Originally published in September 2014
Like our busy everyday lives, the lead-up to Hajj is a rapid whirlwind of activity. Following weeks of preparation and long travel, an intense period of physical worship begins, most notably the rites of Umrah, circumambulating the Kaaba, and running between the hills of Safa and Marwa.
But on the 9th of Dhul Hijjah, all of this comes to an emphatic full stop. After days of physical actions and deeds, the Hajj reaches its highest and most crucial point, on the plains of Arafah. Here, physical deeds and motions are minimized. We simply stand and raise our hands, calling on Allah for forgiveness and mercy, from mid-day to sunset.
Almost anyone who has performed Hajj will universally speak of the standing on Arafah as the greatest part of Hajj, for like its name itself, from the meaning “to know”, it is the place we can begin to truly know ourselves, our deficiencies and weakness. And in acknowledging our faults and missteps, we also can come to know of the Divine presence in our lives, of His limitless forgiveness and generosity. We recognize that all we can do at that moment, just as we will when we stand before Him in like manner on the Day of Judgment, is call on Allah, for as our Messenger ﷺ taught us, no one enters paradise by their deeds, only by His Mercy.
Even if we are not on Hajj this year, our situation is no different. We navigate through the complexities of our daily life, immersed in the never-ending responsibilities of work and family, inundated with the intrusions of technology and social media into every minute of our lives, moving from place to place and idea to idea.
On the 9th of Dhul Hijjah, the Day of Arafah, however, Allah and His Messenger ﷺ are telling us to slow down and stop, whether we are on Hajj or not. Only by stopping the momentum of our hustle-bustle lives, even if it is only temporary, will we be able to break out and finally learn about who we truly are and who God is.
It is fitting then that on the Day of Arafah, we are encouraged to seek spiritual retreat through the deed whose reward that only Allah knows—fasting. Fasting at its external level involves restricting the body from physical appetites, but just like the restrictions for the pilgrim entering the state of Ihraam, the state of consecration for the pilgrimage, these restrictions are but motivators to higher moral behavior, to refrain from sin and purify one's character.
Not all of us can perform Hajj or Umrah, but nearly all of us can fast. The hearts have the capacity to travel on a journey of nearness to Allah in fasting, just as they do in pilgrimage, and we can do it anytime and anywhere. Indeed, fasting is the Ihraam of the heart, which can be put on at the Meeqat (station)1 of dawn in any place in the world. Fittingly, as the past Ramadan fades into memory, the day of Arafah rekindles the light of fasting within us, and reminds us that to truly know (arafa) Allah, our spiritual efforts must never be relegated to only specific times or specific places.
During the first 10 days of Dhul Hijjah, days that Allah Himself swore by (“By the dawn; by the ten nights" [al-Fajr 89:1-2]), this reality is ingrained in those of us who are specifically not on Hajj. As the Prophet ﷺ told us, “There are no days in which good deeds are more beloved to Allah than these days.” During these ten days, considered as even more virtuous than the last 10 days of Ramadan, we are encouraged to increase our fasting, charity and remembrance of God, including reciting the Takbeer both in public and private. Notably, for the one who intends to offer a sacrifice on Eid ul-Adha, the Prophet ﷺsaid:
"When you see the new moon of Dhu’l-Hijjah, if any one of you wants to offer a sacrifice, then he should stop cutting his hair and nails until he has offered his sacrifice."2
While the emphasis on refraining from cutting the hair and nails varies amongst our legal schools, it is a practice that is often forgotten, even though the intent behind it is to make us remember. Like it does for a pilgrim in Ihraam, it requires both presence in heart and action to remember to avoid it. While seemingly a minor action, it is a tool to combat ghafla (forgetfulness) of our Creator and our obligations to Him. Today we often unfairly marginalize “small” Sunnahs under the guise that we should concentrate on more important matters, even though the point of the minutia in such external actions is to internally exercise the heart and remind us of the Creator in doing them, the most important matter of all.
Moreover, in sharing in part of the spiritual experience of the pilgrim in Ihraam, we connect spiritually with those on Hajj and all of the ummah, in a show of both spiritual and physical solidarity. As Muslims are besieged physically, intellectually and socially, this demonstration of spiritual unity is needed now more than ever, for the Hajj reminds us that the “human experiment”, as some would call it, works. We can get along and move past our differences when we direct our focus wholeheartedly on the Creator alone, and joining together in a spiritual experience builds unity.
Just as those on Hajj are blessed with the opportunity to start fresh and “come out as sinless as a newborn child”3, the one who fasts on the day of Arafah is also afforded an opportunity to do the same. When the Prophet ﷺ spoke of its rewards, he said:
“Fasting on the day of ‘Arafah is expiation for two years, the year preceding it and the year following it [emphasis added].”4
What is unique in this is that we are promised forgiveness for our (minor) transgressions in the future year. After the cleansing experience for the one racing for Allah’s pleasure in the first nine days of Dhul Hijjah, the final act of fasting on the day of Arafah gives us a competitive advantage over our own flawed selves for the coming year. We are given a head start. Allah wants us to succeed in our journey towards Him so much that He absolves our minor transgressions in the coming year, to free us of that burden, so that we can rarefy our condition further.
Like the pilgrims on Hajj, our hearts are on a journey in these ten days. If we apply ourselves truthfully, through fasting with an Ihraam of the heart, we can begin to know spiritual realities wherever we are.
As one of the sages noted, many people thousands of miles from Makkah are “closer to the House of Allah than those circumambulating around it.” We do not need to be in Makkah or in Ramadan all the time to be close to Allah. All we must do is be willing to stand before Him, coming to Him acknowledging ourselves and all our imperfections, and He has promised us His forgiveness:
O Son of Adam, so long as you call upon Me and ask of Me, I shall forgive you for what you have done, and I shall not mind. O son of Adam, were your sins to reach the clouds of the sky and were you then to ask forgiveness of Me, I would forgive you. O son of Adam, were you to come to Me with sins nearly as great as the earth and were you then to face Me, ascribing no partner to Me, I would bring you forgiveness nearly as great as it.5
And verily, His Mercy prevails over His Wrath. May these blessed days of Dhul Hijjah be a means of rectifying our hearts and knowing ourselves, so that we may realize that the only Truth is in knowing Him.
1. The station at which pilgrims on Hajj are required to put on the Ihraam.
2. Reported by Muslim.
3. “Whoever performs Hajj and does not indulge in obscenity or transgression will come out as sinless as a newborn child (just delivered by his mother).” Reported in Bukhari.
4. “Fasting on the day of ‘Arafah is an expiation for two years, the year preceding it and the year following it. Fasting the day of `Ashura is an expiation for the year preceding it.” Reported by all except al-Bukhari and at-Tirmidhi.
5. Hadith Qudsi, reported in At-Tirmidhi.
Faith & Spirituality Related Articles
An Answer to ‘Should Muslims Support Black Lives Matter?’
Protests have swept across the streets of America regarding the need for new policing measures after the brutal murder of George Floyd by officers of the Minneapolis Police Department. Indeed, the cries of Americans of varying racial and ethnic backgrounds reside in the reality that Floyd is but one of countless Black people who have been killed while unarmed by law enforcement.