Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Hajj diaries

13 Decemeber 2007

Flight attendants announce when the plane takes us over an invisible holy boundary around Makkah called the 'miqat'. At this point, pilgrims embarking on either Umrah (think of it as a mini hajj) or Hajj must enter into a state of purity called 'ihram'. Men change their clothing for two white sheets, with one sheet wrapped around the waist and the other wrapped around the upper body. There is no prescribed ihram dress for women. Entering into ihram also involves a short prayer, as well as silently making the intention to perform the umrah or hajj. Pilgrims in ihram must refrain from argument, using scent, cutting their hair or nails, killing any creatures, and even breaking the branches of trees. If this state is broken during the course of the pilgrimage, the pilgrim must return to a miqat point and re-make their intention. Because our group is going to Medina (the City of the Prophet) before starting our hajj, we can remain in our normal clothing for the time being.

The airport at Jeddah opens a special terminal for the pilgrims, who come from every corner of the earth to fulfil their obligation to Allah. Before I step out of the plane, I expect the airport to be heaving with tens of thousand of pilgrims and for chaos to reign, but everything seems relatively quiet and orderly given the scale of the operation. When we are on the shuttle coach taking us to the airport building for processing, the pilgrims who are in ihram start chanting the 'Talbiyyah':

'Labbayk, Allahumma, Labbayk.
Labbayk. La shareeka laka, Labbayk.
Innal-hamda wan-n’imata laka
La shareeka lak.'

'Here I am at Your service.
O Lord, here I am.
Here I am. No partner do You
Have. Here I am,
Truly, the praise and the favour is
Yours, and the dominion.
No partner do You have.'
This is the call of the pilgrim and it will be repeated over and over during the hajj. It reminds us why we are here. The hajj is upon us.

At the airport we enter a large square room with rows of seats around the sides. Young uniformed arabs repeatedly check our passports for the same piece of information, and after about an hour we make our way to another waiting room. After another series of checks we are reunited with our luggage. The process takes about four or five hours, but we are lucky. It used to take a whole day. Before catching the internal flight to Medina, we are relieved off our passports. They will be returned to us before we leave Saudi Arabia.

Medina - The Movenpick hotel where we are staying oversells itself as a five star facility but we are not on a holiday so the creature comforts are not a major concern. The location is as good as is possible, housing us on the door step of the Prophet's Mosque (Al Masjid al Nabawi).

The mosque is grand in its design, with a vast marble exterior and multiple minarets stretching into the skies. Having learned a little about the humble origins of the mosque - it started as small mud building, with an open courtyard for prayer and palm trees for shade - I am a little anxious about how it will look on the inside. The building has gone through a series of expansions through the ages and can now accommodate over half a million worshippers, and I wonder whether such a large building will feel impersonal on the inside. As I walk through one of the many elaborately designed gold doors, I breathe a sigh of relief. The architects have pulled off a miracle of design, striking a perfect balance of humility and magnificence in such a way that it is easy for one to feel 'at home' within minutes of stepping foot inside the building. Despite the lavishness, there is a deep sense of simplicity and calm that permeates through the building's interior. The mosque is steeped in history. Not only is it the first principal mosque in Islam, but it is also the final resting place of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). I am thankful that the building continues to succeed in its design.

A model of the original mosque:

How it looks today:

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Hajj diaries

12 Decemeber 2007

12:05 am - It is just past midnight and we are at my cousin's house in Kent, England. Our hajj party comprises of my cousin, his wife, my mother, and myself. Everybody is asleep, getting some rest before the taxi arrives to take us to Heathrow Airport for an early flight. I cannot sleep and have returned downstairs to read a few pages of 'Hajj: The Pilgrimage' by Dr Ali Shariati. Shariati's views are very different to my own. He comes across as somewhat mystical, anti-Western, and anti-capitalist (even Marxist). However, the handful of hajj travelogues I have read from pilgrims through the ages have contained little by way of introspective commentary, and while I disagree with much of Shariati's views, he does provide a pilgrim's perception on the personal significance of this great journey. Furthermore, Shariati says he wants the reader to think about the hajj and this is how I am approaching it. It is not simply a matter of going through the motions of the hajj rites, but we must also think about their meaning, significance and relevance, so we can truly learn from the experience. A few pages into the book, I am bowled over by a powerful quote from the Quran:

'By the declining day, Lo! man is in a state of loss.'

The quote has a strong resonance because I have spent the past three years away from productive society. I am forced to brood over questions of what has been gained and lost over these years, and I conclude that my greatest loss has been in my relationship to Allah. But there is time to change. I am grateful.

Since we decided to perform the hajj, I have been re-learning much about Islam (I extend my thanks to fellow RM Abdul for all his help). I feel my strength of religious belief and conviction has become dilute over the years and I continue to remain caught up in the tangled web of debate between science and rationality, and religion. I do not expect these dichotomies to be reconciled on this journey but I know that my heart and mind are fully open to the experience. And what am I expecting from the pilgrimage? The hajj is one of the five pillars of islam and as such it is compulsory for all muslims. However, I also view it as a gift to humanity as almost all pilgrims come away from the experience as better individuals. Second, I expect the mass of people to be the main cause of stress, tension, and perhaps even danger, and yet I look to those very people to make hajj the experience that it is. The hajj has always been about hardship, but from this we can grow as an individuals, learning lessons of tolerance and patience.

7:00 am - We are on the plane, waiting for the ground frost on the runway to clear. I have picked up a free copy of the Financial Times to read on the plane but I quickly put it away, deciding that now is not the time for such things. I wonder whether the hajj will equip me with a deeper sense of what is a trifle and what is a matter of importance.

I re-read the 'Farewell Sermon' of the Prophet (PBUH). The wise words of the sermon resonate well with the modern way of life. However, they are revolutionary when put into the context of the time and place where they were spoken.

We take off for Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Hajj photos

Happy 2008 peoples!

Over the coming days, I'll be adding my notes on the hajj pilgrimage. In the meanwhile, here are some pictures from the trip: