Hajj: My journey in 2008AD / 1429AH

12:40pm 10th January 2009

Well hello there people. It's been a while since my last blog update. May of you may know that I recently went on Hajj. This blog entry will be an account of that journey, and there are also a bunch of photos available in the Hajj album.

The trip begins

The trip began with everyone meeting at Melbourne Airport. The group was mixed, some I knew well, others I'd only met in passing and many I had never met at all. It was an emotional farewell, many of us had not spent such a long time away from family, and the significance of the occasion to us seemed to elevate the emotions that everyone was feeling. We hugged our loved ones and wished each other well on the journey we were about to undertake. The flight to Singapore went smoothly, though I didn't manage to get any sleep, Not being tired, I spent the trip walking around getting to know my travel buddies.

When we arrived in Dubai, we had one day there to freshen up. We ate, napped and then our group leader made sure we all put on our ihram properly and prepared for the next leg of the journey. The flight to Jeddah was short, only about an hour, and when the aircraft was about to cross the Miquat we all read the dua and made our intention for entering into the proper state of ihram. This was the first part of the Hajj Tamattu, and we were all excited and looking forward to what was coming. Once we arrived in Saudi Arabia, we fell into the bureaucratic machine that is the Hujaj (visitors on Hajj) system. We passed passport control after about an hour of waiting in the terminal, and were then moved to the stage two waiting area where we endured around 8 hours before being cleared to board the bus. This time passed fairly easily, we all managed to get some sleep despite being in ihram and laden with our luggage. To be honest, I was expecting far worse.

Makkah and the first umrah

The bus ride to Makkah was pleasant. We stopped at a small Mosque for Fajr, where locals came and gave us dates and bottles of Zam Zam water. The locals all seemed very eager to provide services to visitors, and went out of their way to ensure that we were all taken care of. After arriving at our flats, we unpacked and settled in. The flats were modest, and we were sleeping 6 to 8 in a room. There was a small jamaat area on the ground floor where we made our salat, as well as an eating area where our meals were served. Our group was on the second floor. I liked the arrangement, the closeness with the rest of the group really encouraged us to get to know one another.

Soon after arriving at the flats, we had to make our way to the Masjid-al Haram to perform umrah as part of our Hajj Tamattu. The Haram itself is an enormous building, clad almost completely in marble. It is an imposing sight, both from far away and up close. I had visited Makkah before, but for many in the group, this was the first time they had seen the Ka'bah. Physically, it is a squat structure made from blocks of black granite quarried from the nearby hills and covered with a black cloth. To a non-Muslim, this would likely appear unimpressive, but to a Muslim who understands its significance, the spiritual impact of seeing it in reality is breathtaking, and I was no less awed seeing it this time than the first time.

After performing the rites of umrah, I returned with the group, now bare-headed, to the flats where we took off our ihram, showered, and freshened up. For me, the short period in ihram was like a trial run for the Hajj. Over the next few days we got used to the place, oriented ourselves with Makkah and spent time getting to know one another. One of the first things I did was go looking for shwarmas, as they were my favourite meal during my last visit back in 2000. I discovered, to my dismay, that all of the little stalls that I bought them from have been removed and the land around the Haram is being redeveloped into a complex of large hotels and shopping centres. I was also unable to find easy access to the Internet, the closest net café to our flats did not allow laptops. I had to ask around quite a long time before I found a place I could plug in my laptop and check my mail.

Hajj begins

The Hajj proper began a few days after arriving in Makkah. We all had showers, cleaned up thoroughly, and got ready for the journey, both in the physical sense by gathering the necessities, and in the spiritual sense by making our niyaat, extra salat as well as generally engaging in introspection and pondering the many benefits we hoped to derive from performing this holy rite and fulfilling a requirement of our religion. It was a sober preparation, and I personally was excited to be doing something that I had heard so many others talking about. I was also happy to have Mahmoud Kürkçu as our guide and group leader. I have always considered him to be a fantastic teacher, effective amir and close friend. It was also at his invitation that I came on the trip so my thanks go to him for giving me the little push that I needed in order to undertake this journey.

