In every religion there are rites which require some sort of organization and training. The details of their content and form are generally of little intrinsic importance. No thoughtful person, however, can discern any philosophical reason for pilgrimage, the Hajj to Mecca and for the useless and meaningless rites which the pilgrims perform.
The Hajj (Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca) is actually one of the several national customs of the Arabs are known to have been endorsed and perpetuated. All the ceremonies of the Hajj (pilgrimage in the month of Dhu'l-Hejja) and the 'Umra (lesser pilgrimage), such as the wearing of a seamless white robe, the kissing or touching of the black stone, the running between Safa and Marwa, the halt at Arafat, and the pebble-throwing (symbolic stoning of the Satan), had been practiced in the pre-Islamic period and were retained with only a few modifications.
The pagan Arabs, while circumambulating the Ka'ba, used to call out to Lat, Ozza, Manat, or any other idol that their tribe revered, "Here I am at your service (labbayka), O Manat!" or whichever. Under Islam, the call to an idol was replaced by the call to God (Allahomma), and the formula became labbayka Allahomma labbayka! The pagan Arabs had banned hunting in the month of the pilgrimage, but the Prophet maintained this ban only in the days of pilgrimage when the pilgrims are in the state of consecration (ehram).
The pagan Arabs had sometimes circumambulated the Ka'ba in the nude; Islam forbade this and required the wearing of seamless robes. The pagan Arabs had an inhibition against eating the meat of sacrificed animals; the Prophet made this permissible.
The Prophet Mohammad's decision to set out on a visit to the Ka'ba in 6 A.H./628 is puzzling. Did he really believe the Ka'ba to be God's abode? Or did he make this move in order to placate followers for whom Ka'ba-visitation was an ancestral tradition? Or was it a result of an agreement between Prophet Mohammad and Qorayshites to let the revenue keep coming as the major part of Arabian economy depended on the Hajj and still is. Was his decision, which came unexpectedly in view of the resolve of the hostile Qorayshites to prevent Moslems from entering Mecca, and which led to the disappointing truce of Hodaybiya, a political stratagem designed to impress the Qoraysh chiefs with Moslem numerical and military strength and to draw ordinary, un-fanatical Meccans to the new religion? How could the man who had introduced the new religion and laws and had repudiated all the beliefs and superstitions of his own people now revive the main component of the old tradition in a new form? Islam's zealous founder and legislator had above all insisted on pure monotheism, telling the people that belief in the One God is the only road to happiness and proclaiming that "the noblest among you in God's sight are the most pious among you" (sura 49, verse 13). Had he now succumbed to national or racial feeling? Did he want to make veneration of Ishmael's house a symbol of Arab national identity?
However that may be, the decision was so surprising and so inconsistent with Islamic principles that many Moslems were upset. Several believers objected to the running between Safa and Marwa because it had been a pagan Arab rite; but its retention was imposed by verse 158 of sura 2, "Safa and Marwa are among God's waymarks."
According to well authenticated reports, Omar b. ol-Khattab, who was one of Mohammad's greatest and wisest companions, said that he would never have kissed the black stone if he had not personally seen the Prophet kiss it. Ghazzali whose authority in Islamic matters deserves respect, wrote frankly that he could find no explanation of the hajj ritual but obeyed because it was an accomplished fact.
There is one verse in the Quran which sheds some light on the matter and is perhaps an answer to questions about it. This is verse 28 of sura 9 (ot-Tawba): “O believers, it is a fact that the polytheists are unclean. Therefore they shall not approach the Mosque of the Sanctuary (i.e. the Ka'ba) after this year of theirs. If you fear poverty, God will enrich you from His bounty." According to the Tafsir ol-Jalalayn, this meant that God would compensate the Arabs with victories and receipts of tribute. The sura of Repentance (ot-Tawba) is chronologically the last in the Quran, having been sent down in 10 A.H./631, well after the Moslem conquest of Mecca. The ban on visitation of the Ka'ba by non- Moslem tribes was likely to disquiet the people of Mecca, whose livelihood and flourishing trade depended on the coming and going of Arab tribes and groups. Although the Meccans were of the same tribe as the Prophet, most of them had only become Moslem under duress. If Mecca should lose its prosperity, there might be a risk of widespread apostasy. That risk would be averted by making pilgrimage to Mecca incumbent on Moslems.
This explanation is of course a mere hypothesis; to what extent it corresponds to the reality can never be known. In any case no rational or religious justification can be found for the retention of ancient pagan practices in the ritual of the Islamic Hajj. This prompted the great and universally admired philosopher-poet of the Arabs, Abu'l-Ala ol-Ma'arri to exclaim:
People come from far corners of the land
to throw pebbles (at the Satan) and to kiss the (black) stone.
How strange are the things they say!
Is all mankind becoming blind to truth?