China is Putting Muslims in Concentration Camps Because of an “Ideological Illness”

People of Xinjiang. Peter Chou Kee Liu. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

People of Xinjiang. Peter Chou Kee Liu. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

According to a UN report, China has declared Islam an “ideological illness”. One UN spokesperson claims there are approximately over a million Muslims currently in these camps. The UN report states “the evidence indicated that most of the detentions were taking place outside the criminal justice system, and targeted specifically Uyghur and other Muslim minorities, such as Kazakh”. But why is this happening? In the words of the Official Chinese Communist Party, “Members of the public who have been chosen for re-education have been infected by an ideological illness. They have been infected with religious extremism and violent terrorist ideology, and therefore they must seek treatment from a hospital as an inpatient”. The region of Xinjiang, in recent years, has faced attacks from extremist groups and because of this, have targeted the entire Uighur community in Xinjiang to prevent them from being further “infected by religious extremism and a violent terrorism disease.”

The region of Xinjiang is a highly populated by the “Turkic-speaking Muslim Uighur minority, who make up about eight million of its 19 million people”, according to a BBC article profiling the region. With the population being highly Muslim, the Chinese government has profiled that area in a subtle racist attempt to force the people of the area to renounce Islam and their practices. In a statement from the Communist Party, they state that “in order to provide treatment to people who are infected with ideological illnesses and to ensure the effectiveness of the treatment, the Autonomous Regional Party Committee decided to set up re-education camps in all regions, organizing special staff to teach state and provincial laws, regulations, the party’s ethnic and religious policies, and various other guidelines”. Furthermore, they say, “At the end of re-education, the infected members of the public return to a healthy ideological state of mind, which guarantees them the ability to live a beautiful happy life with their families”. It is disturbing to read words such as “disease” and “those infected” when it is in regards to innocent Uiguhr individuals. Using such diction creates a harmful and discriminatory connotation that the Uighur community is “sick” and “infectious”, a dangerously false narrative.

Although the camps have the intention of “[fighting] separatism and Islamic extremism”, they stem from a fear of an uprising in the Xinjiang area and has become a prejudice and gross abuse of human rights. Many of the people who were able to leave the concentration camps now are facing psychological ramifications and a complete lack of faith in the country that they are living. The camps are supposedly supposed to help threats and protect the people, yet they are harming them instead.

 In many interviews from those who were in the concentration camp, they have mentioned that the “re-education” forces them to renounce Islam, renounce the Holy Quran, admit that the Uighur culture is backward in comparison to the Communist Party, and if the detainees refuse to cooperate, they are punished harshly. Some punishments include them not being fed, solitary confinement, or physical beatings. Recently, it has come out that there has been a death in one of the camps. A Uighur writer Nurmuhammad Tohti, died at the age of 70 because "he had been denied treatment for diabetes and heart disease, and was only released once his medical condition meant he had become incapacitated", according to his granddaughter, Zorigul. But even with the criticism and the death, the Chinese government still does not believe what they are doing is wrong. 

China Daily, a popular media outlet, claimed that “Western critics of China's policies on human rights and religious freedom in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region seem to be divorced from the realities of the situation.” They stand in defense of their practices rather than understand how harmful they are and how they are creating a dogmatic perspective.

It is concerning to see how fear has created a ripple of harmful decisions and gross infringements on human rights. There is no reason for an entire community to reap the consequences of extremists actions when they are the innocents.




OLIVIA HAMMOND is an undergraduate at Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts. She studies Creative Writing, with minors in Sociology/Anthropology and Marketing. She has travelled to seven different countries, most recently studying abroad this past summer in the Netherlands. She has a passion for words, traveling, and learning in any form. 

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Filipino Human Rights Advocate Sister Cresencia Lucero Honored

Above is a collection of drug paraphernalia, including syringes and a cigarette. Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte began a war on drugs in 2016, and Sister Cresencia Lucero, who died May 15, fought against it as a human rights advocate. Matthew Rader. CC0.

Above is a collection of drug paraphernalia, including syringes and a cigarette. Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte began a war on drugs in 2016, and Sister Cresencia Lucero, who died May 15, fought against it as a human rights advocate. Matthew Rader. CC0.

