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The Bigger Picture: Understanding Loss, Sacrifice, and Purpose in Dhul Hijjah

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pupose in dhul hijjah

Time and time again, sitting with hundreds of patients in my role as a hospital chaplain, I’m learning that the most powerful spiritual discoveries come at different times and in different ways for every one of us. And yet, many of the lessons learned through crisis and hardship mirror the deeper wisdoms already embedded within the sacred rituals of Hajj – which in turn relates to finding purpose in Dhul Hijjah.

After particularly meaningful patient encounters, I try to spend some time reflecting on the themes of the patient’s crisis, and connecting those themes to ones that surface in our tradition. In Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), or field-work training for chaplaincy students, this practice is called theological reflection.

One middle-aged patient I visited had traveled to a major metropolis for cosmetic surgery. It was the first time they had ever left their family, who had encouraged the patient to go and “do something for yourself.” Unexpectedly, the procedure resulted in a worsening infection that necessitated a lengthy hospitalization. What was supposed to be a two or three week trip for the procedure stretched out for over a month with no promises of a flight home anytime soon.

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With me, the patient cried, grieving many losses: mobility, autonomy, family and community roles, home, sleep and rest, and a body free from constant pain. The patient missed their children viscerally, grateful for FaceTime but tortured by the look in the children’s eyes when the children admitted how much they miss the patient.

What I thought throughout the visit:

Why did you sacrifice so much for cosmetic surgery? Did you really need this? What are you teaching your children? Don’t you see God calling you back to Him through this?

What I said:

Nothing.

Meaning-Making and The Role of the Chaplain

In times of crisis, meaning-making surfaces in various ways. Some of us revive and internalize what we already know theoretically from our religious tradition, and others of us have to create meaning anew. In the end, it’s always God’s timing and God’s way on the path. The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ knew this, serving as a gentle guide who could be patient with people’s individualized journeys to Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) while consistently choosing to see a person’s potential rather than the unrefined version presently manifesting. Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) shares with us the Prophet’s ﷺ role as a witnesser, a bringer of hope, and as one who also gives caution.

 

 

“O Prophet, indeed We have sent you as a witness and a bringer of good tidings and a warner.” [Surat Al-‘Aĥzāb 33;45]

Notably, Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) commands the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ to first witness (listen deeply) before offering words of hope or advice. Truly, in my experience in chaplaincy, the second and third steps fall flat without fulfilling the first. As a chaplain, I spend a lot of time and effort exerting control over my initial (and often nafsi) instinct to “fix” the care seeker. Rather, chaplains aim to create a space wherein a care seeker feels seen, heard, and understood, and can only then begin the heavy but necessary work of muraqaba (self-observation) and muhasabah (self-assessment).

To counter my assumptions and judgments of the patient, I listened longer to understand how the patient had reached the decision to pursue cosmetic surgery. The patient’s larger story was still unfolding, and I was there for a brief moment as an unnamed, side character (“the hospital chaplain”) in this single chapter. The patient spoke about their relatively smooth and privileged life and their gradual interest in cosmetic surgery as they approached their fifties. Most of the patient’s social circle had already done work on their bodies with easy results.

The patient eventually said, “I know God is trying to teach me a lesson in gratitude and humility. I’m still unsure why all of this had to happen in such an extreme way, but I know there’s a lesson here.” Slowly, the patient began the delicate and powerful process of meaning-making. The patient symbolically ran between two mountains in the retelling of their story, seeking answers and assistance. Lady Hajar raḍyAllāhu 'anha (may Allāh be pleased with her) ran to the top of the Safa and Marwa mountains for a better view of the valley beneath to gain a better vantage point in finding help. The mountains offered Hajar raḍyAllāhu 'anha (may Allāh be pleased with her)a bird’s eye view of the land such that she could see the “bigger picture” and decide her next move. Upon finding nothing and nobody, Hajar raḍyAllāhu 'anha (may Allāh be pleased with her) ran between the mountains for a total of seven times in the scorching desert heat until she heard a voice directing her to witness the angel Jibreel digging in the ground (or in another narration, Ismaeel 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) kicking the ground with his heels), from which the fountain of Zamzam began to flow. This illustrates beautifully the verse in the Qur’an that states,

“God will find a way out for those who are mindful of Him, and will provide for them from an unexpected source; God will be enough for those who put their trust in Him” [Surat Aţ-Ţalāq: 65;3]

Hajar raḍyAllāhu 'anha (may Allāh be pleased with her) ran between Safa and Marwa looking for just enough water to nourish herself and her infant, and she could not have predicted that a spring of blessed water would surface and quench the thirst of generations of souls. We may often find ourselves feeling unmotivated to continue striving when we don’t see immediate results from our work or immediate responses to our dua’a. Sometimes, we may feel stuck, like we’re doing the same thing over and over again with little to no results. However, we learn from Hajar’s raḍyAllāhu 'anha (may Allāh be pleased with her) story that Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) remains in control of the outcome, and it’s up to us to do the traveling, traversing, seeking, and working. We’re never really “stuck” in the same place; things are moving and evolving, but it may be that we don’t see the manifestations until later. Hajar’s raḍyAllāhu 'anha (may Allāh be pleased with her) striving – exemplified in the act of running between Safa and Marwa – is now an integral part of a Muslim’s pilgrimage experience; this seemingly mundane act was elevated to something sacred, into worship. So too, a patient’s exertion in seeking answers from God and reflecting on the crisis to glean wisdom, reflects a form of worship through fikr, or contemplation.

Suffering as a Potential Source of Growth

Notably, until both the patient and Hajar raḍyAllāhu 'anha (may Allāh be pleased with her) found themselves in a posture of desperation and need, which fueled their seeking and striving, the respective symbolic and literal wellspring of their efforts could not manifest. In other words, it is in the station of hardship that our spiritual potential blossoms. In Hajj, pilgrims suddenly find themselves in harsh conditions meant to create ideal circumstances for deep reflection of one’s life. In the hospital, the isolation and uncertainty of a patient ushers them out of ghafla (auto-pilot) and into an introspective state conducive to spiritual growth and maturation. In difficulty, stripped of our usual comforts and privileges, we re-prioritize. The patient spoke of their renewed gratitude for everything, from prior freedom to move around a space without assistance, to the current expressions of compassion by nurses and doctors. The patient reflected on how they wanted to live life a bit more intentionally upon healing. In this posture of reflection, the patient recalled the words of their religious teacher who had said once, “You’re either in a storm, or coming out of a storm, or just about to enter a storm.” And the patient incorporated that lesson in new, personal ways.

I could have perhaps delivered a pithy lecture at bedside with all of these points. I could have peppered the patient’s story with the loud judgments running through my mind to make them “see” their shortcomings as I perceived them. However, the most impactful means of learning often come not from text but from lived experience. Is it no wonder, then, that Hajj engages all pilgrims on a holistic level in mind, body, and soul/spirit. Many pilgrims return from Hajj recounting the grueling conditions and not necessarily a soothing spiritual encounter. The here and now of the work – grounded in the cyclical movements of salah, grounded in the hunger pangs of our stomachs while fasting, grounded in the ambulation of tawaf – offer conduits to Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He). We call it “work” because it requires exertion, discomfort, and pain; all qualities at which our nafs (lower self) recoils. The lessons concluded by the care seeker always reflect a deeper and more nuanced understanding than anything I could offer from my second-hand perspective.

In the Absence of Clear Answers

The patient also shared that they had been praying more frequently since the botched surgery but still “heard” no answer from God. “I know God is listening,” the patient said thoughtfully, “but He hasn’t told me why this is happening.”  How many of us have raised our eyes heavenward and asked, “Why is this happening?” only to be met with seeming silence? Lady Hajar raḍyAllāhu 'anha (may Allāh be pleased with her) found herself in a situation when she asked questions and literally received no answer. Prophet Ibrahim 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him), Hajar raḍyAllāhu 'anha (may Allāh be pleased with her), and baby Ismaeel 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) had reached Mecca in the pre-Kabaa era – a deserted city with no inhabitants or water sources. Without explanation, Prophet Ibrahim 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) began to walk away from his wife and infant son, offering them only a bag of dates and a satchel of water. Hajar raḍyAllāhu 'anha (may Allāh be pleased with her) followed Ibrahim 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him), repeatedly asking him where he was going, but Ibrahim remained quiet.

