The Spirituality of Hajj: Sa’y

Safa and Marwa (ٱلصَّفَا وَٱلْمَرْوَة) are two small hills, connected to the larger Abu Qubais and Qaiqan mountains in Makkah now made part of the Masjid al-Haram. Muslim pilgrims travel back and forth between them seven times in what is known as Sa'ee (سَعِي; romanized: sa'y or sai, lit. 'seeking/searching or walking') ritual during Ḥajj and Umrah (photo of Safa rock from IslamicFinder).

Sa’y, which comes after tawaf, is to walk, and sporadically at the determined stations run, between the Safa and Marwah hills a total of seven times. One way distance between them is considered one stretch. Sa’y starts at Safa and is completed at Marwah.

As a sign of vitality and ambition, Sa’y means “walking”, “striving for”, “seeking”, “effort”, “toil”, “endeavour” and “pursuit”. In addition to being an ordinance of God, sa’y also commemorates the effort and struggle of Hajar, Ibrahim’s wife, to find a solution to her and her son’s (Isma’il) predicament they had found themselves in. Moving seven times between the Safa and Marwah hills – a distance of about 450-500 meters, and about 3.2-3.5 km in total - brings to mind the dedication and willpower of Hajar even when the odds were stacked against her.

Sa’y is the continuation of the movement that has been set off and celebrated in tawaf. For that reason tawaf and sa'y are sometimes regarded, in particular outwardly, as two sides, or parts, of the same motion. They are complementary parts of one philosophy.

We have seen earlier that during the first three rounds of tawaf a pilgrim hastens and jogs (ramal) - which is a form of sa’y - whereas sa’y itself is often called tawaf. The Qur’an itself does the latter: “Indeed, Safa and Marwah are among the symbols of Allah. So whoever makes Hajj to the House or performs ‘Umrah - there is no blame upon him for walking between or circumambulating them (yattawwafa bihima). And whoever volunteers good - then indeed, Allah is appreciative and Knowing” (al-Baqarah, 158).

However, the movement of sa’y is straight, representing infinity, and is also horizontal, representing temporality. Just like everything in Islam, sa’y is a subtle interplay between the two domains. And in order to materialize, as well as temporalize, the straightness (expansion) of sa’y and its educed infinity, sa’y is framed between two earthly points: the hills of Safa and Marwah.

This framing notwithstanding, the significance and effects of sa’y are not to be reduced in any way. Rather, the physical sa’y is to be utilized as a launching pad for rising in a vertical direction towards the infinitude of the divine realm. This rising is the envisioned definitive outcome of the sa’y ritual. It is a spiritual course (spiritual sa’y) between heaven and earth, and between spirit and matter, and is truly boundless and unending.

Sa’y embodies the character and struggles of life. It is a blend of running and walking, and of delight and suffering. Which means, first of all, that a person should run towards the consequential aspects of life, sacrificing much for getting hold of them, as they are indispensable (essentials), and should merely walk towards the less important aspects, because they are relative and are no more than fleeting means (accidents).

Thus, by way of illustration, the Qur’an says that people should desire the Hereafter and should strive therefor with all due striving (sa’y) (al-Isra’, 19); that people should hasten earnestly (sa’y) to the remembrance of Allah (al-Jumu’ah, 9); that of their entire lives people will have only that (good and quality) which they strive for (sa’y) (al-Najm, 39).

In opposition, when it comes to taking advantage of the material benefits of the earth (of life), the Qur’an simply says: “walk among its (the earth’s) slopes and eat of His (God’s) provision” (al-Mulk, 15), and “disperse through the land and seek the favour of God” (al-Jumu’ah, 10). Undue tenacity and intensity are by no means implied.

Moreover, the word “safa” means “to be pure and purity” and the word “marwah” “pebble and flint”. Hence, sa’y between Safa and Marwah means that life is every little bit of striking a balance between the purity of godliness and virtue, and the impairments of matter.

