FOR THOSE OF us who have not performed Hajj yet, it looms largely like some supernatural adventure back to the place where it all began, back home, back to Allah. It is, at least to my mind, an odyssey which I both fear and am exhilarated by.
The thought of unimaginably packed crowds, the heat, and the lack of sleep and showers are anxiety provoking. Yet, contemplating seeing the land that Hagar founded with her quick thinking to protect the well of Zamzam; the place where Prophet Ibrahim was willing to make a great sacrifice; the land where Prophet Muhammad struggled to establish Islam for it to reach us, a millennia and a half away from him, brings elation to my heart.
The fifth pillar of Islam conjures up mixed feelings. And for me these feelings have produced a level of obsession that pushes me to dissect, analyze, and intimately understand the Hajj before I undertake the journey. But reading about the rituals alone is a lot like looking at a palate of paint before the brilliant colors are used to create a masterpiece.
Therefore, I have employed another investigative technique to understand the pilgrimage better. I have taken to talking to Hajji’s themselves. I have spoken with many different people from different parts of the world: I have read accounts by many of those who came before us: I have pestered friends in faith about what they saw, felt, and brought back all in hopes of finding out exactly what to expect. This is what I found:
Jalal Kassab, a Lebanese-Australian Muslim who performed Hajj in 2012, speaks about context:
Hajj is like all else. What you put in is what you get out of it. It is a function of effort and conscientious learning. May Allah guides us and keep us steadfast on His path. Hajj is also about patience and perseverance, experiencing the absolute best and worst in human character. Hajj is not a holiday. If you think you are going on holiday with an occasional ritual in between, you have missed the spirituality or the development of Hajj.
The Hajj is a combination of spiritual events …. For example, of the stoning ritual: Some are throwing large rocks and cursing shaytan [satan], as if throwing a rock will hurt him. It is the ritual commemorating what prophet Abraham did and the stone is a mere pebble.
To get a full benefit from the Hajj trip, learn your Sirah or Islamic history so as to appreciate the context of what each ritual is. [Learn:] what was the state or condition of the Muslims at the time, at Badr and Uhud, in Medina and finally when the Muslims returned to Makkah.
What is the Haram (the Great Mosque of Makkah). What are its boundaries and how did Makkah survive, and then learn of course the history and biography of Prophet Muhammad to appreciate what he did and how he did it to trace back the footsteps and walk the path the Prophet walked.
Regretfully, I went and learned more of this afterward. But when you do walk into the Kaᶜbah you see that it looks like a cube and people moving around it. Allah the Most High does not live there, nor are worshippers praying to it. It is simply a direction to pray to –in an act of unity.
Malcolm X, an African-American convert who performed Hajj in 1964, speaks about Brotherhood:
There were tens of thousands of pilgrims, from all over the world. They were of all colors, from blue-eyed blondes to black-skinned Africans. But we were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to believe never could exist between the white and the non-white.
You may be shocked by these words coming from me. But on this pilgrimage, what I have seen, and experienced, has forced me to rearrange much of my thought patterns previously held, and to toss aside some of my previous conclusions. This was not too difficult for me. Despite my firm convictions, I have been always a man who tries to face facts, and to accept the reality of life as new experience and new knowledge unfolds it. I have always kept an open mind, which is necessary to the flexibility that must go hand in hand with every form of intelligent search for truth.
During the past eleven days here in the Muslim world, I have eaten from the same plate, drunk from the same glass and slept in the same bed (or on the same rug)-while praying to the same God with fellow Muslims, whose eyes were the bluest of the blue, whose hair was the blondest of blond, and whose skin was the whitest of white. And in the words and in the actions and in the deeds of the ‘white’ Muslims, I felt the same sincerity that I felt among the black African Muslims of Nigeria, Sudan and Ghana.
We are truly all the same: brothers.
All praise is due to Allah, the Lord of the worlds.[i]
Dr. Qanta Ahmed, a Pakistani-British who performed Hajj in 2000, writes about first seeing the Ka‘bah
I gazed upon the Kaᶜbah, eyes widening with wonder. The unobstructed view blurred with salty, unexpected tears. I was overwhelmed. A lump constricted my throat, then released, dislodged by a torrent of undammed, silent emotion. Tears were now flowing freely across my face, dampening the shabby veil around it. Unashamed, my feelings were vibrant with a divine energy.
I continued gazing. I was unable to peel my eyes from my Maker. He was here. He was everywhere [by his knowledge]. He had gathered me. He had forgiven me. My shoulders straightened, relieved of a heavy burden. My head lifted, unbowed without the weight of perpetual shame. My heart ached as it lurched open, stretching, suddenly swollen with relief.
Inside me, the force chased away debris accumulated within once narrow, dark corners. I could hide nothing from Him and found myself no longer fearful of discovery. All my follies were exposed to my Maker and yet He loved me still.
In these brief private moments. I placed the burdens of my broken life aside, discharged of shame. I stepped forward lightened, free, absolved. In a cast of millions, in that moment of electric intimacy, my Maker welcomed me. As the Prophet had said, If you take one step toward God, He takes ten steps toward you. I could feel Him hurtling toward me …. [ii]
Osman Albakheit, a Sudanese Muslim who performed Hajj in 1984, speaks about the best and the worst of Hajj:
I did not expect the weather to be so hot in August –hotter than my home country Sudan where the temperature reaches 115 degrees. Hot weather has an impact on the human temper and attitude. (In Hajj we are required to be in complete control of our temper and behavior). The greatest things that exceeded my expectations was the generosity and help of some people and the [Saudi] authorities.
I expected and found the spiritual benefits; after Hajj I felt at a tremendous peace, comfort, and tranquility. [It was an] internal cleansing to my heart and soul. Also I felt unusual mental and emotional energy, although I got sick, and physically I was tired. The best thing I saw was Saudi boys [participating as] members of boy scouts helping people. [The worst thing was] to see people stampeding, fighting and cursing each other.
Jalal Alie Ahmad, an Iranian Muslim who performed Hajj in 1964, writes about the Hajj ritual of Sa‘y:
This Saᶜy between Safa and Marwa stupefies a man. It takes you right back to fourteen hundred years ago, to ten thousand years ago –it isn’t hopping, it’s simply going fast– with its jogging, the loud mumbling, being jostled by the others, the self-abandon of the people, the lost slippers, –that will get you trampled underfoot if you go back for one moment to recover them— the glazed stares of the crowd, chained together in little groups in a state not unlike a trance … I thought it was only the sun that could not be regarded with the naked eye, but I realized today that neither can one look at this sea of eyes …
Melfi Hasan, an Indonesian Muslim who performed Hajj in 2010, speaks about the stoning of the jamarat:
We performed throwing the stone at the jamarât with hundreds of thousands of people doing the same ritual at the same time; this was more like fighting. No wonder some people said that performing Hajj is some kind of physical war.
You have to be physically fit to perform all those rituals. But I think, because people are fully aware that what they are doing is lillâhi taᶜâla [for the sake of Allah], they just have the energy to do them. We threw the jamarât for 3 days in a row. And I had a different experience on each day.
While we were casting the first of the jamarât, some kind of human “wave” came from behind us. We were pushed hard. After stoning, my husband looked around. We saw the elderly were pushed back and forth. A couple of the elderly were even pushed down [and were] almost stepped on by people. …
My husband and I then went to cast the second and the third jamarât. After that, we went back to the elderly, and asked them to go to the second floor. It was less crowded there. We performed the casting of the jamarât for the elderly, to substitute for them since they couldn’t do it. They were so shocked and afraid to get into the middle of the people again.
