By Mahmood Jawaid
“Here I am, O God, here I am. Here I am, you have no partner, here I am. All praises are due to you, all favors come from you, and the kingdom belongs to you. You have no partner indeed.”
The whole plane was resonating with the chant, called talbiyah, as it descended on Jeddah Airport. Millions like me were responding to a call made by Abraham about 4,000 years ago. “Behold! God gave the site of the [Sacred] House [Kabah] to Abraham [saying]: ‘Associate not any thing [in worship] with me; and sanctify my house for those who compass it round or stand up or bow or prostrate themselves [therein in prayer]. And proclaim hajj among people. They will come to you on foot and [mounted] on every kind of camel lean on account of journeys through deep and distant mountain highways that they may witness the benefits [provided] for them’” (Quran 22:26-28).
After the advent of Islam, Muslims from all over the world have been responding to this call every year.
Millions like me have donned two unstitched white sheets called ihram, one wrapped around the lower part of the body and the other around the upper part, when they arrived at Jeddah airport. Women are exempted and wear regular but modest clothes. In ihram, people cannot destroy any life or indulge in argument, fight or sexual activity. A person cannot even pluck a hair from his body or a leaf from a tree.
We boarded a bus for Mecca, about 50 miles from Jeddah. As soon as we arrived, we unloaded our luggage at the hotel and headed straight to the sanctuary. Kabah is in an open courtyard. After negotiating our way through the crowd, we entered the courtyard. There it was, a cubical building draped in black cloth with golden embroidery. All these years, I had turned toward it from the East and from the West during my prayers. I always hoped to see it with my own eyes, and today my wish had come true. For a moment, I was overcome with emotions. My body was shivering, my lips were shaking, my heart was trembling, and tears were flowing from my eyes.
Though the black drapes are replaced every year, and the building has been reconstructed many times, the space and a black stone affixed in one of the corners of Kabah by Abraham has remained the same. The whole courtyard was full of men and women of all ages, races, economic strata and speaking all sorts of languages. It looked like an ocean of people.
Kabah was standing tall in the middle of this ocean. Streams of men and women were merging into this ocean to circle around it, while others who had completed the circling were streaming out. I recomposed myself, merged into the crowd, and slowly made my way toward Kabah. I started my circling from the corner with the black stone. The crowd was moving very slowly. There was not much space around us. We could not avoid touching and bumping into each other. Sometimes a long stream of men and women would come gushing. Afraid to get lost, they would be tightly clinging to each other. If you are in their way, you had better move. Otherwise, you could be shoved aside or even get trampled.
After completing each circuit, it is preferable to kiss the black stone. However, the spot was very crowded. There was a swarm of people around the stone and many were creeping along the wall to reach it. I had no appetite for pushing and shoving, so I settled for just waving at the black stone with “God is the greatest” from a distance.
After completing seven circuits, I positioned myself behind the Station of Abraham and offered prayer. The station has the footprints of Abraham etched in stone in a glass encasing. Legend has it that Abraham used to stand here while building Kabah.
Then I headed towards the Spring of Zam Zam. Legend has it that when Abraham left his handmaid Hagar and their son Ishmael in the wilderness of Mecca, she camped where Kabah stands now. There was no vegetation or water in the area. When Ishmael got thirsty, Hagar started running between two hills (Safa and Marwah) nearby to search for water. She first went on top of Safa and looked around. When she found nothing there, she ran towards Marwah, but found nothing there either. Back and forth, she made seven runs. After the seventh run, when she was on top of Marwah, she saw water gushing under the feet of Ishmael. She ran and while raising a barrier around it, said “Zam! Zam!” (“Stop! Stop!”). Since then the Spring of Zam Zam has been satiating the thirst of caravans passing by. The spring is actually in a basement near Kabah, which is now closed to the public. Water is served through spigots.
