“Village artist Ali Said in front of his murals in El Ballas in 1954. Photo: Göran Schildt.” Image and Caption Source
When I was an undergraduate I was especially fascinated by one of the five pillars of Islam: The Hajj. Quickly, for those of you who aren’t familiar with Islam, the five pillars of Islam are considered the main tenets of the religion and all Muslims are called upon to do their best to practice each. The first pillar is to proclaim the shahadah: There is no God but God and Mohammad is his Prophet. This pillar designates Islam as a monotheistic faith and by proclaiming the shahadah Muslims identify themselves as adherents to that faith. The second pillar relates to prayer (salat); in order to practice this pillar Muslims are expected to actively engage in prayer. Some interpret this as a requirement to engage in formal prayer at five designated times throughout each day. Others interpret this simply as one’s responsibility to pray to God in order to nourish his or her faith and offer his or her devotion. The third pillar, sawm (fasting), calls upon Muslims to fast during the month of Ramadan. The fourth pillar, zakat (alms), requires Muslims to share their earnings with the community and especially during Ramadan a time during which Muslims are expected to take care of and consider those who are suffering and impoverished. Finally, the fifth pillar is making the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in one’s life; this pilgrimage is referred to in Arabic as the hajj.
All five pillars are powerful and interesting in their own ways and bear striking resemblances to practices found in other religions. However, it is the fifth pillar that I found most interesting for a few different reasons.
It is understood that only those who are reasonably able to perform the hajj will do so. That is, if one is too ill, poor, or otherwise unable to carry out the journey she will not be *punished* for having failed to do so. Too, people scrimp and save for years in order to carry out the hajj–some hajjis (the honorific term awarded to those who have made the pilgrimage) live very simple lives in which they work very hard to make ends meet. When I lived in Cairo I was continuously blown away by the hajj paintings adorning very humble homes on the outskirts of the city. Imagine the faith and devotion required to put aside money to make the pilgrimage when you and your family are already struggling so hard to survive. When I stop and imagine the sustained and faithful effort a person must sustain in order to save a penny here and a penny there along with a devoted intention to make that pilgrimage, the spiritual power of this pillar begins to emerge. Pilgrims have recorded their experiences carrying out the hajj in wall paintings (upon their return) for centuries. I came across this very cool slide show of hajj paintings, their history, and an overview of symbols commonly found in hajj paintings around the world:
There is one last aspect of the hajj that I have always found particularly intense: the constant movement of Muslims back to the physical (and some would argue intellectual and spiritual) hub of the faith. Millions of Muslims from all over the world travel to Mecca and Medina, carry out a very specific ritual, mingle with other devout Muslims from around the world, and return home to share their experiences. Some Muslims take the opportunity to remain in the country to study Islamic law for several months and then return home. We often enough here about the ‘awful’ aspects of the hajj (people getting crushed, people getting linked up with the more extremist legal schools and carrying those messages back home) but imagine too the potential for growth, intercultural exchange, and a deepening of one’s faith.
I’m not Muslim, it’s just not my frequency. Neither am I Christian, Jewish, Hindu, nor Buddhist for none of the above are quite my frequency. However, within each of the above and from other sources I have found elements of that longing for union with the Divine (and indeed for social cohesion and community) that are beautiful, admirable, and inspiring. Hajj paintings are one example of the ways in which we paint our devotion in public places. I find it intriguing.
(I wasn’t sure if it made more sense to post this article here or on my other blog Particular Notes on a Practice. Sometimes it’s difficult–if not impossible–to make a distinction between culture and religion.)
What do you think? I’d love to hear from you. Please leave a comment! 😉