You know, Hajj is a serious business. I can tell that the Government of Saudi Arabia organized it as best they can. Regions are arranged very well so that people are organized by their regions. Like me, I am Indonesian, so we are put in the region of Asia. That happens to the jamarât too. There were so many lines to get to the jamarât building that it looks like a maze. […]
SubḥânAllah! the feeling of being really close to Allah was so strong just by looking at those many people ready to perform a ritual to abide by [His requirements] in the stoning event. It was an amazing experience. Every time I talk about it, it feels like thousands of words want to pour out at once.
Harry St. John Philby an Englishman who performed Hajj in 1931 as a new convert to Islam, writes about Tawwaf:
I proceed with the Finance Minister’s own chaplain to the Haram, the Great Mosque of Makkah, to go through the ceremony of circumambulation of the Kaᶜbah […] It was an impressive and even awe-inspiring experience, but my main immediate impression of the scene and the ceremony was that it was all very familiar and intimate, like something vaguely remembered from a forgotten past. […] For the first time for many years I felt strangely at peace with the world. [iii]
Theresa (Aisha) Hadi, an American Muslim convert who performed Hajj in 2013, speaks about understanding the certainty of divine decree through Hajj:
Before Hajj, I thought that things just happened and that is life. Now, I believe that everything happens for a reason and that there is no coincidence in life, none! We are exactly where we are meant to be in life and that we should never take anything for granted. We think that we control our lives, when nothing could be further from the truth. Allah controls your life and the sooner you accept that fact and go with Allah, instead of fighting changes or questioning Allah’s decisions, the better your life will be. My family bond and my din [religion/way of life] have become stronger, since going on Hajj.
Michael Wolfe, an American Muslim convert who performed Hajj in 1990, writes about the trip from Mina to Arafat:
I had been through Super Bowl gridlock in San Francisco. I knew the rush hour tunnels of New York. I had witnessed Woodstock and marched on Washington. I had never experienced a throng approaching this one. It was as if the twentieth century’s thickest tie-up had embarked on an epic travelling back into Roman times. A tricky desert sky hung over everything, compressing volumes, curving distances, befuddling the eye.
The enormity of my assumption, that words could take the measure of the Hajj, caught up to me on the Plain of Arafat. I saw now why men as observant as Rutter and Burckhardt has given it two pages. At Arafat, the Hajj became too big a subject, too sprawling, too amoebic. There were no hooks by which to hoist the vista. Its edges outran the verbal frame we place around things. Its center was everywhere, confounding reason, opening hearts. […]
If Arafat was a dress rehearsal for Judgement Day, one thing seemed certain: no one would be alone there. The crowds on the road gleamed like figures from two worlds. The Hajj was at its most ethereal right now, vibrating between the real and the symbolic. Out on the sand, a man in towels marched past the can with a green flag. Suddenly it was as if we had driven into a Wallace Stevens poem. The figures in the street became figures of heaven. Men grew small in the distances of space. The blown banners seemed to change to wings […]. [iv]
In all the reading and conversation, I have found two things every Hajji has in common. The first is that each one’s experience is different. And the second is that performing Hajj is a profoundly life changing event, no matter your socioeconomic status, cultural background, state of spiritual connectedness, era in which you live, or region of the world from which you come.
A final thought becomes clear in my mind. No matter how many people describe the rites, the sites, and sights of the Hajj, it is and shall remain something that must be experienced because it is utterly indescribable.
[i] http://www.soundvision.com/article/Hajj -as-a-shift-against-racism-malcolm-xs-letter-from-Hajj
[ii] Ahmed, Q. (2008). In The Land of Invisible Women. S.l.: Pentagon Press.
[iii] Peters, F. E. (1994). The Hajj: The Muslim Pilgrimage to Mecca and the Holy Places. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press
[iv] Wolfe, M. (2015). One Thousand Roads to Mecca: Ten Centuries of Travelers Writing about the Muslim Pilgrimage. New York: Grove Press.