Pilgrims praying at Mount Arafat in Makkah. Arafat is the site where Muslims believe Prophet Muhammad gave his last sermon. -AFP

Haj is a special journey to a special place at a special time.

Its basic lexical meaning in Arabic is just a journey, but it is also defined as a venerated journey — which makes it different from all other journeys and destinations.

Haj is a journey to abandon one’s worldly desires, to wake up from heedlessness, to correct one’s orientation after it has been disturbed or lost. It is a journey towards the best goal, to the beginning of all beginnings, the highest meaning, the ultimate destination. For this reason, the Prophet’s hadith considers haj as a jihad, indeed the best jihad, because of the bodily fatigue and the effort exerted by the pilgrim’s soul and spiritual longing.

Haj is considered a point at which external time stops and another kind of time begins: a time of communication, elevation, aspiration, and love of God. It is a time when human beings strive to regain their spirituality, and purify their life’s meaning from the poisons of deception and delusion. This makes haj a new birth, a resurrection into a fresh human life with renewed vigour. Prophet Muhammad says in the Hadith: “Haj wipes out (the sins) committed before it. Whoever performs the haj without indecent speech, misbehaviour, or quarrelling, will return as free from sin as on the day his mother gave birth to him.”

So haj is an act of renewal, a surge of life and return to one’s true self, just as it is a return to God, so that the soul regains its purity and clarity. It is a worldly journey to the next life and to correct life in this world and bring out the best it has. It makes haj go beyond the intentions of the individual believer in asking for forgiveness, rewards and entry to Paradise. Rather it is a surge of life and human communication both on a moral and intellectual basis.

For this reason, the Quran did not address the obligation of haj to separate individuals, but to all the believers. God states in the Quran: “Proclaim the haj to the people and they will come to you…” and “Believers, complete the haj and umrah to God”.

The goal of haj is not a ritual that the individual performs alone; rather its goal is a universal, human gathering, an ethical and cooperative scenario that affects the whole human family. The Quran, for instance, makes a connection between haj and the benefits that come with it:

“Proclaim the pilgrimage to all people. They will come to you on foot and on every kind of swift mount, emerging from every deep mountain pass to attain benefits.”

Haj presents us with a real human scene where people stand before God in their different races, colours and classes. Their talbiyyah (chant of response to God) shows that their relationship with God is a deed of covenant and pledge, not one of divine choosing or favour or restriction. It is a relationship of responsibility, a responsibility before God and towards His creation, an honest fulfilment of the contract. It is the same responsibility towards every human being to protect their lives, honour, humanity and freedom.

The Quran makes a connection between haj and safety. God said that whoever entered the place where Ibrahim stood would be safe. Safety is the quality to which every individual in every society aspires. It is the first condition for true worship, which should be free from all forms of coercion.

This shows the haj is a conference for humanity, grounded in safety and peace. It is intended to create living interaction between the pilgrims and to be an annual meeting point where people discuss their affairs and issues freely, creating new visions, ideas and strategies, away from oppression or control, or even weakening of the function and the deeper and wider aims and objectives of the haj.

It makes us see the importance of applying syura (mutual consultation) to haj. Syura is a fundamental feature of the Muslim ummah. The haj is an occasion not only for performing the rites but an annual gathering to generate common convictions which affect the international situation and benefit the rights of Muslims. It should be a space full of faith and mutual acceptance.

Haj is an event that is capable of making the Muslim ummah regain its character, position and status, not only in the emotional sense, but to regain a sense of integration, order and mutual support between its institutions and organisations.

This makes us recall, with great sadness, the issue of al-Quds or Jerusalem. We have never considered this to be the property of the Muslims, in as much as it is an oasis of human meeting and coexistence of everything holy — a meeting point for plurality, not of restrictions and distancing. But Jerusalem has become a victim of mad policies and neglect by the world on the one hand, and on the other, the failure among those who believe in the issue of al-Quds, to adopt any common standpoint or effective policies, so that calculations of interest override the requirements of responsibility. The overall priority is dissipated in favour of parochial considerations.

We now deal with al-Quds as a purely political issue when in fact it represents, in our contemporary world, an ethical issue, which tests the credibility and fairness of the world in dealing with usurped rights. It is a symbol of intense holiness, turned into hostile selectiveness and distancing of others.

The Islamic plan is to worship God alone, not in isolated places and dark corners but in the open space, which is filled with the existence of human beings created by God in His own image. It makes declaring the oneness of God as a course for continuous human improvement.

Declaring the oneness of God (tawhid) is a life-giving project for all humans, in accordance with God’s instruction: “Respond to God and His messenger when He calls you to what gives you life.” “Giving life” means a resurgence of life energies and a banishment of all that leads to annihilation and decadence.

I’m renewing the call I launched some 30 years ago — and have not ceased to repeat — to establish an international institute to achieve the universal goals and morals behind zakat and takaful (mutual insurance).

This is because we believe that the role of zakat will contribute effectively to end poverty and raise humanity to a position of higher cooperation and a system of settled relationships, not only in the Muslim world but in the world at large.

Haj is a form of human interaction that goes beyond natural and artificial barriers. We should beware of politicising it or turning it into empty formalities. It is a chance for individuals to search deep inside themselves, a sign of an ancient covenant between God and his servants to renew their contract with him and take on the trust of responsibility towards humanity.

The writer, who is president of Royal Institute for Religious Studies, is a member of the Jordanian royal family