Day of Arafat
Before dawn on the day before Eid, all pilgrims were transported to the Mount Arafat to spend the daylight hours there. It is a location a short distance away from Mina, and again, we were stripped down to the bare basics. The austere surroundings in Arafat made Mina look like a luxury hotel in comparison! Again, men and women were segregated, although it was possible for family members to meet in the open areas and make du’a together.
The day of Arafat is the most blessed day of the whole Islamic calendar. The day was to be spent making du’a, zikr and salat, for this was a day when Allah’s blessings and forgiveness are abundant. How many minutes a day do we spend communicating with Allah? The hours spent that day made me realise, not enough.
It was hot and uncomfortable, and the washroom facilities were a struggle to cope with. Again, it was a lesson in humility – a way of keeping things real. Millionaire or pauper, all of us spent the day as equals, praying and supplicating, and the implications of this day made all the surrounding inconveniences irrelevant.
After Maghrib everybody made their way to Muzdalifah. It was dark, and teaming with people. When I watched this year’s live broadcast of hajj on television, I realized the sheer number of the pilgrims and how difficult it must have been to engineer the logistics successfully! Close to two million Muslims, all congregated at one location at the same time. The sun had set by then, the situation was confusing, chaotic and disorienting as we struggled to keep track of our hajj guide in the darkness and through the babble of multiple voices and languages. More so when everyone’s clothing was virtually identical in the observance of the ihram. But what about the Day of Judgment when the whole of mankind would be resurrected? On that day, there will be no tour guides, placards, flashlights, husbands or wives to guide us, only our faith.
The night was spent under the half moon in Muzdalifah – no tents or shelter this time. Just sandy grounds and the open sky, and it brings to mind the horrors of life in the grave and the Day of Resurrection where basically, each of us will be totally on our own.
One of the tasks we had to do was to find pebbles for the symbolic stoning of the devil in Jamarat. Rich and poor, we had to sift through the sand to find 49 pebbles each (we will explain why later), our clothes and hands getting dusty as thousands of us scratched through the earth to find pebbles the size of chick peas. Again, another humbling experience. Allah was reminding us to be cut off from the luxuries of dunia, and to remind us of our lowly place in the grand scheme of things.
As the night wore on, we were supplicating while drifting in and out of sleep. Many of us struggled to keep awake, for after all, this was a once in a lifetime experience, and the most blessed night for all of us. We tried to persevere even though weary from the lack of sleep.
In the early hours of the morning, shouts from our tour leaders could be heard in the darkness – it was time for us to proceed towards the Jamarat for the next leg of the rituals. Afraid of being left behind in the confusion, everyone scrambled hurriedly to the meeting point!
When Ibrahim AS was asked to sacrifice his only son Ismail AS to Allah, Satan tried to cast doubt into Ibrahim’s AS heart. Ibrahim AS responded by throwing some pebbles to Satan to cast him off, and that is the occasion replicated at the Jamarat. After Muzdalifah, we went to the Jamarat, to cast pebbles at the pillars representing where Satan had stood and was humiliated.
We went by the newly erected Metro, while some others went by bus and on foot. It did not make much difference to the travel time either way.
The Jamarat itself has been refurbished and looks like a multilevel car park, to avoid the many fatal stampedes that occurred in the previous years. The process is now safe and quite easy.
However the strength is not in the aim, it is in the heart. Each stone cast was symbolic of our triumph against our inner demons and doubts, of our victory against the devil and of our cleansing of major sins. We threw seven on one pillar on the first day, and repeated the process on all three pillars on the following two days (hence the 49 pebbles).
When the first pillar was completed there was cheer all round. Greetings and hugs were exchanged amongst the pilgrims, just as the sun began to rise. This was it! Eid-al-Adha had arrived, and I had never imagined that I would be ever be here to greet it.
We spent another two days of seclusion in Mina before returning to Mekah for another tawaf and sai’ee.
Facing the Ka’bah again – my finish line!
If anyone had told me five years ago that I would be here, taking my final steps before the completion of my hajj, I would have dismissed such ridiculous statements.
Yet, there I was, facing the Ka’bah again. It was still the same, of course, but somehow, after my experience in Mina, Arafat and Muzdalifah, everything had changed. I had just looked at the Ka’bah just a few days ago, but it was as if a million years had passed. Allah had given me so many second chances in life.
The final sequence works differently depending on circumstances, so for me the last step was tawaf and sai’ee after we had completed the final Jamarat. I was completely disheveled by then. My clothes were drenched with perspiration, my feet were blistered from the long walks; and I was exhausted by the physical activities and irregular sleeping hours.
