While most Muslims perform the hajj in their adult or even elderly years, I was an exception in my community. I performed the hajj 20 years ago while I was still a teenager, so I was thrown headlong into the spiritual and physical heart of Islam at a time when I was still grappling with more typical teenage concerns such as putting a new driver's license to use. But experiencing the hajj at such an early age had a profound impact on my life, and shaped a Muslim identity within me that was, until then, more based on my parent's Indian culture rather than an appreciation for Islam's rich spiritual legacy and religious guidance. The experience so shaped my college years that I went on to spend much of my spare time working to build a place for Muslims in the American fabric, having been connected so closely to the legacy of my coreligionists.
My father insisted on "roughing it" when he took my brother and me on the hajj. That meant sleeping on dirt floors and eating street food. He insisted that it was part of the heritage of hajj, where people would trek for thousands of miles on the journey of a lifetime. We braved the Arabian sun to perform the time-honored rituals of the hajj. In a ritual called tawaf, I circumnavigated the Kaaba, which Muslims believe was the first house of worship built to serve the One God. I ran between the hills of Safa and Marwa seven times (in bare feet on rough stone, no less) to commemorate Hagar's desperate search for water for her thirsty son, fighting off my own thirst in the process. We gathered, along with two million others, on the plains of Arafat, testifying to God that we had journeyed there as He commanded, seeking his mercy. The sights and sounds around me - apart from the throngs of buses and the sheer number of people - were much as I imagined it had been for hundreds of years prior, when pilgrims dressed in the same two simple cloths also walked the same paths we walked.
I performed the hajj in a simpler time, before email, mobile phones, and the rapid development of the city of Mecca (now spelled "Makkah" or "Makkah al-Mukarramah" by Saudi Arabia, which felt that the word "Mecca" had long since been lost to the English language). A trek that used to resemble the ordeal in "Lord of the Rings" now finds more in common with cruise ship holidays. Striking hotel towers soar nearly 80 stories above the Kaaba, where you can look down on worshippers in air-conditioned comfort as you order a Starbucks coffee from the lobby and dart into the Cinnabon store before heading across the street to join the crowds. Sure, the religious rituals are all the same, but as the hajj becomes more of a "drive-thru" experience, are there spiritual gifts that are lost along the way?
According to my brother, who performed with me in our teenage years and repeated the experience last year, the spiritual experience remains powerful. As with generations past, the sight of Muslims arriving from every corner of the world, from rich and poor countries, from areas of conflict and peace, is a moving one. But with more Muslims coming each year through more accessible and affordable transport, the logistical challenges remain daunting. In recent years, hundreds of pilgrims have died due to overcrowding in tunnels and on the bridge around the three Jamarat pillars. The patience, or sabr, required to get to Mecca and travel between the holy sites with 3 million other pilgrims has become a de facto part of the religious experience itself.
During the modern hajj, the emphasis on commerce and the abundance of modern technology can be distracting. New malls with Western stores are beginning to surround the Masjid al-Haram ("the Sacred Mosque"), contrasting with the nearby bazaars and street markets that echo historic experiences (commerce itself during hajj time has not traditionally been discouraged). Mobile phone and camera use, though prohibited around the Haram, is still widespread, even by pilgrims performing the tawaf and other religious rites (Internet access, on the other hand, is not accessible to pilgrims). The Saudis have been criticized for their disregard for archeology and buildings of historic importance. Most likely, within a decade’s time, few of the buildings immediately around the Haram will be more than 30 years old.
But once you've looked past the peculiarities of modern life colliding with ancient tradition, the Hajj experience is still a profoundly rewarding one. Through the fervor of your fellow pilgrims chanting "Labbaik, Allahumma Labbaik" ("Here I am, O Lord, here I am") and in moments of solitude in quiet corners of the mosque, you feel God's presence around you. Ultimately, you get out of the hajj what you put into it. The pilgrim looks through the difficulties and distractions of the mechanism of the hajj - be it the physical trials of the old hajj or the material trials of the new - to get to the heart of the hajj, and through that, to Islam itself.
The hajj of my youth, as well as of today, is the same at its core - millions of Muslims gathering as one people to reaffirm their commitment to God and to testify to the central presence of the Divine in their lives. Only now you get to send a mobile phone picture to your friends back home while you do it.