HAJJ - A Journey to the Intangible.
"Like locusts, they converge upon a desert land in hordes of different hues knowing not creed or clan to transcend into a unified spirituality."
by sister Farzana Kader
|Religion is meant to be a great unifier—it links people of varied ethnic backgrounds, across the far corners of the world to one common ideology. Islam illustrates this truth through the Hajj, a religious pilgrimage undertaken by millions of Muslims every year. People normally associate a place of pilgrimage as a sanctuary to escape in to when one loses interest in the world. Little did I know this escape would radically alter my life and enlighten me about what Islam truly stands for.
9th of January, 2004, 2 AM, I stood before the Grand Mosque in Mecca, awaiting my chance to glance at the House of God for the very first time. Crowds of people were milling about-some kneeling in prayer, some talking animatedly, some simply stretched out on the white marble trying to rest awhile. Head bowed, we were led into the mosque and in front of the ancient Ka'aba a simple black cube of stone sheathed in black cloth embroidered with verses from the Quran. How one spontaneously bursts into tears at the sight of this simple structure is inexplicable to say the least. Still reeling from my emotional outburst, I set off to perform the Tawaf, which is the circumambulation of the Ka'aba seven times. People clung to its stone walls and wailed, others spoke in native tongues their palms facing upwards, and groups of elderly Turkish pilgrims clung to each other in fear of being lost. Dreamlike, I wafted around the ancient house coming to realize all that it stands for; it is a great sanctuary, the sole point of reference in a faith that disallowed symbols, the constant towards which millions of faithful turned towards five times a day.
The city of Medina with date palms dotting the ochre desert sand and naked mountains standing around it like sentinels, is the city of Prophet Mohammed. Neither grass grows here nor do rivers flow, yet it is exceptionally beautiful. The Prophet's Mosque forms the centre of the city and all roads lead to it. Clad in pale pink and grey granite with its towering gold-capped minarets, a lone green onion dome and numerous shallow sliding domes, the mosque is the grandest in the world.
The visit to the Prophet's tomb is best described as an overwhelming experience. It is not carried out to worship him, but to celebrate his role as the messenger of God. As I stood outside the sanctuary or the Rawda, waiting to be granted audience with the Prophet, I was approached by an old Egyptian woman. She made pleading gestures with both hands and I gathered that she wanted to go inside with me. The large crowd of people would make it impossible for a frail old woman to go inside without company. As people scrambled to enter, I held onto my adopted grandmother and carefully steered her inside. I was suddenly pushed against a column, one hand desperately holding onto her. I dislodged myself from the column as people continued moving and we advanced further to the place from where we offered salutations to the Prophet and prayed for peace and blessings to be showered upon him. My adopted grandmother stood guard for me preventing people from falling over me as I prayed, as I did for her. A few more exhilarated moments later, we were outside the Rawda, and as I turned to go, she kissed both my hands and there were tears streaming down her cheeks. With my feeble knowledge of Arabic, I understood she was calling me her daughter and that she would pray for my well-being and happiness. Hugging me she bid me farewell, and I was truly touched at the powerful reaction a simple gesture evoked in another person. I met an Iranian diplomat, a scholar and energetic university students who gave me the truth of life under the strict theocracy. They expressed the freedoms they enjoyed as women under the regime and not one need for grievance. I was shocked at how extreme the world view of Iran was from picture that Western media paints. Leaving Medina behind felt like foraying into the unknown from a hometown. The sense of attachment fostered over ten days tugged at my heart prompting me never to leave.
The Hajj itself began with the donning of the ihram, which comprises of two unstitched pieces of white cloth for men and long flowing robes with only the face and hands visible for women. This denotes a state of purity and simplicity. From a place called Aziziyah on the outskirts of Mecca, we proceeded to the tent city of Mina which was the vision of an advanced refugee camp, with row after row of white air-conditioned tents to accommodate all the 2.8 million pilgrims. There were common toilets inside to be shared by a number of tents. This kind of system fostered a sense of tolerance and patience towards our fellow pilgrims.
On the 8th day of the Dul Hijjah month of the Islamic lunar calendar, we proceed from Mina to the bare plains of Arafat to spend the night there. Set up on the ground were simple tents offering only overhead protection. On the bare desert plains we slept, a community of believers ready to endure any hardship to obey the orders of our God. We were up long before dawn broke to fulfil the duties of the most important day of the Hajj-- the day of Arafat. The significance of Arafat is that it is a recreation of the Day of Judgement where all of humanity would stand and beg of forgiveness from their Lord. It is said the sun never shines on any day like it does on the day of Arafat and truly enough, the heat on that day sent needles through my skin. I was oblivious to the heat and the possible danger of dehydration; sobbing uncontrollably like a child, I slowly blacked out and fell to the ground. Regaining consciousness, I relapsed into a bout of tears as my entire life flashed past my eyes. The plain around me and the hill on top of Mount Arafat called Jabal-e-Rahmah (Hill of Mercy) was covered entirely with the white of the pilgrims as helicopters circled above to ensure safety of the pilgrims.
At sunset, the entire lot of pilgrims set off from Arafat to Muzdalifah. As I sat inside a rickety bus for hours, I could not help but be awestruck by the sight of the millions of pilgrims making their way in every conceivable form of transport—battered SUVs, vans, jeeps and buses of various sizes. People were everywhere—on top of vehicles, walking beside them, inside, hanging onto footboards and ladders.
Muzdalifah was plain rocky surface sans tents or any form of shelter. From 5-star comforts at Mecca to air-conditioned tents in Mina to plain tents in Arafat to open road in Muzdalifah, we had come a long way. From Muzdalifah we proceeded to Mina the next morning from where the ritual of the stoning of the Satan could take place. Tragedy struck as it does every year as 250 pilgrims were stampeded to death during the stoning ritual. The Hajj finally culminated in the sacrificing of an animal, and I could then proudly call myself a Haji.
I found myself devastated at the notion of leaving this land to my own world of familiarity; I was unable to tear myself away from the ancient house and the magical land that had housed me for the past month. Never have I experienced such humility, generosity and the overwhelming spirit of unity that I experienced amongst people I am so vastly different from. This birthplace of Islam truly renews and refreshes the faith of millions every year. As I saw people from the poorest of countries bent and broken-toothed having saved up their entire lives for this one trip, I realized how fortunate I was to have made the dream journey at 20. I saw millionaires and paupers, old and young, black, white and yellow share meals and praying shoulder to shoulder, bringing once again to the fray the unifying and equalising nature of faith. Crowded and noisy, but intensely alive and the most exhilarating experience of my life-- that would sum up rather inadequately my experience of the Hajj.