After leaving the flats, we arrived at the tents in Mina. I cannot describe the scale of the place, and no photo I can take would adequately capture it. I have no idea how many tents were there, but I am told that there are facilities for hosting up to 3 million people. The sea of tents stretched well out of sight. We unloaded from the bus, and moved to our designated tent number, only to find that it was already occupied. The officials moved us to another tent, which caused problems later when that tent's group showed up. They were moved elsewhere. I have no idea how the organizers managed to make the system work, but it seemed to be moving along fairly well. We settled in for the night, got out our sleeping bags had some quiet conversation and engaged in thikr and Qura'an reading. Being in Mina gave me a great sense of connectedness with the rest of the Muslim world. I met with some people from Senegal, and ate some dates and water with them. We also shared our tent with some brothers from France. Talking to all the people there from such a wide range of places really highlighted how diverse and yet united the Muslim world is. That same night in Mina there were nearly 2 million people, all there for the same reason, doing the exact same thing, thinking and feeling the same things. If only we, the Muslims of the world, could demonstrate such unity throughout the rest of the year, one can only imagine to what heights we as an ummah could soar.

The next morning we had to move 9km to Arafat. There was a bus, but many of the guys in my group, including myself, decided to walk it in order to get a small taste of what Hajj was like in centuries past. We gathered our belongings and started the hike. It was hot, probably over 30°C, but our ihram kept us cool. There was no shortage of water, as drinking fountains dotted the landscape, as well as food distribution points handing out meal packs which included things like date cookies, fruit juice and biscuits. The majority of people were walking, as buses were an expensive luxury that only those from comparatively wealthy nations were able to afford. For me, walking made the Hajj feel more like what I imagined Hajj would be like. Otherwise, it would have been just a few bus rides and sitting in tents. Yes, we engaged in extra thikr and Qura'an reading, but for me, the walk really pushed home the fact that I was in a different land, and that the journey I was on wasn't just another guided tour. The walk was reasonably easy, but when we got to Arafat we had a very difficult time finding the rest of the group. After all, there were 2 million people in the space of just a few square kilometers. Nonetheless, I am very glad I walked, and if I have the chance to go on Hajj again, I will definitely be doing as much of the distance on foot as possible إن شاء الله.

After the day of prayer at Arafat, we boarded a bus to take us to spend the night at Muzdalifah. This area had very few facilities, with only a few ablution blocks scattered around. Our supplies and water were running low, so we were all hungry and thirsty by the next morning. The girls managed to gather together the last of what we had and made sandwiches for everyone, and a supply truck dropped off some crates of bottled water. We packed up our bags but left the sleeping gear there. After Hajj, the area is scavenged by bedouins and poor people who collect anything of value, picking the place cleaner than any cleaning crew. We collected our rocks for use at the Jamarat, and headed back to our flats.

The Jamarat consists of three spots about 100 meters apart where pilgrims have to throw stones, symbolically stoning Shaytan the devil and expressing rejection of all of the undesirable aspects of ourselves such as greed, hatred and other sources of vice. This is the spot where Prophet Ibrahim was tempted by the Shaytan to disobey Allah. Rather than listening to him, he threw stones to indicate his refusal to be led astray, and pilgrims re-enact this to symbolise their own desire to cleanse themselves of disobedience.

We did it over 4 days. As our flats were in the Mina area, we were obliged to do it every day until we left. The Jamarat was a deeply spiritual experience. The physical act of throwing stones is supposed to translate into an internal desire to reject disobedience and sin. I don't know if I have the necessary willpower to convert the symbolic act of aggression into the complete rejection of wrongdoing, but I hope that Allah helps me improve myself and gives me a greater strength in the perpetual jihad against spiritual impurity إن شاء الله.

The Jamarat is where, in recent years, there have been people killed by crowd trampling. After going there, it is easy to see how. There are three spots where, in the space of 24 hours, 2 million people have to get within a few meters of. Imagining such large numbers of people in such a small space is difficult, and I can easily see how the crowd quickly becomes unmanageable. The problem, however, seems to have been solved. There are now ramps which ensure that the crowd only moves in one direction, rather than in and out from all directions. The ramps are enormous, 50 meters wide, and moving in a large loop, so the crowd comes in, moves past the Jamarat spots on both sides, and then goes on back to Makkah. The Jamarat spots themselves, which used to be small pillars, are now walls, around 20 meters long, running parallel to the crowd movement and in the centre of the ramps, which allow a large number of people on each side to approach at once. It is easy to approach and throw at leisure, whereas in past years getting within throwing range was difficult and many people had to throw from behind others, a practice which inevitably resulted in accidents. In addition to the ramp arrangement, there are multiple levels, stacked on top of each other. The Jamarat walls extend upwards through the levels, and the crowd is directed to move to whichever ramp is currently least crowded. The Jamarat now has capacity to handle crowds far larger than before. So large, I think, that when the Jamarat is finished, it will never be crowded again as bottlenecks elsewhere in the Hajj infrastructure, most notably the Haram itself, still limit the number that can be accommodated for the whole Hajj event.

Rags to riches; Moving to Zam Zam Towers

On the fourth day, we left the flats after performing our final Jamarat stoning and moved to our next stop; Zam Zam Towers. It is a luxurious five star hotel immediately outside the Haram and right next to the well-known Hilton building. The bottom 5 levels of the complex is a high class shopping centre, and the hotel is on floors above. This made getting into and out of the hotel annoyingly difficult, as one has to navigate the shopping centre, get into the special lifts, go up to the hotel lobby, and then take another set of lifts up to your rooms. This is an implementation of the design referred to by many US construction companies as Sky Lobby. However, it was badly executed, and the overall building design left much to be desired. Due to the poor floor plans, getting between the building's front door and your room could take upwards of 10 minutes.

The hotel itself was new and extravagantly designed. Constructed 2 years ago, it is the most expensive and luxurious hotel in Makkah. The management and staff were still getting their routines in order, so room cleaning and service levels were erratic, but overall, the experience was what one would expect from such an expensive establishment. The food was lavish, with daily buffets featuring an enormous range of well prepared, well presented dishes including appetisers and desserts.

Personally, I found it uncomfortable. I don't like such opulence, having always preferred to travel light and cheap to maximise the contact I have with the rest of humanity. Sitting in an expensive hotel, eating expensive food and being served by an army of imported labourers does not facilitate interaction with others. Worse yet, such extravagance detracts from one of the main goals of Hajj; namely, to concentrate on one's spirituality and disregard the physical self, even if only for a short while. While on Hajj, we wear ihram, and part of its purpose is ensuring that everyone ignores their physical state and also to highlight the equality of people before Allah. There is nothing more ironic than seeing a person in ihram standing in the lobby of a hotel where the nightly rate is above what three quarters of the world's population earns in a year. My view on luxury is that, at least for the Hajj season, all visitors should be equal. If we, people from the first world, cannot once in our lifetimes give up our luxury for the purpose of connecting with our fellow Muslims and demonstrating our awareness that we are all equal in the sight of Allah, then I feel that we have lost an important part of what it means to be Muslim. Perhaps we should look to people from poorer countries for guidance on this matter rather than arrogantly trying to "modernize" them.

Makkah is a buzz of development. All around the Haram are brand new buildings gleaming in the desert sun, most of which are only a few years old. This development is being carried out under the supervision of the Saudi royal family. Prices of everything from buses to visa applications are going up, and all the land in the immediate vicinity of the Haram is being redeveloped into expensive high rise hotels and shopping centres. Personally, I feel that the Saudi regime is destroying the Hajj and the sanctity of the holy sites. I met a man from Kenya, who said that already the Hajj prices were such that people from his country were having difficulty affording the trip. Everything from accommodation to food to transport costs were becoming more expensive, and there is no sign that the Saudi government is concerned about the welfare of the Hujaj as opposed to the profitability of the Hajj season.

