Recreating Genesis at the House of God
by Kamran Pasha
Today we arrived at the most important place on earth for Muslims – the holy city of Mecca. Before we left the Prophet’s mosque in Medina, I changed from my usual clothes into the special garb of pilgrims – the Ihram, a garment made of two pieces of unstitched white cloth. One cloth is wrapped around the shoulders, and the second around the waste. In this way, all pilgrims are dressed exactly the same, eliminating differences of race, culture and economic status. Whether we are kings or paupers, whether we wear suits and ties or dashikis in the world we left behind, we are all the same now – human beings standing equally before our Creator, devoid of manmade distinctions.
Dressed in my simple Ihram, I said a final prayer at the Medina mosque and bid farewell to Prophet Muhammad. And then my mother and I climbed on to a plane to Jeddah, from where we took a bus to Mecca. As we approached the holy city, the pilgrims began to chant in unison the sacred words of greeting which begin the journey to Islam’s heart: “Labbayk Allahumma labbayk” – “I answer your call, O God, I answer your call.” The reference is to origin of the Pilgrimage itself, in the days of Abraham,
According to the Qur’an, the Pilgrimage was instituted 3,500 years ago by Abraham when he went to visit his son Ishmael and his wife Hagar. Ishmael and Hagar had settled in the valley of Mecca after leaving the Holy Land upon God’s command. Islamic tradition states that God ordered Abraham to climb a mountain and call out to mankind, inviting every human being to come and worship at the stone temple – the Holy Kaaba – that he had built with Ishmael in the desert. Abraham was confused. There was no one around for miles except for his family. Who was going to answer his call? God responded by telling Abraham to make the call and let Him do the rest. And so it is that Pilgrims today begin the great Hajj by answering Abraham’s call.
Labbayk Allahuma labbayk.
We continued to chant the sacred response, some loudly and others in whispered voices, as we drove to Mecca. As we entered the outskirts of the sacred city, I noticed how different Mecca was from Medina. The city where the Prophet is buried is a verdant oasis, a sea of rich palm trees set amidst the black volcanic hills. But Mecca is stark and rocky, with little natural flora to bring color to the mountains of grey stone that ring its perimeter. It is a remote and forbidding place and I am not surprised that it is known as Al-Haram – the Forbidden. It is hard to imagine how anyone could have lived here alone, as Ishmael and Hagar did when Abraham was commanded by God to send them into the desert. It is even harder to imagine that this empty valley would one day become the most crowded repose for humanity the world has ever seen.
As we passed through the boundaries of the holy city, I remembered the other reason that it is known as Al-Haram, the Forbidden, for there are very specific rules that govern behavior within the city walls that set it apart from any other place in the world. First, it is the only place in the Islamic world where non-Muslims are prohibited from entering. People of other faiths have always been permitted in Medina, which as the ancient capital of Islamic Caliphate was the home of many foreign emissaries and visitors from all over the world. But only Muslims may enter Mecca.
Some of my non-Muslims friends have asked why that should be, suggesting that it was unfair that they should be excluded from the site. But the Islamic response is that Mecca is not like any other city. It is a living bridge between Heaven and Earth where normal commerce and social interaction is eclipsed by direct contact with the Divine. It is a site where only those who appreciate its purpose and embrace its transformative power are able to enter. Again, the tradition of sacred sites reserved only for believers comes right out of the Bible. The inner sanctum of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem was similarly forbidden to unbelievers, and the idea that there should be special places that serve as an exclusive sanctuary of faith is an ancient Semitic and Biblical practice.
Inside of Mecca, it is also forbidden to hunt animals or shed blood, or to touch an object dropped or lost by another (only the rightful owners may reclaim their own property). When Pilgrims are wearing Ihram, they are considered to be in a state of ritual purity and are forbidden to cut their hair or nails, or have sexual intercourse. Again, why all the prohibitions? For the simple reason that the word “NO” is extremely powerful in every language. The prohibitions force people to be conscious that they are in a different place from any other in the world, a special site where the mundane experiences of normal life are exchanged for something sacred. Without “the forbidden,” the special character of the city never enters the human consciousness. It is by recognizing these distinctions, these rules, that the human mind senses that something remarkable is happening when the boundaries of Mecca are crossed.
After arriving inside Mecca, we stopped at our hotel, the Grand Zam Zam, which is situated right next to the Al-Masjid Al-Haram, the Grand Mosque, the center of the Islamic world. My mother and I dropped off our luggage and performed ablutions, before joining our group and stepping into the majestic mosque with minarets that tower hundreds of feet above its polished marble floor. The building itself looks like a giant human hand with fingers raised upward, crying out to God in supplication.
We entered the Grand Mosque in trepidation. I felt like Moses, stepping on to Mount Sinai in anticipation of a direct encounter with God. The mosque was filled with thousands of believers of every race, color and age, streaming steadily toward the center – the great courtyard which contained the Holy Kaaba, the House of God built by Abraham himself.
My heart pounded as we drew nearer, and I could see people all about me kneeling on the ground, tears streaming from their faces. And then I saw the object of their veneration – the Kaaba, a fifty-foot tall cubical structure draped in a black cloth covered in gold calligraphy of verses from the Qur’an. It was a building whose image had been branded on my mind since childhood. Every Muslim household has pictures of the Kaaba hung proudly on its walls, and it is toward this simple stone building that a billion Muslims all over the world pray five times a day. This is the House that had been built by Abraham and Ishmael three millennia before. A House that had once been contaminated with 360 idols and graven images, but had been cleansed by the Prophet Muhammad and restored the worship of the One God. For Muslims, this place is the center of the entire universe, and it is believed that the Kaaba exists in two dimensions simultaneously. Both as a physical building on this planet, as well as a spiritualized replica that exists in Paradise beneath the Throne of God.
As I looked upon the Kaaba with my own eyes for the first time, I felt both awe and wonder. And a deep sense of warmth and familiarity. It felt like I had come home after a long journey and been reunited with an old friend.
My mother and I followed our group into the courtyard to perform one of the most imporant rites of the Pilgrimage – the tawaf, or circumabulation, of the Kaaba. Circumabulation – walking in a circle around a sacred object or site – is a ritual that exists in many religions and cultures throughout the world. Versions of this rite exist in Buddhism and Hinduism, and was practiced at the ancient Jewish Temple when believers would circumambulate the altar during the holiday of Sukkot. It is recorded in the Bible (Joushua 6:1-20) when the priests of Israel circumambulated the city of Jericho for seven days before the fall of the city. In modern mystical traditions, there are accounts of Freemasons using circumambulation as a means of spiritual initiation. And on a purely secular level, the practice lives on college fields today, where students joyfully race around bonfires at Homecoming, as I did during my undergrad days at Dartmouth.
Why is circumambulation such a popular and widespread ritual? I am of the view that on a deep unconscious level, that is how we experience the universe. Even before Copernicus and Galileo, human beings intuitively knew that the cosmos was revolving around a center. When we look up into the sky, we see the apparent circumambulation of the heavenly bodies around the earth. And with our modern understanding, we know that that the earth circumambulates the sun, which itself circumambulates the center of the galaxy. It is by emulating this cosmic circumambulation that we experience flowing around something that is bigger than us. Something more ancient and meaningful. It is by revolving around the center that we find our place in the universe and go with the flow of life, not against it.
The rite of circumambulation around the Kaaba requires seven circuits around the sacred House, beginning at its most ancient and mysterious element — the Black Stone set in the eastern corner of the building. The Black Stone is said to have fallen from Heaven, and many assume it is an ancient meteorite. Islamic tradition states that it was discovered by Abraham in the desert of Mecca and placed as the foundation stone of the original Kaaba built by the Patriarch. The Kaaba has been rebuilt since then many times after being damaged by floods and, sadly, wars. Of the original structure, the only thing that remains unchanged from the days of Abraham is the Black Stone, and when a Muslim touches it, he is transported in time and faith to that wondrous moment when Abraham himself placed it inside the walls of God’s House.
Due to the immense crowding around the Kaaba, it was impossible for my mother or I to get close and touch the sacred object, the one remnant of Paradise still on earth. But in acordiance with Islamic ritual, we raised our hand in greeting to God’s stone and began our circuits around the Kaaba. Participating in a rite that has continued uninterrupted every single day for over 1400 years.
My mother was nervous of the fast moving crowd, and there was inevitable shoving and jostling when thousands of people are moving together in such a fashion. But the Pilgrims made their best efforts to give space to the elderly and the weak (some circumambulating on wheelchairs). We held each other tight in the sea of mankind circling around the Kaaba, the Holy of Holies of Islam, and continued around the structure seven times.
We passed the Golden Doors of the Kaaba, locked and opened rarely in modern times, as well as a beautiful gold and glass receptacle known as the Station of Abraham, which is mentioned in the Qura’an. The Station marks the spot where Abraham prayed after dedicating the Kaaba to the One God. I managed to get close enough to the gold receptacle and kissed it reverently, honoring the father of Ishmael and Isaac who is the father of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And through the glass I could see the famed miracle that was preserved within – the Sacred Footprints. According to Islamic belief, when Abraham prayed on a rock facing the Kaaba, his feet sank miraculously into the stone and left permanent imprints. I looked down in wonder and saw for myself the deep impressions on the stone, shaped perfectly like human footprints. They looked like they were naturally part of the rock and sunk deep into the stone. Of course, the cynical mind would say that the footprints were carved into the stone by human hands. But to the eye of faith, they stand out as a clear miracle – the one lasting mark left by Abraham himself.
We continued carefully around the Kaaba. I held my mother’s hand and smiled at her in encouragement. She suffers from osteoporosis and is deathly afraid of falling down and shattering her fragile bones. But she showed remarkable courage and determination and plowed forward like a warrior rushing into battle. She had been summoned here by God Himself, and she would not let her own fears stop her from answering the Call of Abraham.
