Saturday, February 21, 2015


Surah Al-Baqarah 2:125, 127

Wa ‘idh ja’alnal-Bayta mathabatal-innasi
 wa amnanw-wat-takhidhu mim-maqami Ibrahima musalla. 
Wa ahidnaa ilaa Ibrahima wa Isma’ila
an-tahhira Baytiya littaa ‘ifina wal-akifina war-rukka ‘is-sujud. [125]

Wa ‘idh yarfa’u Ibrahimul-qawa ‘ida minal-Bayti
Wa Isma’ilu Rabbana taqabbal minnaa ‘innaka Antas-Sami ‘ul-Alim. [127]

And Lo!  We made the Temple a goal to which people might repair again and again, and a sanctuary:  take, then the place wherein Abraham once stood as your place of prayer.
And thus did We command Abraham and Ishmael:  ‘Purify My Temple for those who will walk around it, and those who will abide near it in meditation, and those who will bow down and prostrate themselves [in prayer].’ [125]

And when Abraham and Ishmael were raising the foundations of the Temple, [they prayed:]  ‘O our Sustainer!  Accept Thou this from us; for verily, Thou alone art all-hearing, all-knowing!’  [127]

We hear so much about the Kaaba: that Abraham and Ishmael were ordered to rebuild it on the site where Adam had built the first House of God; that the black stone is the only piece of it left from the original structure; that the black stone came from heaven (part of an ancient meteor, perhaps?)   Anticipating my recent visit to Makkah, I wondered how I would feel when I saw it.  My first view was from a distance, from a window of our hotel.  There it was, the small square structure, covered in black cloth, surrounded by people.  It was encircled by a three-tiered round elevated walkway with more people, surrounded by a huge construction site, surrounded by tall buildings.  I learned that Saudi King Abdullah, who had just died, had 27 billion dollars to the rebuilding of a much larger three-tiered elevated walkway around the Kaaba, to accommodate the ever-increasing numbers of Hajj pilgrims.  There would be a special area for wheelchairs, and even a special area for motorized carts for those too frail even for wheelchairs.  I marveled at the resources the Saudis devote to meeting the needs of pilgrims, and could not help remembering that many believe the oil under their deserts was given to them for this purpose.  I began to feel an overwhelming reverence for their responsibility. 

What, I wondered, is the real meaning of the ritual of tawaf, walking seven times around the Kaaba in counter-clockwise direction?  What is the meaning of this small stone structure, unadorned except for the black cloth embroidered with Quranic verses, and a silver encasement around the black stone?  Why are we human beings so drawn to ultimate goals, to focus points for all our hopes and dreams?  God tells us in Quran that this is our nature. 

Surah Al-Baqara 2:144, 148

We have seen thee [O Prophet] often turn thy face towards heaven [for guidance]:  And now We shall indeed make thee turn in prayer in a direction which will fulfill thy desire.  Turn, then, thy face towards the Inviolable House of Worship; and wherever you all may be, turn your faces towards it [in prayer]…. [144]
… Be not, then, among the doubters: [147] for, every community faces a direction of its own, of which He is the focal point.  Vie, therefore, with one another in doing good works.  Wherever you may be, God will gather you all unto Himself:  for verily, God has the power to will anything. [148]

So, Quran confirms our human need for a focus of worship, a touchstone.  And Quran confirms that the focus of worship for the Prophet and his followers should be the Kaaba – the Inviolable House of Worship.  An empty cube.  But what was I doing here?  What did all this mean to me? 

