Sunday, May 15, 2016

A Memoir of my Hajj

“Traveling, first it makes you speechless and then it turns you into a story-teller.”
- Ibn Battuta,
14th century Moroccan jurist, geographer and traveller

    “Welcome to Medina! We wish you a pleasant stay here!”, announced the flight attendant. It was 'the moment' for all the pilgrims, including me, my mom and my aunt, as the flight carrying Indian Hajj pilgrims started to descend. Although actual Hajj is the visit to the holy sanctuary in the city of Mecca, but the emotional attachment to the city of Medina is a feeling that in many ways makes Medina much more dearer to the Muslims. Maybe it is the answer of the Prophet Muhammad's prayer he made more than fourteen centuries ago, “O God, make Medina as beloved to us as you have made Mecca, or even more beloved than Mecca!” This city was originally called as Yathrib. In the honour of Prophet Muhammad, it was renamed as Medinat-an-Nabi (the City of the Prophet), or Medina al-Munawwarrah (the Radiant City) or to put simply Medina (the City). It is the city wherein lies the tomb of the Prophet Muhammad. His blessed body rests beneath the chamber of his beloved wife Aisha, inside the Masjid al-Nabawi (The Prophet's Mosque). This Mosque is one of the Haramayn, (or the “two blessed sanctuaries” of Islam), and it is the second of the three most venerable places of worship in the world; the other two being the Masjid al-Haram at Mecca and the Masjid al-Aqsa of Jerusalem.

    After we got down we had no idea what's going to happen next. We were simply following the instructions of the volunteers of Indian Hajj committee (under the Indian Ministry of External Affairs) who were working in collaboration with the Ministry of Hajj of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Clearing the immigration and the custom formalities, we were boarded on buses that took us to our hotels. I was elated to find that the Masjid al-Nabawi was so near to our hotel that I could easily see the beautifully illuminated minarets of the Mosque from the window of our hotel room, specially the light relected from the Gumbad-e-Khizra or “the Green Dome”, which is directly above the Prophet's grave.

I remember it was late night so we went to sleep as quickly as possible. We woke up to the sound of Azaan, coming from the Holy Mosque, as we got up for the early morning (Fajr) prayers. Me, my mom, and my aunt hurriedly walked towards the Mosque. Built by Prophet Muhammad himself in the year 622 after his arrival in the city of Medina, today this Mosque mesmerises the pilgrims with grand and spacious prayer halls, walls decorated with Arabic calligraphy, minarets and beautiful carpets on the floor. Worshippers from all over the globe stand together in congregation inside the Mosque.

A view of Masjid an-Nabawi (The Prophet's Mosque) at Medina.

    The most awesome moment among all was to visit the grave of the Prophet. I could see the tears flowing down the eyes of almost all pilgrims as if they stand in the very presence of one of the greatest man to have ever walked on earth, the one who was conferred with the titles such as Al-Mustafa “The Chosen One”,  Habib-Allah “The beloved of God”, Rahmatulil Aalameen “Mercy for all mankind”, Al-Saadiq “The Honest”, Al-Ameen “The Trustworthy” and Al-Insan al-Kamil "The Perfect Man". We presented our salutations to the Noble Prophet. Next to his grave are the graves of his close companions Abu Bakr and Umar, and a fourth grave is reserved for Jesus, as it is believed that he will return and will be buried at the site. There is a very special but small area named Riad ul-Jannah (Garden of Paradise), which extends from the Prophet's tomb (Rawdah) to his pulpit (minbar). It is covered with green carpet, while the rest of the Mosque with red carpet, for the purpose of identification. Riad ul-Jannah is believed to be a part Jannah (Paradise). Closeby, is the place from where Bilal, a very dear companion of the Prophet, used to call out the Azaan, in those days.