Crescencia Lucero of the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, also known as Sister Cres, passed away May 15 from a stroke. She was attending a meeting on human rights in Jakarta, Indonesia with the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (Forum-Asia) at the time, a cause she devoted much of her life to. Lucero was 77.

Lucero was a major figure in the Filipino human rights community. She headed the Association of Major Religious Superiors in the Philippines' Justice and Peace and Integrity of Creation ministry (AMRSP). Lucero also worked with several human rights organizations with other religious leaders, such as the Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates (PAHRA).

AMRSP includes hundreds of religious congregations, for both men and women. The organization as a whole works with various social issues and coordinates congregations, lay groups, and other organizations’ combined actions on those same social issues, including poverty, human trafficking, and labor rights, among others. In October 2015, it organized an ecological walk for justice. The organization was also able to arrange a justice march for the climate.

Rodrigo Duterte began the 2016 war against drugs with his presidential campaign, in which he urged people to kill drug addicts. After winning the presidency, he launched his drug policy, aiming to neutralize illegal drug personalities. Following his inauguration, Duterte said he would order police to adopt a shoot-to-kill policy. Duterte also released lists of people who were allegedly part of the illegal drug trade, which often included politicians. Since 2016, over 12,000 Filipino people have been killed due to the war on drugs, according to Human Rights Watch. At least 2,500 deaths were due to police. HRW has also shown that police reports show killings to be justified as self-defense. Lucero would stay awake nights to monitor and visit places where drug dealers had been killed. Her organizations referred people to drug rehab centers, though there weren’t very many centers or treatments at the time. Her organizations also opened churches as sanctuaries to victims whose rights were violated, including children who witnessed or were injured during drug-related shootings and raids. The drug war continues to be a major human rights issue, and in November 2018, three police officers were found guilty for the murder of a 17-year-old; the sentence was seen as a rare moment of responsibility.

Lucero spoke of the issue in October 2016, in an interview with Global Sisters Report: “But then when the killings started and those who were targeted were the small people, the poor, especially in the urban poor communities—there's no more distinction between drug pushers and drug users. The drug pushers are also users, but most of those being killed now are the users who are pushed into it because of the situation with poverty. If you look into the families and communities of those who are most victimized, it's the poor ones.

Redemptorist priest Oliver Castor, spokesman of the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines, said that during the martial law years (1972-1981, specifically), Sister Lucero was one of the people who assisted in providing safe haven for people. AMRSP opened convents and churches as sanctuaries for those who were in need, whether that meant families, extended families, or even grandparents. Even now, there is still a facilitation desk at AMRSP for sanctuaries, though the last case was in 2008.

During that same period, Lucero was the co-chair of the Task Force Detainees of the Philippines, which assisted political prisoners with moral, spiritual, material, and legal help when then-President Marcos banned organizations. The task force continued after marital law was lifted because of the vast number of political prisoners who remained. In 2014, Lucero said in an interview with Global Sisters Report that they have helped around 100 detainees a year. She made it clear that their main thought was to be supportive to the families of the victims.

When asked how she continues doing her work in the same interview, Lucero said, “I tell the Lord every night I am ready any time, “Take me. You have blessed me with so many opportunities.” So when I have to travel, I put my things in order, even my bedroom. Anything can happen.”


A number of ecunemical gatherings were held in Lucero’s honor in Manila the week of May 24. Her tireless work with human rights, the poor, and protecting people against martial law mark her as a person who truly felt for and worked with humanity. Father Toledo, a Franciscan, put it well when he said to UCA News that Sister Lucero "faithfully performed the duties of a true Franciscan and a true Christian."\






NOEMI ARELLANO-SUMMER is a journalist and writer living in Boston, MA. She is a voracious reader and has a fondness for history and art. She is currently at work on her first novel and wants to eventually take a trip across Europe.

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What Ramadan Means to Muslims: 4 Essential Reads

Women pray at a mosque during the first day of the holy fasting month of Ramadan on May 6 in Bali, Indonesia.  AP Photo/Firdia Lisnawati

Women pray at a mosque during the first day of the holy fasting month of Ramadan on May 6 in Bali, Indonesia. AP Photo/Firdia Lisnawati

During the month of Ramadan, Muslims around the world will not eat or drink from dawn to sunset. Muslims believe that the sacred text of Quran was first revealed to Prophet Muhammad in the final 10 nights of Ramadan.