In the absence of a clear answer, Hajar raḍyAllāhu 'anha (may Allāh be pleased with her) reflected on what she already knew theologically and asked Ibrahim 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) if his abrupt departure was a command from Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He), to which Ibrahim 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) confirmed, “yes.” Her beautiful answer was, “Then He will not neglect us.” In crisis, Hajar raḍyAllāhu 'anha (may Allāh be pleased with her) returned to her knowledge and good opinion of Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He). While she could not understand the wisdom of the crisis at that moment, she nonetheless trusted in God’s plan without the oft-sought reassurance of a clear reason. The Messenger of Allah ﷺ said, “Allah the Exalted says: ‘I am as my servant expects me to be.” Clearly, Hajar raḍyAllāhu 'anha (may Allāh be pleased with her) held a most lofty opinion and expectation of her Lord, and, of course, Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) met that expectation, and then some.

Purposeful Sacrifice

Hajar raḍyAllāhu 'anha (may Allāh be pleased with her) demonstrated a graceful manifestation of this month’s theme of sacrifice. From the first moment she understood that Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) decreed that she be left alone in the desert with her baby, her immediate response was one of istislam, or surrender, and yaqeen, or firm belief in Allah’s subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) presence and assistance. How many times in our life have we felt abandoned, alone, lonely, or out of resources and cut off from our support system? The Qur’an tells us that Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) is near, that His help is near, that He is our sole Protector and Provider. What does our sacrifice for Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) look like this month? What or whom has consumed our thoughts and distracted us such that we need to strive harder to let go of for His sake?

Sacrifice necessarily entails loss. To sacrifice means that we willingly waive something for another. In Islam, God asks Muslims to sacrifice for His Sake only. Psychologically, this cushions our loss by giving it a higher purpose – we lose something, but we gain something better, whether it be the pleasure of God, inner peace through detachment, reward in the Hereafter, or all of the above. That which we love and treasure most, we sacrifice for. As Muslims, our striving to Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) may be rooted in love for Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He), making all the pain and disruptions worthwhile.

For the patient, sacrifice came in the form of leaving family and home for a journey toward cosmetic surgery. When the loss heavily outweighed the gain, bewilderment and grief crashed upon the patient. What was lost never met the threshold of purpose. Pilgrims leave behind their families and familiar comforts for Hajj with a focused goal of striving to Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) and without truly knowing the outcome of the journey. Some pilgrims, especially those with lesser resources, embark on the pilgrimage with no assurance that they will even survive. However, what could be lost for these pilgrims – lives, health, and so on – as well as the endurance of intense hardship remains within the realm of purposeful loss through the paradigm of religious meaning.

As I reflect on the legacy of Prophet Ibrahim 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) and his family, I sense a theme not only of sacrifice and unwavering trust in Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He), but also a commitment to a lifetime of struggle and work without any reassurance of a specific outcome. When Prophet Ibrahim 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) was commanded by Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) to sacrifice his son, Ismaeel 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him), Prophet Ibrahim 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) could not predict that Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) would exchange his son for a sheep – and yet, Prophet Ibrahim 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) submitted anyway. When he and Ismaeel 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) built the Kaaba, they could not have imagined that millions of Muslims would be visiting that site on a regular basis in worship of the One True God – and yet, they submitted anyway. Prophet Ibrahim 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) is known as an Ummah unto himself as the first pure monotheist:

 

“Indeed, Abraham was a [comprehensive] leader, devoutly obedient to Allah , inclining toward truth, and he was not of those who associate others with Allah.”

 

 

“[He was] grateful for His favors. Allah chose him and guided him to a straight path.”