The stay in Zam Zam Towers was, however, pleasant. We were scattered around the building, meaning that that close physical proximity that we had in the flats was lost, but many of the group preferred the greater creature comforts on offer. I made all but three of the salats of the stay in the Haram, and spent much of my time there reflecting and making thikr. It was a greatly enriching spiritual experience, as the physical proximity of the Ka'bah helped keep my mind focussed on striving for spiritual nearness to Allah. I hope that I have the opportunity to make the journey again, and owe great thanks to the group leader, Mahmoud Kürkçu for inviting me on the trip. Without his encouragement it is doubtful that I would have come.

One of the trips we made while in Makkah was to Jabal Noor, the mountain where the first contact between Prophet Muhammad (صلى الله عليه و سلم) and the angel Jibreel occurred, and the first verse of the Qura'an was transmitted. The mountain has no special significance in Islam, however it was still a great experience being able to walk up the same mountain and go to the same spot where Rasulullah (صلى الله عليه و سلم) must have sat. We took a minibus to the base of the mountain and then walked up the trail to the summit. It was good going during the night, as the heat of day would have made progress up the slope very difficult. It took about 40 minutes to reach the summit, and we spent about a half hour there taking photos and relaxing.

Towards the end of the stay in Makkah, I went with a few of the other guys in the group to perform an extra umrah. The closest miqat border was a place called the Masjid-al Aisha. When Aisha (رضي الله عنه) was traveling to Makkah with Rasulullah (صلى الله عليه و سلم), she was unable to enter ihram upon arrival. A few days later, when she was ready, Rasulullah sent her with a mahram to a place where he instructed her to enter into ihram and then perform her umrah. A masjid was built at this place, which is now known as Masjid-al Aisha, and this is considered a miqat area for the purpose of entering into ihram. So, on the last night of our stay, a few of the guys and I put on our ihram, went to this masjid and performed umrah. The masjid features a very modern and elegant design. It was night time and the lighting was poor, which meant that I was unable to take a photo, but I am sure that there are many photos on the Internet that one can find. I would highly recommend to anyone visiting Makkah the performance of an umrah from this masjid. The whole umrah from start to finish when using this spot as a miqat takes less than two hours from the making of intention for ihram to the cutting of the hair.

Onward to Medina

The next morning we packed our luggage and boarded a bus which was to take us to Medina for 8 days of visiting and tours. The journey took about 9 hours with breaks and a checkpoint clearance. It was a comfortable and pleasant ride. We were staying at the Mövenpick hotel just on the north west corner of Masjid-al Nabawi. According to a hadith, it is highly meritorious for a visitor to make 40 salat in this masjid without skipping any. We intended to do this, and to my knowledge, everyone in the group managed to make all 40 in a row. Medina was a great experience. Mahmoud spent a long time showing us many places in the area, taking great care to ensure that we all got at least a brief introduction to the historical significance of each site that we visited. The places included the site of the battle of Uhud, Masjid Quba and of course, the sites within what is now Masjid-al Nabawi. Visiting the tomb of Rasulullah (صلى الله عليه و سلم) was a deeply emotional experience, and visiting it and indeed spending time getting to know Medina should be a part of every Hajj trip.

