THE LOST LEGACY OF ABRAHAM IN THE WEST
(Editor's note: This is an article on the Biblical view on Salat and hajj, two religious practices in Islam. Here the author deals with the western perception of these practices, the Quran's and the historical perspectives, as well as the verses from the Bible on the Salat).
[19:58-59] These are some of the prophets whom God blessed. They were chosen from among the descendants of Adam, and the descendants of those whom we carried with Noah, and the descendants of Abraham and Israel, and from among those whom we guided and selected. When the revelations of the Most Gracious are recited to them, they fall prostrate, weeping. After them, He substituted generations who lost the contact prayers (Salat) and pursued their lusts...
Hajj - The pilgrimage to Mecca required of every Muslim at least once in his life
- A Muslim who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca
- In the Near East, a Christian who has made a pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulcher at Jerusalem (The Reader's Digest Great Encyclopedic Dictionary)
To many in the West, the formidable sight of millions of Muslims converging upon the Ka'ba in Mecca to observe the hajj pilgrimage, or their bowing and prostrating in unison during the Salat prayer, evokes the imagery of a foreign religion. Muslims who live in the West have often encountered the stares of common folk, who wonder out loud as they stumble upon them during Salat, be that in the privacy of their own offices or in public places. As for the hajj pilgrimage, there is simply no parallel for it today in Judaism or Christianity.
Salat prayer and hajj pilgrimage of course are only two of the five pillars of Islam, as these religious practices are traditionally called. The others are the declaration of faith in the oneness of God (shahadah), the purification charity (Zakat) and the fasting (seyam) during the month of Ramadan. Although not exactly household words (with the exclusion, perhaps, of charity), these practices nevertheless are not foreign to the Western mind set. Not withstanding the specifics, the concepts of the oneness of God, charity and fasting still exist in Judaism and Christianity in one form or another. The declaration of the oneness of God, the exemplar of which is found in the Quran 3:18, is also found both in the Jewish and the Christian Bibles (see Deuteronomy 6;4-5, Matthew 22;37). The concept of Zakat still exists in the Bible as almsgiving/charity and tithing (Matthew 6;1-4, Malachi 3;7-12, Exodus 30;16). Fasting is also found in its various forms, for example see Matthew 6;16-18, Acts 13;2.
However, Salat and hajj are generally viewed in another light. To many in the West, these two practices are the most visible and telling `differences' that sets Islam apart from their Judeo-Christian heritage and traditions.
But are they really? Are Salat or hajj truly practices unique to the Muslims? Or, are they actually ancient universal practices common to Judaism, Christianity as well as Islam, the religions of Abraham's descendants?
The Quranic Perspective is very clear on the fact that Abraham was the founder of Islam (Submission). He called himself a muslim (submitter), and asked God to teach him the rites and practices of the religion. God taught him how to work righteousness, and to observe Salat prayer and Zakat charity (2:128, 22:78, 21:73).
Abraham, together with his son Ismail, founded the ancient shrine known as the Ka'ba in today's Mecca (2:127). The Quran continues:
[22:26-27] We appointed Abraham to establish the shrine, You shall not idolize any other god beside Me, and purify My shrine for those who visit it, those who live near it, and those who bow and prostrate. And proclaim that the people shall observe the hajj pilgrimage...
It is curious that the concept of hajj pilgrimage is no longer known in the Western Judeo-Christian traditions, although as pointed out by the definitions quoted at the beginning of this article, a pilgrimage with a similar name is still practiced by the Eastern Christians.
The Quranic verses at the head of this article tell us that generations who came after Abraham and Israel lost the practice of Salat. The mention of Israel (a.k.a.Jacob, Abraham's grandson from Isaac) here is significant. It is those who received his heritage (the people of Judeo-Christian traditions) who generally consider the Salat as a `foreign' practice.
This is in contrast to their prophets and messengers of old who, according to the Quran (e.g. 20:14, 19:31, 3:43) practiced Salat as a regular form of worship, as Salat is also a commandment upon all children of Israel (2:43,83, 5:12). We shall see later that this notion is supported by the Bible as well.
[39:38] If you ask them, Who created the heavens and the earth? they will say, God. Say, Why then do you set up idols beside God? ...
