In this article, I would like to share with you some of my personal reflections on the hajj, a journey to the center of the Muslim world to where the faith began, not just for Muhammad (peace be upon him), but because it was were Abraham (peace be upon him) built the first house of pilgrimage dedicated to a monotheistic conception of God. Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam, and when talking to non-Muslims I often hear that they find the five pillars of Islam challenging to understand. Firstly, because they involve what they consider significant personal sacrifices: especially dedicating regular parts of the day to prayer and giving up food during the daytime in Ramadan.
Another major pillar that puzzles non-Muslims is the Hajj: it is a global yearly pilgrimage attracting millions. Rich and poor, black and white, common and noble born all perform and inact the same rituals for its completion. These rituals are often a source of fascination; so different are they from the regular rites of the faith and so different is the experience from the ordinary lives of those performing it. I thought I'd elucidate some of my observations about my journey to the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina, the Hajj of the year 2011 (1432 Hijri).
To start with, I'll make some general observations and then move to the more specific religious and spiritual observations. Firstly, and rather amazingly, there is no common language. One might think Arabic was the common language, and though it forms the basis of common ritual prayers, rites and Qur'anic recitation, it is not spoken natively by the vast majority of Muslims. There are basically two Arabic words that can be heard: the first, 'tariq', meaning road but in the context meaning “Make way, I'm coming through!” The second: 'hajji' meaning us, the pilgrims. These words are usually followed by hand signals that form the basis of communication. The result was often comical to behold, with various combinations of hand signals and these two words being used. In the case of a wheel chair rapidly approaching, hearing the young boy pushing it calling ‘Tariq!’ usually saves some minor injuries to one's heels.
The large numbers of people attending the Hajj are nearly impossible to control. Pilgrims are the majority, but significant numbers of traders and beggars are present as well. The additional police, security and army brought in are almost lost in the crowds. With the hajjis essentially in a state of anarchy, the question arises: is crime prevalent? Does man, left with little state controls, pursue self-interests? At the Hajj at least, the answer is no; crime is almost absent. The only crime I witnessed was the theft of some unattended items. And although jostling, queue-jumping and littering were common place and all nationalities are more or less equally guilty in their practice, these rarely led to anything but annoyance. Angry reactions were infrequent and quickly calmed by other pilgrims.
On another notes, as a (relatively) young man, I was amazed at the age of some of those attempting the pilgrimage. The frailest people I have ever seen braved hot temperatures, crowds, long waits and camping to complete the rites. Seeing those less mobile than I brave such conditions was a massive boost to my stamina.
The Hajj takes place at four major sites. In Mecca itself, one must perform a 'tawaf' of the Ancient House, believed to be dedicated to God by Abraham and his son, and a place of pilgrimage since then. Before arriving in Mecca however, one must don the clothes of a pilgrim or 'ihram'. For men, this consists of basically two large towels covering my body, but also implies being in a certain state: no cutting of hair, use of perfume, killing of animals or vermin or intimate interactions. The pilgrim in a way leaves the usual garb of the living and adopts the shroud of the dead, no-longer participating in the fineries or pleasures of the world but what is required to live.
On a slightly more comical note, before setting out, I'd carefully practiced the art of wearing these clothes, tying them and wrapping them correctly so as not to reveal anything untoward (fortunately there were no major accidents in this regard that I saw). I was careful not to allow much of my torso to show, though other male pilgrims were not so cautious, sometimes wrapping there upper garment around their necks like a sweat rag. After greeting the House (Kabaa in Arabic), the next major step is to walk counter-clockwise around it seven times. Immediately around the Kabaa, the crowd was large, even two weeks before the Hajj officially begins. Here the area is thick with people, and your bodies crush against each other no matter how much you try an avoid it. Women and men mix freely in this space, but (hopefully) their minds were all directed to a higher purpose; hardly noticing each other, except for a husband trying to shield his wife or, as in my case, my mother-in-law. On the first time around, the impact of being there was so great, I could hardly think about praying, the words slip uncompleted, incoherent sentences blurted out as the moment grips your every thought.
Seeing the House for the first time is an incredible experience; at night, the lighting, the heat and humidity make the air take on an almost magical quality, and the House appears to glimmer. At that moment of first witnessing, it is said that your prayer is accepted. The approach is thus not to be rushed, and I approached with eyes closed, led by another hajji, until the House, I was told, loomed large. I tried to prepare my heart to contain within it the best prayer I could bring to mind; what did I want more than anything in the world? Forgiveness? Ease and comfort in this world and the next? Closeness to God? I put as many of these thoughts in my mind as possible, and disregarding language, I opened my eyes.
Two weeks passed; with each day I tried to squeeze as much time as I could to be in the mosque surrounding the House. Our routine was the following: head to the House before the morning prayer to catch the blessings of the pre-dawn, pray the morning prayer, then leave for a short rest, before returning to pray the noon and afternoon prayers, perhaps taking a moment to shop or eat then again entering for the evening and night prayers. One would think that the pre-dawn prayer was the least attended, but it was not, it was packed, people streaming in around 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning. Each day, more and more pilgrims arrived. On the first day I was shocked at the numbers, but on the second day after I arrived the numbers appeared (by some qualitative estimation) to double and double again on the third. Buses were arriving all across the city, like intermittent streams that filled with water for one season of the year. Our routine might have been similar each day, filled with the same, praying, recitation and drinking holy spring water (zamzam), but it wasn't for a moment boring.
The hajj rites begin proper with the journey to the valley of Mina, just outside the city limits of Mecca. As I walked together with our group, many other groups were all marching in the same direction, carry flags and banners of different countries and cities. Mina is filled with square tents each placed according to the different regions the hajjis occupying them were coming from. For example, there were the Southeast Asian, Turkey, the Arab countries, the African and the combined European/Australian/North American sections. The world was represented here and I was proud as an Australian to be representing my people, though many of them may not share my faith. By nightfall, Mina was filled with hajjis; the smells and languages that could be heard demonstrated their diversity. We could hardly communicate to many of the people there, but somehow we understood each other: we had the same purpose (could there be another?).
The next morning, we set out early to Arafat. Whereas people had all day to arrive to Mina, we all had to be at Arafat by midday - it was a long walk. The first hour of walking and we were only just getting passed the road-side sellers, mostly Africans that I saw, whose colourful wares and foods were placed on the floor for us to gaze out on our way out. But here, unfortunately, many of the foods and drink bottles were lying about, discarded immediately after use by the pilgrims: the floor was thick with rubbish. This disturbed me significantly; I couldn't comprehend how a pilgrim could litter on such a holy place. Even European Muslims decided that they would participate in this discarding of litter. A floor covered with empty plastic water bottles and banana peels is quite dangerous and I saw at least one elderly woman slip and injur herself. I wondered if this was this yet another test of my patience.
After an hour, we passed out of the sellers and onto pedestrian highways and the rubbish thinned out. Cooled water was available from bubblers at regular intervals and helicopters passed overhead, checking that everything was running smoothly. My legs chaffed and walking became difficult. In ihram you can't cover your head and my thick application of perfume-free sunscreen was not good at stopping the sun beating down on my freshly shaved scalp. My group pushed on with little respite so I just had to keep up, no matter what the complaints. The alternative was to face getting completely lost at Arafat with no hope to find them among millions of pilgrims.
Finally, we approached Arafat. Throngs of people were heading to their tents to find shade, cool water and rest. We had only thirty minutes before midday; I considered my plan. The group would stay and listen to a motivating talk. But I had not come to listen to another preach but I came to hear the voice of my Lord within me and beg him in my turn. At Arafat, you combine the midday and afternoon prayers; this occurred to me as a wonderous blessing: every moment should be spent in pouring out one's heart to the Creator and not in communal prayer. Here was a time for me to be alone with my Lord.
After the sunset, we journeyed to Muzdalifah, another valley close to Mina. We were in the cool of the night and it felt like I had been reborn in that gentle breeze after the heat of the day. Majnun spent years searching for his beloved Laila and it drove him mad until he was soothed by the Beloved. Such was our experience: heat, tears then coolness and mercy. Muzdalifah is the place to ask the Beloved to change your life into something better, something eternal. At Arafat, I begged for forgiveness; at Muzdalifah I asked for knowledge of and togetherness with the Beloved; I asked for insight into the reality beyond the apparent and I pledged myself to the path of inner change.
The next day, we all rose to confront an enemy that would never give up trying to dissuade us from our new pledges and we went to throw small pebbles at a large stone representing the devil. What is the devil? In Islamic tradition, the devil is the whisperer that suggests, with a word here or there, or a crazy idea deep in the subconscious. But there is another enemy, our own selves, preventing us from achieving what we might. While we symbolically drove the whisperer away, we also found that through all the heat and hardship and all the walking that we had managed to subdue our own darker sides and negative habits.
Cleansed we set out for Medina, the City of the Prophet (peace) and his final resting place. I am glad that I had performed the hajj first, because I could be in the Prophet(peace)'s presence in a cleaner state than I had ever been.
That I cannot answer for sure, but I got an inkling that a trip to Mecca should not be easy, but rather rigorous, for it to be purifying, just as it had been for Majnun or for Adam and Eve.
In Medina, a city in which you celebrate the beloved of the Beloved, there is ease, coolness, date palms and smiling people. Rather than rush to see the praised Muhammad (peace), I washed, wore fresh clothes and perfume and took my time to meet him. The experience was amazing, for this was the man who could bare the revelation of the Qur'an, who was the most patient of men, and, though he was protected by God from sin, still asked His forgiveness every day. Here was a man that inspired tens of thousands in his lifetime and billions since. Not only are Muslims inspired by him, but we try to imitate his ways, his ideas and his values in every day of our lives.
Guard yourself in the holy places, beware of your manners, from the tiniest of details in your mannerisms, your interactions with others and even with what occupies your heart. A breach of ettiquette in another place would not have the same impact, but in these wonderous places small mistakes can remove from you great insights. And God alone grants success. For those who helped me along the way of my journey, my heart and love goes out to you and words cannot express enough thanks, though you work on tireless regardless, hoping to please your Lord by serving His guests. May all who love to set out on this journey reach their destination (amin).