January 20, 2004 > The Hajj - Once in a Lifetime Pilgrimage
The Hajj - Once in a Lifetime Pilgrimage
by Hajja Reshma Yunus
Verily the first House appointed for mankind was that at Bakkah full of blessing and guidance for the worlds. In it are manifest signs, the Station of Ibrahim. Whoever enters it attains security. To Allah from the people is (due) a pilgrimage to the House - for whoever is able to have thereto a way..(Quran,3,96-97)
In the Islamic lunar month of Dhul- Hijah, millions of Muslim from all over the world will flock to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, including many from the Tri-City area, to perform the mandatory pilgrimage, known as Hajj. Dhul-Hijah is scheduled to begin on January 23rd, pending the sighing of the new moon. The Hajj, having been performed for over 1400 years, is considered one of the most enduring of pilgrimages. It includes several rituals and can be physically, financially, emotionally and mentally demanding. Hence, the pilgrimage is obligatory for only those adult Muslims who are financially, emotionally and physically able to perform it. A training manual by the Indian Hajj committee describes the Hajj aptly, as a "collective celebration and an intensely personal experience, the religious apex of a Muslim's life."
Muslims believe that the Hajj rituals actually begin when a person first makes a conscious intention of embarking on this spiritual quest for redemption. The pilgrim, before undertaking this quest, must ensure that the trip will be financed by lawful means and that other financial debt and obligations will have been taken care of. With the advent of air travel, the journey has become easier. In previous times, pilgrims traveled even by foot or on camel or horseback to reach Mecca. This journey could take well over a year and sometimes people died along the way. Though the time of travel may have decreased, there is still a great deal of coordination involved in ensuring that one has space and a place. Nowadays, people go with travel groups which specialize in organizing pilgrimages to the holy sites. We utilized Dar El- Salam Travel which is based in New York, however, there are several local travel companies right here in the Bay area which are also good.
Muslims embark on this pilgrimage to fulfill an obligation and also with the hope that each believer will be given a second chance to redeem himself/herself. Indeed, many rituals of the Hajj are in a sense, a pre-enactment of death and re-birth, a cleansing of sins. The formal Hajj begins with entering into a state of ritual purity known as "ahram" by make a formal intention and performance of various cleansing and hygiene rituals, at a place outside Mecca. These rituals symbolize preparation for death of the old self. Being in a state of ahram includes not harming anyone or anything. Men wear two pieces of unstitched cloth, similar to what they would be buried in, and their heads are bare. The simplicity of dress is a great equalizer between the rich and the poor and it demonstrates the fact that in front of God, and in death, there is no difference in class, race or ethnicity. Women are allowed to wear normal loose clothes of any color so long as only the face and hands are showing. Many choose to wear white.
Pilgrims enter the holy city of Mecca and go to the holiest shrine for Muslims, the Sacred Masjid of the Kabaa. The Kaaba, is a cube shaped building, that Muslims believe was built by the Prophet Abraham and his first son the Prophet Ishmael. The Sacred Masjid and the Kaaba therein, are nothing short of awe inspiring. The Sacred Masjid is a wide-open structure, able to house a million people. It is made of marble with many columns and tall slender pillars from which ring forth the call to prayers, five times a day. The Kaaba is a huge brick/stone structure of several stories high that dwarfs the pilgrims circulating below. It is covered in a black cloth with gold lettering. Lodged in one corner is the "hujre aswad" or the black stone and Muslims believe that kissing or touching this stone provides many blessings. A few feet away from the Kaaba is a place known as the "station of Abraham" which has the footprints of the Prophet Abraham as he was completing the Kaaba.
Upon reaching the Kaaba, which is within the inner courtyard of the Sacred Masjid, the pilgrims perform the circumbolution (or "tawaf"). This involves going counter-clock wise around the Kaaba seven times. After this is done and a ritual prayer is offered near the station of Abraham, pilgrims will drink from the eternal well of Zamzam which has been flowing from the time of Hagar. The next step involves rapid sprinting by men or speed walking by women between two small hills, now also within the super structure of the Sacred Masjid, known as Safaa and Marwa as Hajjar was to have done while searching for sustenance for her self and her child, Ishmael. This is also done seven times and is called "Saye". People who are aged or with disabilities perform both these rituals and others using wheel chairs or are carried in a palanquin.