After drinking and sprinkling Zam Zam all over my body, I headed toward Safa to walk in the footsteps of Hagar. The place is now covered and air-conditioned and has a marble floor, except for a small portion of the hills, which is still rocky. I wondered the hurt Hagar must have gone through to run barefoot on the rocky path. While walking or running I tried to imagine the desperation Hagar must have felt. Like the courtyard, it was also crowded. Having finished the walk, I got my hair clipped and that brought the first phase of hajj to completion. After a shower, I took off my ihram and switched back into regular clothes. I could now scratch my hair freely.
The second phase of hajj started after a few days. We donned ihram again and boarded the bus for Mina, about 4 miles from Mecca. With about 3 million people on the move and only a few roads available for transportation, it creates a huge traffic jam.
Mina was filled with tents with carpets spread in it. To make our stay a little comfortable, our travel agent handed us sleeping bags. They came in handy in the night when it got cold.
The tents were crowded. Each tent housed hundreds of people. It was OK in the day, but during the night we found very little space to turn while sleeping. We kept on bumping into each other all night. Going to the restroom was a very delicate balancing act. There was always a danger of stepping over or falling on someone. Sometimes emotions would flare up. But when reminded that no arguments or fights are allowed during hajj, folks would calm down. We spent the day supplicating, contemplating and chatting.
After spending the night in Mina, we packed our sleeping bags and headed toward Arafat, about 7 miles from Mina. It was also filled with tents and crowded. We again spent the day contemplating, supplicating and chatting. As the sun started to decline, many people got out of the tent and started supplicating in unison. It was a moving scene. I could see tears flowing from many eyes.
As the sun set, we packed again to head toward Muzdalifah. It was a cold night. There were no tents, and we had to spend the whole night there. I had brought a spare ihram, which I used as a blanket. Knowing I would get hungry, I brought some boiled eggs. With a cup of tea, it was a treat under the cold, starry sky. My companion thanked me for having such foresight.
We all had to rest because tomorrow was going to be a busy day. After offering the obligatory prayers, I slipped into the sleeping bag. While watching the stars, I fell asleep.
Commotion woke me at dawn. After offering the obligatory prayer and eating the leftover boiled eggs and a cup of hot tea, we rolled our sleeping bags and waited for the sun to rise. As soon as the sun rose, we were on the move again. In a few hours, we were back in Mina in our tents.
After some rest and a short nap, we headed toward Jamarat for the stoning. According to legend, when Abraham was taking his son for sacrifice, Satan made three attempts to dissuade him. Abraham drove him away by hurling stones at him. Those three locations were represented by three pillars. With overcrowding, many stampedes have taken place in the past. The Saudi government has replaced the pillars with long walls and made two levels to ease the overcrowding.
The path was littered with slippers. As a part of the ihram requirement, we cannot wear shoes. Almost everyone wears slippers. With overcrowding, the person behind steps on the slippers of the person in front, and they pop out.
Today, we were going to stone the third station. We had already picked up 49 pea-sized pebbles in Muzdalifah during our stay there. We were going to use seven pebbles today. While throwing the pebbles, we reminded ourselves that if Satan ever tries to dissuade us from good acts, we should shun him. Some folks think that the wall itself is Satan. In order to beat him hard, they use big stones and even throw slippers and umbrellas against the wall.
Following Abraham’s footstep, the next step was to slaughter a sheep, but we can now buy vouchers for the sacrifice. The sacrifice is done on our behalf, and the meat is shipped to poor countries. In the past most of the meat was just wasted.
After throwing the pebbles, we headed straight to the barbershop and got our heads shaved. (Women get only a small clipping.) Hundreds of barbers were lined up, and hair was scattered all over.
We took a shower, switched back into regular clothes and headed straight to Mecca. There we circled around Kabah, prayed behind the Station of Abraham, drank Zam Zam, and walked or ran between Safa and Marwah.
Now done for the day, we returned to Mina and hit the sack. For the next two days, we stayed in Mina and went to throw seven pebbles each at one of three stations at Jamarat. Having thrown the 49th pebble, we were ready to leave. So we headed back to Mecca, performed the farewell circling of Kabah, hoping to return one day for this memorable journey again, and boarded the bus for the airport.
Jawaid is a writer who lives in Dunbar.