The Spirituality of Hajj: Ihram and Talbiyah

The Masjid Dhu al-Hulayfah (Arabic: مَسْجِد ذُو ٱلْحُلَيْفَة), is a miqat and mosque in Abyār ʿAlī, Medina, west of Wadi al-'Aqiq, where Prophet Muhammad (s) entered the state of ihram before performing 'Umrah, after the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah. The mosque is located 7 km (4.3 mi) SW of the Al-Masjid an-Nabawi and was defined by the Prophet (s) as the miqat for those performing the Hajj or Umrah pilgrimages from Medina (photo:

Category: Faith & Spirituality, Featured, Highlights Topics: Hajj, Ihram, Talbiyah Values: Spirituality Channel: Hajj - Day 1 Views: 2635

Two subjects associated with the dramatic commencement of Hajj are ihram and talbiyah, further enhanced by the concepts of sincere intention (niyyah) and mawaqit (fixed times and places for the beginning of Hajj).

Ihram is making the intention for Hajj on the 8th of Dhul Hijjah and taking off all sewn clothes and wearing the Hajj garment. The garment consists of two sheets of white cloth made of very plain and simple fabric. One is wrapped round the upper part of the body, except the head, and the other round the lower part of the body.

This is the dress for men. For women, however, it can be regular clothing, albeit with all ihram restrictions applying to them as well.

Talbiyah is the uttering of specified words while donning the garment of ihram. It is part of the Hajj intention and continues to be uttered afterwards in most Hajj circumstances until the throwing of the first pebble at Mina on the 10th of Dhul Hijjah. Imam al-Shafi’i is reported to have said: “We love to say it (talbiyah) at all times (during the said period of three days).” As for its legal importance and rank, talbiyah oscillates from being recommended to being obligatory.

The standard words of talbiyah are the Prophet’s words: “Here I am, O Allah, here I am. Here I am. You have no partner. Here I am. Verily, all praise, grace, and sovereignty are Yours alone. You have no partner.”

The Prophet (pbuh) also said: “Here I am, O God of Truth.” Moreover, he approved of some people’s addition to the original talbiyah: “Here I am, O Owner of the Ways of Ascent. Here I am, O Owner of Excellence”. A companion of the Prophet (pbuh), Abdullah b. ‘Umar, used to add as well: “Here I am and blessed by You, and all good is in Your Hands, and desire and action are directed towards You.” 1Muhammad Nasiruddin al-Albani, Rites of Hajj and ‘Umrah from the Qur’an, Sunnah and Narrations from the Pious Predecessors,

It goes without saying that there is more to ihram and talbiyah than what is immediately apparent. The two acts constitute a procedure that ushers a person into a higher realm of meaning and experience. The set times and locations for the start of Hajj (mawaqit) denote the end of a less significant domain and the beginning of a greater and more consequential one. The mawaqit function as the transition point, and ihram together with talbiyah as an epitaph to it.

The city of Makkah is a holy city. It was and remained umm al-qura, the mother of all cities and villages, i.e., all types of urban and rural human settlements. Its nobility and luminosity stand for the source of all other nobilities and luminosities. Not only is Makkah the centre of life on earth, but also the centre of the universe and all existence. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said that Almighty Allah decreed Makkah to be what it is – i.e. a holy city, sanctuary, and a place of safety – the moment He created the heavens and the earth. As if the city is the existential raison d’etre of terrestrial life.

Following the heavenly feat of creation, it all started the moment Adam and his wife Hawwa’ descended from Paradise to earth. Adam built the Ka’bah as the House of God and as the first house of worship established for mankind, and thus introduced the ceremony of pilgrimage. However, no sooner had monotheism been swapped for polytheism, than the Ka’bah and the tawhidic (God’s Oneness) pilgrimage rites were distorted, abandoned and, in the end, forgotten.

