As the fifth pillar of Islam, Hajj is a religious duty of each Muslim around the world. It is said in the Holy Qur’an that a Muslim must partake in Hajj at least once in a lifetime, unless unable to do so due to financial and other personal reasons.
To me, it was a scary thought. Hajj isn’t easy they say, Hajj tests you in all ways they say, Hajj is a sacrifice they say, Hajj is a blessing they say. I’d heard too many stories, possibly not much. Whatever I’d heard, I’d seen on the television and tried to imagine through photographs couldn’t do justice to the experience itself however.
I was scared, I was nervous and I was also just as excited.
Saudi Arabia is not as daunting as many would say it is. Yes, life becomes a little monotonous there but it is the spirit of Islamic brotherhood, the inner faith and undying love for religion that keep the people going and their lives moving ahead each day. For there is nothing else to offer in the city of Makkah except prayer, supplication and faith.
We reached there on a Monday. Ten kilometres away from Makkah (on flight) pilgrims are asked to enter a state of holiness (known as Ihram). Men’s outfits consist of two seamless clothes and for the women ordinary maxi-like dresses (often in white or a pale colour). In heart and mind, the intention to perform the pilgrimage is declared. The ideology behind entering into Ihram is to show equality amongst all pilgrims; there is no difference between one another.
Tawaf and Sa’ay
Upon entering Makkah (after waiting in the airport and struggling with personal luggage, travelling a couple of miles to get to the hotel, taking a small nap and once again getting ready to leave – still in the state of Ihram) pilgrims perform a welcoming Tawaf. Tawaf means walking seven times counter clockwise around the Kaa’ba. To those who don’t know what the Kaa’ba is, it is a cube-like building covered in a black cloth. Known as the House of Allah, it is located within the Masjid Al-Haram in Makkah and is the most sacred location in Islam as during all prayers conducted around the world, Muslims face the Kaa’ba direction. I should add that this is not to be associated with idol worship for the Kaa’ba is representative of the House of Allah in the heavens. The direction of which all Muslims pray towards is what is most significant in this act.
Our Tawaf was conducted in the heat of the afternoon. This was a test of strength and faith. One can do this at one’s own pace but as Hajj is most often conducted in groups, it is best to stick with the group and perform each ritual together. Once Tawaf is completed, pilgrims are asked to conduct two rakaat prayers by Makam Ibrahim. This is another important site within the Masjid Al-Haram. Prayers are followed by drinking holy water known as Zam-Zam. The original well was located in close proximity to the Kaa’ba but today the well is closed up and the water is available in multiple locations around the entire Haram.
The next step is known as Sa’ay. This is the act of running or walking between the two hills, Safa and Marwah seven times. Before the expansion of the Haram, this was conducted in open air and on bare ground. Today Sa’ay can be performed inside the Haram, in a cool air-conditioned space and on three separate levels. On either side of this pathway are remains of the two hills. After Sa’ay the men shave their heads and the women clip a portion of their hair. Once this is complete, the state of Ihram can be removed.
We were given a day’s rest before we moved to Mina.
Mina, Arafat and Muzdalifah
Mina is where Hajj begins. Mina would be our home for the next three to five days. We had to pack light and also ensure the bags were small for we would also be travelling to Arafat for a day and Muzdalifah for a night.
Before heading to Mina, we had to once again enter into a state of Ihram. This must be kept until we returned to Mina, which used to be bare land. Those who partook in the pilgrimage decades ago would tell you they had to sleep under the starry skies on the bare ground. Today, it is filled with thousands of tents and cushioned sofa beds for added comfort. The Hajj pilgrim in today’s world does not truly in that sense experience Mina. We spent a single day there and then headed to Arafat on Thursday night.
Arafat is quite similar to Mina but there are no comforts in terms of cushioned sofas here. Pilgrims often come prepared with floor mats and bedding instead. The group scholar delivers a sermon firstly. The significance of doing this is because Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) delivered his last sermon on this very ground. It is here, that pilgrims then offer supplication, repent and atone for their sins and seek forgiveness. One can do so from noon onwards and this is known as ‘standing before God’ (Wukuf). Hajj is incomplete if this is not performed.
By evening, pilgrims leave for Muzdalifah. Here, there are no tents. We slept under the starry skies after gathering small pebbles for the next part of Hajj. On Saturday morning we returned to Mina. This was the day of Eid ul-Adha, Hajj festival. It is also the first of three days where pilgrims walk to Jamaraat and demonstrate the stoning of the devil. Three large stone pillars exist in Jamaraat. These pillars signify the devil. Each pillar can be stoned on each of the three days.
Once this is complete, a few more rituals such as an animal sacrifice and trimming of the hair follow. On the same or following day (Monday) we returned to Makkah and performed a final Tawaf in completing Hajj around the Kaa’ba on Tuesday.
On a personal note, there are no true ‘difficulties’ during Hajj except for having to deal with large crowds of people, the blazing heat of the desert land and perhaps having to use a common washroom at all times. Even though the crowd can get overwhelming, even though the heat can dehydrate you (it did!) and even though the washrooms are not all that clean at all times, you somehow pull through it all. That I find is the most amazing thing about going through this enlightening experience. On a normal occasion, I would never have survived and made a huge fuss about everything but over there, on holy ground, it’s different. You are different. You find that you are stronger, patient and more determined than you think. Strong enough to walk miles from place to place, deal with the heat, be patient enough to face trying ordeals and determined enough to finish what you came to do.
People are right when they say that Hajj changes you. Maybe not drastically but in some ways at least. There’s an inner part of you that is completely satisfied, a part of you that is amazed, a part of you that is also a little sad that it’s all over, and a part of you that longs to go back once more.
**As published in the Ceylon Today newspapers**