Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Piligrimage in the Quran and Bible - Comparative Study

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 . 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:

In the Quran - Moses's would be father in law (Prophet Shuayb) recognizes pilgrimage (Hajj) when he spoke to Prophet Moses....(May Allah give peace on all His prophets)....

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...

Quran : Surah Al-Qasas Chapter 28: verse 27

Note : The Arabic words used in this verse tsamaniya (eight) hijaj  (pilgrimages)....

In the Old Testament....

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 Lord 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 maqam Ibrahim 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:

And remember Abraham and Isma'il raised the foundations of the House (With this prayer): "Our Lord! Accept (this service) from us: For Thou art the All-Hearing, the All-knowing.

Quran : Surah Al-Baqarah Chapter 2: verse 127

"Our Lord! make of us Muslims, bowing to Thy (Will), and of our progeny a people Muslim, bowing to Thy (will); and show us our place for the celebration of (due) rites; and turn unto us (in Mercy); for Thou art the Oft-Returning, Most Merciful.

Quran : Surah Al-Baqarah Chapter 2: verse 128

Pilgrimage to Baca in the Bible

The first House (of worship) appointed for men was that at Bakka: Full of blessing and of guidance for all kinds of beings:

Quran : Surah An-Nisa Chapter 3: verse 96

In it are Signs Manifest; (for example), the Station of Abraham; whoever enters it attains security; Pilgrimage thereto is a duty men owe to Allah,- those who can afford the journey; but if any deny faith, Allah stands not in need of any of His creatures.

Quran : Surah An-Nisa Chapter 3: verse 97

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.  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, BAITULLAH, 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.

And We sent down the Book to thee for the express purpose, that thou shouldst make clear to them those things in which they differ, and that it should be a guide and a mercy to those who believe.

Quran : Surah An-Nahl - Chapter 16 verse 64

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