We circumambulated the Ka’bah seven times: the silent monument which to me symbolizes salat, hajj and umrah. The crowds had started to arrive, and I literally had to tilt my head to the sky for each breath of fresh air. Despite that, it was a beautiful experience. My heart was thudding and my head was spinning with amazement. The end of my journey was close, and soon my personal book of hajj would close with it.
The closer I got to my own finish line the more exhilaration coursed through my veins. Just a bit more, just a bit more … the swelling crowds around the Ka’bah and the exhaustion of each step was nothing compared to the salvation in store, if my hajj were accepted.
Tawaf completed, it was time for the final sai’ee. Again, I was reminded of Hajr – a simple slave woman who Allah elevated, to whom we attribute every gulp of refreshing zam-zam water we drank, and whose footsteps, regardless of our gender, we imitate to remind ourselves of her utter submission and obedience to Allah. The family of Ibrahim AS knew well the meaning of sacrifice – of their personal emotions, material comforts, and of their love.
I felt as if I was in a different time zone, moving in slow motion as one tired footstep followed another. Time lost meaning, the surrounding voices faded and everything became a blur, apart from the two pinnacles of Safa and Marwah which became my focal points as my tired limbs carried on.
And then, there it was, the final stop, completing the final leg of my sai’ee at the mount of Marwah! My hajj was officially complete and if accepted by Allah I would be cleansed of all previous sins. My heart was a whirlwind of emotions. What a journey it had been to get there! How many times I had fallen in life, yet Allah kept picking me up, and now I was standing before Him, insha Allah, as a hajjah. I had done it – or correction: Allah had allowed me to do it!
How did it feel? Even a year later, the emotions are still raw. I still feel humbled and overwhelmed. And while everyone’s experience was different, all I can say is that I FELT it. I felt Allah’s mercy for me and the whole ummah. I felt complete and utter trust in Allah, and such gratitude that I can never ever articulate. I felt His power.
I had arrived, I had just begun. This was the start of many new beginnings, insha Allah.
Although the hajj ritual was physically exerting, it also felt like being in a dream world. The outside world was suspended, the affairs of my normal life were irrelevant. Days and nights revolved around prayers, getting to the masjid on time, gazing upon the Ka’bah, contemplating, doing a lot of self-reflection … and falling in love with our mighty Creator. It was completely surreal.
Saying goodbye to the Ka’bah during the farewell tawaf was heartbreaking. It was like parting from a loved one, uncertain if I will ever see that person again. It was like having a piece of my heart torn away, making me feel incomplete and frankly, a bit lost.
The etiquette is to say your farewell to the Ka’bah and walk away. This was the most difficult step of all.
As I turned my back on the Ka’bah, my footsteps were heavy as I brushed away my tears. I felt as if I was now leaving my sanctuary and spiritual haven. Just like life in general, everything was over in the blink of an eye. In a few hours I will be back home, back into my daily routine. My challenge now was to stay afloat, hold on to the rope of Allah and not let myself to be carried away or drowned by dunia again.
We boarded the coach to the airport, and the arid desert landscape flashed past me. What a historic land this was – the ancient earth that I walked on had been witness to the footsteps of Ibrahim AS, his wife Hajr and their son, Ismail AS. Then came the stream of other people, Rasulullah SAW and the other Companions, who had walked through this barren and sprawling land, feet bleeding and blistering, each of them establishing the name of Islam and leaving their legacy forever for us to follow.
My own footsteps were so miniscule compared to their achievements, yet I hope in some small way, the earth will also be a witness to my presence, and those of the millions of pilgrims who had been there before and will continue to arrive, as it will be to theirs.
Epilogue – A Year Later
The year since has had it share of ups and downs. The test of whether one’s hajj has been accepted is evidenced by the behaviour of a person when he returns. Some relapse into their old habits and sins, some regress and become worse than before, and the lucky ones come home, spiritually cleansed with continuous improvement on their piety and behaviour. Which category I fall in is something that I hope that Allah will judge with mercy.
When things get overwhelming in life, I recall this journey. I try to hold on to this feeling and keep it fresh in my mind and heart. The feeling of connection I had, the awe of being able to give my salawat to the Prophet SAW at his resting place, the spiritual energy I felt when face to face with the Ka’bah, and that feeling of utter surrender to Allah. That is what keeps me afloat now, and that is what keeps me going on even when the world seems to be such an alien place.
As a final note – if you haven’t done so already, please start planning for your hajj. It does not matter if you are not the best Muslim in the world, it does not matter if you feel yourself unworthy or unclean, for the hajj will cleanse you. Hajj is encumbent on all of us. No matter how widely travelled you may be, it is the journey of a lifetime. If you knew how glorious this journey can be, you will not make excuses to delay. Make du’a for Allah to invite you and don’t be afraid of making that step. It will be the best journey you will ever take, insha Allah.