Thousands of Muslims from around the world recently returned home from Saudi Arabia after completing the annual pilgrimage known as the Hajj.
Meanwhile, around the same time, nearly three weeks ago, other Muslims here and elsewhere, celebrated Eid al-Adha, the “festival of sacrifice.”
In Islamic tradition, both the Hajj and Eid al-Adha honor family, with focus on the prophet Abraham, Hagar, and their son Ishmael, may peace be upon them.
Every Muslim who is able, must perform the Hajj at least once in their lifetime. While there are many peripheral rituals involved, the core obligation is presence at a field next to Mecca, in Saudi Arabia.
When not on the pilgrimage, Muslims participate in Eid al-Adha festivities wherever they are.
I was privileged to attend the pilgrimage about twenty years ago. The temperature was a mere 105 degrees; locals were telling me it was unseasonably cool. I met people from across the world. Afghanistan. Chechnya. Iran. Turkey. Malaysia. Nigeria. Indonesia. Russia. It reminded me of any big city in the United States, especially our own.
A few days ago, I continued my routine of leading Eid al-Adha services before a room full of young people at a local nonprofit center. These teenagers are refugees and many are young survivors of the human sex trade. Somehow, some of them escaped from their traffickers, and made their way to safety in these centers.
We Muslims tend to hug on every occasion and we do it on Eid al-Adha. But the center rules limited me to shaking hands rather than risk triggering them with more physical contact.
How do you prescribe family and social justice in a sermon to young people who have been disconnected from their families, and may not be able to conceive that this world has any fairness?
I spoke to this week of Hagar –– who symbolizes perseverance –– obliging the young people to persevere through all that hits them. She was alone in a wilderness, searching for nourishment for her hungry son, but was convinced that the divine would provide it. They had to be convinced that light was ahead in their lives.
Perhaps that is the saving grace of religion. Religion provides healing for broken souls through hope. More than that, it compels action.
For example, when Malcolm X performed Hajj in April of 1964, it motivated him to depart from the separatist teachings of the Nation of Islam to the diverse global community of Sunni Islam. Upon his return from Saudi Arabia, he announced he planned to file complaints with the United Nations regarding the treatment of African Americans in the U.S. But before he was able to proceed he was gunned down in 1965.
When I performed Hajj, I, like many Americans, noticed contrasts. Ours is an open society, a republic. Saudi Arabia is a strict monarchy. We can travel across the U.S. without hindrance. In Saudi Arabia, we surrendered our passports upon entry and had to travel between checkpoints as we roamed from city to city.
That was in 1999. Things have changed a bit since then. Under the leadership of Prince Muhammad bin Salman, the Saudis now allow women to drive cars. They already had modern shopping malls. Now, they have opened movie theaters, screening “Black Panther.”
Things have changed in our country too. While Saudi Arabia is modifying its economy to prepare for life after the oil runs out, we are removing regulations, allowing for rapid consumption of whatever remains of fossil fuels. We now have a president who has been attacking immigrants with such force that undocumented children are being separated from their parents, preventing many Muslims and Latinx from entering the country. And now with the tragic murder of Mollie Tibbetts –– allegedly at the hands of an undocumented immigrant –– Donald Trump keeps pushing forward to justify his unjust policies.
Could we have imagined such a day? Saudi Arabia is trying to take steps “forward” while our immigration restrictions and tariffs are closing ourselves off from the world.
I am not romanticizing bin Salman’s reforms: easing a few restrictions does not mean his nation is experiencing a renaissance. He has been on a rampage arresting Islamic scholars, including Salman al-Odeh, critical of his regime. Further, the Saudis have been bombing Yemen to their south with American weapons in an alleged proxy war against insurgents supported by Iran. That war is creating more refugees as Yemenis seek to escape the bloodshed.
The headlines here and overseas just made me think as I stood before the youth this Eid al-Adha: What do I tell young people who have experienced far more darkness than I ever will? Most were crying when I spoke of family. As I prepared to leave them, a young man in tears asked me, “Pray for us.”
Prayers are a mark of hope. But I wish I had more to give.
Omer M. Mozaffar is the Muslim chaplain at Loyola University Chicago.