    Located to South-East side of the Holy Mosque is a place called Jannat-ul Baqi, wherein lie the graves of Prophet's beloved daughter Fatima al-Zahra and his grandson Hasan, alongwith other noble personalities of his time. We offered our salutations to them. May the peace and blessings of God eternally descend upon our beloved Prophet, his family and his companions !
    Masjid an-Nabawi is not just a normal mosque. It has a legacy of functioning as a community center, a court, and a religious and legal school. Even today, we can spot teachers sitting with their students teaching the Qur'an, Arabic language and Islamic law. We can also attend the lectures organized occasionally in the mosque. The best part of all was to meet people from different parts of the world. I used to interact with pilgrims from Indonesia, Malaysia, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. It was a wonderful experience.

During our sojourn in Medina, we were able to visit other historically and religiously important places in the city. We also visited the local markets specially to buy some good quality dates (a special variety known as Ajwa), olive oil, tasbeeh, carpets and perfumes. Another thing we found interesting was the exhibitions set around the Mosque, displaying the replicas of the artifacts associated with the life of the Holy Prophet and his family.

A group of people reading Qur'an inside the Prophet's Mosque (Masjid al-Nabwi)

    Another striking feature of this Mosque worth noticing is that women are welcomed to pray inside the mosque, as opposed to majority of other mosques around the world. Of course, there are physical barriers separating the women's congregation from that of men's, but nevertheless they are free to enter, sit, read the Qur'an and pray in the mosque.

We stayed in Medina for 8 days, and prayed at the Holy Mosque 5 times each day, so completing a total of 40 prayers, which is expected for a pilgrim when he visits Medina. Then we had to leave for  Mecca. It was a moment of mixed feelings. Honestly, nobody was happy that they had to leave Madina, but we had no choice because the rites of Hajj had to be performed in Mecca.

Hajj: its Meaning and Religious beliefs

“And Hajj to the House (Kaaba) is a duty that mankind owes to God, for those who are able to undertake the journey.”
- Quran 3:97

    To put things into proper context, I ll have to write little bit about the background of the beliefs associated with Hajj.

    According to one of the most comprehensive and well-known dictionaries of the Arabic language, Lisān al-`Arab, Hajj is defined as:

"Purpose. As in, 'So-and-so did Hajj unto us,' which means he presented himself before us."

    So the general lexical meaning of the word is "intended purpose". From the Islamic point of view, Hajj refers to the pilgrimage to the Holy sanctuary in Mecca, which is the intended destination or purpose of a pilgrim. Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam. Every healthy and financially able Muslim is obliged to make the Hajj once in his or her lifetime. Every year, the events of Hajj are performed in a five-day period, starting on 8th and ending on 12th of Dhul-Hijjah, the twelfth and last month of the Islamic calendar.

    Mecca is the city which was the birth-place of Prophet Muhammad. This city holds the holiest site of Islam, the Masjid al-Haram ('Sacred Mosque'). Inside the Mosque is the Kaaba, literally meaning “the cube”.     Kaaba was “the first temple of the one God” to quote Karen Armstrong from her book History of God. It is a bricked cubical structure made of granite covered with a black silk cloth. Inside the Kaaba, the floor is made of marble and limestone. The four corners of the Kaaba, namely the “Black corner”, the “Iraqi corner”, the “Levantine corner” and the “Yemeni corner”, roughly point towards the four cardinal directions of the compass. David A. King, writes in his article, The orientation of medieval Islamic religious architecture and cities, “The major axis of the rectangular base is aligned towards the rising of the star Canopus, and the minor axis towards summer sunrise and winter sunset, these directions being roughly perpendicular at the latitude of Mecca.”

A view of the Kaaba surrounded by pilgrims

    The origin of Kaaba remains a mystery till today. It existed long before the birth of Prophet Muhammad. Edward Gibbon writes about Kaaba in his book, The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire, “The genuine antiquity of Caaba ascends beyond the Christian era: in describing the coast of the Red sea the Greek historian Diodorus has remarked, between the Thamudites and the Sabeans, a famous temple, whose superior sanctity was revered by all the Arabians; the linen of silken veil, which is annually renewed by the Turkish emperor, was first offered by the Homerites, who reigned seven hundred years before the time of Mohammad.” Mecca was also mentioned by the famous mathematician and astronomer Claudius Ptolemy of Alexandria, in his atlas of the world, about 400 years before the birth of Muhammad. He mentioned Mecca by the name of Macoraba and identified it as “as a South Arabian foundation created around a sanctuary”.

