Crowded hajj also an intense personal experience

Like most Muslims, I had been preparing my entire life to one day embark on the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, that is one of the five Pillars of Islam. Yet when my wife and I set off to Saudi Arabia the first week of December, I could not have imagined what an intensely spiritual journey it would be.

By Aziz Junejo

Special to The Seattle Times

Like most Muslims, I had been preparing my entire life to one day embark on the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, that is one of the five Pillars of Islam.

God says in the Quran:

And proclaim that the people shall observe hajj pilgrimage. They will come to you walking or riding on various exhausted (means of transportation). They will come from the farthest locations.

Quran, chapter Al Hajj, 22:27
When my wife and I set off to Saudi Arabia the first week of December, I could not have imagined what an intensely spiritual journey it would be.

During the annual hajj, Muslims from every corner of the planet gather in Mecca to participate in a five-day set of rituals to attain complete forgiveness from God for their sins. We arrived in Mecca at night. The warm desert air, carrying bits of sand, brushed my skin softly as I started to repeat the obligatory beginning to hajj:

Here I am, O God. Here I am.

That first night, at around 3 a.m., as we descended by bus from the granite mountains that surround Mecca, we got our first glimpse of the Kaaba, the most sacred site in Islam.

For more than a billion Muslims worldwide, the Kaaba is the holiest spot in the universe. This stone cube-shaped structure was built by Abraham as a place to worship God. When Muslims pray five times a day, they face the Kaaba, bowing in praise of the one God.

The Kaaba is today encircled by the Grand Mosque with its majestic minarets illuminated by glowing lights.

That same morning, I walked barefoot through the huge doors of the Grand Mosque with nothing but the required two pieces of plain white cloth wrapped around me. It is what all men wear during hajj.

The sight was both stunning and deeply moving: My fellow pilgrims represented all humanity’s faces and cultures, black, white, rich, poor. We spoke different languages, yet dressed all as one, a symbol of the human equality of hajj and of our unity before God.

I was overwhelmed as I observed thousands and thousands of Muslims circling the Kaaba — a sea of white cloths in smooth, slow motion. My tears expressed what words never could.

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Over five days, the majority of us traveled on foot among the ancient cities of Mina, Arafat, Muzdalifa, and then back to Mecca, simultaneously performing rituals of worship in unison. It’s how the hajj has been done for more than 1,400 years.

The Prophet Mohammad said “hajj is Arafat,” and that second day was, indeed, the pinnacle event. For as long as the sun was in the sky, I stood with 3 million other Muslims on the desert plain of Arafat, my hands raised toward the heavens asking God to forgive my sins. This was an intensely personal and emotional journey, and yet I was most emphatically not alone.

By the end of this day, Muslims believe, forgiveness is granted to those present who ask with sincerity.

That day in the valley of Arafat, I had a glimpse of Judgment Day, when, Muslims believe, humanity will be raised up and gathered in one place to petition God for Paradise.

There were many occasions where hajj proved to be my ultimate test of patience; from the seemingly endless waits, the gridlock, and the eventual fatigue from heat and miles of walking with sand-filled sandals among crowds of millions of people, but I continually uttered aloud, “Here I am, O God. Here I am,” with patience and perseverance.

Returning to Sea-Tac Airport and hugging my loved ones, I recognized how thankful I was for the opportunity to have experienced this life-changing event. Having completed the fifth and final pillar of my faith, I pray I have returned a more tolerant person, an improved person and a more thankful person.

Aziz Junejo is host of “Focus on Islam,” a weekly cable-television show, and a frequent speaker on Islam. Readers may send feedback to faithcolumns@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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