I was wandering through today’s rituals and rushes and I kept thinking about the Haj. Like pilgrims on haj, we all started the day with identical garments, preparing for a life-shifting day. We thronged in the thousands, circling around a common goal, central to our community’s constitution.*
As you can see in the photo, and unlike those on haj, our simple robes were neither without seams nor really unadorned. Feeling like a Latin American dictator, I covered myself in commencement flare: two stoles, a mortar board, a massive tassel, and a chord.
This difference is striking because, just as the simple white robes of those on haj visually break down cultural and economic distinctions, the visible representations of intellectual achievements striated my class. You could tell at a glance at a fellow student’s shoulders whether their passions are recognized and rewarded or not. This was not entirely comfortable.
Carnegie Mellon’s commencement is not a religious pilgrimage made in obedience and service to God. It was rather surprising during the ceremony to hear a prayer recited by a local pastor since CMU has always been safely secular in a city which assumes and sometimes insists on religiousness.
I kept thinking on to the haj. It is something all Muslims must try to attain, just like a degree for all university students. It is an affirmation of our commitment to a certain way of thinking and living, not in the life-encompassing way a religious rite does, but in a significant way nonetheless. I kept wishing I had known more about what Commencement would entail when I was a freshwoman, so I could aim for it. When I became an Andrew Carnegie Scholar, I was surprised because before I received it I had no idea it existed. Though this lack of publicity is characteristic of a university which honors work rather than sparkle, sometimes sparkle can motivate better work.
My musings on the similarities and differences between Commencement and the Haj were a way for me to distract myself. As a Fifth Year Scholar, I have the blessing of an extra year at Carnegie Mellon. This extra year will also test whether all of the rooms of my life’s house can continue to stand without the pillars who have supported me these last years. Without some of the friends who are flying away as I write, I would not have renovated some of my entrenched mental cellars or built my mind’s ceilings quite so high.
I will miss my friends, but having passed through such a set of ceremonies and scenes together, we have an immutably memorable shared experience to use as the touchstone of our relationships for our remaining decades.
*It is important to note that my first, and most lasting, impression of the haj comes from The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
“The substance of the winds is too thin for human eyes, their written language is too difficult for human minds, and their spoken language mostly too faint for the ears.”–John Muir