Later, Prophet Ibrahim and his son Isma’il - also prophet - were tasked with the rebuilding of the Ka’bah and the revival of the Hajj institution. Almighty Allah instructed Ibrahim: “And proclaim to the people Hajj (the pilgrimage); they will come to you on foot and on every lean camel; they will come from every distant path” (al-Hajj, 27).

At the time Makkah was a barren and uninhabited valley. There was nothing that could attract anybody to undertake a journey to it, let alone to settle there or to fall in love with it. What was happening was hard to rationalize and relate to the laws of nature or society.

Even Hajar, Ibrahim’s wife, whom he had brought to the valley together with his newly born son Isma’il and was about to leave them there, was lost for words - and judgments. In desperation she asked Ibrahim if Allah had commanded him to do all that, to which he replied in the affirmative. Afterwards she calmly responded: “Then certainly, He will not abandon us.”

Indeed, the story of Ibrahim, his wife Hajar and his son Isma’il, was intended to be something extraordinary. The story represented a divine plan for mankind. Yet, it was about mankind’s destiny. Furthermore, it was a window into the future where some of its most momentous chapters were intimated. Thus, Ibrahim is normally called the father of holy prophets, but in the highest heavenly spheres he is known as the friend of God.

It follows that studying human history with holy prophets at centre stage means exploring the unfolding of the divine plan. It also means reading the Will of God at work, and reading the evolution of the mother of human settlements (umm al-qura) from being nothing to being everything, and of the world from being misguided and directionless to being guided and purposeful.

This is the spiritual, in addition to intellectual, world which every pilgrim steps into by means of putting on ihram and declaring talbiyah. Through ihram a pilgrim renders himself qualified – and pure – to be admitted into this world replete with historical wonders and with present overwhelming sensations and signs (ayat). Removing his old dress represents removing hindrances that may stand between him and a proper experience of the new world. Positively, one of the goals of Hajj is to chart and enliven history as much as possible.

There are certain etiquette which a pilgrim must observe while wearing ihram, and generally while being on Hajj. They revolve around cleanliness, beautification, maintenance of ihram, interpersonal communication, dealing with the environment, and some other elements related to general decency and good manners. The Qur’an sums up those etiquette as follows: “For Hajj are the months well known. If any one undertakes that duty therein, let there be no obscenity, nor wickedness, nor wrangling (disputing and quarrelling) in the Hajj. And whatever good you do, (be sure) Allah knows it. And take a provision (with you) for the journey, but the best of provisions is right conduct. So fear Me, O you that are wise” (al-Baqarah, 197).

Wearing ihram and staying away from impropriety return a person to his primordial self as well as origins. He forsakes artificial and often discriminatory titles, symbols, routines and standards of living. There is nothing, or extremely little, in Hajj that can allude to any of these. People are all one and the same, demonstrating thereby the profundity of tawhid (the Oneness of God) and how it manifests itself in life via the unity of existence, purpose, calling and destiny. People are reminded of the simplicity and practicality of the truth, and of the inconvenience and desolation of falsehood.

In other words, a person becomes human and himself. He becomes a member not only of the earthly humanity family – temporarily erasing all falsely drawn borders and established criteria – but also of the universal family that features the boundless known and unknown planes of creation. He is constantly reminded of who he is and what he is supposed to accomplish. All paths leading to happiness, success and distinction are redrawn on Hajj. Most things are not themselves.

This way, essentially, Hajj is more about returning than going. It is more about investing (earning) than spending. It also connotes coming back home to the warmth of the ideals that the holy land of Makkah (the mother of human settlements) personifies. No wonder that pilgrims are the guests of Allah. They are in their Makkah. They are home. As Allah’s sanctuary, Makkah is free and belongs to nobody. Nobody can lay claim to it. Those who are in charge of it are no more than its servants. Makkah belongs to everyone, just as everyone belongs to it.

