Beliefnet columnist Hesham A. Hassaballa, a physician in Chicago, will file regular reports from Saudi Arabia as he participates in his first Hajj.

Sunday, January 26, 2003

God willing, my wife and I are all set to leave for Mecca tomorrow. The wait has been almost unbearable. I have had much anxiety, however, as I prepared for the trip. In order to make the pilgrimmage, one must apply for a Hajj visa from the Saudi Arabian government (and pay a fee...sheesh!). In addition, you must have proof of vaccination against Neisseria meningitidis serotypes A, C, Y, and W-135. This bacteria causes meningitis and can be deadly, and the enormous crowds of the Hajj place all pilgrims at increased risk of infection.

To add to the anxiety of waiting to be approved (the Saudi government sets quotas for pilgrims from every country), my wife and I had to send our passports to the Saudi Embassy in Washington, D.C.....Gulp. As the day of our departure neared, there was no word from our Hajj tour company agent. I continually harrassed him about our tickets and passports, and he continally ressured me that everything was going to be OK. I always said, "all right," but deep down I was very nervous. On January 23, the agent told me that the passports should be sent to him the next day. January 24 came, but there were no passports. I called him again, frantic by now, and asked him about the passports. You see, I just could not fathom being prevented from going to Hajj this year because our passports were late or (worse yet) lost. He told me that they should come via Federal Express on January 25. I said, "OK," but now I was very, very nervous. Thank God, they did in fact come in that day, and I actually got to see the passports--along with the coveted Hajj visa--in my hands today.

In fact, except for the passport process, the entire process fell into place ever so smoothly. Originally, my wife and I were going to be separated in the hotels in Mecca and Medina, each of us rooming with three other strangers. At the last minute, however, a spot opened up whereby my wife and I could stay together in our own private room. We were supposed to fly Lufthansa to Frankfurt, Germany, and then fly to Saudi Arabia from there. There was no more room on Lufthansa, however, and so the Hajj tour company booked us on American Airlines. This is great, because I can then earn frequent flyer miles on the flight to Frankfurt!

True, this is no great spiritual accomplishment, but we have not yet started our Hajj. And what's so wrong with fulfilling a religious obligation and earning a free airline ticket in the process?

Although I worried much about the pre-Hajj procedures, everything went wonderfully, thanks be to God. In retrospect, I really should not have worried so much. It is clear to me now that God was watching over the whole process, and He took care of everything to make the entire process easy. For, I think that God wants me to come to His house as much, if not more than, I do. Now, all I have to do is get through airport security without being harrassed.....Gulp!

Monday, January 27, 2003

The Lord has blessed our trip so far. Checking in at the airport could not have gone more smoothly. I am sitting on the plane now and listening to a fine selection of Indian music. It was exciting to finally be embarking on the most important trip of my life. But it was hard to leave my two daughters behind. Our youngest daughter wanted to go to Mecca with us, in fact. I am comforted, however, by the fact that I leave my children behind only for the sake of fulfilling a duty that God Almight has obliged upon me. Our flight will take us to Frankfurt, Germany, in six hours, and from there we will board a chartered flight with dozens of fellow pilgrims to Jeddah. It is there that the spiritual trek "home" to God's sacred house in Mecca will begin.

Tuesday, January 28, 2003

The first leg of our journey to God's sacred house was completed when we arrived in Frankfurt. Then we boarded our final plane to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia. We will then take buses from Jeddah to the holy city of Mecca. At the terminal gate, we saw dozens of fellow pilgrims from all over the United States. I even met a pilgrima, a friend, whom I hadn't seen in more than 10 years.

The diversity of the pilgrims' origins is striking. On the plane with me now are pilgrims from India and Pakistan, all over the Arab world, Africa, and Southeast Asia. They are all my brothers and sisters, all converging on the same place at the same time for the same holy purpose.

In Frankfurt, the first part of the Hajj ritual became incumbent upon me, namely entering into the state of Ihram. This state is manifested both physically and spiritually. Physically, I don two white unstitched cloths, leaving behind all remnants of my earthly life. Princes and paupers become indistringuishable. It is the utmost manner of showing our utter insignificance before the most holy lord God. I must wear this garb before entering--in this case flying over--the sacred precinct of Mecca. Spiritually, I must fulfill all obligations that God has obliged upon me while in Ihram, and I cannot harm any living thir or harm any fellow pilgrim.

The Ihram was uncomfortable at first: I was unaccustomed to only wearing two rather plain white cloths. But I am beginning to enjoy wearing it. The Ihram makes me free in a sense. I am free of the shackles of earthly life: free from the hospital, bills, traffic, and the like. The Ihram has made me free to dedicate my whole existence to the worship of God.