    Islamic tradition states that Kaaba was first constructed by Adam and Eve. It was destroyed in the Great Flood during the time of Prophet Noah and it was re-constructed by Prophet Abraham. Very near to the Kaaba is a stone inside a glass and metal enclosure with what is said to be an imprint of Prophet Abraham's feet. This place is famously known as Station of Abraham (Maqam Ibrahim). Abraham is said to have stood on this stone during the construction of the upper parts of the Kaaba.
        Today, Kaaba is an empty cube. There are no idols, icons or images. But in the Pre-Islamic Arabia, there were 360 idols of different gods and goddesses in and around the Kaaba, which were worshiped by different pagan tribes of the Arabian peninsula. After the conquest of Mecca in 629 AD, Prophet Muhammad, with the help of his cousin and son-in-law Ali, broke the pagan idols in the Kaaba and wiped out all paintings from the walls of the Kaaba. However, according to Al-Azraqi, a 9th-century historian, Prophet Muhammad did not wipe out a fresco of Jesus and his mother Mary which was painted on one of the inner walls of Kaaba, but that was later erased by the rulers of Umayyad dynasty in the year 683.
One of the most popular ritual of the Hajj is the circumambulation of pilgrims around the Kaaba, seven times, counter-clockwise. This ritual, called as Tawaf, is intended to mimic the circumambulation of angels around the heavenly abode of God.  All Muslims, no matter where they are in the world, offer prayers called Salah or Namaz, facing towards the Kaaba. H. Masud Taj, in his article, The Kaaba: Guarding the Centre, Generating the Circumference (2001), explains the significance of Kaaba:

“Every mosque in the world is a segment of a circle whose centre is the Kaaba... This global concentric system made up by all the mosques in the world oriented to a single centre is a geometrical analogue of Tawhid - a doctrine of the Oneness of God and the unity of all existence. Tawhid is the foundation of Islam. Hence the cube is an ordering device; it is a marker that locates the centre of the concentric system. In it, all the axes of our horizontal plane of material existence converge and connect to the vertical axis mundi.”
   There is a “Black Stone” called Hajar-al-Aswad, set into the eastern corner of Kaaba, inside a metallic casing. It is believed to have fallen from Heaven to show Adam and Eve where to build an altar for God. It is also believed to be a token of God's covenant with Prophet Abraham and his son Ismail. Pilgrims try to touch or kiss this stone during the circumambulation around the Kaaba. The composition and the nature of this stone is much debated. Most descriptions vary from it being a basalt stone, an agate, a piece of natural glass, or a meteorite material. Paul Partsch, the former curator of Austro-Hungarian Imperial Natural History Museum first published the theory of the meteorite origin of Black stone. In the year 1980, Elsebeth Thomsen of the University of Copenhagen proposed that the Black Stone could possibly be a an impactite (fused sand mixed with meteorite material) from the Wabar Crater in the Rubʿ al-Khalī desert of Saudi Arabia. Thomsen suggested that after the fall of the meteorite, a piece of impactite might have been transported to Mecca along a caravan route that may have passed close to the crater. However, to be fair, I would say there are some geologists who doubt the meteorite origin theory of the Black stone.
    It is important to bear in mind that Muslims neither worship the Kaaba nor the black stone because the worship of idols, images, stones, or any kind of physical representation of God is strictly prohibited in Islam.

Our arrival at Mecca:

