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Sunday

Millions of Devout Muslims Make Holy Pilgrimage to Mecca

Aired March 4, 2001 - 5:42 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

BRIAN NELSON, CNN ANCHOR: Well, millions of Muslims have converged on Mecca, Saudi Arabia to take part in one of Islam's holiest rituals, the Hajj. Today's prayers at Mt. Arafat marked the high point of the annual pilgrimage to the holy city in Saudi Arabia.

The Hajj is considered one of the required duties of followers, known as the five pillars of faith. Able-bodies Muslims are required to make the trip at least once in their lifetime.

And joining us to discuss the significance of the Hajj and what it means to be young, Muslim and American is writer and law student Asma Gull Hasan.

Ms. Hasan, thank you for being with us.

ASMA GULL HASAN, WRITER: Brian, hello. Thanks for having me.

NELSON: Why don't you begin by explaining the meaning of Hajj for the many of Americans who are unfamiliar with it.

HASAN: Well, Hajj has a few different meanings, but the central one is the unity of all Muslims and humankind. So, when you go to the Hajj, you see -- you're there with two million other Muslims and you realized how we're all unified and in this together.

One of the other themes that's very important is the equality of humankind. That's why when you see the Hajj pilgrims, they're all wearing white and they're required to because that's how God sees them, as equals.

NELSON: Now, what is the purpose of the pilgrimage of the Hajj itself as a physical location?

HASAN: Well, the Kabah, which is the black, square building that's in the center, which Muslims are walking around, we believe that's the first house of God that was built by Abraham and his son, Ismail. That's what Muslims believe. So, the return there is like signifying and commemorating Abraham's journey and his believe in God and his belief in one god.

NELSON: Now, all Muslims are required to make this trip at least once in their lifetime if they can afford it. Why is that?

HASAN: Well, God didn't want to put a huge burden on those who couldn't afford to or in doing so and going to Mecca would cause a serious problem for their family. So, they're all required to go if they're able, financially and physically able.

And the reason they're required to go is because it's a chance to go and pray to God and ask for forgiveness and wash your sins away, and it's said that if you go with a pure and simple heart and you really have intent and mean what you're doing, when you're done with Hajj, when you come back, you'll be as free of sin as the day you were born from your mother.

NELSON: And for those who don't join the Hajj this year, how do they celebrate the occasion?

HASAN: Well, we commemorate it by praying and thinking about those Muslims who are there, and when we pray, also, we pray for the safety of those Muslims who are there, who are traveling. And then after the Hajj period ends, then we have our holiday, which is called Eid-al-Adha, and it's the feast of the sacrifice. And we commemorate the sacrifice that Abraham made of a lamb instead of having to sacrifice his own son, as God had originally asked.

NELSON: Now, let's talk a moment about the state of Islam. It's a religion with a multitude of followers. Is it a thriving religion today and especially in America? How is it doing?

HASAN: Yes, Islam is thriving around the world and I'm very excited about the thriving here in the United States, in particular, because there's a lot of young Muslims who are like me, who I talk about in my book "American Muslims: The New Generation." And we're both American and we're Muslim and I think we're going to lead Muslims into this century and beyond and really show the rest of the world that Islam and America and Islam and Western culture are inherently compatible with each other.

NELSON: You speak about compatibility, let's take a look what is happening in Afghanistan right now. The Taliban is using Islam in what many of its neighbors say is an extremist way to justify all sorts of political ends. In this case, after some oppression of women, who are allowed work, they are now destroying antiquities dating back to the third century.

Now, what is your view on that and is that compatible with the Koran?

HASAN: Brian, I'm very dismayed and disappointed at the Taliban's actions, both towards women and also what they've done recently, destroying the statues. They're using patriarchal, tribal culture and interpreting that to define Islam and how they practice Islam to justify a host of actions that are really not Islamic at all.

If I thought Islamic was oppressive of women, do you think I would be a Muslim? Of course, you know, but unfortunately, Taliban is taking this culture that is patriarchal, that existed before Islam existed and using that, you know, to interpret Islam and coming up with very bad actions on that, you know, that basis. NELSON: But in Afghanistan as well as elsewhere in the Middle East, there's an appearance or reputation that Islam is an intolerant religion.

HASAN: And that's very inaccurate. Islam teaches tolerance. Islam is a peaceful religion. In fact, Islam says that if you were to hurt a person and inflict injury on them, it would be as if you injured all of mankind. So, Islam is very much against any kind of violence, murder.

So, when I see the actions of the Taliban that are oppressive and that are destructive of cultural artifacts, I'm very ashamed and it makes it hard for people like me to be Muslim because it gives us a very bad reputation. I wish I could sit down with them and say listen, if really read the Koran, you'd realize that these actions that you're doing are not justified by the Koran.

NELSON: Well, on this, the holiest day of Islam's ritual, the Hajj, we thank you for joining us, OK.

HASAN: Thank you, Brian.

NELSON: Asma Gull Hasan, a writer, joining us from New York. Appreciate it.

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