Allah, Ka’bah and Hajj
The “Festival of Sacrifice” marks the annual completion of the Hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca, one of the most important rites of obligation for Muslims. All Muslims in good health and reasonable financial standing should visit the house of Ka’bah in Mecca at least once in their lifetime. Hajj takes place during the first days of the last lunar month of the Islamic calendar, with the ninth of the month being the climax. If the visits are made in other months it is called a lesser pilgrimage or Hajj Umrah. The major rites of Hajj center on complete submission and devotion to Allah. Sacrificing a sheep or other animal, at the festival of sacrifice commemorates Abraham and his willingness to sacrifice his son Ishmael at Allah’s command.
||The Muslims refer to the house of Ka’bah (cube) as the sacred house (bait al-haram). It is a small rectangular stone structure inside the compound of the sacred mosque (masjid al-haram). Muslims believe that Abraham and Ishmael originally built the house and it is the first sanctuary on earth. The celebrated black stone placed in the corner of the house is a meteorite and Muslims believe it was part of the original structure blessed by the Abraham himself. All Muslims praying should face Ka’bah and the dead at the time of burial will be buried facing the same direction. The structure existed long before Islam and housed a number of deities before Prophet Muhammad proclaimed his new fate.
Among the most famous deities that were placed in the house and are mentioned in the Quran are al-Lat, al-Uzza and Manat. All three were female deities and represented the Sun, the planet Venus and Fortune respectively. As Allah means ‘the god’, so al-Lat means ‘the goddess’. She represented Sun and was called ar-Rabbah, "the Lay" in other parts of Arabia. She is mentioned by Herodotus and is present in old Arabian inscriptions and in pre-Islamic poems; and she was the great mother goddess who was worshipped all over the ancient world under various names. Al-Uzza was also very important and constantly present from the fourth century AD onwards. She was also worshiped by the northern Semites and was regarded as "the Mightiest" and represented planet Venus. Manat the goddess of fortune and fate was a representative of the all-pervading mystery of life and death and a household deity.
Carl Brockelmann in his book History of the Islamic Peoples describes Allah’s history as follows; "Allah himself was a deity associated with creation and represented the greater god of the worlds. By the time of Prophet’s birth, Allah had already replaced the old moon–god Hubal as the lord of Ka’bah. In one pre-Islamic poem by the Christian poet Adi ibn-Zayd Allah is called on next to the Messiah as witness to an oath. He also was the guardian of contracts and alien guests, and ordained fate was regarded to be his will. By the 7th century all other deities were loosing influence while Allah was gaining strength. By this time the three goddess though much older than Allah himself attained the status of his daughters".
The disintegration of the local cults was accelerated by the influence of monotheistic religions, which for a long time were established in the area. Judaism was quite powerful in South Arabia and well established since the first century AD. Many local rulers were already converted and at times fought against the spread of Christianity. The main Jewish settlements were in Tayma, Khaybar, Yathrib (Medina) and Fadak. Christians on the other hand dominated northern Arabia and influenced inner Arabia as far as the important trading city Hijaz. In addition, the desert itself was an asylum for several sects persecuted by the established Orthodox Christian Church. Islam has incorporated many of these varied elements in its doctrine and rituals.
Making the pilgrimage to Mecca involves several rituals, mostly ancient pre-Islamic Arab rites taken over and spiritualized. The ones that were inconsistent with monotheism like worshipping idols were discarded while others were preserved or transformed into new rituals. The pre-Islamic Arabs believed that gods and spirits inhabited blocks of stone, rocks, trees or wells. These items, especially rocks, served as altars and blood sacrifices were carried out with blood smeared or poured on rocks while people danced around and kissed or touched the stones. By such actions the worshippers believed they would gain holiness by contagion. This practice has remained and is part of the rituals of Hajj. Nilus, a Christian writer, gives a fairly full account of such rites to ‘al-Uzza’ in his descriptions of Arab worshippers before Islam. The house of Ka’bah was not the only sanctuary of this kind. Nejran on the Saudi-Yemen border and Sana also had Ka’bah shaped temples before Islam. Trees were also regarded as sacred by all the ancient cultures of the area including the Arabs. These ancient people believed deities inhabited trees. The practice of hanging straps of clothing, rags and other personal belongings on the branches of trees is still practiced by many. Ancient Zoroastrians of Iran believed in this concept as well and there are still shrines throughout the country with sacred trees and also sometimes wells.
The rites performed at Hajj involve circumambulating the Ka’bah and that of running between two mounds called Safa and Marwa. Before reaching the house ritual blessing is required. Men are unshaved and wear two pieces of un-sewn white cloth called ihram. Women can wear ihram too, but should cover their bodies and hair. The original ritual before Islam required the pilgrims to be nude. The Prophet banned this practice. Cutting hair (all body hairs), nails, shaving and sex are prohibited during Hajj. Pilgrims greet the sacred structure by chanting, "here I am at thy service" (labbaika). Then they will circle the house seven times and kiss the black stone. A sevenfold running between the two mounds finishes the primary rites.
The highlight is on the ninth of the month. The believers will stay on the hill Arafat, eight miles away from Mecca. Sermons are given at this place at noon hour. On the way back throwing seven pebbles three times at a certain place symbolizes the ‘stoning of Satan’. This happens at a place called Mina. It is believed that here Satan tried to persuade Abraham not to kill Ishmael. Abraham was ordered by God to sacrifice Ishmael to show his obedience. Satan intervened and did his best to make Abraham disobey God’s command. He whispered three times in his ear telling him that Allah did not command him to kill his son and this was only a bad dream. Abraham was not deceived and continued the act of sacrificing his son before God relieved him of this act.