Here are four ways to understand what Ramadan means for Muslims, and in particular for American Muslims.

1. Importance of Ramadan

Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam. Each pillar denotes an obligation of living a good Muslim life. The others include reciting the Muslim profession of faith, daily prayer, giving alms to the poor and making a pilgrimage to Mecca.

Mohammad Hassan Khalil, associate professor of religious studies and director of the Muslim Studies Program at Michigan State University, explains that the Quran states that fasting was prescribed for Muslims so that they could be conscious of God. He writes,

“By abstaining from things that people tend to take for granted (such as water), it is believed, one may be moved to reflect on the purpose of life and grow closer to the creator and sustainer of all existence.”

He also notes that for many Muslims, fasting is a spiritual act that allows them to understand the condition of the poor and thus develop more empathy.

2. Halal food

During Ramadan, when breaking fast, Muslims will eat only foods that are permissible under Islamic law. The Arabic word for such foods, writes religion scholar Myriam Renaud, is “halal.”

Renaud explains that Islamic law draws on three religious sources to determine which foods are halal. These include “passages in the Quran, the sayings and customs of the Prophet Muhammad, which were written down by his followers and are called ‘Hadith’ and rulings by recognized religious scholars.”

In the United States, some states such as California, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey and Texas restrict the use of halal label for foods that meet Islamic religious requirements. Various Muslim organizations also oversee the production and certification of halal products, she writes.

3. Puerto Rican Muslims

In Puerto Rico, where many have been reverting to the religion of their ancestors – Islam – Ramadan could mean combining their identity as a Puerto Rican and as a Muslim.

Ken Chitwood, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Florida, explainsthat Muslims first came to Puerto Rico as part of the transatlantic colonial exchange between Spain, Portugal and the New World. There is evidence, he writes, of the first Muslims arriving somewhere around the 16th century.

In his research, he found Puerto Rican Muslims in search of a “Boricua Islamidad” – “a unique Puerto Rican Muslim identity that resists complete assimilation to Arab cultural norms even as it reimagines and expands what it means to be Puerto Rican and a Muslim.”

He saw the expression of this identity in the food as Puerto Rican Muslims broke fast – “a light Puerto Rican meal of tostones – twice-fried plantains.”

4. Jefferson’s Quran

Ramadan dinner at White House in 2018.  AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

Ramadan dinner at White House in 2018. AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

With an estimated 3.3 million American Muslims, Ramadan is celebrated each year at the White House, except for one year in 2017. Scholar Denise A. Spellberg explains that the tradition was started by Hillary Clinton when she was the first lady.

She writes that “Islam’s presence in North America dates to the founding of the nation, and even earlier.” Among the most notable of the key American Founding Fathers who demonstrated an interest in the Muslim faith was Thomas Jefferson. Her research shows that Jefferson bought a copy of the Quran as a 22-year-old law student in Williamsburg, Virginia, 11 years before drafting the Declaration of Independence. And as she says,

“The purchase is symbolic of a longer historical connection between American and Islamic worlds, and a more inclusive view of the nation’s early, robust view of religious pluralism.”

KALPANA JAIN is a Senior Religion and Ethics Editor.

THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON THE CONVERSATION

Ugandan Nuns Protest Trafficking, Seeing it as an Extension of the Slave Trade

Nuns in Uganda are fighting against human trafficking, seeing it as an extension of the slave trade that plagued Africa for centuries. Sammis Reachers. CC0.

Nuns in Uganda are fighting against human trafficking, seeing it as an extension of the slave trade that plagued Africa for centuries. Sammis Reachers. CC0.

Ugandan nuns are protesting human trafficking as part of the 6,000 member organization Association of the Religious in Uganda. They understand trafficking to be a basic human rights and dignity issue, seeing it as an extension of the slave trade. Their inspiration to fight the issue comes from a variety of sources including Biblical stories, African proverbs, Scripture, and the lives of the saints, notably St. Catherine of Siena, who said that silence kills the world. Groups of nuns have met with government representatives to implore them to combat the issue further.

