“Make sure you take a shower first…”
“You shouldn’t hit anybody or do anything…”
“You have to cry when you see it…”
“You’re supposed to- Wait, I need to rewind that…”
My wife was reading instructions to me point-by-point from a YouTube video. I’d just gotten home from work, rain shut down traffic yesterday, the driver was on the way and I had no idea how to do úmra. We were about to go on a whirlwind tour of Islaam’s two holiest cities and we’d been so busy that we hadn’t taken the time to refresh our memories on how to do the pilgrimage.
This was not gonna work. I had her slide over and copied down the instructions from the video point-by-point. It matched everything I’d read and heard before, and may Allaah have mercy on him, he told it all in just 10 minutes.
It’s freezing. This guy has his window cracked to stay awake (!), and I’m shivering with my coat on. Near-freezing temperatures after a thunderstorm isn’t the weather you’d expect in Saudi Arabia. Expect the unexpected. We asked him to turn on the heater but he said it would make his window fog. At a rest stop, I gave up on putting on my ihraam garments(2 white unstitched cloths, basically a toga). I would have frozen to death.
Finally, at 2 a.m., we reached the meeqaat, the place where pilgrims must enter the state of ihram (sanctity). There was a hotel (and I do use the term loosely). We all passed out in our coats and sweaters, my mother-in-law, wife and daughters in one room, me and the driver in the other. I don’t even wanna tell you about the bathroom. You don’t want me to tell you about the bathroom…
In the morning, by some miracle, it was warm. Actually, I live in Riyadh, which is smack dab in the middle of a huge peninsula. Places in the middle of landmasses are prone to temperature extremes. Riyadh’s more extreme on the hot side (120 in the summer), but its winter’s nothing to ignore. But the meeqaat station is close to Makka, which is rather near the Red Sea, so by we woke up to the warm sun.
At the meeqaat, a pilgrim for hajj or úmra must enter the state of ihram, or sanctity. This consists of a full bath, shaving the armpits and pubic hair, cutting the nails, and (for men) trimming the ‘stache. Then the pilgrim makes the niyyah, or intention, for hajj or úmra (or hajj and úmra) and puts on their ihraam garments. For women this is their normal Islamic dress code, with the exception that the face can only be covered, if desired, from above, rather than with a veil that is tied around the face. For men, the ihram is two white garments, basically long towels. One is wrapped around the waist. The other is draped over the shoulders. After that, you should pray two units of prayer and advance toward Makka. After that, there is no shaving, no hunting, no cutting the hair or nails, no sexual activity, and, most importantly, the person should stay in a state of remembrance of Allaah, and avoid any conflicts, arguments or anger.
I hearken unto you, O Allaah, I hearken unto you. I hearken unto you, you have no partner or equal, I hearken unto you. All blessings are yours, all praise and thanks are yours, and all dominion. You have no associate or equal.
It is somehow less romantic than arriving by camel, but we got back in the Toyota and drove into Makka.
Makka is Islam’s holiest masjid, literally “place of prostration”, otherwise known as mosque. It houses the Ka’ba (literally “cube”), a cubical structure usually seen draped in a velvet-like black cloth that has gold lettering stitched onto it. This masjid is the qibla, or direction, Muslims face when praying. We don’t pray to it or even think about it when praying, it’s just the direction we face. If you think about it, when you’re praying there, you are the first in perhaps thousands of rows of prayer rows, reaching back to the ends of the earth. Or, when you’re praying at home, somewhere thousands of rows in front of you, someone you have no idea about, but your brother or sister just the same, is going through the same thoughts and motions. Beautiful…
The Ka’ba is special. According to some sources, it is the oldest house of worship in the world, built by Aadam (a/k/a Adam), peace be upon him. We do know that Ibraaheem (a/k/a Abraham) raised its foundations with his son Isma’eel (a/k/a Ishmael), peace be upon them, and proclaimed the pilgrimage for all mankind. After this religion was later corrupted by hundreds of idols which were placed around the Ka’ba, Muhammad-may Allaah send blessings on him, and peace- was sent with a message of and oneness to restore it, and the qibla, prayer direction, was changed from the masjid built by Solomon, Bayt ul-Maqdis in al-Quds (a/k/a Jerusalem) to the Ka’ba in Makka.
