Reflections on the Hajj – Establishing A Muslim’s Center

By Susan Carland

If you want to know what matters most to you, observe what first comes to mind when you wake up. What is that one issue that keeps swirling through your mind day after day – that one matter your thoughts can’t help gravitating around?

As I sat outside with a friend in glorious spring weather, squinting against the sun and the tears gathering in my eyes, I knew how true this was. “You are going to keep having this same issue until you resolve it. You are going to keep circling around it,” she informed me. And she was right. Over the years we had been friends, I had raised variations on this same theme with her many times. I was caught in the gravitational pull of this problem. There were many days when I thought about it as I went to sleep, and it was on my mind when I woke up again.

Many of us have that one issue we can’t stop focussing on. Work, relationships, money, status, past hurts, future fears, real or perceived injustices – we fixate on something and come back to it again and again, like an old cassette stuck on a loop. And it starts to shape who we are. Mentally circling around something repetitively re-forms our inner self the same way a potter’s hands mould a lump of clay on a constantly-spinning wheel. So when I constantly focus on monetary wealth, when my thoughts are always on my bank balance and financial acquisition for personal gain, it is almost impossible not to become a greedy individual.

The light around which the moth of my soul spirals is both telling and formative. What is at our center matters.

One of the most important rituals of Hajj (the once-in-a-lifetime obligatory pilgrimage in Islam) is the rite of establishing what needs to be at a Muslim’s center. During this stage, Muslims must circumambulate a simple black cube called the ka’ba seven times. Muslims do not believe the ka’ba is God, or that God lives in there. Instead, this basic, empty box – perhaps most notable for its simplicity – is believed to be the first house built to monotheistic worship. Muslims believe Adam built it, and it was later re-built after damage, by the prophets Ibrahim and his son, and then lastly Muhammad. Thus, it is a tangible representation of the human need to worship God and God alone.

The centrifugal force of this world pushes us away from true surrender to God with all the intensity of the Gravitron ride at an amusement park. The spinning pressure flings us outward, and we are caught in a dizzy mess of the unhelpful distractions of life that pull us off our real course. This ritual of Hajj, called tawwaf, reminds Muslims that only a life that circles permanently around God makes sense, that the one ethos to which we must return again and again is true love and submission to God.

As is so often the case in Islam, the worship of the body and the soul are closely intertwined. Our body bows down along with our spirit in our prayer (salat), our body taps into our spiritual starvation during our fasting (in Ramadan). And during the tawwaf of Hajj, we reconnect with the central truth that our body, mind and soul needs to circle and re-circle. Our feet wear down coiling paths in the ground around the ka’ba, as Muslims have for hundreds and even thousands of years, reflects the more important track work of our souls being ingrained. Anything else we were previously looping around were just the idols of secondary concern.

The tawwaf is about realigning ourselves with the gravitational pull of what our inner self needs to be orbiting: true presence with Allah, a focussed consciousness that is so often absent in the giddy spin of normal life. And so it is fitting that as Muslims first approach the ka’ba, the words they are to call to God are Labbayk Allahumma labbayk - “Here I am, Oh God. Here I am.”

Susan Carland is completing her PhD at Monash Univeristy in the School of Political and Social Inquiry, where she is researching the ways Muslim women fight sexism. This article was originally published on ABC-AU.

  • lingum

    Thank you, Susan, for a beautiful article….and God bless.

  • RockyMissouri

    Thank you for a great article… Muslims…Christians….and Jews have something in common….i.e…Abraham…!! They should have more respect for each other.

  • Gregory Wonderwheel

    I think the important question is not “what needs to be at the center?” but “what is at the center?” Do Muslims know that what is at the physical center of their
    circumambulation is a large black rock, most likely a meteorite, whose shape is
    a closely guarded secret? I don’t think that there is anything wrong with that,
    except to the extent that there is hypocrisy in denying the physical fact. Why?
    First, it is nothing to be ashamed of because all religions have weird symbols
    at their center, because life is weird. Many religions have a sacred relic or object, a mystery of mysteries, hidden away from its own believers because that makes a much more potent force for inculcating that very belief. Also all religions have some degree of hypocrisy (even mine) but that human hypocrisy can and should be mitigated by laughing at it, not pretending it doesn’t exist and denying that it has an effect on us. Muslims take great pride in not being a religion of “idolatry” and refuse to have images of Mohammed, their chief messenger from Allah. But then they hold the image of Mohammed in their mind’s-eye every bit as idolatrously as an image carved in stone, and some do this so tenaciously that they will do violence to or kill another person if that mentally carved picture in their imagination is insulted.

    There is the black stone at the physical center of the Hajj. The people are not circumambulating around “a simple black cube called the ka’ba,” and to believe that the k’aba is what is at the center without knowing what is at the center of the ka’ba is to accept a kind of self-imposed hypocrisy.

    The ka’ba or kaaba is not a basic, empty box. Yes, the word means “cube” but it
    is neither simple nor empty. How could an exquisitely carved granite house
    standing on a marble foundation with 300 kg gold doors and a rainwater spout made of gold be called “simple”?

    If it were empty, then that would be the greatest image of God, because
    emptiness is the greatest image of ultimate truth. The location of the kaaba is the direction that all Muslims face for daily sacred reflection. But can emptiness have a location? So merely by facing the kaaba in the direction of its physical location is in a way making the emptiness not really empty but filling it with religious pride. Again, this is not “wrong” except to the extent that the person is blind to it. If I know that emptiness is actually nowhere and everywhere and is at the center of my own heart and mind, then whatever direction I face in the physical world is the direction of the emptiness of the kaaba of the mind.

    But in this world of lights and shadows, stone and sand, the kaaba is not empty. To the extent that believers on the outside of the kaaba are kept from seeing what is really at the center of the kaaba and they are told that the kaaba is “empty,” then isn’t there some hypocrisy at the least or a lie at the most at the center of the religion? Emptiness may be was needs to be at the center, but what really is at the center? If something other than emptiness is at the center of the kaaba, then what should be make of the fact that some small privileged minority of elites actually know what is at the center while all the vast multitude are told a tall tale?

  • shareman

    Subhanallah… Ana azhabu ilal ka’bah