Today I am fasting in observance of the Day of Arafat, as are hundreds of millions of muslims worldwide, with the notable exception of those lucky few million who are performing the hajj. On this day, the hajjis stand in prayer all day at Mount Arafat, cleansing their souls with prayer. As my friend Aamer wrote of his own experience some years ago, the pilgrimage of hajj is akin to death, and the day of Arafat is therefore a rebirth:
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.
Arafat 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.
My own Hajj was two years ago and I will never forget it. I took the photo above during my own hajj two years ago, but I hardly need photos; the images and experiences are burned into my heart. And my soul.
Our loved ones who are at Arafat today are remembering us in their prayers, beseeching to Allah on our behalf as well as theirs. Their spiritual journey is also a physical one; it’s incumbent on all of us who are left behind to seek to make that journey in our own heart and in fasting, sharpen our resolve for a rebirth of our piety as best we can.