The sun was searing as the wind howled and burned the eyes and face. There was not a person in sight as the man, with wife and newborn child, walked along the barren plain. After a long journey, the man stopped, unpacked some food and water for his family, and then turned to leave. There was no one around; no well from which water could be drawn; no date palm from which food could be taken. And in this barren and desolate patch of desert, the man left his wife and child.
His wife was startled.
"Why are you leaving us?" she frantically asked. He did not answer. He did not even turn around. He simply kept walking.
"What are you doing? Why are you leaving us?" The pleas became ever more desperate, but still, he did not answer and kept walking.
"What is happening?" No answer.
Finally, she said, "Did God command you to do this?"
"Yes," was his answer, and he left.
"Then," she replied, "He will not lead us astray."
Yet, the situation started to indeed become desperate. The small amount of food and water ran out, and the baby began to cry from hunger. His mother - frantic at seeing her young child suffer - ran between two small hillocks seven times in a desperate attempt at finding any sort of help or aid. Alas, there was nothing. And when she went back to her crying babe, resigned to the inevitable fate of their death, she was stunned to see a well had sprung at his feet. They were saved, and just as she said, God did not lead them astray.
This story is why Muslims - once in their lifetime - descend upon the holy city of Mecca in pilgrimage. The above account is that of Abraham, his wife Hagar, and their son Ishmael. God had commanded that Abraham leave his wife and son in the barren plain of Paran (which was later to become Mecca), and - as the faithful servant he was - Abraham fulfilled the command, as difficult as that was to do. And so, every year, millions of Muslims perform the pilgrimage to Mecca to re-enact this ancient and sacred drama.
The pilgrims circumambulate the Ka'ba, a shrine that Abraham and Ishmael later built for the worship of the One God, seven times in a counterclockwise rotation. This is in keeping with Abraham's tradition. Then, on the 9th day of the Islamic month of Dhul Hijjah, which is today, pilgrims stand on the plain of Arafat and beseech their Lord for forgiveness. After sunset, the pilgrims then collect stones in an area called Muzdalifah in preparation for stoning three walls that represent Satan. This happens the next day (tomorrow morning). After this, pilgrims go back to the Ka'ba and make another round of circumambulation. After that, they will run between the very same two hillocks that Hagar did, in search for food for her child.
Muslims the world over mark this event by having a Feast Day, Eid ul Adha, which means, "Feast of the Sacrifice." On this day, Muslims - if able - should sacrifice an animal and distribute its meat to the poor and needy. This sacrifice is in honor of the sacrifice of Abraham of his son for God. Most Muslims believe this son was Ishmael, while in the Judeo-Christian tradition it is Isaac. Yet, the identity of the son is immaterial. What is important, and why Muslims sacrifice an animal in honor of this event, is the willingness of Abraham to follow God's commands, even if it meant sacrificing his own son.
The reason the pilgrims stone the walls is because, as Abraham was on the way to sacrifice his son, Satan appeared to dissuade Abraham from doing it, and Abraham stoned Satan three times. The entire ritual of the Hajj, which is the most powerful spiritual experience a Muslim will ever have, is in honor of Abraham and his family. I was blessed to be able to perform the Hajj with my wife in 2003, and it was an experience which I will never forget as long as I live and breathe. On the day of Arafat, those Muslims who are not on the Hajj are encouraged to fast in honor and reverence of the Hajj, and you will find many Muslims indeed fasting today.
There are many who mock the events of the Hajj, with the vivid images of Muslims sacrificing animals all around the world. Yet, these detractors fail to see the larger purpose: an entire festival and religious rite that honors a major figure in both Judaism and Christianity. Muslims spend their entire lives saving and preparing to go on the Hajj, which is all about Abraham, and once they are there, the elation on their faces can light up an entire city. I witnessed this on my own Hajj, and it is a truly remarkable thing to behold.
Shouldn't this fact serve to bring Muslims, Christians, and Jews - who are the children of Abraham - closer together? Shouldn't this fact serve to show that Muslims, Christians, and Jews have much more in common? Shouldn't this fact serve to erase any sort of petty and silly animosity between the faith groups?
In this holy time and season, O Lord, I pray that it does.