Personally, I enjoyed the Medina stay far more than I enjoyed the Makkah stay. The people in Medina were far more friendly and warm, the available food on the street was of a far higher quality (although the hotel food was just as opulent) and the place generally felt less mercantile. In future Hajj trips, I would probably prefer to shorten the Makkah part and lengthen the Medina part. My favourite foods were shwarmas from a particular shop on the east side of the north row facing Masjid-al Nabawi, and ta'mia. I've always liked local food over hotel food, and while the local food shops are obviously being replaced by the 5 star facilities that the Saudi government is encouraging, there were still ample opportunities for the good food hunter to find authentic local food. There was also a far greater sense of history. In Makkah, virtually all of the old buildings had been torn down and replaced, in Medina however, one did not have to walk far to find buildings that were 100 years old or more. I made the effort to talk to the locals, and the prevailing view seemed to be that they favoured the simple lifestyle that Medina offered, and were glad that, aside from the development of the area around Masjid-al Nabawi, the city remained fairly untouched by the inroads that westernization had made into the rest of the country.

One of the most memorable experiences for me was the night that we went to visit the site of the battle of Uhud. A few days before, we'd been to the spot where visitors often go, but we went again one night, when the officials were not watching, so that we could climb the mountain to see the cave where Rasulullah (صلى الله عليه و سلم) and his companions retreated to after the battle had turned. The mountain itself has had housing built right up to its foot, and there are now small dwellings within a stone's throw of the cave itself, only a short climb up the slope. After navigating the slope, we entered the cave, really just a rocky niche, and sat in the same spot where they sat after the battle was over. This was not allowed by the officials, and we had to be on the lookout for police cars. This small re-tracing of the actual steps of Rasulullah (صلى الله عليه و سلم) was an exciting experience for me, and I am very glad that we had the opportunity to do it. Knowing that we were sitting on the very same rocks in the very same place that Rasulullah (صلى الله عليه و سلم) and his companions sat in over 1,400 years ago gave us a heightened sense of nearness to our Prophet, helping to overcome the chasm created by distance and time that separates us from him and his guidance for most of our lives in Australia. Were I to get the chance to go back to Medina, I would spend even more time going to as many original sites like this to try to more firmly establish a strong spiritual and emotional link with the life and times of Rasulullah (صلى الله عليه و سلم) and his companions.

The sad farewell

On the ninth day after arriving in Medina, it was time to leave. After the moving experiences of staying among the people of Makkah and Medina as well as being in the place where our religion was born, I was sad to leave, and, Allah willing, hope to return. The trip home involved taking a bus to Medina airport, then a plane to Jeddah and another to Dubai. We spent a night in Dubai, and then we all went our separate ways. Overall, I don't think that there was a single person in our group who did not have an excellent experience. We all owe Mahmoud a big thanks for being such an excellent guide for the journey, and I hope I get a chance to travel with him again at some point إن شاء الله, perhaps to perform another Hajj. For me, the journey was a deeply spiritual one, and I hope that I am able to implement the changes in my life that are needed for me to become a person and a better Muslim. I would also encourage any Muslim who is reading this and who has not yet done their Hajj to make an effort to do it as soon as possible. It really is an experience that cannot be described in words, and I hope that my feeble attempt to communicate the events of my journey do not in any way diminish the true value of Hajj.

So there you have it. My experience with Hajj 2008AD, or 1429AH. I do apologize for not having this entry ready sooner, but better late then never. If you haven't already, head over to my gallery and check out the photos from the Hajj album.

Ramadan Kareem to all! (رمضان كريم)

5:06am 1st September 2008

Today is the 1st of September, 2008 also known as the first day of Ramadan. It is a month of peace, enlightenment and blessing, and is observed by Muslims around the world as the most sacred of months in the year.

For the next 30 days Muslims around the world will be fasting during the day and engaging in introspection and prayer as much as possible. The first thing that people seem to notice about Ramadan is the fasting that we perform during the day, however Ramadan is not only about fasting. It is a month during which Muslims engage in as much personal examination as possible in an attempt to rid oneself of those undesirable aspects of the self such as greed, envy, laziness and idleness.

I wish everybody, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, a wholehearted Ramadan Kareem رمضان كريم and may this month pass leaving the world a better place for all of Allah's creation.