It is a significant Quranic fact that the idol worshiping enemies of prophet Muhammad, who invented Allaat, Al-`Uzza and Manaat as `the three daughters' for God, also practiced the Salat:
[8:35] Their Salat prayers at the Sacred Shrine were no more than a mockery and a means of repelling the people...
History Or His Story?
Although the Quran's position on the origin of Islamic religious practices is clear, average Muslims are ironically unaware of this. For example, many Muslims erroneously believe that Salat originated during the prophet Muhammad's night journey (Isra' and Mi'raj). During the process, he went back and forth to God (with the prophet Moses' urging) to have the number of daily Salat reduced from the original 50 to five! The available records from the vast Islamic heritage show that this is but one of the many versions of what happened that night, according to narration. A more plausible version (because it agrees with the Quran) has it that the prophet Muhammad stayed in his cousin's house, Umm Hanni - the daughter of his uncle Abu Talib, during the night in question. It continues that after the night prayer (Salat al-isha), the prophet went to bed. The following morning, after praying the dawn (Salat al-fajr) together with everyone in the house, the prophet told the story of the incredible journey he went through that night (A. Guillaume, The Life of Muhammad, a translation of Ibn Ishaq's Sirat Rasul Allah, Oxford University Press, 1967, p.184. Ibn Ishaq was an 8th century AD historian / 85-151 H, who lived well before the Hadith were codified).
This version is more likely, not only because it does not have the exaggerated tone of the others, but it also contains an important observation which agrees with the Quran. Namely, that the daily prayer (Salat) was a well known practice among the people even before prophet Muhammad's night journey.
The Muslim masses over the centuries have been indoctrinated with the hearsay and exaggerations of medieval story tellers. These are full of drama but short on facts. Needless to say, the most reliable source from a Muslim's perspective is the word of God in the Quran. Historical records also support the Quranic assertions that the concept of one God, as well as the Salat, hajj, fasting and charity practices of Abraham were apparently preserved by his descendants from Ismail. This could have been one of the reasons, and certainly God planned everything, that the Final Testament - the Quran - was sent down to complete the religion of Abraham through Muhammad of Arabia, who came from Ismail's line.
What about the older scriptures? What insights can they provide us regarding this subject? It turns out that even a quick study of the Bible is able to reveal some astonishing facts.
Salat Is Not Just A Prayer
The Salat can best be described as the contact prayer (the root word sila means to make contact). Strictly speaking, it is not the same concept of prayer that people in the West understand when they say, Oh, we pray to God all the time, usually upon learning that Muslims pray five times a day. This is supplication, the act of asking God for whatever needs one has at the moment. Indeed, people who believe in the Creator, including Muslims, do this all the time. But Salat is a daily ritual of making regular contact with God, facing a certain direction, using an ancient formula which begins with washing to purify oneself, and includes the specific acts of bowing, kneeling and prostration to symbolize total submission to Him.
Biblical Perspective: Washing
Both the Old and the New Testaments mention many specific aspects of the contact prayer. For example, the act of washing to purify oneself before facing God in prayer is mentioned in Exodus 30;17-21, 40;30-32, Psalm 26;6 and James 4;8, among others. (Moses, Aaron and his sons) washed their hands and feet whenever they entered the Tent of Meeting or approaching the altar, as the Lord commanded Moses... (Exodus 40;32)
The New Testament mentions Jesus' symbolic washing of his disciples' feet, whereupon Peter objected and said he wanted Jesus to wash `not just his feet, but his hands and his head as well.' Jesus answered that a person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet; his whole body is clean (John 13;9-10), which brings to mind the Quranic rule on washing. Baptism with water, another practice in Christianity (see for example 1 Peter 3;21) may have something in common with this ancient Jewish practice. The practice of wiping the hands and face with water as one enters a Catholic church today is also worth mentioning.
Posture Of Humility In Prayers
References to kneeling and prostration to express one's humbleness before the Almighty abound in the Bible, practiced by such notables as Abraham, Moses and Aaron, Joshua, Elijah, Solomon and Jesus (Genesis 17;3, Numbers 20;6, Joshua 5;14, 1 Kings 18;42, 1 Kings 8;54, Matthew 26;36-39, Acts 20;30).
