By Umm Muhemmed1
“It’s taking a long time to get to jannah” was our five-year-old daughter’s refrain over the past year. During this time, she had been exposed to the terms “jannah” (heaven), “`umrah” (the minor pilgrimage in Islam) and ‘Mecca’, among others, and had learned about many of the rituals of her faith, including the noble acts of Prophet Ibrahim ‘alayhi as-salam (peace be upon him).2 At first I thought that she had inadvertently interchanged “jannah” and “`umrah”/“Mecca” especially since many of her classmates had recently performed `umrah, and travelled to Mecca. Later, though, especially after her elder brother and I had described the differences and she persisted with “jannah”, I came to the conclusion that she may actually mean what she said, and that it was taking a long time to get to heaven.
There are many ways to perceive hajj, the major pilgrimage. One such lens is that it also takes a long time to get there: the time to arrive at the destination in Saudi Arabia, perform the rites, and then to fully appreciate them. One may make the intention, sign up with a hajj tour company, buy a ticket, obtain a visa, receive the requisite vaccinations, prepare one’s bags, seek forgiveness from family and friends and draw up one’s will (among the standard preparatory steps), but actually arriving there and experiencing hajj seems to happen in an entirely different span of time. We returned home 48 hours ago from hajj, but I would argue that we are still experiencing the journey, and God willing, will continue to do so throughout our lives. We pray that our hajj is accepted by God (hajj mabroor) and that the experience and underlying lessons of hajj are unending.
The lessons and observations are multi-fold. Among the greatest for me has been the constant pull between the collective and the individual. The pinnacle of hajj is the day of Arafat, when we stand on a desert plane between Dhuhr (noon) and Maghrib (sunset), following the example of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ (peace be upon him), seeking forgiveness and to know God. Yet this intimate exchange happens amidst millions. We are shoulder to shoulder with those we may know and those completely unfamiliar to us. We can hear the supplications of others, see their tears, witness their joy, and yet our own experience remains intimate and singular, as though we each have a direct, dedicated line. Awareness of the millions does not diminish our experience; rather, I would argue it actually heightens the awe we experience, as we come to understand that the very God we call upon is hearing the prayers of the millions in our midst as well as those afar.
This interplay between the collective and the individual unfolds throughout the rites of hajj, including during tawaf (circumambulation of the Ka`bah), when rather than standing, as on Arafat, we are moving with millions at our side, all in perpetual prayer, as we orbit the Ka`bah. At times, movement is impeded because of the crowds. We may even move backward. It is here that patience, along with trust in God, emerges as the most essential ingredients. Eventually the crowd releases and the seven units of circumambulation are completed.
It is not just the sheer number of people, but also the diversity that is stunning. In the largest annual ritual on earth (estimated at 2.1 million participants), people have come from every corner of the world to participate. As the crowd advances, I am pushed up against brothers and sisters in faith from West Africa, the Baltic states, South East Asia and South America. Initially, I try to discern country origin, but then I stop seeing the borders, and focus instead on the common thread of humanity. It is this diversity cum unity that finally prompted Malcolm X to discard racism in 1964 during his hajj and continues to challenge every form of racism today.3 Each worshiper is sacred in this act of collective and individual devotion. No man, no woman, no child has a status greater than another, each judged individually by piety alone (Qur’an 49:13).
A similar effect may be felt during the stoning of the jamarat (walls), where the crowds amass around one pillar, pelt it with small pebbles and then move on to the next (of three). Although intended to be a symbolic act of stoning the devil, here there has always been the possibility for the collective act to actually overwhelm the individual, more so than in any other hajj ritual. Over the years accidents, sometimes fatal, have occurred as overzealous pilgrims rush to the pillars with their pebbles. Fortunately, increased awareness, supervision and infrastructure improvements have nearly put an end to all accidents. Thus, amidst the millions, one has a singular, unique experience, reaffirming faith in the good, in God, and in rejecting that which is evil. That dedicated, direct line, as felt on Arafat, remains open.
