(RNS) — This week in any other year, somewhere between 2 million and 4 million Muslims would be arriving in Mecca for hajj, the annual pilgrimage to the home that the Prophet Abraham built with his son Ishmael (peace be upon them both). It’s a spiritual journey like no other, and one that most Muslims never get to embark on. Those who do usually end up planning immediately how to get back.
This year, to prevent the spread of coronavirus, the Saudi government has forbidden pilgrims from outside the country to enter, disappointing many who had saved, planned and arranged their lives so they could be away for the two weeks it takes to perform hajj fully.
For some the pandemic will mean that they may never fulfill this pillar of Islam. In most countries, there is a strict quota that makes it difficult for people to obtain a visa to perform hajj. The quota tends to favor the elderly who wait their entire lives for the opportunity to carry out the obligation, but a year is a long time to wait.
In the United States, going on hajj is less complicated, due to the lack of a quota for the United States. The main hindrance, typically, is financial. In fact, many American Muslims do hajj multiple times — hajj can be quite addicting.
So this year, like every year prior, thousands of Muslim Americans of all ages and backgrounds were prepared to do the hajj, most for the first time; some, like me, for yet another return visit. Then COVID-19 happened.
The disappointments of 2020 are mounting. First, Friday prayers at mosques around the U.S. were canceled in March. The month of Ramadan passed with most mosques still closed. As soon as COVID-19 broke out, those who had waited their whole lives to perform hajj this year expressed anxiety that we might witness its cancellation. By June, our fears had come true.
These disappointments may mean, however, that Muslims will connect in a unique way this year to Abraham’s story as we celebrate Eid al-Adha this Friday (July 31).
A quick background for non-Muslims who may only associate Abraham with Judaism and Christianity: Muslims celebrate Abraham as not just a prophet, but the revered father of the prophets. Abraham’s virtues are praised throughout the Quran, with his story appearing more than 60 times. He’s the model Muslim (i.e., one who submits himself to God): He never hesitated to do as he was commanded and never expressed displeasure with his uniquely challenging circumstances. We’re taught to follow him both in character and creed.
The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), his descendant through Ishmael, would describe his own mission as calling to the “Abrahamic way,” and would name his own son for his forefather — Ibrahim in Arabic. Abraham is described as the Khalil, the special Friend of God, and those who wish to pursue God’s love are instructed to do so by following his loving way. At the end of every one of our five prayers as Muslims, we send prayers upon both Abraham and Muhammad, as well as their blessed families.
So honored is Abraham, that one of the two annual Muslim celebrations, or Eids, is a commemoration of his intended sacrifice of his son, though the Quran identifies that son as Ishmael, not Abraham’s second son, Isaac, as the Hebrew Bible has it. “Eid al-Adha” literally means the “Eid of the sacrifice.” The majority of Muslims around the world commemorate the Eid with a qurbani, an animal sacrifice that is distributed primarily to the needy as much-needed food.
The word qurbani (similar to the qorban in Judaism) means to draw close to God. Most years, that drawing close is the hajj itself, but this year we can gain a deeper appreciation for Abraham’s submission to God’s decree.
While Moses (peace be upon him) is the most-mentioned prophet in the Quran, Abraham is the most quoted in his supplications to God. Those powerful supplications range from the moment he is thrown into a fire by his father, to the moment of his yearning to be a father himself one day, for children who would carry his message forward. Abraham’s prayers are always answered, even if years later, and even then with difficult commands he must surrender himself to.
Still, he remains committed to God and content with divine decree, only concerned with the acceptance of his human devotion. (See Yaqeen Institute’s series on Abraham.)
This has been the message to those who intended to emulate his pilgrimage this year, yet find themselves paralyzed by a pandemic that none of us saw coming. God knows that, while you may be physically distanced from the pilgrimage you’ve waited your whole life to perform, your heart is already there. God accepts sincere intentions and rewards them fully, as if the act of worship were perfectly performed.
As with Abraham, who would eventually see the full culmination of answered prayers after his unquestioning submission, your prayer to be able to perform the pilgrimage is not in vain.
(Imam Omar Suleiman is the founder and president of the Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research and an adjunct professor of Islamic studies in the graduate liberal studies program at Southern Methodist University. He is also co-chair emeritus of Faith Forward Dallas and a special adviser to Faith Commons. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)