With ihram donned and internalized, a person’s shortcomings become exposed to him. All masks fall off and all deceitful convictions get destroyed. Throughout Hajj, a person is expected to fight his behavioural inadequacies. It is a war of attrition between his newly found self and the overarching truth, on one side, and his old self (old negativities), his ego and Satan, on the other. If he wants and is ready, a pilgrim is afforded what it takes to win the war. The spoils of war are forgiveness, a new self, a new life and Paradise (Jannah).

The Prophet (pbuh) said that nothing but Paradise (Jannah) is the reward for an accepted Hajj. 2Ibn Majah, Sunan Ibn Majah, Book 25, Hadith No. 7. Elaborating further, he said that whoever performs Hajj for Allah, and he does not have sexual relations nor commits any sin, then his previous sins will be forgiven. In another report, the Prophet (pbuh) added that he who performs Hajj correctly and whose Hajj is accepted (neither approaching his wife for sexual relations nor committing any sin) will come out as sinless as a new born child, (just delivered by his mother). 3Al-Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari, Book 27, Hadith No. 15. Al-Tirmidhi, Jami’ al-Tirmidhi, Book 9, Hadith No. 3. And obviously, for a sinless person the only reward can be Paradise.

Pilgrims are the guests of their Creator. Ihram is the official uniform of the event and talbiyah the motto and, at the same time, hymn. As the munificent Host, the best thing Almighty God can offer His guests is clemency - coupled with forgiveness - and Paradise. For this reason is the life of a pilgrim after Hajj an extraordinary mood. It is about maintaining the status procured during Hajj and about remaining as pure (sinless) as possible. Some people become paranoid. Going from one extreme to the other, certain pilgrims feel bent on repeating the occasion, and yet others – as a serious mistake and misreading, though - keep unduly postponing Hajj to their very old age, in order to live little afterwards and hence, have better chances of remaining - and dying – uncontaminated by sin.

Living through the significations of ihram is akin to declaring a “yes” to the power of the liberating spirit (soul), and a “no” to the incompetence of the impeding matter (body). As a whole, Hajj is an exploit of emancipation, and ihram is its instrument and also immediate insignia. Having sensed the value of true freedom, a transformed pilgrim wants to cherish it forever, constantly rising through the ranks. For this reason, for example, was Makkah with its Hajj season in the late 19th and early 20th centuries a midpoint of the pan-Islamic and anticolonial sentiments. It was often recommended that it be turned into the seat of the caliphate institution.

The word ihram is derived from the root “ahrama”, which means “to prohibit”. Related to the same root are the words “harrama”, “haram”, “muharram”, “hurmah” and “ihtarama”, which mean “to prohibit”, “prohibition”, “prohibited”, “sacredness” and “to honour” respectively. In passing, “hurmah” also means “wife”, in that she is deeply esteemed by her husband and is prohibited to anybody else.

Accordingly, ihram means “making one’s self sacred or prohibited (pure)”, in the worldly sense of the term, before entering the sacred and prohibited territory; that is, becoming (intending to become) a micro haram, as it were, before entering – joining - the macro haram. Defects and impurities are to be left behind as they are neither welcome, nor qualified for the unification. The situation is similar to what God said to Prophet Musa (Moses) when he arrived at the sacred valley of Tuwa to be in the private presence of God: “Verily I am your Lord, therefore put off your shoes; surely you are in the sacred valley, Tuwa” (Ta Ha, 12).

Ihram, therefore, is a state of mind, of soul, and of entire being, rather than a mere act or a process. It is something to be as much done as experienced and built on. It is the foundation of Hajj in its totality. That is why the verb “ahrama” became so comprehensive. Apart from meaning “to prohibit” it also assumed other meanings, like “to enter the state of ihram”, “to wear ihram”, “to enter the holy land”, “to enter a forbidden month”, “to seek somebody’s or something’s safety” and “to enter the (holy) state of prayer (salat)”.