 

 

“And We gave him good in this world, and indeed, in the Hereafter he will be among the righteous.”

 

 

 

Then We revealed to you, [O Muhammad], to follow the religion of Abraham, inclining toward truth; and he was not of those who associate with Allah.” [Surat An-Naĥl; 16:120-123]

I never truly understood the significance of this title as one that reflects Ibrahim’s incredibly high station. Ibrahim 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) sacrificed everything he had purely for the sake of His Lord and earned the title of “Friend of God” given his deep connection to Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He).

For me as a chaplain, I often find Allah’s subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) Divine Presence in hospital rooms with patients doing the difficult work of seeking, striving, and sacrificing. Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) says in a Hadith Qudsi, “Did you not realize that if you had visited (the sick) you would have found Me with him?”

We need not transcend or travel to know and connect to Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He). While we may feel sadness when thinking about a missed opportunity to visit Mecca this year, know that on the day of Mount Arafat, we may find that symbolic mountain place in our bedroom or living room as we perfume our surroundings with our prayers and tears. Even the Ka’abah exists solely to point us back toward the Lord of the Ka’abah. In a famous story from the Islamic mystical tradition, Rabia al-Adawiyya was heading for pilgrimage toward Mecca. In the middle of the desert, she saw that the house of God, the Ka’abah itself, had come to welcome her. She said: “I need the Lord of the House. What am I to do with the Ka’abah?”

In the Qur’an, God describes Himself as “Nurun ‘ala nur,” or Light upon Light. When I reflect on this beautiful way of capturing God’s essence, I’m struck by how the brilliance of light, when shined into a crevice, reaches all surfaces from the shallow to the deepest and darkest of voids. For those seeking God, remember that He is not only a Constant Presence as you move about your day –“He is with you wherever you are” [Surat Al-Ĥadīd:57;4) – His light bathes and caresses the deepest parts of you, physically and metaphysically. Don’t turn outward to find Him; seek Him in your being and in the deep, dark places of your soul. He is here.

 

May the Most Merciful accept from us our striving and seeking in these blessed days and beyond; may He grant us the awareness of seeing the sacred in the mundane; and may He grant us the strength and fortitude we need to sacrifice that which distances us from Him. May our sacrifices result in elevation in station and in nearness to God. Ameen.

 

Related reading:

Yaser Birjas | In the Footsteps of the Prophet Ibrahim

Yaser Birjas | In the Footsteps of the Prophet Ibrahim عليه السلام

A Mother’s Ibaadah: Lessons From The Story Of Hajar

A Mother’s Ibaadah: Lessons From The Story Of Hajar

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The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

Chaplain Sondos Kholaki serves as a hospital staff chaplain and volunteer police and community chaplain in Southern California. She is board-certified with the Association of Professional Chaplains (APC). Sondos earned a Master of Divinity degree in Islamic Chaplaincy at the Claremont School of Theology/Bayan Islamic Graduate School as the recipient of the Fathi Osman Academic Excellence award and a Bachelor's degree in English and Creative Writing from UCLA, where she received the prestigious Regents Scholar award. Sondos is the author of the award-winning book, "Musings of a Muslim Chaplain" (2020) and a co-editor of the anthology, "Mantle of Mercy: Islamic Chaplaincy in North America" (2022). Sondos also served as Vice President of Healthcare for the Association of Muslim Chaplains.

3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Truth

    July 6, 2022 at 4:26 AM

    A person will get what they are destined for without any dua, and a person will not get what they are not destined for, no matter how much dua they make.

  2. A Husband

    July 6, 2022 at 5:05 AM

    Allah does not change the condition of people until they change themselves – Holy Quran

    I have seen many worshippers who are arrogant, ill-mannered, treat others poorly, and then they cannot figure out why they have problems in their life and why they are always miserable.

  3. Batman

    July 6, 2022 at 8:22 AM

    No one wants to improve themselves as human beings but everyone wanted to know during the lockdown why Allah deprived them of the daily prayers in the mosque, Friday prayers, Umrah and Hajj.

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