Muhammad Asad (1900-1992), born into an Austrian Jewish family as Leopold Weiss, embraced Islam in 1926 after living and working in the Middle East for several years as a journalist. Known as “Europe’s gift to Islam”, Asad built up a long list of achievements for himself, including a very popular translation of the Qur’ān into the English language. Asad was a gifted writer, and in his book The Road to Mecca (1952) he left vivid and moving descriptions of the Hajj. The mesmerising passage that follows is an excerpt from this book; please note that very slight edits have been made for clarity.
“This… was the Ka’bah, the goal of longing for so many millions of people for so many centuries. To reach this goal, countless pilgrims had made heavy sacrifices throughout the ages; many had died on the way; many had reached it only after great privations; and to all of them this small, square building was the apex of their desires, and to reach it meant fulfillment.
There it stood, almost a perfect cube (as its Arabic name connotes) entirely covered with black brocade, a quiet island in the middle of the vast quadrangle of the mosque: much quieter than any other work of architecture anywhere in the world. It would almost appear that he who first built the Ka’bah—for since the time of Abraham the original structure has been rebuilt several times in the same shape—wanted to create a parable of man’s humility before God. The builder knew that no beauty of architectural rhythm and no perfection of line, however great, could ever do justice to the idea of God: and so he confined himself to the simplest three-dimensional form imaginable—a cube of stone. […]
All these [architectural wonders] I had seen—but never had I felt so strongly as now, before the Ka’bah, that the hand of the builder had come so close to his religious conception. In the utter simplicity of a cube, in the complete renunciation of all beauty of line and form, spoke this thought: ‘Whatever beauty man may be able to create with his hands, it will be only conceit to deem it worthy of God; therefore, the simplest that man can conceive is the greatest that he can do to express the glory of God’. A similar feeling may have been responsible for the mathematical simplicity of the Egyptian pyramids—although there man’s conceit had at least found a vent in the tremendous dimensions he gave to his buildings. But here, in the Ka’bah, even the size spoke of human renunciation and self-surrender; and the proud modesty of this little structure had no compare on Earth.
There is only one entrance into the Ka’bah—a silver-sheathed door on the northeast side, about seven feet above ground level, so that it can only be reached by means of a movable staircase which is placed before the door on a few days of the year. The interior, usually closed (I saw it only on later occasions), is very simple: a marble floor with a few carpets and lamps of bronze and silver hanging from a roof that is supported by heavy wooden beams. Actually, this interior has no special significance of its own, for the sanctity of the Ka’bah applies to the whole building, which is the qiblah—that is, the direction of prayer—for the entire Islamic world. It is toward this symbol of God’s Oneness that hundreds of millions of Muslims the world over turn their faces in prayer five times a day.
Embedded in the eastern corner of the building and left uncovered is a dark-coloured stone surrounded by a broad silver frame. This Black Stone, which has been kissed hollow by many generations of pilgrims, has been the cause of much misunderstanding among non-Muslims, who believe it to be a fetish taken over by Muhammad (s) as a concession to the pagan Makkans. Nothing could be farther from truth. Just as the Ka’bah is an object of reverence but not of worship, so too is the Black Stone. It is revered as the only remnant of Abraham’s original building; and because the lips of Muhammad (s) touched it on his Farewell Pilgrimage, all pilgrims have done the same ever since. The Prophet was well aware that all the later generations of the faithful would always follow his example: and when he kissed the stone he knew that on it the lips of future pilgrims would forever meet the memory of his lips in the symbolic embrace he thus offered, beyond time and beyond death, to his entire community. And the pilgrims, when they kiss the Black Stone, feel that they are embracing the Prophet and all the other Muslims who have been here before them and those who will come after them.
No Muslim would deny that the Ka’bah had existed long before the Prophet Muhammad (s); indeed, its significance lies precisely in this fact. The Prophet did not claim to be the founder of a new religion. On the contrary: self-surrender to God—Islam—has been, according to the Qur’ān, ‘man’s natural inclination’ since the dawn of human consciousness: it was this that Abraham and Moses and Jesus and all other Prophets of God had been teaching—the message of the Qur’ān being but the last of the Divine Revelations. Nor would a Muslim deny that the sanctuary had been full of idols and fetishes before Muhammad broke them, just as Moses had broken the golden calf at Sinai: for, long before the idols were brought into the Ka’bah, the True God had been worshipped there, and thus Muhammad did no more than restore Abraham’s temple to its original purpose.
And there I stood before the temple of Abraham and gazed at the marvel without thinking (for thoughts and reflections came only much later), and out of some hidden, smiling kernel within me there slowly grew an elation like a song.
Smooth marble slabs, with sunlight reflections dancing upon them, covered the ground in a wide circle around the Ka’bah, and over these marble slabs walked many people, men and women, round and round the black-draped House of God. Among them were some who wept, some who loudly called to God in prayer, and many who had no words and no tears but could only walk with lowered heads…
It is part of the Hajj to walk seven times around the Ka’bah: not just to show respect to the central sanctuary of Islam but to recall to oneself the basic demand of Islamic life. The Ka’bah is a symbol of God’s Oneness; and the pilgrim’s bodily movement around it is a symbolic expression of human activity, implying that not only our thoughts and feelings—all that is comprised in the term ‘inner life’—but also our outward, active life, our doings and practical endeavours must have God as their centre.