With the intrinsic spiritual and human qualities of a pilgrim drawn attention to, against the backdrop of the sacredness of Makkah and its Hajj, a pilgrim’s personal sacredness becomes absolute too. He is elevated to the pedestal of inviolability firstly as human being (part of Allah’s creation) and secondly as believer (conscious servant of Allah). All of a sudden, apart from being a spectator from the fringe or the circumference, a pilgrim is being thrust into the heart of Hajj, at once as a concept and sensory experience. He becomes its object.

Certainly it was not a coincidence that the Prophet (pbuh) personally gave emphasis to this honourable status of believer in the framework of Hajj and its holy sites. What is more, he did it in a rather forceful fashion. While circumambulating the holy Ka’bah, the Prophet (pbuh) is reported to have communicated to the Ka'bah: “How pure you are! And how pure is your fragrance! How great you are! And how great is your sanctity! By Him in whose hands lies the soul of Muhammad, the sanctity (holiness) of a believer is greater with Allah than even your sanctity (i.e. the Ka’bah). That is (the sanctity) of his property, his blood and that we think nothing of him but good.” 4Ibn Majah, Sunan Ibn Majah, Book 36, Hadith No. 3932.

The Prophet (pbuh) also said at ‘Arafah in his historic sermon during his farewell pilgrimage: “Verily, your blood, property and honour are sacred to one another like the sanctity of this day of yours (i.e. the day of Nahr or slaughtering of the animals of sacrifice), in this month of yours (the holy month of Dhul Hijjah) and in this city of yours (the holy city of Makkah).” 5Al-Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari, Book 78, Hadith No. 73.

In his book “The Road to Makkah” Muhammad Asad dwelled on the liberating and unifying character of Hajj. Above all, Hajj is a humanizing experience, exhibiting the intricacy of the convergence of people’s human and sacrosanct dimensions.

Muhammad Asad said, as for instance, that the sight of a desert filled with pilgrims who were resting on their way to Makkah resembled a huge army camp with innumerable tents, camels, litters, bundles, a confusion of many tongues – Arabic, Hindustani, Malay, Persian, Somali, Turkish, Pashtu, Amhara, and God knows how many more. This was a real gathering of nations; but as everyone was wearing the all-levelling ihram, the differences of origin were hardly noticeable and all the many races appeared almost like one.” 6Muhammad Asad, The Road to Makkah, (New Delhi: Islamic Book Service, 2004), p. 363.

Moreover, in his autobiography, Malcolm X commented that he saw “that Islam's conversions around the world could double and triple if the colourfulness and the true spiritual-ness of the Hajj pilgrimage were properly advertised and communicated to the outside world.”

In the same vein, Malcolm X said: “The people of all races, colours, from all over the world coming together as one: it has proved to me the power of the One God… Never have I witnessed such sincere hospitality and the overwhelming spirit of true brotherhood as is practiced by people of all colours and races here in this Ancient Holy Land, the home of Abraham, Muhammad, and all the other prophets of the Holy Scriptures. For the past week, I have been utterly speechless and spellbound by the graciousness I see displayed all around me by people of all colours…There were tens of thousands of pilgrims, from all over the world. They were of all colours, from blue-eyed blondes to black-skinned Africans. But we were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to believe never could exist between the white and the non-white.” 7Malcolm X and Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, (New York: Ballantine Books, 1992), pp. 396, 390-391

Talbiyah is an integral part of everything ihram stands for, perfectly complementing it. Linguistically, it means “answering (after hearing)”, “agreeing” and “accepting”. In the Hajj context, it is an extension of the intention (niyyah). Thus, while the latter is uttered quietly and privately, the former is chanted, preferably, openly and loudly.

Talbiyah is an invocation for drawing ever closer to, and for an eventual union with, the beloved Creator. It is an affirmation of one’s tawhidic faith and of one’s readiness to sacrifice his possessions and self for the sake of the Creator’s ordinances. A pilgrim finds himself and feels the impact of Allah’s announcement in the following Qur’anic verse: “And (due) to Allah from the people is a pilgrimage to the House - for whoever is able to find thereto a way. But whoever disbelieves - then indeed, Allah is free from need of the worlds” (Alu ‘Imran, 97).

