[UPDATE: Asma and I were interviewed for the NPR show Weekend America about our Hajj experiences. It aired this past Saturday 1/13. You can listen to the interview here.]
Ali Shariati, an Iranian intellectual and political activist, member of The Movement of God-worshipping Socialists, called the Hajj an “antithesis to aimlessness” (1994, p. 1), in the sense that it is a break in the routine of our daily lives and comforts, a physical dislocation from the familiarity of our surroundings intended to deliver a shock not only to the soul but to the body. For the Hajj is not only a spiritual but a social learning experience, a simulated migration involving masses of pilgrims converging in a small corner of the Arabian desert; a test of one’s devotion, empathy, patience… and immune system. There was nothing to prepare me for any of this, however, as I started my Hajj accompanied by my wife in December of 2006, or the month of Dhul-Hijjah in the year 1427 according to the Muslim calendar. What follows are some reflections on my experience.
Some exercises in spiritual renewal involve a retreat into the solitude of nature or the quietness of the inner self, and focus on the cleansing of the body and the mind. The Hajj, on the other hand, hits you with the sudden force of 3 million people from all corners of the world descending on the vicinity of Mecca (in Saudi Arabia) over a period of a week —probably the largest flash mob of our times. It is an awesome enactment of the unity and purposefulness of God’s creation. It is also an apocalyptic laboratory of pandemic viral outbreaks. The environment the pilgrims create is not what one would think of as being conducive to spiritual growth: they bring sickness, pollution, selfishness, prejudice, tiredness, and the bad temper these combined factors create. When you are stuck in a bus inhaling carbon monoxide for 12 hours (moving all of 6 kilometers during that time), hungry, tired, sleepy and in need to go to the bathroom, and you and everyone around you has some form of respiratory ailment or is in the process of getting one, what chance of realizing taqwa —consciousness of God— can possibly exist?
But the pilgrims also bring devotion, communal love, compassion, a predisposition to solidarity, and a thirst for knowledge. Perhaps it is the impact of the collective worshiping that facilitates an awareness of the divine amidst the grimy reality of the world. As a Muslim, you face a particular direction when praying, as does every other Muslim in the world. But when you actually reach the focal point of the prostration —the Ka’bah— and witness masses of people bowing down in synchronicity, the collectivity of the action takes over a certain part of the consciousness. Perhaps it is this mob mentality, increasingly associated with Muslims in the media, that scares the individualistic sensibilities of the West. (If I was still doing film theory, I would like to explore the connection between the re-emergence of the zombie genre film and post 9/11 Islamophobia…)
Some basics: For Muslims, performing Hajj at least once during a lifetime (if one has the financial means to afford it) is a requirement. Along with the belief in the unity of God, prayer, charity, and fasting during the month of Ramadan, Hajj is one of the fundamental pillars of Islam. Before the era of modern transportation, the journey to perform Hajj could take months, and it was dangerous enough that some people would’nt survive it. While air travel has made the trip easier, the explosion in attendance has introduced a new set of safety threats, mostly related to health issues and mass stampedes. The ritual involves, in short, visiting certain areas around the city of Mecca:
Arafat (9th of Dhul-Hijja, daytime), where God asked humanity to stand on this particular day and promised to forgive whatever one asks mercy for.
The scene is like the day of judgement [the two pieces of unstitched white cloth one wears during Hajj are the same style Muslims are buried in]. From one horizon to the other, a “flood of whites” appears. All the people are wearing the Kafan. No one can be recognized. The bodies were left in Miqat and the souls are motivated here. Names, races, nor social status make a difference in this great combination. An atmosphere of genuine unity prevails. It is a human show of Allah’s unity. (Shariati, 1994, p. 10)
Muzdalifah (9th of Dhul-Hijja, night), where one is supposed to spend the night in the open desert, praying and collecting pebbles with which to symbolically fight the devil the next day. In actuality, most of our time was spent looking for a place to park.
Mina (10th to 13th of Dhul-Hijja), where one spends these days waging battle with the devil (one’s own weaknesses), and where the Saudi government has set up a camp of thousands of tents which become a veritable slum during this time. On the 10th, after the first ‘stoning of Satan,’ this is also where men shave their heads, remove their white clothes, and where a sacrifice is offered (the sacrificial meat is meant to feed the pilgrims as well as the poor).
Mecca (10th to 13th of Dhul-Hijja), where the Holy Mosque, that houses the Ka’bah, is located. This one and the Prophet’s mosque in Medina are the two Holy Mosques of Islam, open only to Muslims (which I guess adds to their mystery in the eyes of non-Muslims).
Since information about the specifics of Hajj can be found elsewhere, I will instead offer some disjointed, non-chronological snapshots of my experience.
Muslims on a plane
The flight from JFK to Amman is packed with ‘Arab’-looking men reading the Qur’an. It occurs to me that had this been a regular flight with any non-Muslims on board, the national security threat level would have gone up a couple of notches.
The Ka’bah is a recognizable icon: it is the black cube built by the prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) and his family to venerate the One God. It is not meant to be a representation of God —it is but a simple, empty black structure. Instead, it is meant to serve as an attractor or anchor which allows Muslims to express their belief in the unity of God. The act of circling the Ka’bah in counterclockwise direction seven times is called Tawaf. It is an awesome spectacle: a black smooth cubical structure exerting some sort of magnetic attraction which brings people from every corner of the world. All Muslims bow down in the direction of the Ka’bah at the prescribed prayer times, but to see the prostration of thousands of Muslims of all ethnicities converging on one single point, men side by side with women, gives a visual significance to that act that is unforgettable.
Given that the Ka’bah was built by Ibrahim, his story plays a central role during Hajj. According to Shariati, Hajj is about each one of us identifying and sacrificing our Ismail.
… whatever weakens your faith, whatever stops you from “going”, whatever distracts you from accepting responsibilities, whatever causes you to be self-centered, whatever makes you unable to hear the message and confess the truth, whatever forces you to “escape”, whatever causes you to rationalize for the sake of convenience, whatever makes you blind and deaf… that is your Ismail!
God asked Ibrahim to sacrifice what was most precious to him in this world: his son Ismail. One cannot claim to follow monotheism and at the same time set partners with God (worship or love other things beside God). These false partners with God can take the form of material goods, or our bodies, lifestyles, desired fame, jobs, or our own families. God asked Ibrahim to sacrifice his son not because God is bloodthirsty, but because monotheism accepts no substitutions — there is no ontological ambiguity here: it is the death of the self, absolute submission to a will larger than our own.
Of course, once Ibrahim demonstrates that he is ready to carry out the sacrifice, God stops him. It was only a test. We are all tested in a similar manner throughout our lives, and most often fail. I know what my Ismail is, but will I have the strength to make the sacrifice?
There is that moment when you go from a theoretical to a practical understanding of what it means to be crushed by a mass of people. It is not any one individual’s fault. The mass acquires a will of its own. You find yourself surrounded by people on all sides, pushing in opposite directions. Telling the people next to you to stop pushing is futile, as they themselves are being pushed by somebody else, the source being somewhere far away. You are simply experiencing the accumulated aggregation of a thousand little pushes. No one can stop it. You move without necessarily using your feet. Bodies are jammed so close together that eventually there is no room for the lungs to expand. If the situation worsens, you realize you could asphixiate. Fortunately, this does not happen this time. The force finds other outlets.
Upon entering Mecca, we are handed a Guide to Hajj, Umra, and Visiting the Prophet’s Mosque, written by the “Agency Of Islamic Enlightenment in Hajj, approved by The Permanent Committee of Islamic Research and Fatwa and Shaikh Muhammad Bin Saleh Al-Uthaimin (May Allah have mercy on him).” It is a gift from “Your Highness Prince King Sultan bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud.” It contains some useful information, but I am particularly intrigued by a section called The Things That Nullify Iman (a sort of “you know you are no longer a believer if…” kind of list). This is where State ideology meets religious practice. Apart from the usual stuff (setting up equals to God), Article 4 states:
Anyone who believes that some guidance other than the Prophet’s guidance is more perfect, or a judgement other than the prophet’s judgment is better, has become an unbeliever. This applies to those who prefer the rule of the Evil One (Taghut) over the Prophet’s rule. Some examples are:
(a) To believe that systems and laws made by human beings are better than the Shari’ah of Islam, for example:
(i) That the Islamic system is not suitable for application in the twentieth century.
(ii) Or that the Islamic system is the cause of backwardness of muslims.
(iii) Or that Islam is only a relationship between a man (sic) and His Lord, and does not have any relations with other aspects of life.
(b) To say that working with the judgments of Allah in enforcing the punishments prescribed by Allah, such as cutting off the hand of a thief, or stoning an adulterer is not suitable in this day and age.
(c) To believe that it is permissible to rule by a law other than what Allah has revealed in Islamic transactions or matters of criminal justice and similar affairs, even if he does not believe that such rulings are superior to the Shari’ah. This is because by doing so he would be declaring as permissible something which Allah made impermissible, such as adultery, drinking alcohol, or usury, and similar things whose prohibition is common knowledge to all, such a person has become an unbeliever according to the consensus of all muslims.
In short, anyone living outside of Saudi Arabia is an unbeliever. But by the way, isn’t the Shari’ah made and modified by (a select group of) human beings? And should a judgment which authorities claim is derived from the practice of the Prophet be taken as valid even if it contradicts the Qur’an? And where in the Qur’an exactly does it say that the punishment for adultery is stoning to death? And… oh, forget it. The only comforting thing about inhaling gas fumes is that they are a reminder that oil kingdoms will one day go up in smoke.
Entering Mina, you cannot believe your eyes. It is a city —or more accurately, a slum— of thousands of identical tents. There are 3 million people living here, but not all of them can afford a tent. All the roads and sidewalks are crammed with poor people’s make-shift camps. It’s hard to walk without having to step over some family sleeping on the ground, or cooking, or going to the bathroom. It is filthy. Bulldozers push piles of trash to clear the roads. Police cars constantly patrol the area and force people sleeping on the roads to move in order to clear the roads so that cars transporting more people and provisions can go through. There are ‘sections’ for different nationalities: Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Turkey, Iraq, Indonesia, and on and on. It is a microcosm of the world. Of course, the European and American camps are surrounded by a fence and the tents are considered ‘upgraded’, although you wouldn’t know it by looking at the bathroom stalls which double as showers, and which are perpetually flooded.
By the time we reach our camp, I am sick as a dog. My cold has gone from viral to bacterial, a doctor traveling with our group informs me. I completely lose my voice, which I take as a positive step towards the death of the self. The doctor says I should start taking antibiotics. We brought one course for my wife, which she took when she began her cold almost as soon as we reached Saudi Arabia (she is quite susceptible to respiratory problems). A Muslim brother, who overhears our conversation (I mostly communicate by grunts and signs) offers me his medication. I say I feel bad taking the antibiotics —what if he needs them later? He insists. He says, with a smile, that I should allow him to earn the reward of a good deed. In our tent, people are sharing their medication and food, and looking out for each other. It is only a spontaneous and momentary show of communal solidarity, but it’s genuine and touching. One forgets the value of such moments in restoring one’s faith in humanity. My wife, however, informs me that in the sisters’ tent the good will is not as abundant.
When you have the opportunity to pray at one of the two holy mosques, you try to take advantage, despite the crowds. Sometimes you can’t even make it inside, and have to pray in the courtyard, or even on the dirty streets. The azzan, or call to prayer, sets the rhythm of your life: you sleep little, eat little, and try to spend as much time as possible in the mosque.
Yes, even in the holiest place and at the holiest time you will not escape the curse of the ringtone, and someone saying in a foreign language what I imagine to be something like: “Hey, what’s up? Nothing, just going around the Ka’bah…” They receive some disapproving stares and maybe a chastising comment, but this does not seem to dissuade them one bit.
When the bureaucracy of the Saudi government is coupled with the ineptitude of the Hajj guides, you are constantly reminded that part of the purpose of Hajj is to learn patience. At first you are insulted at the insinuation that you are a bad pilgrim, but eventually you realize you have no options. Things will unfold completely outside your control.
After a while, you become one with the shoving and the pushing, and you learn to incorporate them into your own movements. Except for the pushing of the Aunties. These little frail old ladies from the Sub Continent have a way of poking you and shoving you aside with their bony hands that leaves bruises afterwards. I call it the Auntie Vulcan Maneuver.
After performing our farewell Tawaf on the last day, we board our bus to Jeddah, sick and exhausted. I get some local cough mixture for my wife and myself before leaving. It is dark, and I don’t have the energy to read the directions, so we end up inadvertently taking four times the recommended dosage. That, and the exhaustion, knocks us out completely. My sleep in the bus is so deep, that the next thing I know my wife is shaking me, telling me that we have arrived at the Sheraton in Jeddah. In a daze, we go up to our room. It is sometime in the wee hours of the morning. The cleanliness and the comfort comes as shock, considering what we have endured the past few days. No more standing in long lines for food, or to use the messy bathrooms. No more sleeping toe-to-toe in tents with 50 snoring men. The luxury of the hotel feels familiar; it is what I am accustomed to in my privileged life. I feel sad, and wonder if the comfort will erase some of the lessons of Hajj too quickly. I don’t want it to. I don’t want to be like the person admonished in Naser Khosrow’s poem: “You spend your money to buy the hardships of the desert.”
It is considered bad manners to cross right in front of someone praying, but in a Mosque with thousands of people moving about, it is impossible to avoid this sometimes. I am praying at the Holy Mosque of the Prophet in Medina, before Hajj begins. I am immersed in meditation, and feel particularly attuned to my prayers. I’m on the floor, about to bow down and place my forehead on the floor as part of the prayer. As I am about to prostrate, a foot plants itself right in front of me, on the spot where my forehead is supposed to touch the floor. It is no ordinary foot. It is the most disgusting foot I have ever seen, verging on leprosy. The skin is scaly and replete with oozing sores… the sole is cracked, with bloody lines as deeps as canyons… there is stuff growing on the “nails” that is straight out of a horror film. My first reaction is extreme repulsion. My second reaction is extreme anger: I feel like violently removing this foot from my prayer space. But the foot moves away soon enough, leaving the space free for me to place my forehead where it was just standing. Needless to say, my concentration is broken. Only later does it occur to me that none of my initial reactions was of compassion for the owner of such a limb. Surely, it could not have been comfortable to perform Hajj under such conditions (I doubt this person was traveling First Class). Did my personal outrage outweigh his discomfort, and justify my lack of compassion? My experience of the Hajj begins to change at the moment of that realization.
Arafat gives you a blank slate, an opportunity to change the direction of your life, but your old self awaits you back in Mina, where evil must be faced. In between, you will partake of the unity of creation by circling the Ka’bah and running between the hills of Safa and Marwah. That is the Hajj, a reminder that we are nomads, immigrants, ceaselessly going back and forth —simultaneously losing and finding ourselves in the crowd.
Shariati, A. (1994). Hajj: Reflection on its rituals. Houston, TX: Islamic Publications International.
All photographs: Creative Commons 2007 Ulises A. Mejias