Pilgrimages, Peripatetics, and Pious Retreats

Khalil Adbur-Rashid

Sermon by Imam Dr. Khalil Abdur-Rashid, Muslim Chaplain to Harvard University, for the Memorial Church's Sunday Worship Service. Delivered on Sept. 29, 2019. (Photo: Stephanie Mitchell)


The transformational journey is made through the feet. The feet are instruments and tools, literally for taking us places, and spiritually for taking us places. It is through the work of the feet, the service of the feet, and in the footsteps of others that we are molded, fashioned, and transformed. The feet play an essential role in pilgrimages, specifically for the Islamic tradition, where a significant majority of the hajj pilgrimage itself and the smaller pilgrimages throughout the year are done through the reenactments, literally of walking through the footsteps of our spiritual mother, Hajar. The mother of Ishmael, son of Abraham.

In the Islamic tradition, the pilgrimage, the journey, the footsteps of Hajar are not only symbolic, they are reformative. They are indeed transformative. It is part and parcel of the pilgrimage of every single person who travels to Mecca to walk in the footsteps of Hajar. As she journeyed back and forth from one hill to another in search of hope, in search of help, in search of support, her journey back and forth was more than just footwork. It was persistence, and perseverance through faith.

And our mother, Hajar, her efforts, her footprints, her steps become models and paths for others seeking to journey to a pilgrimage. Her feet motivate us, inspire us to take leaps of faith. Her feet root us in solidarity, in hope for something unknown, but what is certain in our hearts to come. In fact, the removal of shoes in sacred spaces for people journeying to Mecca is a required act so that literally the soles of our feet walk where her feet walked. That there is no barrier, no obstacle, no veil, that imprints itself, that buries itself, that obstructs itself from our feet coming into contact with the earth, and the soil, and the places that her feet touched.

It is also through the extension of pilgrimages that we get pious retreats, smaller versions of pilgrimage, smaller versions of transformative journeys. So we have retreats to houses of worship, visits to sacred places, where you walk in the footsteps of others, your feet take you to different places, our feet take us to different places, and all the while, while we search for direction, we are walking, we are traversing the earth for purpose and for a purpose.

Our ultimate goal, whether we are in Mecca, remembering and reenacting the journey of Hajar, who was searching for deliverance and reclaiming the original state of her piety, our purpose throughout our searches and our journeys is to reclaim our sense of originality as well. For we are full of masks. We are full of external forms of adornment that mask our own deficiencies. We are full of cosmetics that allow us to beautify ourselves externally for our presence in the world while we neglect the cultivation internally of character which is what God wants from us. Oftentimes our feet take us to places of power, or our feet take us to places of glory, but it is through the pilgrimage, through the footsteps of our mother that we are taken to divine heights if we choose to walk the path.

So when we are troubled in life, when we find ourselves like Hajar did between two mountains when she went back and forth seven times searching for water for baby Ishmael in the Islamic narrative, back and forth, back and forth between two hills. And after the seventh time of going, she found the miraculous well of water that sprang up in the midst of baby Ishmael's feet.

While she was journeying between those two hills, left alone, isolated without a human being to support her, let us rejoice when we find ourselves between a rock and a hard place. Let us remember that there are footsteps that we can take, there's paths that we can take, there are choices that we can make that allow for our traversing of the earth to be purposeful, to be spiritual. Let us retreat into something divine that will propel us to better progress. Let us remember our mother.

The Prophet Muhammud, he said, "Paradise, heaven, is at the foot of your mother." A questioner came and asked him, "Who should I serve most?" He said, "Your mother." And he said, "So after her, who should I serve most?" He said, "Your mother." And then he said, "Then after her, who should I serve most?" He said, "Your mother." He said, "And after that, who should I serve most?" He said, "Your father."

So when you find yourself needing to take a break from yourself, when you want to rise above the manicured and pedicured sense of false delusion, when you want to search for your originality, who you are, the one that no one knows but God, that you that you've escaped through the pursuit of somebody else's you, when you are searching for that you in between the rock and the hard place of other folks' selves, remember your mother, the journey of the mother Hajar, and your own mother who brought you up and uplifted you through sacrifice, devotion, and oftentimes in isolation.

So if you want to make the most powerful and transformational journey, and a truly sublime pilgrimage, then serve and show reverence to your mother and all mothers. Whether scriptural, or neighborly, or in our community. Honor the ones who sacrificed themselves and invests in others, and especially you so that you could make your own journey.

Through the service to our mothers, we are reminded of the strength of the past in shaping what is to come ahead of us. We never lose sight of the constant blessings in our midst that we tend to take for granted. Through walking their paths, through admiring their paths, through seeking their paths and hearing the narratives of where they went, we see that after difficulty, there is ease.

We are and were carried and cared for by their dedication. And so although we stand on the shoulders of proverbial giants, we must always revere the wombs that bore us. And in our hurry to get ahead, we must never forget where we came from. So in our pilgrimages and our retreats, let us be reminded of the footsteps of our mother and all of the mothers that gave birth to the best of humanity amongst us. And let us be united in the paths, the journeys, the undertakings that they went, and let us be transformed by what was beneath their feet.