Talbiyah, moreover, is answering the call of Allah – the Owner of the House (Ka’bah) and the Host of Hajj. Ibrahim had been summoned to proclaim to humanity the ritual and convention of Hajj. A pilgrim desires to be of those whose hearts yearn towards the Makkah and its holy mosque as well as Hajj, and of those who have been foretold that they will hasten to the caller (Ibrahim) and his call. They will do so from each and every corner of the globe and will be using all available means of transport.

Which further means that he who turns a deaf ear – and a blind heart - to this call is lifeless and his senses debilitated. Consequently, talbiyah features references to God’s blessings upon people and their expected gratitude for them. A pilgrim is quick in recognizing and thanking God for everything, but especially for the blessing of all blessings, which is the truth of Islam. As he indirectly rejects the lifelessness and blindness of non-belief by asserting that there is no good, nor excellence (i.e. there is no life worth living, and no paradigm worth subscribing to), except that which is in God’s Hands.

Exuberant, a pilgrim wishes to be included into the coverage of those heavenly declarations of the truth and to be an instrument of their realization. He does not want to be left behind in any way. Those declarations are comprehended by the heart, pronounced by the tongue, and translated into the vicissitudes of the real world by limbs. And these three: the heart, the tongue and limbs, make up a believer’s axis which connects him with the rest of worthy material and immaterial alignments. That talbiyah is encouraged to be recited openly, loudly and basically everywhere, proves its external and collective dimensions.

According to Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali, “as for the state of sanctification (ihram) and the talbiya from the miqat (onward), let the pilgrim know that this has the sense of answering the call of God Most High. Therefore, have the hope that you will be accepted, as well as the fear that you will be told: “You are neither accepted (in my service, i.e. your talbiya is not honoured) nor blessed”, so that you will waver between hope and fear, and be stripped of your might and power, thereby becoming completely dependent on the Grace and Generosity of God Most High. For the time of talbiya is the real beginning of the matter and the place of the danger.

Sufyan bin ‘Uyayna said: “Ali bin al-Husayn - may God be pleased with them - once performed the Pilgrimage. When he had entered the state of sanctification and was well mounted on his camel, his colour became pallid; then he trembled and a shiver befell him to the extent that he could not recite the talbiya. When it was said to him: “Why are you not reciting the talbiya?” He said: “I fear that it will be said to me: “You are neither accepted nor blessed.” And when he later recited the talbiya he fainted and fell off his camel. This continued to happen to him until he completed his pilgrimage.” 8Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali, The Book on the Secrets of Pilgrimage,

Having responded to the universal call, for a pilgrim things become personal afterwards. In a sea of pilgrims, he - when all is said and done - is on his own. The central aspect of Hajj sets in. Other aspects, though important, are supplementary, playing second fiddle to the former. A pilgrim is committed to his own personal case as a part of an extensive grid. He is not sure and worries if his response to the call is accepted or not, in keeping with a maxim that it is easy to love or care, but hard to be loved and cared about, in that reciprocity is the answer. As an anomaly on earth and in heaven, one way relationships never worked, and never will.

A pilgrim is thus expected to work on going from strength to strength during Hajj, and through recurring life challenges after that, to make sure that his response has been heard, that he has been welcomed to the spiritual festival hosted by the Creator, and that his Hajj efforts have been appreciated – and accepted. Sure enough, one of the indicators that a person’s Hajj has been accepted is that after Hajj he feels positive changes in his life overall, in his attitude, manners and relationships. The same is to be felt by others. A victorious pilgrim does not talk about his Hajj; he walks (lives) it.

