According to the teachings of Islam, there are five pillars to the faith:
1) The shahadah, which is the basic creed or tenet of Islam.
2) Salah, or ritual prayer, which must be performed five times a day. Each salah is done facing towards the Kaaba in Mecca.
3) Zakat, or alms-giving. This is the practice of giving based on accumulated wealth, and is obligatory for all Muslims who can afford it.
4) Sawm, or the fast, which is observed during the month of Ramadan. During the month of Ramadan, Muslims are not supposed to eat or drink (among other things) from dawn to dusk during this period of the fast. Prayers, fasting, charity, and self-accountability are especially stressed during this period.
5) The Hajj, which is the pilgrimage during the Islamic month of Dhu al-Hijjah in the city of Mecca. Every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it must make the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in his or her lifetime.
The month of Ramadan, by the way, starts this Thursday. So later this week, Muslims around the world will observe the ritual fast from dawn to dusk. The fast is supposed to bring one closer to God, and one is supposed to be more mindful of his/her actions and thoughts during this important period.
After September 11, 2001, I was one of those people utterly confused by the state of the world. Like many people, I consider myself ignorant about Islam. It is one of the major faith of the world, and yet we know so little about it. So I did what I usually do when I am curious about a subject -- I researched. I read.
I started reading up on the history of the Middle East and Islam. Among my readings: Karen Armstrong, Bernard Lewis, and Amin Maalouf's The Crusade Through Arab Eyes. What little I have learned is that Islam is not the faith of terror as George W. Bush would like the world to believe. I found myself developing an interest in Middle-Eastern related literature -- and it indirectly led me to the Sufi poetry of Rumi and Hafiz.
Recently I picked up One Thousand Roads to Mecca, a collection of essays about the Hajj, from various writers across ten centuries. The diversity of the writers give a unique insight into the pilgrimage and the faith. There are some familiar names: Ibn Jubayr, Ibn Battuta, Sir Richard Burton and Malcolm X.
Here is an anthology of the ultimate pilgrimage, and it is edited by Michael Wolfe, an American who performed the Hadj in 1990. He arranged the essays chronologically -- from mid 11th century to end of the 20th century, and had chosen first-person accounts that were "more carefully observed than sentimental." He wanted to illustrate how perennial the rites themselves have proved, and perhaps to give readers a sense of history of the pilgrimage.
It's a thick book, and I don't expect to finish reading it any time soon. But I'll imbibe it slowly.
I have always been interested in travel narratives -- due to my own personal interest in travel as pilgrimage. Pilgrimage is a spiritual journey both within and without. A pilgrim endures great hardship, travelling over great distance -- for a purpose greater than himself/herself. In the undertaking of the pilgrimage, something is discovered, something is weathered away. The person who arrives is no longer the same person who begun the journey. The pilgrimage is a communal experience, but also an intensely personal one.