia said it would attend a conference only if it addresses the core issues for establishing a Palestinian state. That won’t happen, but still Riyadh will attend – in large part because the Saudis see as desirable any action that ties the United States into the region and challenges Iran’s rise.
•And the attendance of Syria – something that both the Bush administration and Israel hoped for – reflects how Damascus is seeking to hedge its bets after having aligned itself increasingly with the regime in Tehran.
For the US, moderate Arab states, Israel, and the Palestinian supporters of Mahmoud Abbas, “finding a way to counter the threat from Tehran … is fueling this peace meeting more than any other factor,” says Martin Indyk, a former US negotiator on the Middle East who is now director of the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center on the Middle East in Washington.
Expectations for the Annapolis meeting, to be held at the US Naval Academy in Maryland’s capital, are “lower than the Dead Sea,” says David Makovsky, director of the project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Neither Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert nor the Palestinian president, Mr. Abbas, is coming from a position of domestic political strength that would allow for compromise.
Q & A With Reverend Conrad B. Tillard, Interim Pastor, The Eliot Church Of Roxbury
If anyone had announced ten years ago, that Nation Of Islam Minister Conrad Muhammad, a decade later, would be known as Baptist Minister Reverend Conrad B. Tillard, few would have believed it. And by his own account, include among that majority, the subject himself. But time and circumstances continue to teach all of us that we should expect the unexpected. And the unexpected turn of events in the life of the man born Conrad Tillard, forty years ago, have been so stunning, complicated and misunderstood by many – in the media and outside of it – that still 7 years after he left the Nation Of Islam, it is hard to find or hear or read a cogent, private or public account of what happened to, and inside the heart and mind of, the man known in Harlem as ‘Brother Conrad’. What caused him to make the transition in public ministry, from Islam to Christianity? To be sure, Rev. Conrad Tillard is not the first Member of the Nation Of Islam to leave or return to the Church. BlackElectorate.com has featured coverage of another such reported ‘conversion’ involving Jeremiah Cummings of Dallas, Texas who left the Nation of Islam and became a Christian preacher. And many know the story of Rev. A R Bernard, the leader of New York City’s largest Church – The Christian Cultural Center, who was once a Member of the Nation Of Islam. But there have been few, if any, with Minister Conrad Muhammad’s public stature – a former Minister at the Nation Of Islam’s historic New York City Muhammad’s Mosque # 7 – who have gone on to become a prominent Christian Pastor.
Guided by the maxim, ‘the more unlikely an event, the more information it yields’ and inspired after a reading of two recent articles published about Rev. Tillard (BeliefNet.com’s, “A Prodigal Son Comes Home” and The Boston Globe’s, “Heeding A New Call”), BlackElectorate.com Publisher Cedric Muhammad, on March 1, 2005, two days after the Nation Of Islam’s observance of its annual Saviours’ Day Celebration, requested an in-depth interview with Rev. Conrad Tillard to discuss his controversial spiritual evolution; his Hip-Hop ministry; and his political ambitions and worldview. Rev. Tillard kindly accepted the interview request and agreed to grant BlackElectorate.com a 45-minute to one hour interview. In a departure from the original intention, the interview, conducted on March 15, 2005, spanned nearly four hours. What follows is a very slightly edited transcript of that conversation.
It is our deep desire that the first part of this three-part interview, which today focuses on Theology (published the week between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday) will stimulate deep thought and reasoned discussion on the subjects of Jesus and Islam and their relevance to Black people in America, in particular, and religion and theology all over the world, in general.
Vatican to Accept Muslim Dialogue Call
VATICAN CITY — Two months after a galaxy of Muslim scholars and luminaries sent a letter to all Christian religious leaders worldwide, Roman Catholic cardinals say the Vatican will have a positive response in the near future.
“The Vatican will respond positively, and quite soon,” Dakar Cardinal Theodore-Adrien Sarr told Reuters on Sunday, November 25, during a ceremony to install 23 new members of the College of Cardinals.
“We will not miss this opportunity.”
Early October, 138 Muslim scholars and dignitaries addressed an open letter to the world’s Christian clergy, including Pope Benedict XVI, for dialogue based on common essentials between Islam and Christianity.
Themed “A Common Word Between Us and You”, the 29-page letter cites verses from the Noble Qur’an and the Bible on similarities between the two Abrahamic faiths.
The Muslim call has already won plaudits from many non-Catholic leaders, including Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, Lutheran World Federation head Bishop Mark Hanson, World Council of Churches head Rev.Samuel Kobia and US Presbyterian Church head Clifton Kirkpatrick.
Several leading theologians, including Catholics, have already given the initiative the thump-up.
But the Vatican, which represents more than half the world’s two billion Christians, has not yet officially answered to the Muslim call.
“Watch out for this week,” said a veteran cardinal, requesting anonymity.
How to Read the Qur’an
The Qur’an is the word of the Ever-Living God; it has been sent down to guide humans for all times to come. No book can be like it. As you come to the Qur’an, God speaks to you. To read the Qur’an is to hear Him, to converse with Him, and to walk in His ways. It is the encounter of life with the Life-giver.