In principle there is nothing intrinsically wrong with matter; it all depends on how one handles its few advantages and how he triumphs over its many disadvantages. Sometimes a person must “run” and sometimes “walk”, sometimes press forward (be on the offensive) and sometimes shrink back (be defensive), and sometimes give and at other times take - while finding the right balance.

Obviously, a person cannot survive and succeed in his life assignments only on spirituality, or on matter. Regardless of how wholesome and pure spiritual life is, a person, who is a composition of matter and spirit, and who operates in the like existential conditions, cannot have it all. Similarly, regardless of how disagreeable and objectionable matter can be, a person cannot balk at it completely, especially if that be in the name of self-righteousness. As if a person declares to matter that his life is hard with it, but harder without it, and to the purity of religious devotion that his life makes sense and is fulfilling only with it on-board, but – in the final analysis - there is no actual and complete life, nor bliss, except in the Hereafter.

At any rate, no excesses of any kind are welcome, neither with regard to purity (spirituality) nor matter. Nor are the states of being stationary and passive, mediocre and unproductive, acceptable. These negativities are fated to be swept away by the powerful currents of life (sa’y). Because of this, primarily, Islam abhors and is incompatible with the ideologies of materialism, relativism and liberalism, on the one hand, and the ideologies of religious utopianism, liturgism and fatalism, on the other.

In connection with the sa’y rite, there were three characters involved: Prophet Ibrahim, Hajar and Isma’il. Ibrahim followed the decree of God and settled his wife and son (some of his posterity) in an uncultivated valley near the sacred House of God (Ibrahim. 37). Having accepted her husband’s doing – firmly believing that the divine providence will take care of everything – Hajar set out to do her utmost, run towards and facilitate fate’s choices for her (by running seven times between Safa and Marwah and hoping to find a source of help). She was distressed but never lost confidence or gave up hope.

In the meantime, baby Isma’il was selected to be the chief instrument and immediate object of a designing providential hand. He was innocently helpless and on the point of dying, so the angel Gabriel (Jibril) was sent to dig the Zamzam well so that Isma’il’s thirst and the thirst of his mother – together with her motherly-cum-human desperation - could be quenched. The water is said to have gushed right beneath Isma’il’s little legs. Thus, it was Ibrahim who initiated the process, Hajar who stepped it up and so, induced an upper intervention, and finally Isma’il around whose personality the first and perhaps most dramatic chapter of that process was concluded.

The additional message gleaned therefrom is that man is a social being and must live in social relationships. Individualism and self-centeredness are diseases and can offer little to the social order over the long term. The success of a community depends on social coherence and harmony. Each and every member should be turned into a resource. Liabilities and demerits are damaging, hence must be faced head-on and cured. Every society should have its Ibrahims, Hajars and Isma’ils, and should have its sa’y path (quality vision and mission).

Furthermore, in terms of scopes and jurisdictions, there should be neither ambiguities nor encroachments. People should be clear (and educated accordingly) about this and should be primed for performance. As for instance, men in their roles cannot try to imitate, nor hinder, those of women, and vice versa. The place and roles of youth should be defined properly and empowered as well. In fact, they should be thrust into the limelight – just as the condition of Isma’il had been - because they are the future. As should the compasses of people’s individual and collective, official and unofficial, duties be clearly outlined. The basis should be a social contract, and cultural cooperation.

Islam does not advocate any sort of imbalance, bias, preferentialism and even equality of the sexes, in the sense of the ideology of feminism. Rather, it advocates equity, impartiality and inclusivity. In order to expect everybody to be productive and behave accountably, everybody must be given equal access to opportunities and resources first. A community should be turned into a vibrant entity whose parts are held together in unity and strength, “each part contributing strength in its own way, and the whole held together not like a mass but like a living organism.” 1Abdullah Yusuf Ali, The Holy Qur’an, English Translation of the Meanings and Commentary,

The Prophet (pbuh) said: “Each of you is a shepherd and each of you is responsible for his flock. The amir (ruler) who is over the people is a shepherd and is responsible for his flock; a man is a shepherd in charge of the inhabitants of his household and he is responsible for his flock; a woman is a shepherdess in charge of her husband's house and children and she is responsible for them; and a man's slave is a shepherd in charge of his master's property and he is responsible for it. So each of you is a shepherd and each of you is responsible for his flock.” 2Abu Dawud, Sunan Abi Dawud, Book 20, Hadith No. 1.

