Kristin Szremski is a 53-year-old mom from Palo Hills, Illinois. Born into a Missouri-Synod Lutheran family, she first converted to Catholicism before finding her place in Islam. This year, Szremski was one of the hundreds of thousands of Muslims who were drawn to Mecca between October 2 – 7 to complete the fifth pillar of Islam, the Hajj.
She tells Huffington Post about her experience below. Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.
1. How did you come to Islam and what was it about the religion that moved you?
I was a special assignment reporter for the Star Newspapers in suburban Chicago in 2000. I was assigned to cover the Arab community. At that time, I didn’t know anything about Islam — I was raised as a Missouri-Synod Lutheran and we had been taught that all religions and prophets that came after Jesus were false.
During the six weeks I had for research, I interviewed many, many Arab Muslims. My conversion was not something that happened overnight; it probably took more than 18 months. I was fascinated to learn that Islam had all the same stories as the Bible as well as the same characters.
To back up a bit — I was raised Lutheran, but converted to Catholicism when I was about 40. I always wanted to belong to a large community and I was intrigued by the Catholic Church. Since my husband at the time was Catholic, I decided to join the church. That had a huge impact on my later conversion to Islam because where the Lutheran church believed in the Bible literally, the Catholic Church encouraged knowledge, questions and also gave us the historical context for the books contained in the Christian canon. This allowed me to open my mind to the possibility that the Quran was truly the revealed word of God.
Once I came to believe this, it was an easy step to believe Muhammad (peace be upon him) was the messenger and prophet. The harder part was letting go of my belief that Jesus was the Son of God. Ultimately, it was the passages in the Quran where God tells us that He was not begotten nor has He begotten and similar ones that finally helped me. Also, Jesus figures prominently in Islam so I wasn’t letting go of him, but just the idea that he is God.
In the end, my conversion came while I was praying. The date was July 21, 2001. I was in a hotel room in Washington DC, where I’d gone to cover a meeting for a magazine I was writing for. I had the Quran open on the bed before me and I was actually on my knees praying, asking God to lead me to the truth when suddenly I declared the Shahada –- that there is no God but Allah and that Muhammad is His messenger. I later made a public declaration in Arabic but for all purposes it was at that moment that I became a Muslim.
I love Islam because of its purity, its simplicity and its truth. The Muslims I had met were truly pleasant, patient and well-mannered people.
2. We understand this is your first hajj. Were you nervous at all?
I was very nervous about this trip because it is a heavy spiritual journey, which means there’s a lot of personal reflection. It is also a very physical experience, with many different components taking place over several days. I’ve had two surgeries on my neck and lower back because of the degenerative arthritis and it has left me with some slight neurological deficiencies. One of the biggest of these is weakness in my legs, which things like overuse, fatigue, lack of sleep, extreme conditions can exacerbate.
3. Was there someone who showed you around? How did you know what to do?
I was traveling with a tour group, called Noor Travel, out of Milwaukee. The tour guide was extremely helpful. Plus, my lovely roommates are Arab American women who can help with the language as need be. There are also people in the group who have done this before who can offer advice. When all is said and done, though, 3 million people in one small place is pretty overwhelming and daunting so I pretty much learned as I went along.
4. Are there any parts of the hajj that you were particularly looking forward to?
Muslims pray in the direction of the Kaaba from wherever they are in the world. Being in the presence of God in Mecca, at the very center of the Earth, where Adam and Eve came to earth from the Garden of Eden, where Abraham and Ishmael rebuilt the Kaaba, and where Muhammad (peace be upon him) lived and received his first revelations from God is a tremendously invigorating and rejuvenating experience. To be able to see the Kaaba right in front of me after all these years was powerful and something I don’t believe I will ever forget.
5. How did it go?
I did much better physically than I expected. I’m actually feeling better now than before I left for the trip, mainly due to an improved state of mind that this trip brought about. In addition, Islam is always about moderation and the religion is not meant to be difficult. Therefore, certain accommodations are possible during the rites of Hajj.
There are three types of Tawafs, or circumambulations of the Kaaba. During each Tawaf, Muslims circle the Kaaba seven times.
I was able to use a wheelchair to circumambulate the Kaaba the first time.
During the second Tawaf, called Tawaf Al-Ifadah. I wanted to walk by myself so I could really concentrate on ‘talking to God,’ in my supplications and in worship. I also wanted to make the physical effort for God, as so much of Islam is about taking action with the help of God. This was an extremely beautiful experience for me, extremely spiritual. I finished the entire rite in just under three hours. Then it took me about one hour to make the usual 10 minute trip back to the hotel because I had overdone it a bit.
