Retracing Abraham’s footsteps


Magnificent. Majestic. Magical. How do you even begin to voice what you feel as you lose yourself in the sea of humanity, perpetually swirling and surging around the first House of God? All that you know is you are in the presence of ultimate greatness. Nothing else and no one else matters.

Words fail you again and again as you are reminded of your utter insignificance, yet feel strangely empowered as you become part of a great kinship of faith and humanity.

There is not a more glorious and awe-inspiring sight in the world. Watching men and women in sheer white going around the black-robed Kaaba is an experience that is bound to touch everyone watching.

It is the 6th of Dhul Hijja two days before the greatest pilgrimage on the planet and the Grand Mosque in Makkah that houses Kaaba, the black cubic structure built by Prophet Abraham and his son Ismail, and already the holiest of mosques and all streets, hotels and buildings around it are overflowing with multitudes of pilgrims from across the globe.

It is the final hours before pilgrims head to Mina, the valley from where they formally start their historic journey of faith, they are keen to make the most of it — praying, pleading and sharing their innermost thoughts and privations with the One who created them and knows and understands them like no one else does.

Wearing those two pieces of white, unstitched cloth, you feel totally at peace and curiously complete as you bare your soul before Him who sees all.

It is a life-changing experience. Even introvert and nervous fools like me lose their inhibitions and reticence to open up before Him, with eyes watering and welling up without you even realizing it.

My wife and I have been fortunate enough to join around 3 million faithful in the holy city of Makkah this year as they undertake this holiest of rites of passage and become part of an experience that goes back thousands of years.

Even when temperatures are at their fiercest this time of the year, the area around the Kaaba even in the blazing sun is perpetually packed with pilgrims. After our first Umrah, my attempts at another tawaf (circling around the Kaaba) aren’t successful and I had to be content with prayers inside the mosque.

Saudi police try their best to maintain order and are most gentle and patient with pilgrims who repeatedly try to get as close to the Kaaba as possible or at least keep it in their sights wherever they are praying. South Asian pilgrims are often seen jostling with police as they try to kiss the black robe of the Kaaba. The same emotional scenes are witnessed near the Prophet’s tomb in Madinah.

The awareness that this is where the noblest of prophets, from Abraham to Ismail and the last Prophet, worshipped bears heavy on you. This is where Islam’s greats were born, faced existential struggles and eventually prevailed.
This is where Abraham left his wife and son after being ordained by Allah when there was nothing here — literally. No shade and no vegetation in sight and not a drop to drink. Ismail’s anguished cries and hitting on the ground of his tiny heels brought forth Zamzam, the little stream that has flowed for thousands of years and continues to sate the thirst of millions each year and is a living divine miracle.

This is where Ismail offered himself in sacrifice when Abraham was ordained to do so. The pilgrims and believers around the world celebrate the epic sacrifice of the patriarch and his son during Haj every year. This is where the Prophet after being hounded and persecuted for 10 long years, returned following the conquest of Makkah with a humility that remains unparalleled. 

It is a curiously emotional experience, impossible to capture in words. Makkah is all about the majesty and powerful presence of God. The aura envelops and overwhelms you totally. You feel it at every stage and every step of the way — in Makkah, while camping and praying in Mina and on the plains of Arafat and in Muzdalifah.

Perhaps nothing celebrates the oneness of humanity and submission and surrender to the will of God as Haj does. The millions of voices perpetually chanting in unison, Labbaik Allahumma Labbaik, reaffirming their faith and commitment to the ideals of sacrifice, peace and unity of mankind re-create every year a truly out-of-this-world experience.

You do not have to be a believer or even here in the holy city to be part of the epic experience. No one remains unaffected by the way the faithful from around the world — black and white, rich and poor and men and women — respond to the divine call as equals and partners in the fellowship of faith and humanity. You forget who you are and where you come from when you are here, in this ancient city and its environs where life has always been harsh. Yet nothing matters when three million pilgrims undertake the journey of a lifetime.

These forbidding mountains and valleys remind you about the choice Abraham had to make when he was told to leave his wife and son. The patriarch is claimed by the followers of three great monotheist faiths. Muslims love and revere him as the architect of the Kaaba and the ancestor of their Prophet.

The uninitiated may not know that Haj is not a tradition of the last Prophet. By undertaking the journey, Muslims retrace the footsteps of Abraham and the unprecedented act of offering his son in sacrifice to God four thousand years ago.

That is the essential message of Haj — sacrificing everything you love in the path of God — as Abraham repeatedly did. The patriarch’s whole life had been a study in sacrifice. From being cast into fire to removing wife and son to the wilderness of Hejaz and finally the supreme sacrifice of Ismail, the extraordinary life of the great prophet remains unparalleled for its heroic forbearance.

Indeed, if anyone wanted a crash course in Islam, they could learn all about the faith by merely observing the Haj. Today, when the faith is under siege everywhere, there has never been a greater need to rediscover its original message. And more than anyone, it is Muslims who need to rediscover their faith and renew their bond with it. As more than three million pilgrims celebrate the epic sacrifices of Abraham and his noble son, corruption, strife and chaos are rampant everywhere.

The Muslims are busy killing their fellow believers while their brothers and sisters in distant lands like Myanmar are being hunted and killed like animals. The Rohingya genocide has been unfolding on the world community’s watch for some time. But you hear no angry denunciations and threats by world powers. The silence is deafening. Why should the world cry and care for the luckless Rohingya or other Muslims for that matter when the Ummah itself has lost its voice and is preoccupied with its own petty squabbles?

Aijaz Zaka Syed is an award winning journalist and writer. Email: