Opinion: Celebrating Hajj and Eid al-Adha within America’s Public Square

By ROBERT AZZI

Published: 06-25-2023 6:00 AM

Robert Azzi is a photographer and writer who lives in Exeter. His columns are archived at theotherazzi.wordpress.com.

‘Purify My Temple for those who will walk around it ...” the Qur’an instructs humanity. “...they will come unto thee on foot and on every kind of fast mount, coming from every far-away point on earth, that they might experience much that shall be of benefit to them ...”

For more than 1,400 years Muslims have traveled from every faraway point on earth to perform Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, the fifth of Islam’s five pillars. This week, after a three-year period when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the Saudi government to drastically scale back the pilgrimage, more than two million Muslims will arrive in Mecca as one to reaffirm the solidarity of the umma, the community of Muslims.

Together, they will pray for guidance, enlightenment, and forgiveness. Together they will reaffirm their commitment to God and service to humankind.

“There were tens of thousands of pilgrims, from all over the world,” Malcolm X wrote in “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” describing the 1964 pilgrimage he made after he turned away from the Nation of Islam and embraced Sunni Islam. “They were of all colors, from blue-eyed blondes to black-skinned Africans. But we were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to believe never could exist between the white and non-white.”

This week, on Wednesday, June 28, to mark completion of the Hajj, the world’s over 1.8 billion believers, from Manchester to Malaysia to Mali will celebrate Eid al-Adha, Feast of the Sacrifice, honoring Prophet Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his first-born son as an act of obedience to God and when, at the last moment, through God’s grace, a ram was offered instead.

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To commemorate and honor God’s grace, to follow God’s command to “... eat, then, thereof, and feed the unfortunate poor ...” Muslims on Eid al-Adha sacrifice an animal whose meat is divided into thirds: one-third for the family; one-third for relatives, friends and neighbors; one-third, distributed locally and globally, for the poor and needy.

I have made Hajj twice. The first time, in the early 70s, was just after I converted to Islam and I was eager to embrace my new faith.

I flew from Beirut, where I was living, to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. I remember flying Middle East Airlines that evening and seeing the surprised looks on the faces of some of the other passengers when I emerged from the lavatory having changed from polo shirt and jeans into the traditional Ihram, two pieces of white cotton cloth, one around my waist, the other over my left shoulder.

I was on my way.

Upon arrival in Jeddah I was assigned a guide, one of hundreds responsible for assisting pilgrims whose native languages were other than Arabic, and together, with about 25 other men from around the world, I performed Hajj. We prayed as a group, slept in a tent assigned to us, ate meals together, shared our life stories, and tried not to get lost amidst a sea of humanity greater than I had ever witnessed.

It changed my life, not just because I was sharing a transformative experience with hundreds of thousands of people from around the world, few of whom looked like me, but because I realized, as Malcolm X and so many others had before me, that I was witnessing a spirit of unity and brotherhood between disparate peoples — black, white; literate, illiterate; rich, poor; high caste, low caste — that my life experiences had led me to believe really didn’t exist.

This year, then, on Eid al-Adha, through communal prayer, as I do every year, I will join the umma and the Hajj pilgrims and I will metaphorically travel from Tehran to Tanzania, Calgary to Cape Town. I will travel with Mansa Musa and Ibn Battuta, travel with the victims of violence, oppression and terrorism; travel with the exploited and dispossessed.

As I pray I will travel for social justice and peace not just among the umma but among the marginalized and dispossessed everywhere, including here in America.

I will pray with celebrants descended from America’s earliest enslaved peoples.

Islam, which arrived in the Americas at least as early as 1619 – a year before the Mayflower – when 20 African slaves were brought to Jamestown, is believed to have been the religion of perhaps 10 to 15% of the enslaved peoples abducted from Africa to work lands stolen from Native Americans, some sold into enslavement by other Muslims.

I will pray with Americans who continue to struggle to affirm their right to be American, to be Muslim, to be Black — to be free.

Today, in America, that community — those descendants of enslaved peoples, those converts, migrants, refugees and their descendants, all of whom have come to America for opportunity and/or sanctuary — form a pluralistic and socially diverse community “from blue-eyed blondes to black-skinned Africans,” that is fully engaged in our Public Square.

For all that I am thankful.

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