Jews and the Hajj Pilgrimage
by Nozrem ha Brit
There is much speculation as to the identity of those who we currently know as the Hebrews. What we do know about them is that they were a primarily nomadic people, who wandered in the area of the Arabian Peninsula with domesticated animals. The environment that surrounded the Hebrews was a culture that was polytheistic in nature. While it is apparent that Abraham’s people of the Chaldees were among these polytheists, and that latter Israelites incorporated pagan polytheistic Canaanite traditions, what essentially made them unique was their concept of God. Monotheism was not a Hebrew innovation, some such as the 18th Dynasty Pharaoh Amenophis IV, or Akhenaten, who ruled 1349-1334 BCE (Before the Common Era) in Ancient Egypt proposed the same concept earlier, but what distinguished Hebrew theology was the unseen nature of this deity. The concept of an unseen God who was the creator of all that was material also required a unique manner of worship, completely devoid of physical representation. This led to what some have termed the Stone cult, a practice that was quite prevalent in early Hebrew theology, was spread amongst other descendants of Abraham, and is maintained in a unique form in Islam.
Because of the transient nature of their lifestyle, it was impractical for nomadic Hebrews to erect permanent structures for places of worship. The easiest way to facilitate their need was the construction of impromptu altars. In Genesis 28, Jacob rests his head on a rock and during his sleep he has his infamous vision, often referred to as Jacob’s ladder. The God of Abraham, his grandfather, spoke to him in a vision and promised the land upon which he slept to his progeny who He had blessed. Jacob realized he was in the presence of the Lord, “And he was afraid, and said, ‘How dreadful is this place! This is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven (Gen. 28:17).” The term ‘gate of heaven’ translates to Babylon (Heb. Bab=door, gate El=God On=heaven), but more specifically the door to the god of the sky. The god On was a Sumerian deity associated with the heavens, to where Jacob had ascended and met Abraham’s singular deity. This apparent contradiction of terms, a dreadful place that is the house of God, was the metaphorical expression of the corruption of this unseen God. On was the main deity of the Sumerian pantheon prior to 2500 BCE who later decreased in significance (Kramer 118). He later became the father of the Anunnaki, as most of the other Sumerian gods (53). All of these pagan deities were worshipped in one form of idolatry or another, an offense abhorable to the Hebrew God. The Sumerian deity On was passed on to the Babylonian pantheon in the form of Onu, and Babylon was to become a synonym for theological corruption in the scriptures to follow.
After rising from this sleep, Jacob anointed this rock with, making it a messiah, or “that which is anointed.” He named this rock BethEl (Heb. Beth=house El=god), or the House of God (Gen. 28:18). With this symbolic act, Jacob declares his vow to God, “So that I come again to my father's house [Beth] in peace [Heb. = shalom]; then shall the Lord be my God. And this stone, which I have set for a pillar, shall be God's house: and of all that thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto thee”(Gen. 28:21-22). By erecting this pillar of God, Jacob purified this land from its worship of false gods and restored the worship of his God. What made this pillar unique was that it was completely devoid of all markings or form. Pagan traditions of the land commonly represented their deity with an idol, often cut from stone, depicted in the physical form. Jacob’s worship was not of the actual un-hewn stone, but the lack of form that it represented.
In Gen. 31, Jacob flees from Laban, but not before “Rachel stole her father's household gods” (19). When the two finally resolved their dispute, they erected an altar upon which a pillar was placed as the sign of a covenant, in the same manner that the God of BethEl had made a covenant with him (45). Laban had named this altar as a Mizpah, derived from sapha, a smooth and untarnished rock. Laban then swore an oath by “The God of Abraham and the God of Nahor, the God of their father,” apparently abandoning his gods for the God of Jacob and Abraham (53). This type of altar, a Mizpah, was to later become an important center for the abandonment of idolatry (Dawud 39). Naphthah made his oath to God in Judges 11, and offered his only daughter as a burnt offering for victory against the heathen Ammonites. In Judges 20-21, the 400 swordsmen of 11 tribes swore to God to vanquish Benjamin for their crimes. In I Samuel 8, the entire nation swore to God to destroy idols and images after defeating the Philistines, all before a Mizpah.
After the destruction of the second temple, c. 70 CE (Common Era), the Israelites lost their last remaining center of worship, their Mizpah cleansed of idols. The only faith remaining today with a comparable center of worship is that of Islam. The Ka’ba, the holiest center of worship for Muslims, was first built by Adam but later reconstructed by Abraham and his son Ishmael, apparently in a similar fashion to the Mizpahs of the Israelites. Built into this structure was a stone that descended from the heaven at the time of Adam. A smooth and un-hewn stone, it served the same purpose as the pillar erected by Jacob, a central focus free of idolatry. Other neighboring tribes also used many other stones of this type, for similar purposes (Khan, V1, B8, 430). What is interesting to note is that both branches of Abraham, from Ishmael and Isaac, practiced a form of worship around such structures. When religious festivals are proclaimed in the Pentateuch, the word used in Hebrew is hagag or haghagh, and denotes a making a regular pace around the structure while chanting and rejoicing, a practice still done by some Eastern Christian churches during festivals and weddings (Dawud 38). By replacing the Hebrew character “gimel” with the Arabic equivalent of “jeem,” we acquire the word hajaj, related to the word hajj. The Arabs also made ritual circumventions of the Ka’ba even prior to the advent of Islam, and this site was a site for pilgrimage, or hajj, for many pagans throughout the peninsula after the time of Ishmael. The generations that succeeded Ishmael maintained the structure of the Ka’ba, but corrupted it with idols and images of worship. It was not until the conquest of Mecca that this practice was purged, and all the idols were destroyed. When this was accomplished, these people who called themselves Muslims (fr. Arabic salam =peace= shalom in Hebrew), approached their Lord "in peace" in the same manner as Jacob. They established the institution that they referred to as BaytAllah (Arab. Bayt=house Allah=God), more commonly known as Islam, the same institution established by Jacob at BethEl.
One of the greatest criticisms of Western analysts of the Hajj ritual of Islam is the Black Stone, which they often claim is worshipped as an idol. When seen in the light of Semitic culture however, it becomes clearer as to what its true significance is. Muslims still make a circular circumvention of their Mizpah in a practiced termed as tawaf during the Hajj ritual. All prayers, 5 times daily, are directed to this location. It is easy to see how such a practice may be misconstrued, but examination of Islamic sources clearly demonstrates their perspective. Omar bin Al-Khattab, the second Caliph of Islam, addressed the corner of the Ka’ba (the Black Stone) saying, “By Allah! I know that you are a stone and can neither benefit nor harm. Had I not seen the Prophet touching (and kissing) you, I would never have touched (and kissed) you.” After kissing the stone, he said, “…(Nevertheless), the Prophet did that and we do not want to leave it” (Khan V2, B26, 676). Muslims claim to be the only remaining followers of the religion of Abraham, so it is not surprising that they alone maintain the ritual of the Mizpah, which is no longer practiced in Judaism. Every year more than 2.5 million Muslims re-enact this ritual in celebration of the destruction of idolatry and the worship of their one true God, Allah.
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