At a three-day workshop in November 2018 organized by the Africa Faith and Justice Network, nuns examined the global issues facing Africa today, as well as the effects that the centuries of the slave trade have had upon the continent. The issue of human trafficking was seen in a much harsher light following that discussion, as the Africans participating in trafficking are essentially perpetuating the slave trade.

After the workshop, 32 nuns visited the Ministries of Internal Affairs; Foreign Affairs; Gender, Labour and Social Development; and the Uganda Human Rights Commission. These are departments that deal with travel outside Uganda, labor organizations, and citizens’ human rights.

The speaker of the Parliament of Uganda, Rebecca Kadaga, met with 13 Association-affiliated nuns after they petitioned her against abroad workers’ cases of slavery and torture. She said that she blames members of government for faltering on the issue. “Unfortunately, a number of people in government own labour export companies and I am told it is very lucrative so they continued,” Kadaga said, according to the Daily Monitor. Some of the workers who go abroad don’t come back. The nuns are also requesting that the government at least halt the employment of girls, because they are common targets for trafficking and sexual abuse. They also asked for law changes via harsher penalties for those caught trafficking.

"Human trafficking is dehumanising. It exposes our sisters and brothers to untold torture, sexual abuse and slavery. Some of our daughters are trafficked abroad and forced to have sexual intercourse with animals, while some are killed for organ transplant. For those lucky to return home, the trauma they have suffered incapacitates them and makes them social misfits," Sister Teresa Namataka, from Kenya, was quoted as saying in AllAfrica.

In all the meetings, a common point was expressed: a need for collaboration in fighting human trafficking. The nuns made a statement and called for a press conference, both of which caused the fight to gain more media attention. The nuns are currently working on setting up a joint meeting between stakeholders and collaborators to search for a way forward out of this human rights and dignity tragedy.

The religious international anti-trafficking organization Talitha Kum celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, and also recently launched the Nuns Healing Hearts campaign, beginning with a photography exhibition documenting the work the organization does around the world to combat trafficking.

Other issues facing Africa today include the devaluation of currency, as well as the adverse effects of globalization. Those are particularly felt through the destruction of local economies by the buildup of discarded objects like computers and refrigerators and the importation of poisonous objects. Africa has many social ills, but the nuns are starting with human trafficking, seeing it as the most alarming.


NOEMI ARELLANO-SUMMER is a journalist and writer living in Boston, MA. She is a voracious reader and has a fondness for history and art. She is currently at work on her first novel and wants to eventually take a trip across Europe.

Don’t Blame Sharia for Islamic Extremism – Blame Colonialism

Conservative lawmakers in dozens of U.S. states have raised fears that Islamic fundamentalists want to impose Sharia on Americans.  Reuters/David Ryder

Conservative lawmakers in dozens of U.S. states have raised fears that Islamic fundamentalists want to impose Sharia on Americans. Reuters/David Ryder

Warning that Islamic extremists want to impose fundamentalist religious rule in American communities, right-wing lawmakers in dozens of U.S. states have tried banning Sharia, an Arabic term often understood to mean Islamic law.

These political debates – which cite terrorism and political violence in the Middle East to argue that Islam is incompatible with modern society – reinforce stereotypes that the Muslim world is uncivilized.

They also reflect ignorance of Sharia, which is not a strict legal code. Sharia means “path” or “way”: It is a broad set of values and ethical principles drawn from the Quran – Islam’s holy book – and the life of the Prophet Muhammad. As such, different people and governments may interpret Sharia differently.

Still, this is not the first time that the world has tried to figure out where Sharia fits into the global order.

In the 1950s and 1960s, when Great Britain, France and other European powers relinquished their colonies in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, leaders of newly sovereign Muslim-majority countries faced a decision of enormous consequence: Should they build their governments on Islamic religious values or embrace the European laws inherited from colonial rule?

The big debate

Invariably, my historical research shows, political leaders of these young countries chose to keep their colonial justice systems rather than impose religious law.

Newly independent Sudan, Nigeria, Pakistan and Somalia, among other places, all confined the application of Sharia to marital and inheritance disputes within Muslim families, just as their colonial administrators had done. The remainder of their legal systems would continue to be based on European law.

