In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful
The decision was almost totally spontaneous: my wife and I simply looked at each other and said, “Let’s go to the Hajj this year.” That set in motion a series of events that culminated in the most powerful spiritual experience of my entire life. That was back in the fall of 2002; yet, the memories and feelings of the Hajj which took place in Februray 2003 are as fresh as if they had happened yesterday.
In the coming days and weeks, Muslim pilgrims – like me all those years ago – are descending upon the Arabian peninsula to perform the annual Hajj, or pilgrimmage to the holy city of Mecca. It is a trip that every able bodied Muslim man and woman must perform once in his or her lifetime. It is a living re-enactment of the ancient drama of Abraham, Hagar, and their son Ishmael. I will recount my Hajj experience here on my blog, so you can get a taste of the awesome experience that millions of Muslims have each and every year in Mecca.
Back in the Fall of 2002, there were a lot of things that needed to fall into place for my wife and I to go: we had to get babysitters for our two children; I had to get coverage at work; we had to find a travel agency that will take us. Thankfully, everything went smoothly, and before we knew it, we were on our way to Frankfurt, Germany on the first leg of our trip to the holy city of Mecca. After we arrived in Germany, we prepared to go to Mecca, and we got dressed in the ihram, or the ceremonial dress of the pilgrim.
The ihram consists of two white and unstitched cloths with which we wrap ourselves (it is a little different for women). It the ultimate equalizer, as prince and pauper look totally alike. In this garb, we are stripped of our worldly rank and status and return to God and His House as servants and worshippers – nothing more, nothing less. In the plane, we started chanting the greeting that pilgrims since the time of Abraham have chanted as they approached the Holy House: “Here we are, O Lord! He we are, Here we are! There is no rival unto You!”
Our path to Mecca first took us to Jedda, where the all the pilgrims must first stop and get processed by the Hajj authorities. And there we learned the first lesson of the Hajj: patience. Everything in Jedda moved very, very slowly. We waited at least 12 hours for the buses that will take us Mecca. But, the wait was well worth it because, at the end of the wait, was the thing we all longed to see for our entire lives: the Ka’bah, the shrine – built by Abaraham himself – dedicated to the One God.
As the bus drove closer to the Ka’bah, I was struck by how “normal” Mecca seemed. It was like any other ancient city of the Middle East: dusty, cramped, and full of narrow streets and alleyways. It looked a lot like Cairo, to which I had been a few times before. But then, almost coming out of nowhere, I saw it: the Grand Mosque which held the Ka’bah. The mosque was the most beautiful I had ever seen. It seemed to glow, even though it was in the middle of the day. From where the bus was, I couldn’t see the shrine itself, and that only enhanced my anticipation and eagerness to go and see it.
My wife and I left our baggage at the hotel at which we were staying and almost ran to the Grand Mosque. And then, I saw it: the Ka’bah. The black cube stood there in front of my eyes, and I was struck with tremendous awe. Tears were streaming down my face as I walked closer to the shrine, praying to God for His grace and mercy the entire time.
It was so very beautiful, and it literally took my breath away. This was the thing to which I turned five times a day for decades; this was the thing which the Prophet Abraham and his son Ishmael built; this was the thing around which the Prophet Muhammad had walked all those years ago. And it was right before me, being my companion as I walked around the shrine – in the tradition of the Prophet Abraham – seven times in a counterclockwise direction. This is called the tawaf, and it is the special way in which this shrine is greeted.
After I finished my circumambulation, I walked seven times between the two hillocks of Safa and Marwa – just like Hagar did centuries ago – and finished my ‘Umra, or lesser pilgrimmage. It is not a requirement of the Hajj, but since we were already there – several days before the actual Hajj was to begin – we figured, “Why not?” Once we finished these rituals, I went back to the hotel and proceeded to shave my head as a symbol of my servanthood to God. It hurt…and bled, a lot.
Yet, despite this, the whole experience was awesome, and we spent several days thereafter in Mecca as “tourists”: eating, shopping, and praying in the holiest spot on earth for Muslims. Yet, for all the greatness of those days, the things we were about to experience were even greater.