When you enter the masjid, you walk slowly, slowly, slowly, you look up, and there it is. Al-ka’ba. I don’t know why, but this time I couldn’t stop the tears. I was shaking. My mother-in-law was too. She’d been waiting her whole life for the chance to come here, for even the minor pilgrimage, nevermind the hajj. Finally, after so many years of waiting and praying, she was there, in the house of Allaah. It was so beautiful, and we hadn’t even started yet. According to some sources, you should have a supplication ready to make the moment you see the Ka’ba, and when you see it, without taking your eyes off of it, you should offer that supplication to Allaah.
At that time, I take the cloth under my right arm and over my left shoulder, so that my right arm is bare, and then the úmra’s main rites began. There’s no special time of day or year to do úmra, unlike hajj. It’s happening 24/7/365. Literally. I’ve been to Makka many times at different times of day or night, and there were always people doing úmra. At any given moment the Ka’ba is being circumambulated (walked around), and people are running the hills of Safa and Marwa.
The circling of the Ka’ba begins from one of its corners, the one containing a black stone. According to some sources, after Ibraaheem raised the Ka’ba’s foundations, this stone was sent down nearby. At that time it was whiter than milk, but now, man’s sins have blackened it to the color of onyx.
Unfortunately, humans have a penchant for fetishism, a tendency to get obsessed with physical objects. Throughout history, we have been attaching undue importance to objects, people and phenomena, and devoting ourselves to them instead of the one who made and sustains them. We even go so far as to create objects and persons or beings, and imagine phenomena. This deception is the basis of all the many deviations there have been from Allah’s many revelations, and today’s materialism is no different. In fact, it is exactly the same. We attach fake importance to things like pieces of cotton paper, and the amount of these it takes to get the things we fill our hearts and homes with. Then we ignore all notions of morality and character by judging the individuals and societies that have the most of these to be the best.
So, yes, there are some unfortunate people who are absolutely obsessed with kissing the black stone. They fight until exhaustion, writhing beneath a policeman who can only save himself by hooking one arm onto a rope hanging from the Ka’ba. They are not glorifying the One whose glory our worship cannot do justice to. They are not praying for their guidance and that of their brothers and sisters in humanity. They are casting off all notions of sanctity and peace to do what? Something that gives them no benefit. Úmar, may Allaah be pleased with him, the second khaleefa (caliph) or successor, even said so. He said he saw no benefit in kissing the black stone except that he had seen the prophet Muhammaed do it, establishing the act as an act of worship.
There are others who simply lay themselves on the Ka’ba. They stand at it and lay their faces and outstretched arms on it, for hours it seems. There is no precedence, and therefore no reason to expect benefit, from such an act. Nowhere have I read that the Ka’ba itself has any inherent blessing. It is only the obedience to what is clear of Allaah’s will, a minute portion of which involves the Ka’ba, that bears blessing.
(When we were leaving Makka, I was showing my mother-in-law how these people were laying on the Ka’ba by flopping onto the driver at a stoplight, overdramatically, with fake tears and all. Then we looked up and realized the people in the car next to us were watching the whole thing. Once we saw them watching us, we just busted out laughing. Who knows what they thought I was doing. They just looked away, waited for green, and drove off in a tiff.)
Anyway, when you get to the corner with the black stone, you begin your tawaaf, or circumambulation. Basically, you walk around Ka’ba 7 times, with your left side closer to it, i.e. counterclockwise. (Apparently, everything in the universe is counterclockwise, except, well, the clock.) In these circuits, you should glorify Allaah and pray, and do your best not to disturb the other pilgrims. My wife and I have a system. I carry our younger daughter as much as possible while she keeps the older one in line. But though the hajj crowds had mostly left, there were still a lot of people. So I ended up in the arrangement that neither of us favor: me holding my much heavier (ma shaa-a-llaah) older daughter, and her carrying the younger one, who’s no pipsqueak. Men are supposed to jog the first 3 circuits. If I’m not mistaken, that’s because the people resisting the re-establishment of revealed religion in Makka were mocking the Muslims who were returning from their migration to Madeena to perform Úmra. They were saying that they had become weak, so Muhammad ordered the men among them to jog to show that Islam was in fact strong. We still jog because it still is.
When people come for pilgrimage, they come in groups. So you’ll see a train of south Asian sisters with identical head-coverings holding onto each other’s backs in a line. If one of them accidentally lets go, she might push through the people to catch up. We just move aside and let her rejoin her group. No one wants to cause distress, or see anyone in it. It was amazing. No one was rude. No one fought or pushed unless they had to. We just moved along, and friendly bumped into each other.
There were other groups, too. You may notice how west Africans often wear colorfully-printed pantsuits, not dissimilar to the south Asian shalwar-qameed or kurta-pajama. Well, the hajj groups had their logo printed into the tie-dye pattern. So everyone there was not only dressed identically, but the tour company got free advertising. There was a group of brothers I think must have been Kurds. They had on matching khaki-colored suits. The pants had a really long crotch, almost like M.C. Hammer, and they wore purple cloths wrapped in the Yemeni style on their heads. VERY thick mustaches. But the cats who kept it most real were the Indonesians. We saw them all the way to Makka, all wearing, I mean men and women, identical shirts with some kind of complicated purple, white and red pattern. They weren’t going to get lost. Yall know I like turbans, and I saw this one guy, an Afghani Pashtun (their dress is distinguishable from their Pakistani counterparts) wearing a long, shiny, pure black turban. It hung down over his shoulder to his waist. He had on a dark green shalwar-qameed made of a heavy cloth. It was so beautiful watching him pray. Complete calm. Quiet strength. The lion of Khorasan…
These observations don’t all come from the tawaaf, of course. I was focusing on my own worship and prayer, and of course not losing half of my family in the crowd.
After 7 circuits, you go and drink zam!zam! water. (I’ll explain what it is later.) There are tanks and water fountains for it surrounding the Ka’ba. This was a sort of break for us. My kids loved it. They were so happy there. There was so much space on that huge marble floor, that they just started running around after playing with the cool water. I felt so much peace and love inside of me. I was happy for my wife and her mother, and happy for my kids. It was a really cool pilgrimage.
Next is the Sa’ee, the striving forth. You go to the top of a hill called Safaa, pray, face the Ka’ba, magnify Allaah, then proceed down until you reach the top of a hilled called Marwa. That’s one. You do seven (i.e. ending on Marwa). These two hills are now totally enclosed in the masjid, which is HUGE, by the way, but this is only because of expansions made to the structure of it over the centuries. In fact, and this is totally unromantic, the sa’ee area is air-conditioned. It’s paved, too, but that’s a good thing. Millions upon millions of people have been walking up and down these hills for centuries. If they didn’t pave over them they’d be pitcher’s mounds by now. There are 2 green light posts between these two hills. Men should run between them. I suppose women don’t because if you imagine their anatomy it could be immodest. Allaah knows best. According to my understanding, these green posts represent what used to be the area between the hill banks. Due to erosion, I assume, it’s now part of a long flat walkway. In other words, you are running from what used to be the bottom of one hill to the bottom of another. But the hills are so worn that the distance between them is much greater, so the original points have to be marked.
What is the point of this tradition? Well, Ibraaheem had a wife called Hajr (a/k/a Hagar). He left with her and their son Ismaa’eel, and they journeyed and journeyed and journeyed on their riding animal through the desert, all the way south to Makka. You have to drive to Makka to appreciate this. It’s in the middle of a desert, not a sand desert, a volcanic field. There’s nothing there but cooled lava, i.e. a bunch of rocks. It is absolutely barren. Then, when they reached where Allaah had told them to reach, Ibraheem dismounted, left his wife and son- can you imagine how hard this would be?- remounted and started to ride away?