As we passed the Station of Abraham, we approached a semi-circular wall that is known as Hijr Ismail. Islamic tradition records that this was the personal prayer niche of Abraham’s son Ishmael and his mother Hagar, and serves as their tomb. It is also the sacred site where the famous Night Journey of Prophet Muhammad began. The Prophet was sleeping inside the wall when the angel Gabriel woke him up and took him on miraculous journey in one night to Jerusalem, where he prayed behind the spirits of Abraham, Moses and Jesus at the ruins of the Temple of Solomon, the site known in the Quran as Al-Masjid Al-Aqsa – the Farthest Mosque. And from a prominent rock at Al-Aqsa, where the Dome of the Rock now stands, the Prophet then rose to Heaven and traveled through the cosmos until he bowed alone before the Throne of God. And then the Prophet returned to the Hijr Ismail, having crossed the distance of a thousand lifetimes in only one night.
The crowd swarmed around the Hijr Ismail and it was impossible to come close. But I smiled as we passed by, sending greetings to Ishmael and his mother Hagar, whose perilous journey into the Arabian desert would one day give birth to the civilization of Islam.
After what seemed like a joyous eternity, we completed the seven circuits around the Kaaba and then withdrew to a less crowded part of the Mosque near to the Station of Abraham, and prayed in honor of the Patriarch who had founded the Kaaba. My mother and I then turned our attention to a small stone hill named Safa at the edge of the courtyard. It was here that we would re-enact a remarkable miracle that is recounted in the Book of Genesis in the Bible – the story of Hagar, Ishmael and the well:
Here is the account in Genesis 21 (14-20) that tells what happened to Hagar and Ishmael after God commanded Abraham to take them away from their home in Canaan and leave them in the wilderness:
“14 And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and took bread, and a bottle of water, and gave it unto Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, and the child, and sent her away: and she departed, and wandered in the wilderness of Beersheba.
15 And the water was spent in the bottle, and she cast the child under one of the shrubs.
16 And she went, and sat her down over against him a good way off, as it were a bow shot: for she said, Let me not see the death of the child. And she sat over against him, and lift up her voice, and wept.
17 And God heard the voice of the lad; and the angel of God called to Hagar out of heaven, and said unto her, What aileth thee, Hagar? Fear not; for God hath heard the voice of the lad where he is.
18 Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him in thine hand; for I will make him a great nation.
19 And God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water; and she went, and filled the bottle with water, and gave the lad drink.
20 And God was with the lad; and he grew, and dwelt in the wilderness, and became an archer.”
According to Islam, the miracle of the well took place right here, in the valley of Mecca. One of the most important rites of the Pilgrimage is to recreate these events and honor Hagar’s frantic search for water in the empty desert, which God himself resolved. Muslims believe that two hills near the Kaaba – Safa and Marwa – were the exact locations of this Biblical drama.
As Ishmael lay dying from dehydration, his desperate mother climbed Safa and looked out for any sign of water, or a passing caravan that could save them. When she saw nothing in the barren wastes, she ran across to hill of Marwa and looked out again from that vantage point. Still nothing but sand and rock all around. Despairing, Hagar ran between Safa and Marwa seven times crying out to God to save her son. And then Gabriel appeared and told her to have Ishmael strike the rock with his foot. And lo! A well erupted beneath the boy’s heel and they were saved.
It is a central Muslim belief that the well of Genesis still exists today at Mecca, which is utterly barren and dry except for one inexplicable water source near the Kaaba – the Well of Zamzam. The water from the well is considered holy and Muslims believe that it contains healing properties for those who imbibe it. The well has been in continuous use for thousands of years and has never run dry, despite the fact that millions of people pull water from its source every single day. Even if one is a nonbeliever, it remains a remarkable wonder of geology that the Well of Zamzam continues unabated after all these years, and the water remains naturally pure and unfiltered in a region with notoriously unsanitary water sources.
My mother and I pushed through the long lines at the Well of Zamzam, and drank from the holy water in plastic cups. I had tasted Zamzam before from water bottles brought back by Pilgrims and immediately recognized its distinct flavor. Clean, cold and carrying a hint of mysterious minerals from deep underground. It is unlike any water I have ever tasted and yet I could not describe why. Describing Zamzam to someone who has not tried it is like describing colors to the blind.
After imbibing the holy water, we turned to perform the rite of Sai – the running between Safa and Marwa. In commemoration of Hagar’s desperate search for water, we joined thousands of other believers trotting at a brisk pace between the hills. Each time we reached one of the hilltops, we stopped and faced the Kaaba and supplicated God for his mercy and forgiveness. My mother was particularly fascinated by the cold, hard rock at the peaks of the twin hills. Even though the path between them and up the hillsides is now covered by a beautiful air-conditioned corridor, the hilltops stand exposed as they did in Hagar’s days. My mother placed her bare foot on the sharp, craggy surface and winced from the harsh stone cutting into her flesh. She wondered aloud at Hagar’s remarkable determination, as her feet would likely have been torn bloody by her race between the hills.
But then my mother turned to me and smiled. She understood Hagar, she said. Every mother would have done the same.
I hugged my mother lovingly and helped her complete the seven circuits between the hills.
Kamran Pasha is the author of Mother of Mother of the Believers: A Novel of the Birth of Islam which will be available from Atria books in April of 2009. http://www.kamranpasha.com