Monday, January 09, 2006

On Pilgrimage, Cats, and Proof

Unlike cats, humans learn, make sense of, and store knowledge through rational faculties, and not so much instinct and intuition. This is not to say that we are not instinctive nor intuitive, but we live beyond these capabilities in a higher degree of intelligence. Embedded deeply in our rational aptitudes is a desire and often need to have proof and signs. A presiding awareness that the Quran hopes to bequeath to its reader is the coming of the Day of Judgment, which is an “ultimate” that all heaven-sent scriptures speak of. However, we are confronted with the issue: So vital is our belief in the unseen (including the yet-to-come Hereafter), how do we reconcile this with our God-given aptitudes and these five senses through which we must negotiate our brief lives? We can read and listen, and, in the process, learn some facts about our life’s journey and what to expect in the life to come. But these facts are somewhat abstract, meaning, they are words without a reality that we can now see and feel.

One of the graces of the Pilgrimage to Makkah pertains to this. For a number of days, nearly three million people, of all races and status, converge in a single setting that essential “enacts” the Day of Judgment and the journey toward it. However dim this event is when compared to the ultimate reality, the Pilgrimage maps additional meaning to the words we read in the Quran. Pilgrimage is certainly this: generous help to satisfy our desire to “see” (however imperfectly) what cannot be seen in this life but whose importance the Quran stresses nearly on every page.

In an era in which there is enormous pressure to cling to the material world and to discredit rites of worship, millions of people still drop everything in order to make the Pilgrimage. There’s no other event like it. For a few precious days, a pilgrim, by choice, is one face among millions. No longer is one an Arab, Indian, American, or Chicagoan. One’s name is not important; nor is one’s race or email password. A pilgrim is two sheets of white cloth. Not a hue of flesh is unrepresented. All are partners in a ritual that miraculously still matters. Thousands of years ago, God commanded Abraham to go to Makkah, which at the time was sparsely populated, with difficult terrain, and barren, unlike the cities of rivers to the north and west. With divine logic differing from ours, Abraham was told to travel to Makkah: “And proclaim among the people the Pilgrimage. They shall come to you on foot and on every lean mount. They shall come from every deep ravine.” And he obeyed, no matter how hopeless it may have seemed to call upon a scattering of desert clans, while, in fact, the call was meant for all of humanity. And, of course, they did eventually come, like they do now by the millions.

Just build the field, and they will come.


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