    The bus carrying the pilgrims from Medina to Mecca passed through the middle of a desert. Heat and thirst were the main concerns for us. The bus halted at a place, which generally speaking is called a Miqat. It is a place from where the pilgrims enter into a state of Ihram. Ihram is a word which has two meanings, one is the spiritual state of a pilgrim, and secondly it is the name of a pair of seamless white sheets of cloth, specifically for male pilgrims. I wore the Ihram, and performed the obligatory prayers to make up my mind for Umrah or 'the lesser pilgrimage'. Since, it was almost a month before the actual Hajj would begin so we thought of performing the Umrah which can be performed at anytime of the year. We are supposed to make intention of observing some rules as long as we wear Ihram, for example, NOT to gossip, fight, curse, lie, physically harm a human being, unnecessarily kill an animal, deliberately pluck a flower or a leaf, kill insects, wear perfume, cover head (for men), cover face (for women), or to have sexual intercourse during the state of Ihram. Breach of any of these prohibitions may nullify one's Hajj or Umrah.
    From the Miqat we continued our journey to Mecca. Lunch boxes, sweets, snacks and water bottles were provided to us by the government officials and/or volunteers, on a regular basis. We were dropped at the apartments reserved for pilgrims. There we received color-coded ID cards, badges and bracelets bearing a unique identification number for each pilgrim. We checked into our apartment to rest after a tiresome journey. We shared our flat with a Shia Muslim family, from Jaunpur, a city in Uttar Pradesh. I will always remember them throughout my life. With them we developed a special bond of friendship and care. The kind lady treated me like her own son. Most of you might think that why I mentioned the word 'Shia' Muslim. That is because I belong to a family of 'Sunni' Muslims, so it was a good opportunity for us to understand them and for them to understand us in a better way. After all, one of the primary  objectives of Hajj is to re-energize the spirit of unity among the followers of Prophet Muhammad. We used to have a lot of interesting religious and political discussions with them. 
    Me, my mom and my aunt, performed the Umrah or 'lesser pilgrimage' at the Grand Mosque of Mecca. It includes the seven circumambulations of the Kaaba, a short prayer, the back and forth movement from Mount Safa to Mount Marwah seven times bare foot, and then finally shaving off of the head for male pilgrims and cutting some hairs of female pilgrims. 
    There is a nice library inside the Masjid al-Haram too. It has a good collection of books on subjects like history, theology, religious jurisprudence, science and technology, available in multiple languages. It has some rare manuscripts of the Qur'an too. I used to visit this library a lot. It was a very soothing experience to sit in silence and read books, sometimes just to escape the heavy crowd of pilgrims.

The tragedy unfolds...

    It was a Friday, I remember, I had gone to the Grand Mosque , to pray the Friday Salah (or Jummah Namaz). After the prayer, I decided not to stay there and I returned back. In the afternoon as I was resting in my hotel when I heard the sound of winds and thunder. That was weird. It was an unexpected shift in the weather. Some said it was a sand storm. Whatever it was, it didn't last too long but it's intensity seemed terrifying. When everything started to calm down, I dozed off to sleep which was broken by an impatient knock on the door.

“Did you hear about what happened at the Haram?", the man standing at door asked me. I knew him. He was a fellow pilgrim often used to come to our room for small talks but today he seemed to be in a state of shock. I had no answer to his question. But very soon everybody knew what had happened. It was one of the biggest tragedies to have ever happened in Mecca during Hajj. The storm had caused one of the construction cranes surrounding the Sanctorum to collapse, leading to the death of more than a 100 pilgrims and leaving behind many injured.

Panic stated to spread like wildfire. Our relatives and friends were calling us from India, but there was no news of the family with whom we shared our flat. I made several calls to enquire about them, but there was no news of them. After a long time, they came back to our flat. Thanks to God, it was a relief to see them safe. They narrated to us the horror that they witnessed at The Haram.

Time stops for none

    It was 8th of Dhul Hijjah, the twelfth month of Islamic calendar. The time had come to make a move for the actual Hajj rites. We were transported to the valley of Mina, approximately 8 km to the east of Mecca, in buses. We had to stay there for the next five days. Mina is a huge place, and has more than 100,000 air-conditioned tents to provide temporary accommodation to almost 3 million people. Each of the tents are color-coded and numbered according to country, and all the pilgrims are urged to wear badges with their color and number on it. We were provided with a map of the Mina valley to find our way back to the tent, in case we get lost. It is not a very comfortable place to stay but then who said Hajj is about comfort?

“Arafat is Hajj”

The most awaited of Day of the Arafat, finally arrived.