“Are you really going to leave me here?”
He says nothing.
“Are you really going to leave me here?”
“Are you really going to leave me here?”
Silence. He doesn’t look back. His horse keeps walking.
“Did Allaah tell you to leave me here?”
“Then we will be fine.”
That is Hajr. Absolute faith. She’d seen neither Allaah, nor any way for this to make sense. But she had absolute faith in her Lord, and absolute trust in her husband.
That all looks good on paper, but when you’ve got a breastfeeding baby, you’ve got to eat to keep the milk coming. There was nothing to eat. Her baby was hungry. He was crying. Have you ever heard a hungry baby cry for milk? I have. There were a few times on the road when we didn’t have a place to stop for awhile when the baby got hungry. So we had to keep driving. The cries got worse and worse. Blood-curdling. My wife instinctually motioned to move to the back seat, then sat back down. It was only a few minutes or so, but it brought tears to my wife’s eyes. To hear her baby suffer. To not be able to soothe their needing pain.
But we knew we were gonna feed her. We just had to wait a few minutes.
Hajr, may Allaah have mercy on her, had nothing. She saw nothing. She heard nothing. There was nothing. Just a couple of rocky hills, in the middle of a lava field. But this woman had faith. She put her baby down and ran to the top of a hill to look around. Nothing. Nothing but faith. She ran down that one, and up the other one. Nothing. Hungry (not that I-skipped-lunch-‘cause-I-was-busy feeling, REAL hunger). Thirst. And nothing. She ran back down and up again. Then back down and up again. Until she had run up those hills seven times.
Then she saw something. The angel Jibreel (a/k/a Gabriel), Allaah’s strong one. He dug with his heel in the ground, and water began to well out. In other narrations it was the writhing of the baby Ismaa’eel which opened this water source.
“Zam! Zam! (Stop! Stop!)” she commanded, fearing the spring of water would run itself onto the ground. She then dug a hole around it, so it would become a well. Had she left it, according to a narration attributed to Muhammad, it would be a river right now.
This is the reward of believing like you see, striving like you know, working as if you have already been rewarded. Soon, the Hud-hud (hoopoe) a bird that flies around a source of water, started circling over their two heads. A tribe of Arabs took note and followed. They were a noble people, so even thought they could have done away with Hajr and her son, they asked for permission to camp near the miraculous water source. Hajr, a young woman, mother of a suckling child, alone in a wasteland, was fearless. She gave them permission, but denied them any rights to ownership of the well.
Soon Ismaa’eel married from among this tribe. It is said, then, that he is the forefather of all the Arabs. This is obviously false. They were Arabs before him, and there were many other Arabs besides them. It is in fact he who was Arabized. (Check the relevant narrations, they taught him Arabic, so how can he be their forefather?) So it would not be correct to say that Ismaa’eel is the forefather of the Arabs, or that all Arabs are descendants of Ismaa’eel. Ismaa’eel’s immediate descendants must have been Arabs, but by now who knows where they might have migrated and intermarried, so it is most likely that some non-Arabs among his descendants. So it cannot even be said that all Arabs are his descendants, nor can it even be said that all of his descendants are Arabs. This is certainly true for many people who are considered Arabs today. Like Isma’eel, many were Arabized. Personally I don’t care one way or another; I just can’t bear the ridiculous notion that everyone from Morocco to Iraaq is a descendant of Ismaa’eel, and that every zionist is a descendant of Is-haaq (a/k/a Isaac, peace be upon him).
