The Personal Hajj

December 8th, 2008

Inside Thirteen Blogger: Patti Hanley, producer, Religion & Ethics Newsweekly

We have five television sets that are constantly broadcasting in our newsroom. Believe me, that is a lot of 24-hour cable news. It’s safe to say we get a good idea of the stories that cable networks think are most important – for instance, this week it’s the auto industry bailout, the recession, violence in India, and the new Obama administration.

The biggest story in the religion world this week will probably only get a passing mention on those stations: the Hajj, where millions of Muslims fulfill a pillar of their faith by making a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca. Unfortunately, most of the time the Hajj makes news because of some type of overcrowding-related tragedy. Yet it is that massive crowd that makes the images we see of Mecca so awe-inspiring. Two million of the faithful, in the same place performing the same rituals. Truly powerful stuff.

Full disclosure: I am not a Muslim. I am also not a fan of crowds. The Hajj is, to this outsider, a true test of endurance. At various points of the trip, a Muslim will kneel, run, throw things, sleep in a tent in the desert, and stand vigil on a mountain plain. These activities are not optional – every Muslim who is physically and financially able is expected to participate. No excuses. If there’s an analogous term to “cafeteria Catholics” that applies to Muslims, I’ve never heard it.

the Hajj

Religion & Ethics Newsweekly followed a Muslim pilgrim from New Jersey on his first Hajj, way back in 1998 (watch part I, part II, and part III). He said that in Mecca, he had found his spiritual home. After years of praying five times a day in the direction of that holy city, he found himself physically at the epicenter of his faith. For him, the crowds didn’t matter – except to illustrate to him the diversity of believers. Earlier this year, Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government released a report on the long-term impact on pilgrims who perform the Hajj. In their abstract, they say that “Hajjis show increased belief in peace, and in equality and harmony among adherents of different religions.” They also leave Mecca more accepting of women’s education and employment. The Hajj is changing minds.

This is a season of holidays for many faiths, as well as for secular people. Later this month when I make my pilgrimage to my childhood (if not my spiritual) home, I’m going to be thinking about the Hajjis, and how I might be able to expand my own worldview.

Increasing my belief in peace and harmony might help with my own yearly test of endurance: the traffic on I-95.