Su'ad Abdul-Khabeer, a 22-year-old recent graduate of Georgetown University, performed the Hajj, a pilgrimage that all Muslims are required to do. This article originally appeared on Beliefnet in 2001.
It's been confirmed. I'm on my way to Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, the holiest city of Islam. All Muslims are required to perform Hajj at least once in their lives, if they can afford to. It is one of the Five Pillars of Islam--devotional acts required of all Muslims.
I was beginning to wonder if this Hajj journal would ever get written. The Saudi embassy was reluctant to grant me a visa because I would be traveling as a single woman. According to Saudi laws, Muslim women are supposed to travel with a mahram (an uncle, brother, or father) for safety considerations, but I think their interpretation only serves a certain class of Muslim women--which I find to be un-Islamic. After much frustration, I finally received the visa. I had truly been invited by God.
On Hajj, one visits the Ka'bah, the cube-shaped structure Muslims call the house of God. A hajja/hajji (pilgrim) has been invited on this journey by God, the Ultimate. Therefore, a hajja is literally a guest of God. Imagine that.
The pilgrimage started for me as soon as I got to the airport terminal at JFK. I felt a luggage cart biting into my ankles. I turned my head and an Egyptian woman was motioning for me to hurry up, as if there was anyplace I could move. I gave her the common Egyptian signal for patience and thought to myself, "I am still in America, but it's started already!"
"It" is the chaos and disorder of traveling in Arabic-speaking Africa and the Middle East. The Egypt Air boarding area was already like I'd entered a foreign country: the clamor of colloquial Egyptian Arabic, people pushing and shoving, cutting the line, trying to convince the agents to let them check just one more box, even though they had already checked eight pieces. Slight annoyances, but ones I was determined wouldn't annoy me; if I can't deal with a hundred people in an airport, how will I ever deal with millions of people on the Hajj?
As my mother and I boarded the plane, well-wishers, some of whom I've known since I was young, began chanting the Hajj supplication: "Labbayka Allahuma Labbayk, Labbayka la shareeka laka Labbayk, Inna al-hamd wa an-ni'mata laka wa al-mulk, La shareeka lak!" (O my Lord, Here I am at Your service, Here I am, There is no partner with You, Truly, the praise and the blessing are Yours, and so is the dominion, There is no partner with you.) As we went through the gate, the crowd continued waving good-bye and chanting, "Allahu Akbar (God is the Greatest)!"
We were off first to Cairo, where we'd catch another plane to Saudi Arabia. There are several stages of the Hajj, including a ritual cleansing and the circling of the Ka'bah. But the most important stage occurs on Mt. Arafat, or Mount Mercy. Arafat is a sacred site for several reasons: Adam and Eve are said to have reunited there, Abraham went to sacrifice Ishmael there, Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) gave his last sermon there, and Allah descends to the lowest heaven to hear the prayers of His servants who gather on the mountain. If you can't make it there to pray yourself, you definitely want someone else to appeal to God on your behalf.
In my luggage, I have quite a few index cards with prayers to say while on Arafat. I am carrying them for those who aren't able to make the trip with us. For most, the Hajj is something you do after 40, at the earliest. Most people have bills, families, jobs, and debt--responsibilities that are not easily taken care of or put on hold for the three weeks or so it takes to make the Hajj. Yet at 22, I am making the trip. It's a thought that really humbles me. Allah has basically said, "Su'ad, come to My house," and I replied, with tears streaming down my face, "Labbayka Allahuma Labbayk!"