The stories told by and of the Messengers of Allah are not for mere entertainment and neither are the rituals Muslims perform as part of their religious practice. Each one is pregnant with meaning as Ustadh Salim Mauladdawila explains.
Of the recorded events in the lives of the prophets, one of the most historically significant is certainly the migration of the prophet Ibrahim with his wife Hajar, and infant son Ismail. Ibrahim, following God’s command, took his family from their home in the Levant to settle in the desert valley of what would become the holy city of Makkah. Fully aware of the difficulty of their task, he would leave them in that uncultivated valley to God, with only some dates and water for nourishment, before leaving and praying to God for their protection. When they inevitably ran out of water Ismail began to cry, and out of sheer despair Hajar climbed the nearest mountain, Safa, desperate to see someone in the area, but no one was to be seen. She descended Safa and, as Imam al-Bukhari relates the Companion Abdullah Ibn Abbas saying, “When she reached the valley she lifted the hem of her dress and ran as a distressed person runs, crossing the valley and reaching [the mountain] Marwa. She ascended and looked out, but she didn’t see anyone. She [travelled between them] seven times. The Prophet said, ‘That is why people run between [Safa and Marwa].’ When she reached Marwa [the final time], she heard a voice. She told herself to be silent, and she listened. Again she heard the voice and said, ‘I have heard you. If you have [aid], aid!” And behold! She saw an angel at the place of Zamzam, digging the earth with his heel (or his wing), until water appeared”.
The prophet Muhammad ﷺ narrated this story to his companions not as mere entertainment, but, as is said in the Quran, “We tell you the stories of the Messengers that we may make firm your heart” [11:120]. Stories in hadith and the Quran serve as examples, encouraging us in our faith and connecting us to our fellow believers in eras beyond our own.
Due to her strong faith and piety, God ensured that Hajar, whose actions would indirectly affect the course of human history, would be a woman remembered by believers thousands of years after her passing. Everyone who has ever had their thirst quenched by Zamzam has Hajar to thank, and the millions of believers who would travel to Makkah from throughout the world tell her story.
Uniquely out of our religious acts of worship, the Hajj was not sanctified by the actions of the prophet Muhammad ﷺ. Indeed, the prophet Muhammad himself was ordered to perform the Hajj as we do, following in the footsteps of the prophets, messengers, and believers who lived before him. Hajj is not only a gathering of Muslims from all walks of life in our lifetime, but it connects us to the very first believers, the last believers, and to the believers in the celestial and unseen realms. In the Hajj, we see that our own belief is but a fruit of believers thousands of years before us.
The prophet Ibrahim would later return to the valley he left his family, and go on to rebuild the Kaaba, aided by his now mature son Ismail. As God says, “And when Ibrahim and Ismail raised the foundations of the House” [2:127]. Explaining this verse, scholars of Quranic exegesis have said that the archangel Gabriel manifested himself to Ibrahim, and ordered him to rebuild the Kaaba from the original foundations laid by the prophet Adam AS.
When Adam, the first human, was created, God told the angels the reason behind his creation, stating, “I will create a vicegerent on earth” [2:30]. Interestingly, God always intended for humans to live on Earth, as evidenced here, yet resided our forefather in heaven. An effect of this and his expulsion from heaven was that he was imbued with a longing for his Lord’s pleasure and for the celestial.
Subsequently, as Adam roamed the Earth, Imam Fakhr al-Din al-Razi narrates that he complained to God of his loneliness. It was then that he was ordered to build the Kaaba, establishing on Earth a physical place of connexion to the heavens for himself and all believers after him. God says in the Quran, “Verily the first House established for humanity was that at Bakka: blessed, and guidance for the worlds” [3:96], Bakka being one of the names of Makkah. Adam’s longing for the divine forms a part of our fitra, or inherent nature, spoken about by God, “So direct your face toward the religion completely; the fitra of God upon which He has created all people” [30:30]. Fath al-Mousili, the Iraqi gnostic, remarked on the topic, “We were a people of heaven, then Satan cursed us to the Earth. Thus we only have worries and sadness until we return to the abode we were expelled from”.