Moses and Aaron fell facedown at the Tent of Meeting... (Numbers 20;6) (The people) fell prostrate and cried, The Lord, He is God! The Lord, He is God! ....Elijah bent down to the ground and put his face between his knees... (1 Kings 18;39,42)
(Jesus) fell with his face to the ground and prayed, My Father, ...(Matthew 26;39)
Prostration in prayer is still practiced by some members of the Russian Orthodox Church, and some Catholics still maintain kneeling in prayer. In contrast, Baptists and other Christian denominations have abandoned kneeling, and the Jewish liturgy has eliminated it altogether. The only exception perhaps is the Samaritan Jew, whose prayer is similar to the Muslim's Salat, but for the language.
Regular Prayer Time And The Qiblah
The concepts of regular daily prayer times and the direction (Qiblah) faced during prayer still exist in the Bible as well. Acts 10;2 mentions a God-fearing person by the name of Cornelius at the time of Jesus, who prays regularly. In Acts 10;30 he is described performing his usual afternoon prayer. The afternoon prayer, as well as the noon prayer, also are described elsewhere:
One day Peter and John (two of Jesus' apostles) were going up to the temple at the time of prayer at three in the afternoon (Acts 3;1).
About noon the following day as they are approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray (Acts 10;9)
The Old Testament, which is derived from the Jewish Bible, also mentions several interesting facts about Salat. In his prayer of dedication of the Temple that he built for God in Jerusalem (see 1 Kings 8;22-53), Solomon stated several times that servants of God, the people of Israel and foreigners, pray toward the city He has chosen (i.e. Jerusalem) and the temple he has built there for God's Name; thus the concept of Qiblah.
In Daniel 6;10 we read about Daniel, one of the Jewish prophets during the time of exile in Babylon, who used to pray three times a day, facing the direction of Jerusalem. In so doing, he was following the examples of Solomon and his father David. The Psalms give a clear example of the three daily prayer times practiced by David:
Listen to my prayer, O God....... As for me, I call upon God, and the Lord saves me. Evening, morning and noon, I cry out in distress and He hears my voice... (Psalms 55;1,16-17)
The above list of Biblical verses is certainly not exhaustive, yet it is astonishingly clear that the act of Salat still exists both in the Jewish and the Christian scriptures.
From this perspective, it is hard to imagine people from Judeo-Christian backgrounds who do not view the Muslim's practice of Salat as their own heritage that has been `lost' over time.
A final note on this subject: In her book Muhammad, A Biography of the Prophet, Harper, 1992, pp. 148 and 163, Armstrong mentioned - without quoting sources - that the Arabs during the time of Muhammad also practiced three daily Salat prayers similar to the Jews, i.e. morning, noon and evening. In Quran 11:114, three Salat prayers are described at both ends of the day, and at night. However, the Quran also lists all five daily prayer times, from dawn, noon, afternoon, sunset/evening to the night, see 24:58, 17:78, 2:238.
In addition, the Friday congregational prayer is decreed in 62:9 in place of the Sabbath observance of the previous communities.
What does the Bible have to say about the hajj?
First of all, there are many words or phrases in the Bible which even Biblical scholars are unsure of the meaning. For example, the footnotes of The Holy Bible, New International Version (NIV), published by the International Bible Society and probably the most widely used version of the Bible, are replete with statements such as the meaning of the Hebrew for this word is uncertain.
Then there is the problem of translation itself, from Hebrew or Aramaic to Greek to Latin and finally into modern languages such as English. It has been widely acknowledged that these translation and re-translation processes are fraught with loss or change in the meanings of words and idioms. This is especially true if the translators are not familiar with the Semitic customs and manners of the time, in which the scriptures were recorded originally. There are many other sources of error in translations of this kind (discussed for example in Kenyon, 1958, Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts; Lamsa, 1968, The Holy Bible from the Ancient Eastern Text; Spray, 1992, Jesus: Myths and Message, and others).
Hajj And Hag: A Parallel
What has this to do with the subject of hajj? We have to start with the word itself, and its root h-j. The investigation of the original meaning of the root h-j goes no further than hypotheses. The Arabic lexicographers give the meaning to betake oneself to or towards an object of reverence; this would agree with pilgrimage although this meaning is clearly denominative. According to Genesis' A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, the Hebrew equivalent is hag (Hebrew script here). The verb means to make a pilgrimage or to keep a pilgrim-feast (see for example Moses in Exodus 5;1, 10;9). In the noun form it has the same meaning; additionally, the hag also refers to the Feast of Booths, to which we will come back later. It is also possible that the root hoog (Hebrew script here = to go around, to go in a circle) in North as well as South Semitic languages is connected with it. (One may recall that circumambulation, or tawaf - going around the Ka'ba, is an important part of the hajj). It is a common practice among the Jews to perform circling (hoog) in the temple's sanctuary during the hag.
