From next week two million Muslims, male and female, will be making the haj - the pilgrimage to Mecca, and to Prophet's Mosque at Medina in Saudi Arabia - this year, 20,000 alone from Britain. Muslims are obliged to perform haj at least once in their lifetime, if they are able to do so.
This year British pilgrims depart from a country that has been inflamed to debate by the recent controversy over the remarks by the chat-show host Robert Kilroy-Silk, who has been axed by the BBC for a rant which declared "We owe Arabs nothing" and dismissed an entire people as "suicide bombers, limb amputators, women repressors". Much of the row centred on a debate over whether a person has the right to express his opinion without censorship, even if it is racist or Islamophobic - a view which was supported by an alarming number of people in Britain, including newspaper editors and intellectuals (and which shows that the country still has a long way to go in terms of race and community relations). But it uncovered a deeper issue too.
British Muslims will soon be departing for Saudi Arabia, the country of the very people who were the object of Kilroy-Silk's bigoted remarks. What will they find? A people who, in the BBC presenter's words, behave with "savagery", who "behead criminals, stone to death female - only female - adulterers, throw acid in the faces of women who refuse to wear the chador, mutilate the genitals of young girls and ritually abuse animals"?
In fact what the British pilgrims will find is just the opposite. Believers of all colour, race, and nationalities perform haj together so they will meet - pray, sleep, exchange views, make friends, walk, embrace, shake hands, and perform pilgrimage with - the most hospitable people on earth, as I found from my own experience. I went to haj in 1984, with my wife and friends. We took a taxi to Medina, after we ended our haj in Mecca. We reached Medina at 4am and couldn't find a hotel. The taxi driver, who lived in the holy city, took all 10 of us to his home, where we stayed for the night. He gave us breakfast and asked one of his drivers to find us a hotel. After that, his driver came to visit us at the hotel on a daily basis to see how we were and on the last day, brought us dates from his farm. And everyone who goes to the haj will have such loving and life-affirming experiences.
The thing that Kilroy-Silk seems not to know, but should learn and appreciate, is that Islam is colour-blind. All are considered as part of a common humanity. The Koran extols such sentiments when it says (49:13):
O Mankind. Verily, We have created you of a male and a female, and made you in nations and tribes, that you may recognise each other.
Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) reinforced this in his farewell speech:
O People, verily your Lord is one and your father is one. All of you belong to one ancestry of Adam and Adam was created out of clay. There is no superiority for an Arab over a non-Arab and for a non-Arab over an Arab; nor for white over black nor for the black over the white, except in piety.
Muslims are inculcated from young age about the equality of humanity. During daily congregational (jama'a) and Friday (jum'a) prayers, all stand together, black, white, brown, rich, poor - with no distinction where one stands, front or back, right or left - in prayer to God.
The symbol of the unity and servitude of all humankind before God and an echo of the Day of Judgement is the ihram, the two simple pieces of white cloth worn by the hajis (a haji is a pilgrim). Everyone looks alike. Class distinction does not exist. Ego and self is forgotten in the ocean of oneness. Hajis are at one with humanity and with God. As you look around you in Mecca, millions of Muslims, from all the earth, are moving towards the awe-inspiring Ka'bah. And suddenly, you dissolve in a tide of humanity. All equal before the Lord of the Worlds. King standing next to pauper, rich to the poor, black next to the white. As the Iranian scholar Ali Shariati says: "We float in the sea of unity."
Malcolm X (or to use his Muslim name, Malik al-Shabbazz), who was assassinated in 1965, is well known for having had what could be described as "racist" views about white people because of the brutality of the slave experience. Yet his views were transformed by the haj in 1964: "The brotherhood. People of all races, colours, from all over the world coming together as one. It has proved to me the power of the One God." In Mecca, for the first time, he was treated as a member of the human race. He faced no discrimination. He describes himself as "utterly speechless and spellbound by the graciousness I see displayed all around me by people of all colours".
The haj is just such a life-transforming experience that I would wish it on anyone, even a bigot like Kilroy-Silk. It would make a real human of him.
Ahmed J. Versi is the editor of 'Muslim News'