France, Italy and the United Kingdom imposed their legal systems onto Muslim-majority territories they colonized.  CIA Norman B. Leventhal Map Center ,  CC BY

France, Italy and the United Kingdom imposed their legal systems onto Muslim-majority territories they colonized. CIA Norman B. Leventhal Map Center, CC BY

To understand why they chose this course, I researched the decision-making process in Sudan, the first sub-Saharan African country to gain independence from the British, in 1956.

In the national archives and libraries of the Sudanese capital Khartoum, and in interviews with Sudanese lawyers and officials, I discovered that leading judges, politicians and intellectuals actually pushed for Sudan to become a democratic Islamic state.

They envisioned a progressive legal system consistent with Islamic faithprinciples, one where all citizens – irrespective of religion, race or ethnicity – could practice their religious beliefs freely and openly.

“The People are equal like the teeth of a comb,” wrote Sudan’s soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice Hassan Muddathir in 1956, quoting the Prophet Muhammad, in an official memorandum I found archived in Khartoum’s Sudan Library. “An Arab is no better than a Persian, and the White is no better than the Black.”

Sudan’s post-colonial leadership, however, rejected those calls. They chose to keep the English common law tradition as the law of the land.

Why keep the laws of the oppressor?

My research identifies three reasons why early Sudan sidelined Sharia: politics, pragmatism and demography.

Rivalries between political parties in post-colonial Sudan led to parliamentary stalemate, which made it difficult to pass meaningful legislation. So Sudan simply maintained the colonial laws already on the books.

There were practical reasons for maintaining English common law, too.

Sudanese judges had been trained by British colonial officials. So they continued to apply English common law principles to the disputes they heard in their courtrooms.

Sudan’s founding fathers faced urgent challenges, such as creating the economy, establishing foreign trade and ending civil war. They felt it was simply not sensible to overhaul the rather smooth-running governance system in Khartoum.

The Sudanese city of Suakim in 1884 or 1885, just prior to British colonial rule.  The National Archives UK

The Sudanese city of Suakim in 1884 or 1885, just prior to British colonial rule. The National Archives UK

The continued use of colonial law after independence also reflected Sudan’s ethnic, linguistic and religious diversity.

Then, as now, Sudanese citizens spoke many languages and belonged to dozens of ethnic groups. At the time of Sudan’s independence, people practicing Sunni and Sufi traditions of Islam lived largely in northern Sudan. Christianity was an important faith in southern Sudan.

Sudan’s diversity of faith communities meant that maintaining a foreign legal system – English common law – was less controversial than choosing whose version of Sharia to adopt.

Why extremists triumphed

My research uncovers how today’s instability across the Middle East and North Africa is, in part, a consequence of these post-colonial decisions to reject Sharia.

In maintaining colonial legal systems, Sudan and other Muslim-majority countries that followed a similar path appeased Western world powers, which were pushing their former colonies toward secularism.

But they avoided resolving tough questions about religious identity and the law. That created a disconnect between the people and their governments.

In the long run, that disconnect helped fuel unrest among some citizens of deep faith, leading to sectarian calls to unite religion and the state once and for all. In Iran, Saudi Arabia and parts of Somalia and Nigeria, these interpretations triumphed, imposing extremist versions of Sharia over millions of people.

In other words, Muslim-majority countries stunted the democratic potential of Sharia by rejecting it as a mainstream legal concept in the 1950s and 1960s, leaving Sharia in the hands of extremists.

But there is no inherent tension between Sharia, human rights and the rule of law. Like any use of religion in politics, Sharia’s application depends on who is using it – and why.

Leaders of places like Saudi Arabia and Brunei have chosen to restrict women’s freedom and minority rights. But many scholars of Islam and grassroots organizations interpret Sharia as a flexiblerights-oriented and equality-minded ethical order.

Women in Saudi Arabia have campaigned for gender equality, including the right to drive cars.  Reuters/Faisal Nasser

Women in Saudi Arabia have campaigned for gender equality, including the right to drive cars. Reuters/Faisal Nasser

Religion and the law worldwide

Religion is woven into the legal fabric of many post-colonial nations, with varying consequences for democracy and stability.

After its 1948 founding, Israel debated the role of Jewish law in Israeli society. Ultimately, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and his allies opted for a mixed legal system that combined Jewish law with English common law.

