In late September, my life began to smear. A horrid pace began to take its toll. Ramadan had just concluded and I was off to Malaysia to film 26 episodes of Reflections for T.V. al-Hijrah (to be done in 5 days), my wife’s visa status still hung in the balance, my financial situation was “code red” and thoughts of relocating from the Bay to Boston were simmering. In short, I was tired, dead tired. Added to that was a massive workload that hit that Tuesday afternoon. Desk-side, I began to sift though loads of work when an email stuck out – a break to the madness that halted everything: “Suhaib, our pastor canceled! Can you make it with us this year?” That was it! A desired escape that would eject me from the pages of my life and give me some much needed GPS-ing: an invitation to Hajj.
Hajj is an act of worship that takes place in Mecca once a year for Muslims who can financially and physically bear it. Before starting the Hajj, a person takes a bath, changes into special dress. For men, this is a simple, non-stitched garment (something similar to towels that cover his private areas) and simple sandals; For women, it’s anything in accordance to Islamic dress. A person who does this is called a muhrim and stays in that state for the duration of Hajj, moving from the city of Mecca to a small valley called Mina on the 8th night of the Islamic calendar, Dhul Hijah.. At dawn of the next day the Hajjis head to the plain of Arafat where they spend the day in worship by supplicating, reflecting, or reading the Qur’an. After that, they leave Arafat shortly after sunset and spend a good part of the night in a place called Muzdalifa; they return to Mina the next morning. Next, they throw stones at the major pillar, to remember God, return to Mecca to observe certain religious rituals in the Sacred Mosque, the men cut their hair, and then they all return to Mina for the 11th, 12th, and, if they choose, they stay there until the 13th day of the month. In short, there is a lot of walking and a lot of people – this year between 4 and 5 million attended Hajj.
I had been to Mecca before, once on Hajj ten years ago, and once for the minor pilgrimage (`Umrah) a few years back, but this time was different. I was older and my thirst had changed. My first Hajj was for Mecca. This Hajj was for repair. The first time was muddled with awe. This time was different; I was broken. If my first Hajj was an attempt to be Malcolm-esque, this one was an attempt to be al-Ghazali: to escape – to find peace through isolation. But things were far from peaceful.
Upon my return to the States from Malaysia, I was told I had one day left to get everything done! I left the airport and headed straight for the county’s health department. Shots done! Next it was picture time. Done! Then, I had to rush to FedEx everything before 5pm. Done! It was not until late into the evening that I had a chance to finally put my head to bed and my body in “Airplane Mode.” But, before I could, a storm set in. My phone began to blaze with streaks of lightening, warning of incoming showers; unattended messages from the last 2 weeks began to pour in. I was now, like never before, searching desperately for the eject button.
People ask, “What is Hajj like?” “Did you gain that spiritual high?” The answer is, yes. But, what I learned from Hajj is that in many cases, eject is not the best option. My experience taught me that Hajj is not so much internal as it is external. Instead of mute, I hit bass boost. Hajj was not a place to escape and gain some internal insight. It was a place to pray on an escalator, the sidewalk and, in some cases, on people’s heels. It was a place where getting bumped and stepped on is constant. All of that while managing demands of every sort, internal and external, and ordered by God to keep it all cool; to keep Him in my sights while being hit by wave after wave of discomfort; to keep a balance between acts of worship, serving others and taking care of myself. My job was to sync my responsibilities to God with humanity. What I learned about myself was priceless.
My attempt at seclusion was just a manifestation of my selfishness. Hajj taught me that to truly give, to truly attain bliss, I must turn that spiritual energy inward and outward, trying my best to let what few good qualities I had crack the darkness of my soul and shine. It was not about me, it was about us. What I discovered was that instead of instructing us to flee from this world, faith encourages its engagement; to reflect God’s grace to others. Because that is one of the greatest signs of His benevolence:
“The merciful ones, God is merciful to them.”
“Who does not exercise mercy, will not receive God’s mercy.”
“Spread excellence, as God has been excellent to you.”
All these important religious texts kept echoing in my mind.
So, now that I handled the stress and strain of walking, eating, waiting, praying, crying, supplicating and living with 4 million people, the work load at my office will seem less, angry congregants will pass without trouble and the stress of life, family, and kids will drop a few notches. What makes all this incredible is that it was learnt in one of the most crowded and uncomfortable places I have ever been. But, instead of fleeing from it, I understood that it was by engaging in it that I was able to escape myself! Hajj gave me a great respect for “The best medicine tastes the worst.” I can only thank God that the patient doesn’t write the prescription.