Arafat is a vast desert plain approximately 20 km southeast of Mecca. Hajjis have to stay there for one full day till sunset. This is the most important day of all. Even if a pilgrim misses all other rituals but he stays in the plain of Arafat, on this day, during the stipulated time, then his Hajj will be considered valid. Prophet Muhammad said, “Arafat is Hajj”.  It is said that this is the place and time wherein all the doors of God's Mercy are opened for all pilgrims. He forgives sins and bestows His grace upon anyone who asks Him sincerely.

This is the day, when you can see millions of people gathered at one place, eyes filled with tears. men and women, rich and poor, young and old, all sitting on the ground under the sun, praying to one God. There is no discrimination of any kind whatsoever. Even the small theological and sectarian differences among Muslims seem to have no significance on that day. All brothers and sisters are united together.

Some say that if there is any place and time on earth which bears resemblance to the final Day of Judgement then it is the Day of Arafat. In this place, is a mountain called Jabal-al Rahmah where  Prophet Muhammad delivered his final sermon. On that day he said,

"No Arab is superior to a non-Arab. No black man is superior to a white man and no white man is superior to a black, except through piety. The most noble among you is the one who is deeply conscious of God."

    After sunset, we all moved from that place. Slowly and patiently we walked to the metro station to take a train to a place called Muzdalifa. We had to spend the night there. What a night it was! So many pilgrims, in not as much a big place. It was one of the most difficult nights we spent. Sleeping on the ground with so many others around us cramped together. I remember how some people trampled upon us while we were sleeping. One of the tests which a pilgrim has to face during Hajj is the test of patience. My mom and my aunt had to go through a lot of trouble in Muzdalifa, but they never gave up their patience, and that is truly remarkable. 

“Stoning of the Devil”

    In the morning, we went back to our tents in Mina. From there we had to go to a place called Jamarah, to perform the most well known yet most misunderstood practice of "Stoning of the Devil". Metro trains connected the Mina to the Jamarah. We were planning to make a move when we heard the news of another tragic incident. The most feared incident. The stampede.
Around 200 people lost their lives in such a sad incident which could have been avoided if people had been more patient. But Alas! As it is said, it's God's will. Just about an hour after this incident, me and my mom went to Jamarah to perform the "Stoning". Army was deployed to control the crowd and we could hear the military choppers hovering above us.  To provide relief to pilgrims from scorching heat, the police officers and other volunteers were sprikling cold water on the crowd at reguler intervals.

Seven pebbles to be thrown at each of the three pillars (now walls), so a total of 21 pebbles to be pelted while reciting:

“Allah hu akbar!” God is the greatest.

It is a symbolic re-enactment of Prophet Abraham's stoning of the Devil, thrice, each time warding off the temptation to disobey God.

The Sacrifice

After the stoning, pilgrims sacrifice sheeps, goats or lamb, to celebrate Eid Al-Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice, popular in India by the name of Bakri Eid, to commemorate the story of Prophet Abraham's test of faith when he was commanded by God to sacrifice his son Ismail. The meat from the sacrifice of animals is distributed among the poor and the needy.

The Tawaf of the Kaaba

The Sanctum Sanctorum of the Mecca, swells with the crowd of pilgrims coming to circumambulate the Kaaba. All pilgrims move towards the Kaaba, reciting the energizing and electrifying phrase, Labaik Allahummah! Labaik!, “Here I am, O God, (responding to your call) Here I am!”.  I could see the children and the old, healthy and the crippled, all making efforts to circumambulate this holy shrine. I saw women holding babies in the arms, elderly men on wheel chairs, young couples holding hands all filled with zeal and spiritual fervour. I remember how my aunt, despite her age, gathered all the courage and strength she could possibly gather to perform this strenuous act. It was a strange site.
    After completion of the seven circuits around the Kaaba, we drank the Zamzam water by standing behind the Maqaam Ibrahim 'Station of Abraham'. This water is from the well of Zamzam, located within the Masjid al-Haram about 20 m eastwards of the Kaaba. In the words of Kristiane Becker from her book, From Mtv to Mecca, “it tastes slightly sweet and its consistency is thicker than normal water.” It is believed that this water has intrinsic properties to heal the diseases of the body and the soul.