Wednesday, January 29, 2003

We arrived in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, at 11:30 p.m. and went through customs quickly--two hours. Once outside in the airport, we waited...and waited...It took us 12 hours to get a bus to Mecca. It was very tiring, but it is all part of the Hajj experience. Once we reached the hotel, we dropped our luggage and went immediately to the Great Mosque. Walking toward the main mosque area was so exciting. When I saw the Ka'abah, I was taken by its beauty and its surreal otherworldliness. We were in God's world now. My wife cried; so did I.

Immediately, we entered into the river of people making tawwat, or circumambulating the Ka'abah. The concept of personal space completely vanished. While trying not to push other pilgrims, I walked around counterclockwise, constantly praying to God. As I walked, I heard the prayers of all the other pilgrims in Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, Malay.

After circumambulating seven times, we then prayed behind the Station of Abraham: The place where Abraham stood for long periods, making sure that the Ka'bah that he and Ishmael built was perfect. Seeing his footsteps embossed in brass was unbelievable. We then prayed the sunset prayer.

Then we proceeded to walk between the two mountains, called Safa and Marwa. This ritual is called the Sa'y. We reenacted an ancient drama--Hagar's frantic search for water--by running between those mountains seven times. Here, too, pilgrims from all over the world are walking and praying. In all these rituals, there are no specific prayers that are to be uttered. Each pilgrim has his or her own relationship with God and each comes to God's House and prays on his or her own terms. This is part of the beauty of the Hajj. Once finished with running, the lesser Hajj culminates in cutting or shaving one's head for men, and cutting a small piece of hair for women.

I shaved my hair off...ouch...

February 3, 2003

After completing the Lesser Hajj, or Umrah, we are now free to wear regular clothes. We became "tourists." We spent the rest of the time in Mecca shopping and worshipping. There is basically nothing else to do in Mecca besides worship God, and that is the point. God brought us here to get a taste of what the real purpose of life is. In the Qur'an, God told us that the reason he created us is for his worship. Here in Mecca, we are cut off from the rat race of life: no work, no bills, no traffic during rush hour. Just praying and remembering God. It was strange at first; I was not used to spending all day praying to God. But it became fun. I hope and pray that my experience of worship in Mecca will have changed me for the better.

The Great Mosque is truly the most beautiful place on earth. When I am there, I am in an entirely different world. What I love the most is looking at the Ka'bah and watching the circumambulation. From above (the Mosque has three floors), it looks like a river, constantly flowing, ever changing in composition. Each second, there are pilgrims entering and leaving.

The sound of the constant prayers emanating from the mouths of the countless pilgrims, circling round and round, actually sounds like water flowing. I can sit for hours watching the circumambulation. After seeing the Ka'bah, I begin to miss it. I constantly yearn to see it again. I never had this feeling before coming to Mecca. It's an amazing city: it's streets, shops, and bazaars are practically indistinguishable from any other old Middle Eastern city. Every day, more and more pilgrims arrive from all over the world.

I have seen so many pilgrims from Turkey, and they were the nicest pilgrims I have ever met. Even though they can't speak English, they still make the effort to greet me and everyone else. I have also seen and met pilgrims from China, South Africa, Malaysia, Indonesia, Bangladesh, India, Iraq, Syria, and Egypt. Nowhere else have I experienced such diversity.

Now, it is off to Medina to keep my appointment with the Prophet. My focus in Mecca was God, and my focus in Medina will be his Prophet. I can't wait.

February 2nd -4th, 2003:

We arrived in Medina, the City of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) at 3 a.m. on February 2nd. It was so quiet, so peaceful. I felt the presence of the Prophet all around me. I could feel him with me. Our hotel, thank God, is close to the Prophet's mosque. So, at about 9 a.m., I went to the Mosque. The Mosque itself is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen; in fact, it rivals the Great Mosque in Mecca in beauty. I felt tranquility in my heart as I walked through its huge pillars and under its magnificent arches. All I wanted to do, however, was visit the Prophet's grave. I have read about the Prophet's life about ten times; I have asked God to send down His blessings upon the Prophet thousands of times. Now, it was my chance to meet him. There were so many people crowded around his grave by the time I got there. The closer I came to the grave, the happier I felt. I can't describe the feeling I felt when I finally stood before his grave. I greeted the Prophet by saying, "Peace be unto you, O Messenger of God." I then told him, "Long have I wanted to be with you."

I wish I could do it all over again, because that feeling I had was ecstatic. You know, no matter who I meet in the future, no matter what long lost friend or relative I may see again, nothing will ever give me the same feeling as visiting the Prophet's grave in his holy city of Medina.