We went to our hotel room, washed, and went down to the Haram, the area surrounding the Kaaba, through the hotel, through a huge, multi-tiered shopping mall, bigger than the Mall of America.  The Saudi’s, I thought, have certainly remained true to the spirit of commerce that sustained Makkah over the centuries.  We walked out into the plaza in front of the mosque, the Masjid Al-Haram, and entered a huge expanse of columned space, so large you cannot see one end of it from the other, walking always through crowds of pilgrims from all corners of the Muslim world.  We finally reached the long multi-storied enclosed passageway that led through the construction zone into the Haram itself.  And finally, there it was in front of me, larger than it seemed from above, but small nonetheless.  We found ourselves not at ground level, but one level up, the middle tier of the surrounding walkway.  The space surrounding the Kaaba at ground level was packed with people, all moving around the Kaaba.  Our walkway was packed as well, and so we joined the mass, moving with the crowd, seven times around the Kaaba.  Each time we passed the black stone we raised our right hands like everyone around us and recited words of praise and thanks to God.  I held on to my husband’s hand ferociously, not daring to lose him in the jostle of the crowd.  Groups of pilgrims from Indonesia and Malaysia, all wearing matching hijabs or backpacks or armbands held on to each other as well, forming snake-like lines at times, distinguishing patches of pink or orange or blue amid the white of the men’s wraps, and the white or black of the women’s jilbabs and burkahs.  Families moved together.  We learned later that it was school break week throughout the Middle East, which helped account for the crowds and the large number of children.  Parents carried babies in their arms and on their shoulders.  Children and youth of all ages walked beside their parents.  Old men and women held the arms of younger, stronger men and women.  Men and women pushed their fathers and mothers in wheelchairs.  Everyone was pushed together, jostled, moving forward.  My most overwhelming image was that of feet.  We were so pushed together that our movement was something beyond our individual control.  The safest place to look was down.  Most of the feet were bare.  Big feet, small feet, calloused feet, bandaged feet, some feet with socks, some with plastic sandals, some behind the wheels of the wheelchairs.  Some attached to hairy legs.  Some barely visible beneath reams of black cloth.

We arrived in time for Asr, the afternoon prayer.  When it was time to pray, everyone stopped and faced the Kaaba, men and women together.  After we finished our tawaf, we left the circling crowd and went to find the route between Safa and Marwa, to perform our Sa’i: seven times between two hills, retracing the steps of Hajar as she searched for water for her baby in the desert.  The top of Safa is still visible as a mound of rock, Marwa is completely hidden by marble floor and columns.  After we completed Sa’i, we went back to the Haram, this time at ground level, to pray in front of Makam Ibrahim, Abraham’s monument – a shrine consisting of Abraham’s footprints encased in a crystal dome, right beside the Kaaba.  The crowds had abated somewhat by this time, and we were able to kneel in front of the shrine to pray two rakats.  With this, our Umrah was complete.   We were even able to get close to the Kaaba after this, to actually touch it’s wall.

I had trouble sleeping that night.  I kept getting up to look down at the Kaaba, just visible from a corner of a window in our room.  The crowd surrounding the cube grew gradually thinner, but it never went away.  The movement never stopped.  At 3:00 am, it finally hit me.  Watching the people go round and round, unceasing.  The reason they had come.  The reason I had come.  To walk around an empty stone cube.  To recreate – to be part of – Creation.  I was able, over the next two days to do Tawaf again two times, once for each of my parents.  I tried to explain to them what it meant.  “It’s an empty stone building – it’s meaning lies in the expectations we each bring to it.  I did this for each of you with a prayer that knowing I did it will bring you some level of peace.”  It did. 

Our last full day in Makkah was Friday.  We wanted to pray Jumaa in front of the Kaaba, but the crowds were enormous.  We heard that the Haram had been closed hours before the prayer, the police were not letting any more in.  “Why don’t we just pray in our room?” I asked my husband.  All the prayers were broadcast into every room in the hotel.  He wanted to try, nonetheless.  So down we went, through the hotel, into the shopping mall where people were lined up in rows, facing the Kaaba.  “Why don’t we just pray here?”  “No, let’s just keep going.”  We entered the courtyard, stepping between the rows of seated pilgrims, looking for a place to sit.  “Here’s a place, let’s sit here.”  He didn’t stop, and I did not let go of him.  We entered the masjid, walked through more throngs.  “How about here?”  But no one stopped us, and we just kept going.  The Adhan had long been called.  I kept expecting to hear the Ikamah, kept expecting to stop.  He just kept moving.  Amazingly, we entered the first tier walkway and were able to move around it, directly in front of the black stone, before the prayer began.  The Kaaba was directly in front of us.  I was overcome then.  Tears flowed.