When a pilgrim sees multitudes of people on Hajj, he relates the phenomenon to the humble beginnings of the place. He perceives God’s answers to Ibrahim’s prayers intended for that place, and the fruits of Prophet Muhammad’s work as a grand finale. He is so happy to be linked with such historical developments which dictated the course of human history, with holy prophets being main protagonists.

It is confirmed that all prophets performed the pilgrimage. A pilgrim’s repetitive and loud talbiyah is a mark of excitement and appreciation to be part of the best company that graced the world. As if the voices of talbiyah tend to transcend the barriers of time and space and reach out to those illustrious personalities and their legacies. As if the voices, additionally, are directed to reverberate horizontally throughout the world, and vertically throughout the universe, in order to be heard by all creation and be attested to. A pilgrim “sees’ those prophets and their victories. He personally bears witness to them. As one would expect, Hajj spells the convincing evidence of those victories.

For instance, it was narrated that Abdullah Ibn ‘Abbas said: “We were with the Messenger of Allah between Makkah and Madinah, and we passed through a valley. He said: ‘What valley is this?’ They said: ‘Azraq Valley.’ He said: ‘It is as if I can see Prophet Musa putting his fingers in his ears and raising his voice to Allah reciting talbiyah, passing through this valley.’ Then we travelled on until we came to a narrow pass, and he said: ‘What pass is this?’ They said: ‘Thaniyyat Harsha’ or ‘Laft.’ He said: ‘It is as if I can see Prophet Yunus, on a red she-camel, wearing a woollen cloak and holding the reins of his she-camel, woven from palm fibres, passing through this valley, reciting talbiyah.” 9Ibn Majah, Sunan Ibn Majah, Book 25, Hadith No. 10.

Talbiya is an intimate communication between a pilgrim and his Creator and Master. A pilgrim refers to himself as “I”, the singular first-person pronoun, and to God as “You”, the second-person pronoun. This means that there should be nothing standing between a person and God in his prayers, yet in the rest of the communication modes and the whole life. Hurdles of all sorts are to be promptly recognized and conquered. Regardless of how much each pilgrim succeeds in actualizing this admittedly profound proviso, it nevertheless ought to be the goal not just of Hajj, but also of other spiritual endeavours of a person.

As a result, Hajj is not as much about “coming” and “being”, as it is about “becoming”. The words of talbiya: “Here I am, O You (Allah), here I am…” - together with the implication of ihram - represent the starting point and the first phase of the transformation.

Muhammad Asad often touched on this transformational sentiment, weaving it subtly through a variety of topics and subtopics. For example, at one point he drew attention to the condition of a ship that transported the Egyptian and North-African pilgrims across the Red Sea to the port-city of Jeddah, the gateway to Makkah, and in which Muhammad Asad also was a passenger for his first Hajj. He said that the condition was terrible, bordering on inhumane, because the shipping company, greedy for the profits of the short Hajj season, had literally filled the ship to the brim without caring for the safety, comfort and amenities of the passengers.

However, the pilgrims did not care. In great humility, with only the goal of the voyage before their eyes, they bore uncomplainingly all that unnecessary hardship. They were immune, as it were, to the suffering and were ecstatic. Muhammad Asad added: “Whoever saw this had to recognize the power of faith which was in these pilgrims. For they did not really seem to feel their suffering, so consumed were they with the thought of Makkah. They spoke only of their Hajj, and the emotion with which they looked toward the near future made their faces shine. The women often sang in chorus songs about the Holy City (Makkah), and again and again came the refrain (of talbiyah): 'Labbayk, Allahumma, Labbayk!’ (“Here I am, O Allah, here I am)”. 10Muhammad Asad, The Road to Makkah, p. 357.

A series of articles adapted from the latest book by Dr. Spahic Omer, "The Spirituality of Hajj".

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  Category: Faith & Spirituality, Featured, Highlights
  Topics: Hajj, Ihram, Talbiyah  Values: Spirituality  Channel: Hajj - Day 1
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