Mas’a – the location and route of sa’y – lay outside the precincts of the Holy Mosque (al-Masjid al-Haram). There were private houses and institutional buildings that separated the two. Mas’a was quickly turned into a main street (boulevard) of Makkah, lined with houses and shops. It became a commercial hub of the city too. During the Prophet’s time, the segment of mas’a where pilgrims are required to run was part of a dried riverbed covered with small stones, and the Prophet (pbuh) instructed: “The riverbed is not crossed except with vigour.” 3Muhammad Nasiruddin al-Albani, Rites of Hajj and ‘Umrah from the Qur’an, Sunnah and Narrations from the Pious Predecessors,, 2010

This situation persisted until the expansion of the Holy Mosque by the third Abbasid Caliph al-Mahdi (d. 785) when all the land with its built environment between the Mosque and mas’a was annexed and cleared for the construction. The south-eastern section of the Mosque linked up afterwards with a mas’a section that was close to Safa. However, the mas’a stretch was yet to be integrated into the Mosque proper. That was done only in modern times, during the first Saudi expansion in 1955 by King Sa’ud b. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz (d. 1969).

When Eldon Rutter (Ahmad Salahuddin al-Inklizi) (d. 1956) - an English reclusive explorer – performed his Hajj in 1925, he wrote about mas’a that it was lined for more than half its length with little shops, and the part in which those shops were situated was roofed over. This roof extended from Marwah to the Dar al-‘Abbas. The mas’a street, which was one of the principal markets of the city, was still unpaved in 1925. However, the author remarked that he had heard that the newly-crowned King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz bin Al Sa’ud had given orders that mas’a must be paved with stone at the earliest possible time.

Eldon Rutter added: “During my time in Mekka, it (mas’a) was always several inches deep in dust or mud, according to the season of the year. In dry weather, the crowds which constantly passed to and fro, shopping or performing the sa’y, stirred up a thick fog of dust which made breathing extremely uncomfortable.” 4Eldon Rutter, The Holy Cities of Arabia, (London: G.P. Putnam’s Sons LTD, 1928), vol. 1 p. 113.

The state of mas’a throughout history calls to mind a contention that sa’y stands predominantly for the worldly energy and movement. It is a symbol of the straight path that leads to the success of this world and the Hereafter. But the path and the mission of treading it are fraught with trials lurking on all sides, which nonetheless vary in scale and magnitude. So engrossed in his duty should a person be that he will not be bothered, much less turned away from the path. Moving with vigour and frequently running, with no time to be idle and lose focus as well as perspective (sa’y), helps a person to stay the course and never lose sight of his goals.

This does not mean that mas’a actually featured any of those trials and challenges - above all major ones - however its several disturbances, natural and man-made, rang a bell as little as emblematically. Towards the end of this construal is the following hadith of the Prophet (pbuh). A companion Abdullah bin Mas’ud reported: “The Messenger of Allah (pbuh) drew a line in the sand with his hand and said: “This is the straight path of Allah.” Then, he drew lines to the right and left, and said: “These are other paths, and there is no path among them but that a devil is upon it calling to its way.” Then the Prophet (pbuh) recited the verse: “Verily, this is the straight path, so follow it and do not follow other ways” (al-An’am, 153).” 5Al-Tabrizi, Mishkat al-Masabih, Book 1, Hadith No. 160. Ibn Majah, Sunan Ibn Majah, Introduction, Hadith No. 11.

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

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