It is interesting that the verb hag can also refer to circling in the sacred dance. Keeping in mind that Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic the scriptural languages of Abraham's descendants have a common Semitic root, we can easily see that the Arabic characters ha and jim are the equivalent of the Hebrew heth and gimel. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the Arabic speaking Egyptians also make the same substitution. For example, they use `gabal' instead of the standard Arabic `jabal' for mountain; thus, they also say `hag' instead of `hajj.'
Let us compare the following passages, which contain the word `pilgrimage,' from the Quran and the Bible:
[28:27] He said (to Moses), I wish to offer one of my two daughters for you to marry, in return for your working for me for eight pilgrimages; if you make them ten, it will be voluntary on your part...
Pharaoh asked him, How old are you? And Jacob said to Pharaoh, The years of my pilgrimage are a hundred and thirty. My years have been few and difficult, and they do not equal the years of the pilgrimage of my fathers. (Genesis 47;8-9, NIV Bible)
In both cases, the word `pilgrimage' alludes to the same meaning, i.e. years indicating a well known fact that pilgrimage is an annual event. Other translations of the Bible use the word `sojourning' and `wayfaring' in place of `pilgrimage' (The Holy Scriptures, Jewish Publication Society, 1916 and The New American Bible, Catholic Book Publishing, 1977 respectively). They may have kept the same understanding (i.e. `year') but in so doing, they have inadvertently obscured the fact that pilgrimage already was a well known annual event during the time of Jacob and the Pharaoh.
An Old Semitic Custom
According to E.J. Brill's First Encyclopedia of Islam, 1913-1916 (Vol.III, pp.199-200), pilgrimage to a sanctuary is an old Semitic custom, which is prescribed even in the older parts of the Pentateuch as an indispensable duty. Three times a year shall you celebrate for Me a hag is written in Exodus 23;14. The North Semitic autumnal festival (the Feast of Booths) in the Old Testament is often briefly called the hag (e.g. Judges 21;19, 1 Kings 8;2,65), as has been mentioned earlier.
Another important part of the Muslim's hajj is the wukuf, or the standing in `Arafat. This has been compared with the stay of the Israelites on the foot of Mount Sinai. To prepare for this, the children of Israel had to purify their garments and refrain from sexual intercourse. Thus they waited upon God (Exodus 19;10-11,14-15). In the same way (Quran 2:196-198), Muslims wear holy clothing, refrain from sexual intercourse and stand before the deity at the foot of a sacred mountain. (Arabic script = Hebrew script = standing).
While performing the circumambulation of the Ka'ba (tawaf), the pilgrims glorify and praise the Name of God using an ancient formula that predates the Quran (labbayka Allaahumma labbayk = I have responded to You, my Lord, I have responded to You). The Arabic word labbayk (which literally means here I am ) was the same word used by Abraham and Moses in the Bible, when they responded to God's call (Genesis 22;1,11, Exodus 3;4). In fact, a whole prayer was written around the very phrase here I am, solely to be said on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) which follows the hag.
In the Bible (Genesis 18;16-33), we read that Abraham had a conversation with God where he tried to understand God's forgiveness and mercy. The place where Abraham stood (Genesis 19;27) is called makom Abrahem in Hebrew. More specifically, the rabbinical understanding of makom Abrahem is that this is the same place in which Abraham was about to sacrifice his own son until God intervened (see Genesis 22;4, 9, 14). It was believed that on this place Solomon built the holiest of the Jewish shrine, the Temple of the Mount. (It was eventually destroyed by the king of Babylon; on this very same spot in what was already known as Jerusalem the Ummayad finally built Masjid Al-Aqsa, which is still standing today). The concept of makom Abrahem is also found in the Quran. The place inside the Ka'ba in Mecca where Abraham stood and prayed for guidance is called maqam Ibrahim or `the station of Abraham' in the Quran 3:96, as the following verses make clear:
[2:127-128] As Abraham raised the foundations of the shrine, together with Ismail (they prayed): Our Lord, accept this from us. You are the Hearer, the Omniscient. Our Lord, make us submitters to You, and from our descendants let there be a community of submitters to You. Teach us the rites of our religion, and redeem us. You are the Redeemer, Most Merciful.
