City of Brass

City of Brass

Hajj: a near-death experience

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

The following is a guest post by my friend Aamer Jamali.

Having recently returned from Hajj, I am bombarded by that well meaning
question by all of my friends and loved ones… “How was it?” 
Unfortunately, all I can answer is an inadequate “fine”, or even
“great”.  Why?  Words can’t really describe the experience, especially
hastily chosen words in a usually hurried conversation.
How was
Hajj?  Was it awesome?  Was it a life changing experience?  Was it
spiritually fulfilling? Was it physically rigorous?  Yes.  All that for
sure… But even that seems to leave something out.  Not in the level
of superlative, but in the level of quality.
To me, Hajj was best described as a journey through death and back.  How would you describe that?  You simply can’t.
first thing you learn, even before you leave, is that your Hajj is your
own, and no one else’s.  Your experiences, your hardships, your
prayers, your choices are all unique to you alone.  So it makes sense
that this interpretation of Hajj is mine alone, and may not be
the experience of others.  It may not even be ‘correct’ in the
sense that I have not gleaned it (to the best of my knowledge) from any
sabaq or sanctioned text.  Yet to me, it is as plain as day.
in many ways like death, is a pinnacle, a climax of a Muslim’s life. 
Something to be looked at with equal parts excitement, respect, and
trepidation, mixed with a healthy dose of downright fear.  And yet you
realize that though you may fear it, your life is marching inevitably
towards it as a farz (required) act.  For me, I felt a call,
so clear it was almost physical, that this was my year to go.  And when
that hit, there really was no choice but for me to make the trek this
The first true act of Hajj is putting on Ehram clothes. 
For men, two simple pieces of unsewn, unadorned cloth, wrapped around
your body in much the same way as a traditional burial shroud.  You
shed every accoutrement and accessory of this world.  Everyone looks
the same.  The cardiologist from Los Angeles was sitting next to the
street sweeper from Bangladesh (really!), and nobody could tell one
from the other.  This was a powerful moment, saying goodbye to the
worldly station you have worked so hard to achieve.
The trip to Arafat is the climax of the act of Hajj.  You stand before the sun and pray.  Much like Muslim beliefs of qiyamat (the
day of judgement), you stand before Allah and you pray.  You pray with
an intensity you have never before experienced.  The most fitting
description I have read (but cannot take credit for) is that you stand
before your God naked.  Stripped naked of every crutch or protection
you have come to rely on.  There are no worldly accessories.  It
doesn’t matter how much you make, or what you own.  It doesn’t matter
who your dad is, or your mom.  You may stand next to your spouse, but
you are utterly and completely alone.  Standing there in your burial
shroud, praying before God, with only your Iman (faith) and your Amal (works)
to speak on your behalf, stripped of every conceivable comfort or
connection of the world.  This is an accurate description of Arafat
day, but it is also an accurate description of what Muslims are taught
will happen to each of us when we are called to account after death.
day is the most exhausting of Hajj.  Though it is not the most rigorous
day, the trip down from the mountain of Arafat is a mixture of feeble
jubilation with intense spiritual, psychological, and emotional
fatigue.  Your trip through death is over.  Your accounts have been
settled.  You have been cleansed of sin.  But you have been left with
nothing in this world, you sleep under the stars, exposed to the
elements.    It is time for rebirth.
On your return, you shave your head, just as we do for newly born babies.  You begin your new life with a tawaaf (a trip to the kaabah),
hopefully beginning things on the right foot.  What better way to start
off your new life than with an act of total obedience and submission to
God’s will?  You return home, and remove your (by now dusty and dirty) Ehram clothes to begin your life anew.
I finished, my number one feeling was one of traversing the plains of
death, facing its trials and tribulations, and returning reborn. 
do you sum that up in a hallway when a colleague asks “How was your
trip?” There’s only one realistic answer.  “Fine, thanks”.

Aamer H. Jamali, MD, FACC is a cardiologist in Los Angeles.

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