The Washington Post.com has published my recent essay called "Where the Hajj Takes Us." I wrote this for Common Ground News Service ... and I'm inclined to think my piece would have been better received there. Wow, readers can be awful -- just read the comments (which I have NOT included with the text, below). Would that people could distinguish between the rogue and cruel criminal and the ordinary, benign majority. So many of us simply do the best we can and often that's not good enough. I count myself in that company.
Where the hajj takes us
By Anisa Mehdi
journalist, interfaith educator
AMMAN, Jordan - Here in Jordan, American domestic news, such as the horror of Fort Hood, has not been crowding the headlines. Instead, the focus is on political leaders' assurances that there will be enough containers of butane gas to heat homes for the winter, sustainable water sources, and expanding Israeli settlements in Jerusalem. Even as these concerns fill the headlines, the Eid al-Adha, the celebration marking the end of the hajj pilgrimage, is a source of hope.
Eid al-Adha means "Feast of the Sacrifice." Scriptural stories say God asked the Prophet Abraham to prove his faithfulness by sacrificing his son. Satan appeared along the path to the altar, decrying God as cruel and false for demanding such a ghastly act. Abraham threw stones at Satan to drive him away. At the denouement, God was satisfied, sparing Abraham's son and giving the grateful father a ram to sacrifice instead.
Up to 10,000 Jordanian pilgrims will perform the hajj this year - joining about the same number of American pilgrims and more than two million others from around the world. Miraculously, with all these people gathering in one place, grappling with crowds, stress, heat, hunger and confusion, Mecca does not become rife with violence, riots, shootings or hostility during the hajj. In more than 1,400 years as a Muslim rite, the greatest danger of pilgrimage remains disease.
How is it that under such trying circumstances, strangers from the far reaches of the planet, belonging to different ethnicities, nationalities and languages, are able to sustain generally good relations with one another during the trying rituals of the hajj?
That is not just the challenge of the hajj, but of Islam itself. The great jihad - or struggle - each Muslim faces in his or her lifetime is how to be the finest person possible. Hajj is a proving ground for the best behavior, practice and expression of humanity.
Usually, it's easy to see how people separate themselves from one another. Many of us labor to differentiate ourselves from others - sometimes claiming superiority or dominance merely by dint of birthright. In Jordan, for example, Muslims and Christians coexist, gently appreciating what they see as the other's mildly misguided beliefs. There are Jordanians of Bedouin stock, and Jordanians from the north or the south, each with their own mansaf and kunafeh, tasty local dishes. There are 1948 Palestinian-Jordanians and 1967 Palestinian-Jordanians, each with historical gratitudes and gripes.
At the hajj, which I have had the privilege to film and report for the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and National Geographic Television, those distinctions begin to melt. On the ninth day of the month of hajj, as dusk settles over the Plain of Arafat where the Prophet Muhammad made his farewell speech to Muslims toward the end of his life, many pilgrims, drying their eyes, understand that at essence we are born, we love, and we die; that our identity is ultimately tied to the way we live our lives, not to the nation or tribe to which we were born.
Hajj is as much about the individual as it is profoundly about community and the communion of humanity. God says in the Qur'an, "O humankind! Lo! We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes that ye man know one another. Lo! The noblest of you, in the sight of Allah, is the best in conduct" (49:13).
The great lesson of the hajj is this: more important than where we come from is where we are going.
Anisa Mehdi and is a journalist and interfaith educator. She is a Fulbright Scholar in Amman this year, working with documentary filmmakers and broadcasting professionals. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service.