And I, too, moved slowly forward and became part of the circular flow around the Ka’bah. Off and on I became conscious of a man or woman near me; isolated pictures appeared fleetingly before my eyes and vanished. There was a huge Black man in white ihrām, with a wooden rosary slung like a chain around a powerful, black wrist. An old Malay tripped along by my side for a while, his arms dangling, as if in helpless confusion, against his batik sarong. A grey eye under bushy brows—to whom did it belong?—and now lost in the crowd. Among the many people in front of the Black Stone, a young Indian woman: she was obviously ill; in her narrow, delicate face lay a strangely open yearning visible to the onlooker’s eye like the life of fishes and algae in the depth of a crystal-clear pond. Her hands with their pale, upturned palms were stretched out toward the Ka’bah, and her fingers trembled as if in accompaniment to a wordless prayer…
I walked on and on, the minutes passed, all that had been small and bitter in my heart began to leave my heart, I became part of a circular stream—oh, was this the meaning of what we were doing: to become aware that one is a part of a movement in an orbit? Was this, perhaps, all confusion’s end? And the minutes dissolved, and time stood still, and this was the centre of the universe…” (p. 367-370)
“Not far from here, hidden from my eyes in the midst of this lifeless wilderness of valleys and hills, lies the plain of Arafat, on which all pilgrims who come to Makkah assemble on one day of the year as a reminder of that Last Assembly, when man will have to answer to his Creator for all he has done in life. How often have I stood there myself, bareheaded, in the white pilgrim garb, among a multitude of white-garbed, bareheaded pilgrims from three continents, our faces turned toward the Jabal ar-Rahmah—the ‘Mount of Mercy’—which arises out of the vast plain: standing and waiting through the noon, through the afternoon, reflecting upon that inescapable Day, ‘when you will be exposed to view, not one secret of yours will remain concealed’ [Qur’ān, 69:18].
And as I stand on the hillcrest and gaze down toward the invisible Plain of Arafat, the moonlit blueness of the landscape before me, so dead a moment ago, suddenly comes to life with the currents of all the human lives that have passed through it and is filled with the eerie voices of the millions of men and women who have walked or ridden between Makkah and Arafat in over thirteen hundred pilgrimages for over thirteen hundred years. Their voices and their steps and the voices and the steps of their animals reawaken and resound anew; I see them walking and riding and assembling—all those myriads of white-garbed pilgrims of thirteen hundred years; I hear the sounds of their passed-away days; the wings of the faith which has drawn them together to this land of rocks and sand and seeming deadness beat again with the warmth of life over the arc of centuries, and the mighty wingbeat draws me into its orbit and draws my own passed-away days into the present, and once again I am riding over the plain—
—riding in a thundering gallop over the plain, amidst thousands and thousands of ihrām-clad Bedouins, returning from Arafat to Makkah—a tiny particle of that roaring, earth-shaking, irresistible wave of countless galloping dromedaries and men, with the tribal banners on their high poles beating like drums in the wind and their tribal war cries tearing through the air […]
We ride on, rushing, flying over the plain, and to me it seems that we are flying with the wind, abandoned to a happiness that knows neither end nor limit… and the wind shouts a wild paean of joy into my ears: ‘Never again, never again, never again will you be a stranger’!
My brethren on the right and my brethren on the left, all of them unknown to me but none a stranger: in the tumultuous joy of our chase, we are one body in pursuit of one goal. Wide is the world before us, and in our hearts glimmers a spark of the flame that burned in the hearts of the Prophet’s Companions. They know, my brethren on the right and my brethren on the left, that they have fallen short of what was expected of them, and that in the flight of centuries their hearts have grown small: and yet, the promise of fulfilment has not been taken from them… from us…
Someone in the surging host abandons his tribal cry for a cry of faith: ‘We are the brethren of him who gives himself up to God’!—and another joins in: ‘Allāhu Akbar’!—‘God is the Greatest!—God alone is Great’!
And all the tribal detachments take up this one cry. They are no longer Najdi Bedouins revelling in their tribal pride: they are men who know that the secrets of God are but waiting for them… for us… Amidst the din of thousands of rushing camels’ feet and the flapping of a hundred banners, their cry grows into a roar of triumph: ‘Allāhu Akbar’!
It flows in mighty waves over the heads of the thousands of galloping men, over the wide plain, to all the ends of the earth: ‘Allāhu Akbar’! These men have grown beyond their own little lives, and now their faith sweeps them forward, in oneness, toward some uncharted horizon… Longing need no longer remain small and hidden; it has found its awakening, a blinding sunrise of fulfilment. In this fulfilment, man strides along in all his God-given splendour; his stride is joy, and his knowledge is freedom, and his world a sphere without bounds…
The smell of the dromedaries’ bodies, their panting and snorting, the thundering of their innumerable feet; the shouting of the men, the clanking of the rifles slung on saddle-pegs, the dust and the sweat and the wildly excited faces around me; and a sudden, glad stillness within me.
I turn around in my saddle and see behind me the waving, weaving mass of thousands of white-clad riders and, beyond them, the bridge over which I have come: its end is just behind me while its beginning is already lost in the mists of distance.” (p. 373-375)
Featured image courtesy of National Geographic Magazine via IlmFeed.