[God—there is no god but He, the Ever-living, the Self-Subsisting (by whom all subsist). He has sent down upon you the Book with the Truth] (Aal `Imran 3:2-3).
For those who heard it for the first time from the lips of the Prophet Muhammad, the Qur’an was a living reality. They had absolutely no doubt that, through him, Allah was speaking to them. Their hearts and minds were therefore seized by it. Their eyes overflowed with tears and their bodies shivered.
They found each word of it deeply relevant to their concerns and experiences, and integrated it fully into their lives. They were completely transformed by it both as individuals and as a corporate body into a totally new, alive, and life-giving entity. Those who grazed sheep, herded camels, and traded petty merchandise became the leaders of mankind.
Today we have the same Qur’an with us. Millions of copies of it are in circulation. Day and night, it is ceaselessly recited in homes, in mosques, and from pulpits.
Voluminous exegetical works exist, expounding its meaning. Words pour out incessantly to explain its teachings and to exhort us to live by it. Yet eyes remain dry, hearts remain unmoved, minds remain untouched, lives remain unchanged.
Ignominy and degradation appear to have become the lot of the followers of the Qur’an. Why? Because we no longer read the Qur’an as a living reality. It is a sacred book, but it tells us something of the past concerning Muslims and non-Muslims, Jews and Christians, the faithful and the hypocrites, who, once upon a time, used to be.
Can the Qur’an, 1,400 years later, be a living, relevant force, as powerful for us now as it was then? This is the most crucial question that we must answer if we wish to shape our destiny afresh under the guidance of the Qur’an.
There appear, however, to be some difficulties. Not least of which has to do with the fact that the Qur’an was revealed at a certain point in time. Since then, we have traveled a long way, made gigantic leaps in technological know-how, and seen considerable social changes take place in human society.
The Message of Pilgrimage
Prior to 1982, my knowledge of Hajj had been limited to what I could gain from books, and so, when at last in that year I had the privilege of performing this religious duty, I felt myself singularly blessed. Although the rites of Hajj are spread over only a few days, as symbolic guidelines, they stand people in good stead for the rest of their lives. The message of Hajj, as I now comprehend it from the study and performance of it, is that people should make the Almighty the very pivot of their existence, hastening at His call to do His every bidding.
When people leave their home and country to go on such a pilgrimage, they brim over with all the emotions aroused by the thought that they are embarking on a course that will lead them directly to God. They are, in effect, sloughing off their own world, leaving it behind them, and reaching out for the world of the Almighty. They are on their way to the House of God, a place where the great deeds of God’s messengers and their followers have been preserved for all eternity; where we find the hallowed impressions of the lives of those who lived and died for the cause of God. The pilgrims are then filled with the realization that they are bound for the very destination that God especially chose for His last revelation. Once launched on this course, the pilgrims are imbued with the awareness of God and His truths, as well as the feeling that it is imperative that they become God-oriented. If, up till then, they had been self-centered in their thinking, they now turn their thoughts to God, and their entire behavior is molded and transformed by these new thought processes.
Once the pilgrims’ trains of thought have become God-oriented, they begin to ponder over major issues: God’s act of creation, particularly His creation of the pilgrims’ own selves; God’s affording the pilgrims diverse opportunities of bettering themselves in this world; God’s very benevolence, which makes it possible for the pilgrims to set forth on this journey to the House of God. The pilgrims also give their minds to the day when they will meet their death and be summoned to the court of God. This trend of thought turns the ostensible physical journey of the pilgrims into an intense, spiritual venture.
When the time nears for their entrance into Al-Haram (sacred territory), all the male pilgrims divest themselves of their clothing in order to don a new kind of “uniform” — an unstitched, plain, white garment that serves to heighten their consciousness of entering a new world. The very act of shedding their normal clothes (and with them all signs of status and ethnicity) signifies that they are separating themselves from the way of life peculiar to their environment and are now ready to become suffused with such emotions as are desired by God. In this way, thousands of men cast off their own hues and take on the hue of the Almighty. After clothing themselves in ihram, the pilgrims find their tongue beginning to utter godly words — “Labbayk, Allahuma, labbayk!” — and they continue, as if hastening to answer God’s call, to repeat the word “labbayk” — “O God, I am here, I have come!”
Labbayk (I am here) does not mean just that the pilgrims have come to stay in Makkah. It means that in leaving their normal abode they have cast aside their whole way of life. It means, “I am here, at Your command, and with all my heart and soul I am ready to obey You.” While on their pilgrimage, pilgrims simply give utterance to the word “labbayk,” but when they return to their own countries, they must put it into practice in their everyday lives.
On reaching Makkah, the pilgrims must perform Tawaf (circumambulation). To do this, they enter the House of God — the great mosque in whose spacious central courtyard stands the Ka`bah — that was erected by the Prophet Abraham in ancient times. Then the pilgrims go round the Ka`bah seven times to demonstrate their willingness to make God the pivot of their whole existence.