Aside from the critical lessons in forbearance and perils of jamarat, there remain social and environmental challenges to hajj that cannot be overlooked. This perhaps may be for me the second greatest lesson and observation of hajj. There are countless people on hajj who after performing each of these rituals went back to sleep on the streets, while others enjoy five star amenities. Food wastage for some is rampant, while others pick up scraps from the ground. Environmental degradation is at its peak, with trash discarded everywhere, during a time when the laws of ihram taught that nothing should be damaged or hurt. Hence there is a constant struggle between spiritual highs and social and environmental lows.
We will each be judged by our piety, but in not only the largest but also one of the most profound series of religious rituals in the world, impiety abounded. It is important that this second lesson/observation not be interpreted as a complaint per se, but a sincere concern for the plight of those less fortunate and the natural environment. Efforts are underway, from uniform box lunches to provision of universal tents for all, but I would argue that it is incumbent on each hajji (pilgrim) according to his/her capacity to serve as an ambassador and to do more to ease the social and environmental suffering which is so widespread during the days of hajj. As one sheikh instructed though, our impact in Mecca may be limited. The real value of this second lesson is in returning to our communities and ensuring we are relevant, engaged custodians there.4
A third and final lesson and observation from hajj relates to the journey itself. For two and a half weeks, we do not stop moving: first Medina, then Mecca, Mina, Arafat, Muzdalifah, back to Mina and Aziziyya. The minute we acclimate to a time or place, we are on the move again. Bags are constantly being shifted and downsized, as each subsequent part of the trip allows less luggage. At times, we are permitted to bring almost nothing, relying on faith alone to get us through a passage.
We live under the impression that our homes are permanent, but what hajj helped clarify is that nothing is permanent and that the journey is perpetual. Hajj is in fact in many respects like life accelerated, in which we meet our Maker on the day of Arafat, dying a spiritual death before our physical death, with the hope that we will be reborn in peace, harmony, and free of sin, with a true orientation toward faith and piety. Our tawaf is our physical and spiritual reorienting, putting God at the center of that journey.
So what next? How do you return home with these lessons and observations and make them meaningful? As indicated at the outset, I am 48 hours into that experience, home now with a cold, like many hujjaj (pl. hajji). There are action plans related to daily devotions which hopefully will be incorporated, but on another level, there is a much greater awareness of the collective humanity to which we are connected, and the imperative to share our resources with that collective. No man, woman or child is ever an island, as seen time and again on the hajj. As returning hujjaj we are in fact called to serve and to continue to live following the footsteps of the prophets. And that call to serve is intimately connected to our tawaf: namely putting God at the center of our lives. I pray that our hearts remain pure, open and connected, and the hajj dwells eternally within us. It may take a long time to get to jannah, but the journey continues, God willing, always, in that direction.
- The following account of hajj is not intended to be a guide for how to perform hajj (as many abound); instead it is a personal reflection of one experience. It should also be noted that the author has tried to accommodate non-Muslim readers; therefore efforts have been made throughout to explain basic terms, primarily via parentheticals in the text. Any questions or concerns should be communicated to firstname.lastname@example.org [↩]
- Umrah is considered Islam’s lesser pilgrimage, which involves: donning the ihram (sacred state with requisite clothing into which a Muslim must enter to perform hajj or `umrah) with its restrictions, tawaf (circumambulation of the Ka`bah), drinking zamzam (holy water), praying at Maqam Ibrahim (the station of Prophet Ibrahim), sa`i (running from Mount Safa to Mount Marwa to commemorate Hajar’s struggle), and hair shaving for men and hair cutting for women. `Umrah, which may be completed in a couple of hours, stands in contrast to Hajj, the greater pilgrimage, for which the rituals are longer, taking place over the course of 5-6 days. Note, however, that two of the forms of hajj involve the rites of `umrah as well. Situated in Mecca, the Ka`bah was built originally by Prophet Ibrahim (`alayhi as-salam) believed by Muslims to have been visited by many other prophets and the direction (qibla) toward which all Muslims orient their prayer. The Ka`bah is the geographic center of Islam and the physical representation of the house of God. [↩]
- See The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1987). [↩]
- The author is indebted to the insights of Sheikh Omar Suleiman and Brother Munir Elkassem. [↩]