[3:96-97] The most important shrine established for the people is the one in Becca; a blessed beacon for all the people. In it are clear signs: the station of Abraham. Anyone who enters it shall be granted safe passage. The people owe it to God that they shall observe pilgrimage (hajj) to this shrine, when they can afford it...
Pilgrimage to Baca in the Bible
For fourteen centuries, no one dared to `correct' the peculiar Quranic spelling of Becca in verse 3:96, the city that had been known as Mecca for as long as its people during prophet Muhammad's time could remember. (The advent of the Quran's numerical structure provides an important explanation, as the frequency of the letter M is connected to it). Some have argued that Becca was the ancient name for Mecca (see for example historian Ibn Ishaq's view, and editor Ibn Hisham's note, in A. Guillaume's translation The Life of Muhammad, Oxford University Press, 1967, pp. 47, 708). Now we learn that this peculiar Quranic spelling may also shed some light on an obscure Biblical passage. That Becca is indeed the ancient name for Mecca, the city of pilgrimage in which Abraham founded its shrine, bait al-Lah, the house of God the Ka'ba. That this pilgrimage was known to the children of Israel of ancient times.
How lovely is Your dwelling place, O Lord Almighty! My soul yearns, even faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God. Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may have her young a place near your altar, O Lord Almighty, my King and my God. Blessed are those who dwell in Your house; they are ever praising You. Blessed are those whose strength is in You, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage. As they pass through the Valley of Baca, they make it a place of springs; the autumn rains also cover it with blessings.... (Psalm 84;1-6, NIV Bible)
This psalm is also known as the psalm of the pilgrimage. It seems to reflect the children of Israel's ancient longing for the House of God that their patriarch Abraham had built in Baca (Becca), and their ancient practice of making a pilgrimage there. In a sense, it confirms what historian Ibn Ishaq wrote in the 8th century AD about the ancient Jews who used to make a pilgrimage to their patriarch Abraham's temple in Mecca, centuries before Ibn Ishaq's time. They stopped the practice when the inhabitants of the city turned into unclean polytheists.
Their setting up of idols around the Ka'ba, and the blood which they shed there, presented an insurmountable obstacle for them (Guillaume, op.cit., p.9).
The Holy Scriptures of the Jewish Publication Society retained the name Baca, but used the highways instead of pilgrimage (although still in the context of the road to pilgrimage). The crucial passage is now read: `Happy is the man whose strength is in Thee; in whose hearts are the highways. Passing through the valley of Baca...' The New American Bible's 1977 edition of the Catholic church, on the other hand, kept the word pilgrimage but translated the proper name Baca using its secondary meaning the mastic tree. The passage read: `Happy the men whose strength you are! Their hearts are set upon the pilgrimage. When they pass through the valley of the mastic trees,....' and its true meaning is irreparably lost.
Indeed, in Arabic and Hebrew, the word Becca/Baca also means `the mastic or the balsam tree.' Another meaning of the word is `the overflowing tears.' These two meanings fit the description of Mecca as well. Mecca is a place where these evergreen trees are found in abundance (the Meccan balsam is a well known name in pharmacopeia). Furthermore, the commemoration of God's Name, and God alone during hajj, truly brings tears to many a pilgrim's eyes.
Despite the many versions of the Bible's translation, a careful study by a sincere seeker will bring the true meaning of passages, verses or even a single word. God has also sent down His Final Testament - the Quran, to shed light on Biblical passages such as those quoted above.
We have revealed this scripture to you, to point out for them what they dispute, and to provide guidance and mercy for people who believe.... What we revealed to you in this scripture is the truth, consummating all previous scriptures. God is fully Cognizant of His servants, Seer. (Quran 16:64, 35:31)
Gatut S. Adisoma, Ph.D.
(The author is grateful to Rabbi Thomas Louchheim of Tucson, who is very helpful in transliterating Biblical passages from the Hebrew text and for his insights into Jewish religious practices. The author also owed a great deal to Irfan Anshory and Nia Kurnia for their very informative letter to the TEMPO magazine, Jakarta in June 1993, which became an impetus for this article. Unless otherwise noted, the NIV Bible translations are used throughout)