Al-Safa and Al-Marwah: In remembrance of the Mother of Ismail

    As an integral part of Hajj rituals, we had to perform the back and forth movement between the hills of Safa and Marwah in Mecca. It is a symbolic reminder of the search for water by Lady Hajara for her thirsty son Ismail. Ismail was the son of Hajara and Prophet Abraham, among whose descendants was Prophet Muhammad himself.

Cave of Hira and the story of the “First Revelation”

    Although it is not a part of Hajj rituals, yet we took time out to embark on a trip to the famous Cave of Hira, about three miles north-east of Mecca on the Jabal al-Noor, the Mountain of Light. The Prophet often used to go there to engage in deep meditation and it was there that he is received his first revelation from God. This one event is so important in Islamic history, that I thought I would include a short description of it for those who are interested. Dr. Reza Aslan, in his book No god but God, describes this mystical incident in the life of Prophet Muhammad, as follows,

One night in 610 C.E., as he was meditating on Mt. Hira
during one of his religious retreats, Muhammad had an encounter
that would change the world.

He sat alone in a cave, deep in meditation. Suddenly an invisible
presence crushed him in its embrace. He struggled to break free but
could not move. He was overwhelmed by darkness. The pressure in
his chest increased until he could no longer breathe. He felt he was
dying. As he surrendered his final breath, light and a terrifying voice
washed over him "like the break of dawn."

"Recite!" the voice commanded.

"What shall I recite?" Muhammad gasped.

The invisible presence tightened its embrace. "Recite!"

"What shall I recite?" Muhammad asked again, his chest caving in.

Once more the presence tightened its grip and once more the
voice repeated its command. Finally, at the moment when he thought
he could bear no more, the pressure in his chest stopped, and in the
silence that engulfed the cave, Muhammad felt these words stamped
upon his heart:

“Recite in the name of your Lord who created,
Created humanity from a clot of blood.
Recite, for your Lord is the Most Generous One
Who has taught by the pen;
Taught humanity that which it did not know.” (Qura'n 96: 1-5)

This was Muhammad's burning bush: the moment in which he
ceased being a Meccan businessman concerned with society's ills, and
became what in the Abrahamic tradition is called Prophet.

The philosophy of Hajj 

“Hajj is the anti-thesis of aimlessness.”
- Dr. Ali Shariati

    Before you leave for Hajj, it is advisable to settle all affairs, clears all debts, seek forgiveness from your near and dear ones and try to undo whatever harm you may have caused to someone in your life. It is as if you may never return back, or you may never be the same again.
    Hajj, externally is the journey to the Holy land, but internally it is a journey into one's own heart. It is the time to reflect upon one's own soul and to think about higher metaphysical matters. To those pilgrims who sincerely intend to seek truth, can understand during their Hajj that there is something much more profound and much more sublime to our lives than mere aimless material existence.  Hajj teaches us to think beyond just the basal struggle for food, clothing and shelter. A sincere Hajj would reveal to the pilgrims what the famous German theologian Rudolf Otto referred to by the Latin phrase Mysterium tremendum et fascinansthe mysterious tendency of the Divine, also called as "numinous", to invoke both fear and fascination, or both repulsion and attraction in a human being. I admit that I did not perform the hajj with a conviction necessary to have such an esoteric experience, but I believe there are a few pilgrims who do have some life-changing experiences.
    Hajj is a reminder that all people are equal before God. The two plain sheets of white cloth (Ihram) worn by all men, King or beggar, Prime Minister or peasant, CEO or sweeper, all look the same in this simple attire. Hajj annihilates all false divisions such as class, caste, region, nationality, skin color, race, etc. and it is this unifying spirit of universal brotherhood that Malcolm X referred to when he wrote about his own Hajj,

“I have never before seen sincere and true brotherhood practiced by all colors together.”

    The whole point of Hajj, in my opinion, is not to concentrate too much on rituals, but to try to grasp the subtle messages hidden in those rituals. It is this thought which the great Islamic scholar and poet Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi aptly presents in the form of his poetry,
"God enjoined the ritual
of circling the Kaaba
as a way for you to find a heart.

But if your feet walk
around the Kaaba a thousand times,
and yet you injure a heart,
do you expect to be accepted?"

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