That is the story of the sa’ee and zam!zam! water. Believing in the unseen, not being paralyzed by what we do see. Knowing that it is Allaah who provides, not our efforts, but that he provides VIA our efforts, so keep trying, keep fighting with all your might…
I was telling my daughter this whole story in Arabic while doing the sa’ee. And whaddo you know? Her name is Hajr…
She was bouncing along and laughing as I ran with my brothers between the hill banks. Then, I saw my wife on the other side with my older daughter, heading in the opposite direction. I knew that girl was slowing her down playing, and I felt so happy I just said “Well let me take ‘em both,” thinking Naqia would enjoy walking and running along with me. But wouldn’t you know it, that girl wanted to be held. So now I had two babies bouncing along, and a pair of burning biceps, too. They were kissing each other and laughing. Even the people walking by were happy seeing us. They patted them on the head and some even offered to help me carry them.
“Run, baba, run!”
At the end of the sa’ee, you should shave your head, you should shave your head, you should shave your head, or at least shorten it. That’s for men. You don’t think Muslim women are hiding bald heads under those hijaabs do you? No, they just have to cut a little bit.
Then, it’s over.
Put on your other clothes and go home.
We finished the sa’ee before my wife and her mother, so we just waited on top of Marwa. They were running around and eating candy. I’m really glad my kids had so much fun. I want them to love Islam and enjoy it, so they will value it enough to put in effort for it later.
We were guests in Allaah’s house.
None too soon, and we were back on the road. Madeena or bust.
4 hours later and we found the worst hotel with the worst bathroom in Madeena. The last person in our room had dropped bombs and apparently failed to notify the staff that the toilet wasn’t flushing. Keep in mind that in Saudi, as well as most of the world outside of America, Australia, New Zealand and Western Europe, a toilet is a stylized hole in the ground. It’s literally a porcelain hole in the ground. They sometimes flush (i.e. with a handle or something), but often you just gotta put a lotta water down there to, well, move things right along. And, I might as well tell you, most of the times you walk into the bathroom, what you’ll see is a porcelain hole in the floor, and a bucket with a long, skinny neck. No toilet paper, no sink, no soap. If you’ve got bad knees like me, or you insist on washing your hands (also like me!), be creative. Come up with a strategy. Learn, as we have, to carry toilet paper and instant sanitizer when traveling. This is as much a part of pilgrimage as anything else, so…
The hotel was horrible. We could somehow hear a pin drop, and every noise louder than that coming from the street. The bed was a thin piece of mattress, thinner than a McDonald’s hamburger (ever see the movie Falling Down?), on top of a metal bed frame. We slept like babies (two of us actually were babies).
Sooooo many people walking to fajr. It was like a sort of fashion show. West African, South Asian, Turkish, North African, Southeast Asians and others all doing their thing on the way to Masjid an-Nabawi (The Prophet’s Mosque) in Madeenata-nNabawi (The Prophet’s City, the full name of Madeena). He is buried at the masjid, but that’s because he died in his home, which was a collection of small apartments for his wives built next to the masjid. As a prophet, he was buried where he died, and the masjid was left where it was, so it is a coincidental placing. We pray at the masjid, not at his grave, and graves are not to be made into places of worship, as it leads to the inevitable fetishization, and eventual worship, of the buried.
After praying jumuá, (noon prayer preceded by a sermon on the 6th day of the week) in the Masjid, we did the obligatory shopping for Madeena dates (probably made in China) and Islamic clothing (definitely made in China) and accessories. Then 9 short hours (not really!) and we were home.
Hours on the road for days with my mother-in-law, a toddler and a one-year-old. Most guys’ worst nightmare come true, right?
Naw, I loved it. I felt my heart glowing. Everyone was so happy. I started learning Pushto from the driver. We took turns telling each other stories about where we were from on the way home (as a trick to keep him from falling asleep!)
I was in London last weekend, and this weekend I went to Makka and Madeena. alHamdu-lillaah…
Next stop, the 3rd holiest masjid and city, and the only other place of legitimate pilgrimage, Baytu-lMaqdis, al-Quds. And I’m not asking any zionists for permission either. I’ll pray there when we open it again…