As millions of Muslims around the world converge on Saudi Arabia to perform the Hajj, I want to share with you the story of millions of women in Mali, babies in tow, who recently made their own hajj. Muslims go on Hajj to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, to save and purify their souls and to fulfill a major religious right. These Malian women made a pilgrimage to health centers across Mali to get bed nets to save their childrens' lives.
Eid-ul-Adha, or the Feast of Sacrifice, marks the Hajj season. It commemorates the time that God, in the ultimate test of faith, asked the Prophet Ibrahim to sacrifice his son, Ismael. Ibrahim wrestled with God’s request of him, but when Ismael heard what had been asked of his father, he demanded that Ibrahim surrender to the God's will; as Ibrahim prepared for the sacrifice, Ismael comforted his father and encouraged him to close his eyes to make it easier. As Ibrahim touched the sword to Ismael’s throat, in an act of God’s infinite mercy, Ismael was transported to safety and a sheep was slaughtered in his place. Millions of Muslim slaughter animals during Eid-ul-Adha to remember Ibrahim and Ismael’s willingness to surrender to God’s will and God’s mercy.
Ismael's mother also figures prominently in the primary text of Islam. Ibrahim was an elderly and childless man by the he time he took Hajar as a junior wife. When Hajar finally gave birth to their son, Ismael, the miraculous birth was received with great joy and happiness, but soon after God asked Ibrahim to leave Hajar and and the infant Ismael in a distant, isolated desert location. Mother and child quickly depleted their small supply of water and a few dates. Realizing that her life and the life of her baby depended on finding sustenance, Hajar called out to God for help. No answer. She ran to a nearby mountain named and called again to her Lord for help. She ran in the valley to the next mountain, , calling on God for sustenance. Seven times, she ran back and forth, praying all the while to God for help. At last, an angel appeared in human form and kicked his heels in the dry desert sand. Up from the spot he furrowed into the desert floor sprang a well of water, which immediately nourished Hajar and her son. The story is a powerful example of how a woman, relying solely on her faith in God, saved her life and the life of her son.
Hajj is the final of the five pillars of Islam and it is required of any adherent that is physically and financially able. Throughout the Hajj, pilgrims chant the following:
“Here I am at Thy service O Lord, here I am. Here I am at Thy service and Thou hast no partners. Thine alone is All Praise and All Bounty, and Thine alone is The Sovereignty. Thou hast no partners."
Pilgrims wear an ihram which is a simple white garment designed to blend the prince and the pauper, the famous and the unknown. They complete a number of rituals in remembrance of our spiritual ancestors. These rituals, which involve prayer as well as performative acts, represent aspects of the story of Abraham, Ismael, Hajar and Muhammad. Over the days of hajj, the pilgrims will circumambulate the kaa’ba (house of God) many times to symbolize God’s centrality in their lives.
I was blessed to make the Hajj pilgrimage with my parents in 1998. This year, I was blessed to make another sort of hajj. I, along with a group of American Muslim Leaders, made a pilgrimage to Africa, where 2.2 million insecticide treated bed nets were distributed to 2.8 million children.
Millions of women trekked from villages throughout the mostly rural country to the health centers distributing the nets. They are Fulani, Tuareg and Segou. They live in the tropical savanna in the south, the dry desert in the north, and on the river banks of the Niger River. Many of them farm or make crafts to subsist. All of them know the dangers of malaria.
Malaria is the number one killer of children in Africa. A female mosquito, most active during the night hours, bites a sleeping child and transmits deadly parasites. Within days, the child begins to exhibit intense fever; without treatment, the child is dead within a week. In Africa, a child dies from malaria every 30 seconds.
It takes a $10 insecticide treated bed net to prevent malaria. In addition to preventing access to sleeping children, the nets kill deadly mosquitos on impact. Malaria is an affliction of the developing world, where most people can’t afford the bed nets and don’t have easy access to health care centers for treatment.
4,000 volunteer health workers descended on Mali in recent weeks to encourage women in isolated villages to bring their children and receive a free bed net. The volunteers encountered a culture of suspicion about the net distribution. Husbands are indifferent at best and many elders are suspicious of the net campaign, wondering if the nets will harm children and asserting that illness and death is God’s will, not to be thwarted. However, the women of Mali, remembering the children and the family members they’ve lost to malaria, were determined to save their babies from the same fate.
Last Thursday, in the last half of the night, these women rose, secured their babies to their backs with fabric, and began their pilgrimage to the health centers. In the rural areas, many women walked more than twenty kilometers. All over Mali, women lined up, circling the health center buildings, waiting for their nets. As they waited in long lines, they were prayerful, hopeful and patient. They knew that if with the nets, malaria will be one less major affliction for them to worry about.
One by one, each mother and child received a net and a simple explanation on installation. Mothers carried the nets in their hands, tucked them into the fabric with their babies, or placed them in bags to carry. And then, they began their trek back home.
Because of these nets, a better prospect for childhood survival was guaranteed to no less than ninety-five percent of the children in Mali. The greeting for a person when they return from hajj is, “Hajj Mabroor!” Translated, this phrase means “May God Accept your pilgrimage.” I pray that God accept all of our pilgrimages.
Saleemah Abdul-Ghafur is the editor of Living Islam Out Loud: American Muslim Women Speak. She was an integral part of a national movement to give women space and voice in American mosques. A frequent presenter on Islam and women, Abdul-Ghafur lives in Atlanta, Georgia. For more information visit http://www.livingislamoutloud.com or www.malarianomore.org.