Then, on the eighth day of Dul Hijaa, the pilgrims travel to another auspicious site called Mina. Mina is a flat barren plain, about three miles outside of the City of Mecca, almost filled with white tents. Due to the logistics of managing such a large group of people, the tents are organized by countries of origin. Here, pilgrims perform the daily prayers and camp for the night. The next day pilgrims travel to the plain of Arafat which is about nine miles from Mecca. Praying on the plains of Arafat is the essence of the Hajj and is thought to mimic the act of praying for salvation by all humanity upon the Day of Judgment in a post-death dimension at which point it might be too late. Praying at Arafat provides an opportunity to achieve redemption and begin anew when salvation is still available.
After the sunset, pilgrims move to Muzdalifa, which is another plain with small hills, between Arafat and Mina. At Muzdalifa, they collect small pebbles for stoning three pillars known as Jamarat, which are located at Mina. The Jamarat represent Satan and other evils. Finally, on the 10th of Dul Hijja after Morning Prayer, pilgrims arrive at Mina to perform the Rami (stoning) of the big Jamarat. This act of throwing stones at the Jamarat commemorates the actions of the Prophet Abraham who threw stones at Satan when he tried to dissuade him from obeying God and sacrificing his son Ishmael. This act also symbolizes the pilgrim's own commitment to repudiate evil and to remain steadfast in his/her own covenant with God. The pilgrims throw either 49 or 70 stones (each), which are to be no smaller than a chick pea, but no larger than a hazelnut.
Travel within these sites, even for these short distances can be an excruciatingly patience-testing experience as millions of people are attempting to make the same journey. This travel is primarily done in modern day transport vehicles such as cars, busses, vans and makes traffic jams in the Bay area seem like flying on the highway at 100 miles per hour. Travel is coordinated by the same groups which manage the overall trip. Some people choose to travel on foot or use other means. For pilgrims, the stone throwing ritual can be life-threatening as a million plus people attempt to throw stones at three small pillars. People are often killed in stampedes or by stones if they are in the way.
The Saudi Government, whatever criticism we may rightfully make about civil rights issues, is to be commended for expending great efforts towards ensuring that the pilgrims' Hajj is as safe as possible. The holy shrines have an army of people constantly cleaning, Mina and Arafat have bathrooms and shower facilities and there are various structures to help with safety issues such as a structure around the Jamarat which provides more than one level of access. There are also hospital facilities and traveling clinics which serve the ill. These provisions enable fewer fatalities and reduce the possibility of contracting contagious diseases as in the past. I recall hearing of only two or three deaths from stampedes and one heart attach in the year I went which was 2000.
On the 10th day of Dul Hajj, after completing the stoning, the pilgrims return to Mecca. This is the day of the feast of sacrifice, or Eid Adha. Upon returning to Mecca, the pilgrims begin the closing rituals, first by cutting the hair, by both men and women or shaving the head (for men) and making the sacrifice of livestock which commemorates the Prophet Abraham's obedience to God. The pilgrims can now exit the state of "ahram" and make the final visit to the Kaaba to perform the last farewell rites which are the same as the beginning with some differences in the recitation of prayers.
The next day, and also on the 12th of Zul Hijjah, pilgrims may go to stone all the three Jamarats starting from the small to the middle to the big. Most then will go depart on the 12 day of Dhul-Hijja to the city of Median which is the site of second of the holiest shrines for Muslims. Medina, which means "The City," is home to the Prophet Muhammad 's (peace be upon him) resting place. It is considered auspicious to pray forty prayers or eight days at this site. The Prophet's mosque is also a beautiful structure made of marble and covered with a striking green dome. Where the activity in Mecca seemed frenzied with constant deadlines, the time spent in Medina is on of self reflection and peace. There is even time to do some sightseeing of nearby historical sites where Islam was in its infancy.
Our tour itinerary, managed by a very experienced tour group, actually had us visit Medina before Mecca. Thus, we landed at Medina airport and avoided the bone crushing rush at Jeddah airport the normal port of entry for Mecca. Leaving was a very emotional experience. We had bonded with our fellow "hajjis" and promised to attempt to keep up the connections. We left with our old burdens lightened but with a new commitment, determination and responsibility on our shoulders to be better human beings.
Muslims all over the world, not just in Mecca, celebrate Eid Adha. This Muslim holiday is expected to be on February 1 this year. Masjids (mosques) around the bay area will celebrate with ritual prayers and other events. Various groups make arrangements for sacrifice and a portion of the meat is given to the needy. Please contact the local masjids below for further information.
Islamic Society of the East Bay
33330 Peace Terrace
Fremont, CA 945555
Islamic Center of Fremont
4039 Irvington Avenue, Fremont CA 94538