Hajj: A Lifetime Journey
By Imam Haazim Rashed
Hajj is a religious requirement for all believers in the Muslim faith. It is, however, a conditional requirement. If a believer is financially or physically unable to perform the Hajj, he or she is relieved of the obligation to do Hajj. However, people who are elderly or infirm can delegate their responsibility to perform Hajj to a representative, who performs Hajj on their behalf.
Every Muslim should desire to perform the Hajj. For me the desire to perform Hajj has constantly been present since I became a Muslim.
Hajj represents the opportunity to fulfill the final requirement of my religion. It represents the universality of the religion of Al Islam, as it was described in The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley. Yet, I was also terrified about the Hajj. The terror came from my fear that I was unworthy of the journey. Questions such as ‘Am I a good enough Muslim to visit Allah’s house? Am I perfect enough to face Allah swt on Arafat?’ agitated my mind . So even though I had the desire to perform the Hajj, these questions were a constant background to all of my thoughts about Hajj.
In January 2006, my wife, Janice, and I decided to perform Hajj. It took us two years to become financially able to perform the Hajj. During those two years, we got books and talked to many people who had gone to Hajj to prepare ourselves for the journey.
Preparation is critical for Hajj. There are so many things that can distract one from the purpose of the journey. Physical conditioning as well as spiritual condition is required. The physical conditioning is needed so that all of the walking involved in the rites of Hajj will be accomplished comfortably.
Although we had read a great deal about the Hajj, we did not realize the distances involved in performing the rites. The rites of Umrah at the Kaaba require about 4.5 miles of walking. These distances assume that one is able to perform Tawwafs on the lower level of the Haram near the Kaaba. If one performs the Tawwafs on the upper floors the distances are almost doubled. In addition to the distances, the press of the crowds requires one to have a certain stamina. The stamina is both physical and mental given the possible irritation of having people step on you, push you and sometimes shove you as the rites are performed. As-Sabur is a constant refrain, patience, patience.
Another factor that became more apparent once we were on the Hajj was the choice of a tour package and provider. We chose Riverside Hajj as our tour operator. Hajj packages range from very, very basic to the relatively costly. Factors that affect the cost are: the accommodation and provision of food during the days before the Hajj; accommodation and food during the week that you will spend in tents as you perform the Hajj; your airline transportation and your ground transportation. Our recommendation is to get advice from people who have already gone. They can tell you about their tour operator and other tour operators that they observed while on the pilgrimage. First-hand recommendations are by far the best way to select a tour package and-tour provider for the pilgrimage.
Our journey to Hajj began December 5, 2007. We boarded a redeye flight from San Francisco to New York City. Once in New York, we transferred to Air Emirates for the flight to Dubai. We had an eight-hour layover in Dubai, during which we showered and changed into our Ihram. We then flew to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where we were met by our tour guides. Our journey through customs and the Saudi entry protocols was very smooth. We were all processed within one hour. We identified our luggage, and it was taken to the buses that would take us to Mecca. We had about a four-hour layover at the Jeddah. We arrived at our hotel in Mecca, December 9, 2007.
Our rooms were not ready and were expected to be ready close to noon. We were given access to some hotel rooms to use the bathrooms, wash up, and get ready for prayer. The Haram is the location of the Kaaba in Mecca. Our hotel was two blocks from the Haram and we could see its minarets as soon as we left the hotel. Our first prayer in Mecca was on the street in front of the hotel.
After prayer, we had breakfast, cleaned up, and then began our first official rights of the pilgrimage: we undertook the Umrah. The Umrah is the first of the acts of a combined Hajj. Umrah consists of seven Tawafs (circling) of the Kaaba and Saa’ee (running) between Safa and Marwa. We assumed for some reason, that all of these activities would be on sand, but all of the surfaces in the Haram are of marble. Therefore, all of the walking that we did was done barefoot.
The Haram is the structure that surrounds the Kaaba. After repeated extensions, it can hold more than one million people. It is a huge structure, and beautifully decorated. As we walked towards the building, its size and beauty were indescribable. My heart filled my throat, and I felt so blessed that tears ran down my face as we entered the building. We removed our shoes and put them into little knapsacks we had brought with us. I prepared myself for my first sight of the Kaaba.
At the first sight of the Kaaba, the hadith says you can request from Allah swt and He will grant you that request. But sometimes people become so speechless and thought frozen, they can’t even think of what to ask Allah swt at that time. My heart beat faster.
Walking into the Haram, we glanced through all of the arches, and there was the Kaaba. It was so beautiful. We made our Duas and prayed two rakas of greeting. I cried as I prayed. I could not believe that I was in Mecca; I was in the Haram; and I was looking at the Kaaba. UNBELIEVABLE!!! T
he Kaaba is physically not a very large building. The Haram around it is huge. Most of the expansion of the Haram has taken place in the last 30 years, raising its capacity to hold believers to over one million people. Each expansion has been done to accommodate the mass of believers that come each year for pilgrimage. The number of believers making pilgrimage has increased from approximately one million in 1980 to well over three million this year.
Our accommodations in Mecca were very close to the Haram and comfortable. We spent three days in Mecca, and then traveled to Medina for another four days. Hotel accommodation can vary with the tour package. It is not unusual for four or more people to be in a room. When you arrive in Mina, accommodation is in tents, and there may be as many as 20 people per tent.
There were challenges at every step and blessings with every challenge. We walked everywhere. Our shoes were sandals, mostly flip-flops. People, both citizens and visitors, were, for the most part, courteous and charitable, but also very persistent in trying to get to where they wanted to go. During Umrah we were pushed and shoved and people accidentally stepped on our feet. One brother gave my wife a prayer rug when he saw us praying in the street. Another brother gave me dhikr beads. The Mecca and Madina economies are based on tourism. Shopping malls are directly adjacent to the Haram in Mecca and Madina. Street vendors are everywhere in Madina. Shopping for gold, rugs, clothing, books, and oils dominated our group’s purchases.
Medina was relatively calmer than Mecca and we were within close proximity to Masjid an Nabi, the Prophet’s Mosque. The Prophet’s Mosque can hold one million people. It covers what seems like ten acres, all under one beautiful roof. We also visited historical sites in Madina and toured Mecca. Madina was a place to rest before the beginning of the Hajj. One thing to remember throughout the Hajj is that something will always go wrong and we will overcome it. Expecting perfection will only lead to disappointment.
On December 16, 2007, we left Madina and began the Hajj. Prior to boarding our buses for the trip to Mina, we all put on our Ihram. We stopped at Masjid Meeqat and made our intentions for Hajj. Our bus trip to Mina took approximately six to seven hours. We arrived at approximately 2AM and stumbled into our tents to sleep. Tents are on a concrete foundation and the floors were covered with rugs in our case. We were given folding futons to sleep on and blankets for warmth. Most of the tents held fifteen to twenty people. Futons were laid out side by side and forced intimacy led to real intimacy between tent mates. The tents had swamp coolers for air conditioning. Bathroom facilities were challenging and the lines were often long.
We spent Monday the 17th in Mina. Tuesday, we departed for Arafat. Our bus ride was of about an hour and there were rivers of people streaming towards Arafat. There might have been as many as five million people on Arafat. Our tour operator provided us with a camp, water and food. I left the camp and spent part of the day on the hills around Arafat praying to Allah swt. This was the best part of the Hajj for me. All of the doubts and fears that had troubled me were washed away. It was as though Allah swt reached out and embraced me with love and forgiveness I could not have imagined. I felt reborn.
The day at Arafat is critical to the Hajj. Without Arafat, there is no Hajj. After experiencing it, I now understand why. Arafat allows you to connect with Allah swt. Your day is prayer and devotion. You ask forgiveness for those who are not present, for friends and family. You ask forgiveness for yourself, and you glorify your Lord. Communicating with Allah swt is the only purpose for the day on Arafat.
After a day of prayer you fight the fumes of thousands of buses as you locate your bus to leave. We left for Muzdaliffah, where we prayed, gathered stones and slept in the parking area. After Fajr, we departed for the Jamarat for the stoning of the ‘Big Devil’. Six hours later, we had traveled only two miles so we left the bus and walked to the Jamarat.
The crowds were enormous and the waste so thick backhoes were needed to clear the streets. Three miles later we completed the stoning and returned to our camp. We needed to complete Tawaf ul Iffadah to fully exit from Ihram, but we trimmed our hair and removed our Ihram garments. Later that night we went to the Haram and finished our Tawwaf ul Iffadah about 2AM. After the Tawwaf ul Iffadah, it was back to the bus where our five-mile return trip turned into an eight-hour odyssey. We lost our guide and ended up walking part of the way to the camp, but we arrived having completed all of the required rites. Our goal was Hajj Mabrur and MashaAllah we achieved it. Hajj Mabrur is defined as a Hajj that results in a changed life. As we come home we pray that we manifest that changed life.
Thursday, Friday, and early Saturday we stoned the Jamarat. Friday we did the farewell Tawwaf and departed Saturday morning for Jeddah to prepare for our return. Sunday we left Jeddah for home. All of our flights were delayed but we made all our connections and arrived in San Francisco at about 3PM Monday December 24, 2007. We had been flying, literally flying, for more than 24 hours, with about 30 hours including layovers. After the three-hour drive to Sacramento, we were home again, Allah o Akbar!!