February 5th, 2003:

Today we visited the historical sites of Medina: the site of the Battle of Uhud, where the Muslims suffered a bitter defeat at the hands of the Meccans. This site is where 70 companions, including the Prophet's Uncle Hamza, were killed and then mutilated. I have listened to stories about the Battle of Uhud dozens of times; I have read about the battle dozens of times also. But, to be at the battle site itself was truly special. I finally got to see the mountain of Uhud, where the Prophet (peace be upon him) climbed up with his companions to escape the swords of the Meccans. The Prophet himself was seriously wounded during this battle. I loved every minute of it. It was an honor for me to visit his Uncle's grave, pray for him, and relive the Battle of Uhud in my mind. We then went to the Mosque at Quba', the first mosque built by the Prophet, and prayed the afternoon prayer. The Prophet told us that whoever prays in that mosque gets the reward of performing a lesser pilgrimage, or Umra. Not bad, eh?

I love it here in Medina. This city is doubly blessed in answer to the Prophet's prayer. The Prophet's soothing, calming presence is all around me here. It is so wonderful to pray in his mosque five times a day and visit his grave and greet and pray for him each day. You don't have to visit his grave each day, once is enough. But I want to: anything that will bring me closer to the Prophet is great. While we were in Mecca, we visited the Mountain of Light and the Cave of Hira, where Gabriel first revealed the Qur'an to the Prophet. Visiting this mountain is not part of the Hajj rituals, but I insisted on going there. I wanted to follow the footsteps of the Prophet as much as possible. Going there made me love the Prophet even more. You know, I hate to say it, but I like Medina better than Mecca. This is hard for me to say because Mecca houses the Sacred House of God, the Ka'abah. If only the Ka'abah could be in Medina . . . Ahem, they are both wonderful cities, and I love them both.

Our visit to the City of the Prophet is winding down now. In two days we will head to Mina, a tent city outside of Mecca, to begin the rituals of the Hajj. We will don our Ihram garb again and perform the thing all 2 million of us came here for. I am very excited: the climax of my trip of a lifetime is about to begin. This fact makes my leaving Medina a little easier on the heart. Here too, there are Muslims from all over the world: I met beautiful brothers from Senegal and Nigeria. Bus after bus is leaving for Mecca now. This is great because the Mosque in Medina will become less crowded! But, we too will also leave for Mecca; how I will miss the Prophet.

Sunday, February 9, 2003

We all moved to the tent city of Mina in preparation for the next day, the day of Arafat. The tent was comfortable and air-conditioned. We slept with dozens of other pilgrims, all from the United States. It was a nice time for prayer, reflection, and meeting other Muslims I would not have a chance to know otherwise. We slept until before dawn, prayed the dawn prayer, and then headed for the plain of Arafat, where we stayed until sunset.

Arafat is the place where Adam and Eve met after being expelled from Paradise. Arafat is the place where, in Muslim belief, Abraham was ordered to sacrifice his son Ishmael. This is the most important day of the entire trip. As the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said, "The whole of Hajj is Arafat." At Arafat, we stayed in air-conditioned rest areas and prayed, recited the Qur'an, and supplicated God. Here I confessed all my sins, all my shortcomings, all my falterings to the Lord and begged His mercy and forgiveness. There was a congregational supplication, where everyone prayed to God together, but I did not go. I wanted to be alone with God. To me, standing on Arafat is a very personal time, a time to bare my all before my Creator.

The Prophet told us that God descends down on the day of Arafat and brags to the angels about His servants who have come to ask His forgiveness. He then says to the angels, "Bear witness that I have forgiven them." All our sins, every last one, will be forgiven. We left Arafat as if we were born anew. In fact, the first sin one can commit after Arafat is thinking that God has not forgiven one's sins. This is the happiest day for the pilgrim. The challenge now is to be careful not to sin again. Impossible, I know, but I have to do my best...

We moved from Arafat to the desert plain of Muzdalifah. Here we slept (most uncomfortably) in the open and gathered the stones with which to stone the Devil after sunrise. Sleeping in the open really made me appreciate what God has blessed me with here in the United States. Many people sleep like I did every single night due to their homelessness.

After praying the dawn prayer, we moved again to stone the pillar which represented the Devil. We do this following the tradition of Abraham, who stoned the Devil when the Devil tried to dissuade him from sacrificing his son, Ishmael. We took seven stones and threw them at a plain stone pillar. This ritual manifests our submission to God, for there is no other reason to stone this pillar other than following the command of God. In addition, it is open testimony to my enmity against the Devil, whose sole purpose is to try to lead me to hellfire with him.

Once I finished with this ritual, I shaved my head once again.

Shaving the head is another manifestation of my submission to God. With every hair that is shaved off, a sin is wiped clean from my slate. In addition, back in ancient times, anyone put into slavery would have their head shaved. Thus, in a way, my shaving my head reveals that I am a slave to God. And frankly, there is no better Master than the Most Holy God. Once I shaved my head, I could get out of my ihram garb and wear regular clothes. I can't tell you how nice that was!

The Hajj rituals are completed by performing two more circumabulations of the Ka'abah and stoning the stone pillars on the two days following the Eid celebration, which was Tuesday February 11. Then came the trip home. I could not wait to see my kids!

To be continued...

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