In Latin America, the Catholicism imposed by Spanish conquistadors underpins laws restricting abortiondivorce and gay rights.

And throughout the 19th century, judges in the U.S. regularly invoked the legal maxim that “Christianity is part of the common law.” Legislators still routinely invoke their Christian faith when supporting or opposing a given law.

Political extremism and human rights abuses that occur in those places are rarely understood as inherent flaws of these religions.

When it comes to Muslim-majority countries, however, Sharia takes the blame for regressive laws – not the people who pass those policies in the name of religion.

Fundamentalism and violence, in other words, are a post-colonial problem – not a religious inevitability.

For the Muslim world, finding a system of government that reflects Islamic values while promoting democracy will not be easy after more than 50 years of failed secular rule. But building peace may demand it.

MARK FATHI MASSOUD is an Associate Professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON THE CONVERSATION

Inside the Network of Mormon Moms Fighting for Their LGBTQ Children

Growing up in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can be an isolating experience for LGBTQ+ youth. Current Mormon doctrine doesn’t have a place for those who identify as LGBTQ+, or any guidance or support for young adults navigating their sexuality. Many face unforgiving ideologies that teach them to be celibate, or to “pray the gay away.” Furthermore, the state of Utah has the highest suicide rate among children ages 10-17, a statistic that is especially alarming to parents. Within this culture are the Mama Dragons, a fiercely loving support group of mothers that provides open ears and open arms to LGBTQ+ youth and families in the Mormon community. Comprised of Mormon, post-Mormon and never-Mormon women, the support group offers mothers of LGBTQ+ children an outlet and a community. Together, this grassroots group of mothers is breathing fire to protect their kids, writing a new chapter in a community of faith.

In France, This Chapel Rises From a Volcano

If you want to visit the Chapel of Saint-Michel d'Aiguilhe, aka, “Saint Michael of the Needle,” you’ll have to climb up—way up. Located in France, the chapel is perched atop a distinct volcanic plug rising nearly 300 feet in the air. Dedicated to Michael the Archangel, the church was commissioned in 951 by a bishop who wanted to commemorate his 1,000-mile journey back from the Pyrenees Mountains. Today, thousands of visitors make the trek up 268 steps to witness the chapel and its stunning panoramic views.

What is the Hajj?

Muslim pilgrims pray at the Grand Mosque, ahead of the annual Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, in August 2017. AP Photo/Khalil Hamra

Muslim pilgrims pray at the Grand Mosque, ahead of the annual Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, in August 2017. AP Photo/Khalil Hamra

Nearly 2 million Muslim pilgrims are gathering in the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia for the Hajj. This five-day pilgrimage is a once-in-a-lifetime obligation for all Muslims who have the physical and financial ability to undertake the journey.

What is the religious and political significance of this annual pilgrimage?

The fifth pillar

Millions of Muslims come from countries as diverse as Indonesia, Russia, India, Cuba, Fiji, the United States and Nigeria – all dressed in plain white garments.

Pilgrims dressed in white garments.  Al Jazeera English ,  CC BY-NC

Pilgrims dressed in white garments. Al Jazeera EnglishCC BY-NC

Men wear seamless, unstitched clothing, and women, white dresses with headscarves. The idea is to dress plainly so as to mask any differences in wealth and status.

The pilgrimage is considered to be the fifth pillar of Islamic practice. The other four are the profession of faith, five daily prayers, charity and the fast of Ramadan.

The first day of the Hajj

The rites of the Hajj are believed to retrace events from the lives of prominent prophets such as Ibrahim and Ismail.

Pilgrims start by circling the “Holy Kaaba,” the black, cube-shaped house of God, at the center of the most sacred mosque in Mecca, seven times. The Kaaba occupies a central place in the lives of Muslims. Muslims, all over the world, are expected to turn toward the Kaaba when performing their daily prayers.

The Quran tells the story of Ibrahim, who when commanded by God, agreed to sacrifice his son, Ismail. Muslims believe the Kaaba holds the black stone upon which Ibrahim was to carry out his oath.

Pilgrims are bound by specific rules regarding going around the Kaaba. They may kiss, touch or approach the Kaaba during the pilgrimage as a sign of their devotion.