I was not able to finish the third Tawaf, called Tawaf Al-Wada or the Farewell Tawaf, because I was unprepared for the millions of people who were there at the same time as me. I was getting hurt and not strong enough to withstand the crush of people. So, sadly, I had to leave without completing it. To expiate for missing that rite, I paid to have a sheep slaughtered and its meat given to the poor.
Throwing stones at pillars that symbolize the spots where Satan tempted Abraham, who was preparing to sacrifice his son, is another rite of Hajj. Because of the sheer physicality it takes to walk up a steep hill to the throwing area and the danger of being in a crowd of a few million people throwing what are supposed to be pebbles but sometimes turn out larger, women, the elderly and people with health conditions can ask someone to throw the stones for them. I took advantage of this and asked some other group member to throw for me.
An integral part of the Hajj is the visit to Mount Arafah, where the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) prayed on the ninth of Dhul Hijjah when he made Hajj. The Day of Arafah is a day of atonement, when we stand in prayer from just after the sun reaches its zenith during midday until sunset. This year, it was about six hours. We were at Arafah long before that, though. We stayed in sweltering tents. It was 108 degrees outside and hotter inside because the air conditioning did not work.
If one stands in Arafah in sincere devotion and sincerely repents of his sins, all his sins will be forgiven. And we also believe that supplications on this day made sincerely will be answered. Standing is key, although allowances are made for older people or people, like me, with health conditions. I stood a great deal of the time but had to sit from time to time.
It was probably the most difficult physically and spiritually of the entire trip. But it was also extremely beautiful and cleansing. The most beautiful time came when it was close to sunset and hundreds of people gathered on a hillside, facing the Kaaba in the West, to make supplications while the sun was setting. All this was done while one imam made the supplications, called du’as, out loud. It was extremely powerful and many people, including me, were crying.
I think there’s a recurring point here. Hajj requires extreme effort but then offers extreme beauty, peace and joy in return.
6. What were you searching for during this pilgrimage? Did you find it?
What I wanted most out of this journey is to find a deeper relationship with my Creator, to get to the place where I have the confidence of my conviction that God is all I need or will ever need. I was praying for this absolute, intuitive trust because who have attained this level of faith are never worried or discouraged.
I believe I absolutely found what I was looking for, although I also realize that this is something I have to work on every day. In Mecca, in the presence of the Kaaba, I felt God’s presence in a way that I never have before at any time in my life. There was an overwhelming feeling of love that inspired trust and confidence. I could pour my heart out, ask for anything and worship God.
Now that I have experienced this pure connection to God, I want to maintain and grow it. The onus is on me to make the changes necessary to help this happen. For instance, I plan on attending congregational Fajr (dawn) prayers at the mosque everyday, God-willing.
7. What did you hope would change about you after hajj, on the inside? Did this happen?
The last 10 years have been difficult ones for me – I got divorced, moved, had two major surgeries related to the degenerative arthritis, lost my house in economic crisis, and am beginning to feel worn down by the rampant Islamophobia in this country. Islam is the perfect religion, but I am not living it perfectly. Instead of complaining, I should be thanking God for what I’ve experienced in the past few years.
I think the biggest thing that happened to me was that I realized how spoiled I am as a privileged American, how ungrateful I’ve been for my conversion to Islam and for the life that I have.
People from all corners of the world come to Hajj and many of them do not have the means to stay in hotels, let alone tents. People leave their villages with not much more than a small sack of possessions, knowing they will be sleeping without shelter on a plaza, hillside, or on the street. Would I have that kind of devotion? I would hope so, but somehow I rather doubt it. It was these people, who inspired me to walk the second Tawaf, described above.
A person’s Hajj can be invalidated for complaining, arguing, or gossiping so it is extremely important to avoid all this. Dealing with crowds of millions requires massive doses of patience, which can only happen when you start looking at individuals in the crowd as just that – individual human beings deserving of respect and gentle treatment. Exercising this kind of patience for two weeks brought about a deeper sense of humility, which I hope to remember as I go about my daily life.
Finally, God says in the Quran that He guides whom He wills to Islam. As I mentioned, I’d been struggling lately because of things like Islamophobia. Instead of cherishing the fact that God called me to the religion, I’ve been focusing on superficial things that distract me from the real beauty of what it means to be Muslim. This experience showed me that I have been taking the great gift of this faith for granted.