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.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.
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.'
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: