An estimated three million people gathered in the holy city of Mecca in April 1997 to visit the first house of worship on earth, the Kaaba, which was built by Abraham in ancient history, and which has continued to be the center of worship for the monotheistic religion of Islam. I was one of those three million pilgrims performing the rites of hajj, or pilgrimage. Awe and humility filled my heart and soul as I witnessed pilgrims from every nation of the world gather to worship God, seek His forgiveness, and renew their commitment to Him. People of all races and cultures stood silent in perfect concentric rows during congregational prayer. Both the rich and the poor stood before God, supplicating with outstretched hands, and people of all ages and abilities strove their utmost to perfect their worship. I cannot express the humility and gratitude I felt to be among the Muslims in Mecca.
The Hajj rites not only remind Muslims of their ties to the prophet Abraham, but also of their ultimate death and return to God. As I began my pilgrimage, I put all worldly concerns out of my mind and prayed, in the words of Muhammad (p), “At Your service O Lord, at Your service. There is no god but You. All praise, goodness and authority are Yours. There is no god but You.”
The essence of Hajj is spending the day on the plain of Arafat near Mecca. It is said that on this day God descends to the lowest heaven and says, “Behold my servants who come tired and dusty in search of my mercy,” and that He answers the prayers of His supplicants this day. Naturally, the whole day was spent in worship, prayers, and meditation. The hope of His presence, the longing for nearness to Him, and the promise of His Mercy were fuel for the heart and soul. Furtive glances at my watch reminded me how short a day can be and how precious time really is. As the sun set, I left Arafat, regretting that the day had ended so soon and longing for an eternal home in His presence.
After sunset we preceded to Muzdallifa to rest before completing the Hajj the next day. There we collected pebbles, which we would later cast at the three pillars erected to symbolize Satan. This rite originates with Abraham who, on at least three separate occasions, confronted Satan, who sought to tempt him and lead him away from obedience to God. On one such occasion, Abraham understood God’s wish for him to take his wife Hagar and infant son Ishmael to the barren, unpopulated valley of Mecca and leave them there. He did so and, as he walked away, Satan tempted him to return for them. Unflinching in faith, Abraham cast stones at Satan to drive him away. On another occasion, Abraham saw in a dream that he was to sacrifice his young son and understood that it was a command from God, a test of faith. Both Abraham and Ishmael were willing to obey, but Satan tried to tempt them. They cast stones at him to drive him away. As Ibrahim placed the knife at his son’s throat, a sheep appeared out of nowhere, and Abraham knew that it was sent as a substitute; he had proven his faith and his obedience. Thus, after casting pebbles at the pillars, the pilgrim sacrifices a sheep or other animal and distributes its meat to the poor, which is symbolic of faith, obedience and charity.
To complete our Hajj, we visited the Sacred Mosque in Mecca to perform seven circumambulations of the Kaaba, which resemble – on an atomic level – the motions of electrons around the nucleus, and – on an astronomic level – the planets revolving around the sun. Our revolutions around the House of God, like the prayer of Abraham and Ishmael as they built it, impressed upon me the purpose of life: “Our Lord, accept this service from us and make us Muslims, bowing to Thy will, and of our progeny a people bowing to Thy will.” We then walked seven times between the ancient hillocks of Safa and Marwa as Hagar did after being abandoned in the valley. She ran in frantic search for water for her infant son from one hill to the other until, after the seventh time, water sprang up at her son’s feet. The underground spring, called Zamzam, has quenched the thirst of innumerable worshippers ever since. We often drank from that spring with prayers for health and strength, for the prophet Muhammad said that in Zamzam water is both nutrition and healing power. With our Hajj complete, we thanked God for the opportunity and the means to fulfill our obligations to Him and prayed for His acceptance of our effort.
The rites of Hajj replaced mere intellectual comprehension of religious history with the experience of sharing faith and practice with our ancient fathers. I developed profound respect and affection for Abraham and his family, and I felt immense pride in being one of his faith – true monotheism. As millions of Muslims gathered on those days in worship, I felt a brotherhood that renewed my faith in the worldwide Muslim community and inspired hope for our future. Thus, the pilgrimage linked the past to the present and, through me and my fellow pilgrims, both ancient and future generations of Muslims were bound in faith and brotherhood.
A few images of Hajj are carved in my memory. An old man, smaller and thinner than I, brushed against me as we pressed through the crowded corridor on the way to the Sacred Mosque. He turned and implored, “Forgive me, pilgrim.” Tears welled in my eyes as I forced a smile. He had done nothing to offend me. Being young and strong, I could only feel shame as he asked me for forgiveness. I remember him often and as God to bless him.
And then there was Shaima, a beautiful woman from Turkey, who stopped me in the market one morning and asked in broken English where I was from. She gave me a book and said, “hadiya,” the Arabic word for gift. I was astounded by the feeling that this woman was my sister and my friend because of our faith and by the fact that the language of the Quran was our means of communication. My husband and I later met her husband, a member of the Turkish parliament, and learned that they have three children. They asked us to pray for them. That’s all I know of Shaima from Turkey, yet I feel an affinity with her that is symbolic of my affinity with all true Muslims around the world – one people who worship one God and mold their lives around faith and obedience, resulting in similar lifestyles and a common language.
The pilgrims who slept on the cool marble floors of the mosque were at the mercy of the thousands of Muslims who passed around and over them as they rested. I marveled at the confidence with which they slept and the care that was taken by the passersby not to disturb them. The kindness and mutual respect that I witnessed was overwhelming. I wished the Muslim nation would always be so tolerant and unified.
The birds that flew around the Kaaba were a source of wonder. There were those that flew low and fast over the heads of worshippers as they circumambulated the Kaaba; twice I felt a puff of wind from their wings as they sped past me. And there were those that soared high above the mosque in effortless flight. I wondered at their purpose and their mode of worship, for the Quran says that every kind of creation has its own form of worship.
An account of my pilgrimage would not be complete without a mention of the pain I endured for most of those ten days and many days before the Hajj. A misaligned spinal column and a resulting pinched nerve cause considerable pain in my right shoulder and arm. Sitting and standing for long periods exacerbated the problem, something that cannot be avoided during Hajj. A veteran of back pain, I prayed for relief and bore it patiently with the belief that whatever happens to a believer is good for him. As the pain worsened, I grew desperate and, feeling totally defeated by pain, I surrendered to what God had chosen for me. I repeated again and again, “Over everything He has decreed. We belong to Him, to Him we are returning, and He can do whatever He likes with us.” It was then that I realized that if I could accept pain with faith, then I could accept everything else He has chosen for me: the color of my eyes, the color of my skin, my birthplace, my parents, my siblings, my ailments, my children, my provision, my life span, and my place of death. How many aspects of our lives have we no choice over, yet of which we still disapprove? How can we find faults with what God has chosen for us in His infinite knowledge, wisdom and love? How do we dare to be ungrateful? Through the pain I realized a valuable lesson in acceptance and trust. It was only then that the pain finally subsided.
Coming home was a challenge. To be a guest in God’s house for ten days and to have dedicated and intimate dialog with Him for this period was a mercy, a comfort and an immense honor. It was a thirst quenched for a brief while. To come home was to replace the shackles of daily life on earth: distractions, temptations, hard work, fatigue. It took days to muster the resolve I needed to continue living and working to the utmost of my ability with faith in life after death, faith in eternity, and hope for my return to His love and mercy, this time with no end. As I returned to my earthly responsibilities, I prayed, “At Your service, O Lord, at Your service. There is no god but You. All praise, goodness and authority are Yours. There is no god but You.”