We were too greedy.  Al-hakamoot takathir….  We wanted to try again at Aisha, later that night… to try to reach the Kaaba.  I wanted to touch the black stone.  The crowds seemed to have abated, so we went down to find a place to pray at ground level, the same level as the Kaaba.  At that level, however, the crowds were thick as ever.  We circled round until we found a place to sit together, waiting for the prayer to begin.  That was when one of the Wahabi religious police stood in front of me and said Ya Hajja – move.  Move over to where the women are sitting, over there, gesticulating forcefully.   “This is my husband,” I said, “I will not leave him.”  He said, “She is my wife, she will get lost.”  “Ya Hajja,”  the WRP repeated, “Yallah, move.”  I refused to budge.  Then I looked at my husband and I knew he was fighting to control his temper.  He was readying his arsenal of Quranic verses, Sunnah and Hadith; weapons to defeat ossified medieval, pre-Islamic thinking.  We both knew that a fight with a WRP in front of the Kaaba would do nothing to enhance our spiritual journey.  “Let’s go,” we both agreed.  So we gave up our prayer spot and moved on.  We kept moving until the prayer began and everyone raised their hands to the Kaaba.  Then we stopped and prayed together.  No one could interrupt us then.  The WRP was left behind.  He tried his best, believing it was his duty to do so.  But he could not control the crowds.  He could not control those who follow a different vision of their faith.

Surah Al-Baqarah 2:150
Thus, from wherever thou mayest come forth, turn thy face [in prayer] towards the Inviolable House of Worship – for, behold, this [commandment] comes in truth from thy Sustainer; and God is not unaware of what you do. [149]  Hence, from wherever thou mayest come forth, turn thy face [in prayer] towards the Inviolable House of Worship; and wherever you all may be, turn your faces towards it, so that people should have no argument against you unless they are bent upon wrongdoing.  And hold them not in awe, but stand in awe of Me, and [obey Me,] so that I might bestow upon you the full measure of My blessings, and that you might follow the right path. [150]

Quran tells us that those who were alive at the time of the Prophet, pbuh, who believed in earlier revelations – the Jews and the Christians and the Sabians – were wrong to think that their previous allegiances precluded them from believing in the Prophet’s message about the Oneness of God, precluded them from believing in the prophecy of Muhammad, Salah Allahu Allahi Wa Salam.  The message here, in the 7th century AD was that God / Allah, our Creator, did not leave the scene after Abraham and Moses and Jesus.  Prophet Muhammad, pbuh carried the same message.  And the message in that for us, if we will open our minds to it, is that God / Allah, our Creator does not leave us when a Prophet dies.  God is with us, in all of us, and in the world all around us – as long as we open our minds and hearts to Spirit. 

How could it be otherwise, I asked myself, when I considered the incongruity of the fact that I, a farm girl from Maryland, was praying there in front of the Kaaba in Makkah in Saudi Arabia?  And that every significant event and decision point in my life, every time I had prayed for guidance, had led to this moment?   God is not limited to the words recorded in books, even those we consider to be sacred.  Those words are a record of God’s influence on and guidance to a community.  They teach us about the nature of God and human beings.  But the lesson I saw at the Kaaba was that nothing can be static.  Each and every one of the individuals who made up the thousands in motion around the Kaaba was a point of movement and change.  And I was part of it.  All of the circumstances of each of our lives had led us to this place, at this time, a place of perpetual motion, of perpetual evolution.  Each of us would take the memory of that motion back with us to wherever we came from.  Tawaf, the circumambulation of the Kaaba.  The constant movement of humanity, following the pattern of the movement of the planets around the sun, following the evolution of the universe, of Creation. 

I never did touch the black stone.  The crowd around it was frenzied, out of control, life threatening.  But by then, I realized, it didn’t matter.

Kamaa arslana fikum Rasulam-minkum yatlu alaykum Ayatina wa yuzak-kikum wa yu’allimukumul-Kitaba wal-hikmata way u ‘allimukum-ma lam takunu ta’lamun.  [151]  Fadh-kurunii adhkurkum wash-kuru li wa la takfurun. [152]

Even as We have sent unto you an apostle from among yourselves to convey unto you Our messages, and to cause you to grow in purity, and to impart unto you revelation and wisdom, and to teach you that which you knew not: [151]  so remember Me, and I shall remember you; and be grateful unto Me, and deny Me not. [152]