Imam al-Baghawi relates that once the prophet Adam completed construction of the Kaaba and had circumambulated it, the angels informed him that they themselves had built the Kaaba and performed Hajj 2000 years prior to him. Further, all prophets after Adam were to perform Hajj and circumambulate the Kaaba, it being rebuilt as necessary over the passage of time. This continued, as stated by al-Tabari in his landmark work of Quranic commentary, until the time of the flood of Nuh, when the Kaaba was raised to the heavens. Thus the Earth was bereft of its Kaaba until it was rebuilt by Ibrahim.
The Kaaba, then, is not simply an ancient architectural curiosity, dwarfed by modern architectural wonders; it is our prime place of connecting to our Lord and reconnecting with countless believers who have walked the Earth before us. God says, “We made the House [the Kaaba] a place of assembly for people and [a place of] safety. And take the place where Ibrahim stood as a place of prayer” [2:125].
The Kaaba unites all Muslims not only across the barriers of wealth, race, and ideology, but also across time, and even species. Numerous hadith mention the presence of angels at the Kaaba, and al-Fakihi recounts in his book on the history of Makkah that even animals have travelled there to worship. Imam al-Bukhari narrates that located in the seventh heaven above the Kaaba is its likeness in the celestial realm, al-Bait al-Ma’mur, “where 70,000 angels pray daily, and when they leave, they never return”, and Abi Dawud relates that the Mahdi, the promised redeemer of Islam of whom the Prophet told us about in rigorously authenticated hadith, will come forth in Makkah. And the Kaaba isn’t alone in bringing us this profound unity: the “place where Ibrahim stood” is the stone he stood on when building the Kaaba, and God ordered us to pray there; we walk between Safa and Marwa retracing the footsteps of Hajar; we throw stones at the Jamaraat during Hajj emulating the prophet Ibrahim, who threw stones at the devil there; the sacrificial animal slaughter is done commemorating the story of Ibrahim and Ismail; and we gather at Arafat, on the same day of the lunar year where believers have been gathering annually for over 1000 years. All of these sacred places and their religious rites have meanings far greater than their outward forms.
Entering this blessed month of Hajj, we should know that it was made sacred by God even before he created humans: “Indeed, the number of months with Allah is twelve [lunar] months in the book of God, [from] the day He created the heavens and the earth; of these, four are sacred” [9:36]. We are now but the latest people to have been blessed with this realisation. Islam is a living tradition, one which began thousands of years ago before the prophet Adam and will continue for untold generations to come. We, Muslims living 1425 lunar years after our prophet’s passing, are the present link in that tradition, and the need for us to realise its importance is arguably more important now than ever before. Unfortunately, when Islam, and religion in general, is under attack from so many directions, it is easy for one to lose their bearings. When we are portrayed as a foreign belief and something that should be feared, it is easy to forget that we are not at all strange. It may be lost to us that the very first of creation were all believers, and we are simply trying to following in their wake. We are a link which, according to a recent Pew survey, makes up 23% of the world’s population, and the Hajj is calling us to unity: unity in belief in God, and unity amongst ourselves.
The Prophet is quoted as saying, “Verily God has ordered me to make my speech, remembrance; and my silence, contemplation; and [what I look at], a lesson”. The believer, then, should endeavour to derive benefit from everything that is around them, and now is a prime time for contemplation, reflection, and connexion.
To paraphrase Goethe, if we cannot draw from thousands of years of our history, we are living from hand to mouth. Knowing the stories behind religious rituals and seeing their meanings allows us to unite with all Muslims, strengthening our individual and communal identities with centuries of belief. Being grounded in our religious tradition brings well-needed perspective into our lives; we begin to understand the value of this blessing of faith, and we begin to understand why we believe.
The Muslim is not a single, lone human carried to and fro by aimless tides. We are not the flotsam of civilisation; we are here with purpose. When we see that we were created as “a vicegerent on Earth”, we can understand the responsibility that is upon us as individuals and do our best to live up to it. The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ said in a hadith narrated by al-Tabrani, “The most beloved people to Allah are the most beneficial of them for the people”. Let this, then, be the starting point from where we begin everything we do, and the more we are united, the more beneficial we can be.