In performing these rituals, they join a long line of pilgrims to Mecca – including Prophet Muhammad, who circled the Kaaba.

Pilgrims then proceed to a ritual walk – about 100 meters from the Kaaba – to hills known as “Safa” and “Marwah.” Here they re-create another significant event recorded in the Quran.

The story goes that Ibrahim was granted a son by God through his Egyptian slave girl Hajar. After the birth of Ismail, God instructed Ibrahim to take Hajar and her newborn son out into the desert and leave them there. Ibrahim left them near the present-day location of the Kaaba. Ismail cried out with thirst and Hajar ran between two hills, looking for water until she turned to God for help.

God rewarded Hajar for her patience and sent his angel Jibreel to reveal a spring, which today is known as “Zamzam Well.” Pilgrims drink water from the sacred well and may take some home for blessings.

The second day of the hajj

Pilgrims praying on Arafat.  Al Jazeera English ,  CC BY-SA

Pilgrims praying on Arafat. Al Jazeera EnglishCC BY-SA

The hajj “climaxes” with a sojourn in the plains of Arafat near Mecca. There, pilgrims gather in tents, spend time with one another and perform prayers. Some pilgrims will ascend a hill known as the “Mount of Mercy,” where Prophet Muhammad delivered the farewell sermontoward the end of his life.

They then proceed to an open plain near Mecca, often a highlight of the journey for many pilgrims. Muslims believe that the spirit of God comes closer to Earth in this place at the time of the pilgrimage.

As a scholar of global Islam, during my fieldwork I have interviewed those who have gone on the Hajj. They have described to me their personal experiences of standing in the plains of Arafat or circling the Kaaba with fellow Muslims and feeling a close communion with God.

Final three days

Afterwards, pilgrims move to Mina, also known as the Tent City where more than 100,000 tents house the millions of pilgrims about 5 kilometers from the holy city of Mecca.

Here they recall how Satan tried to tempt Ibrahim to disobey God’s call to sacrifice Ismail. Ibrahim, however, remained unmoved and informed Ismail, who was willing to be offered to God. To reenact Ibrahim’s rebuff of Satan’s temptation, pilgrims throw small stones at a stone pillar.

They then proceed to follow Ibrahim in the act of sacrifice. The Quran says just as Ibrahim attempted to kill his son, God intervened and a ram was killed in place of Ismail. In remembrance, Muslims all over the world ritually slaughter an animal on this day. The “festival of the sacrifice” is known as Eid al-Adha.

Pilgrims stoning the devil in Mina.  Al Jazeera English ,  CC BY-SA

Pilgrims stoning the devil in Mina. Al Jazeera EnglishCC BY-SA

Many pilgrims spend the next few days in Mina, where they repeat some of the rituals. It is where they start to transition to their worldly life by putting on their everyday clothes.

Muslims believe that a proper performance of the Hajj can absolve them of any previous sins. However, they also believe that just undertaking the pilgrimage is not enough: It is up to God to judge, based on the intention of those undertaking the pilgrimage.

Creating one Muslim community

Of course, the pilgrimage does not take place in a political void. The Hajj is a massive organizational project for the Saudi authorities. Issues concerning crowd management, security, traffic and tensions constantly plague the successful organization of the event. A tragic stampede in 2015 left over 700 dead. Since then Saudi authorities review preparations even more carefully.

There are other tensions too that come up at this time: Some Shiagovernments such as Iran, for example, have leveled charges alleging discrimination by Sunni Saudi authorities.

This year, Muslims from Canada are concerned about logistics traveling back from the Hajj. Saudi Arabia has suspended all direct flights to Canada in a diplomatic feud sparked by tweets related to the Kingdom’s human rights violations.

To address such issues, Muslims in the past have called to put together an international, multi-partisan committee to organize the pilgrimage. Perhaps that could help avoid regional or sectarian conflicts. The Hajj, after all, is any individual Muslim’s single most symbolic ritual act that reflects the ideal of unity.

By requiring Muslims to don the same clothes, pray in the same space and perform the same rituals, the Hajj has the potential to unite a global Muslim community across national and class boundaries.

KEN CHITWOOD is a Ph.D. Candidate of Religion in the Americas and Global Islam at the University of Florida

THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON THE CONVERSATION