As the dusty, weary, thirsty pilgrims approach the blessed house they fall into orbit around it, eyes full and hearts yearning, hands outstretched towards the magnetic black cube towards which they prostrate back home. This lonely brick structure in the middle of an uninviting desert, unremarkable save for its symbolism, continues to attract longing souls as readily across space as it does across time: men and women who travel far and wide but to circle it a few times and to gaze upon it for a while before returning to where they came from, touched. What a sight, then, must the Lord of this house be?
Perhaps the best description I’ve heard of Hajj is that it is like a roller coaster. The decision to go is a deliberate one, made with intention and planning. The anticipation rises when you first catch sight of the tall tracks from the parking lot, hear the sounds of the park as you walk closer. And then, you are strapped in, suddenly being pulled higher and higher towards the first peak. You second guess everything— this is taller than you thought it would be, the screams louder. Can you make it? Is it too late to get off? There is a pause at the very top where you see everything, and it all seems so scary. Impossible even, to fathom that you at some point wanted to do this, to come here, to spend good money you could have enjoyed elsewhere. But it is too late for that, your only way out is through.
And then, the floor gives out beneath you as you drop downwards, wind rushing through your hair, the speed overwhelming your senses. You go through loops and crests and whatever else is destined in your path, and then you are brought to a jarring stop, and it is over. It is time to get off. As you exit through the zigzagging ramps, reeling from the dizziness and learning to walk again, you are left with a singular, burning desire: you cannot wait until it is your turn to ride again.
Hajj is a spiritual bootcamp. There are a number of lessons that it teaches the pilgrim, customized for each person. There’s an endless list of takeaways and I will not even attempt to enumerate them; instead I want to share some of the impressions that have stayed with me, as well as some of the stories which I hope never to forget.
Hajj is social. There’s something about being a part of something so grand, so much bigger than the sum of its parts that makes for a deep camaraderie. Everyone here, all three million believers, has a story that brought them to these barren plains. Some are here after a close call with death. Some are here supporting their elderly parents. Some are here simply to fulfill a duty; some are here out of love. Some have made spontaneous plans, who did not think they would be here even just days or weeks ago. Others have been planning for years, counting down the months til they would arrive. Some are from lands similar to this one, others from places unimaginably different. Some are the first in their lineage to ever come, others have grown up hearing about it from friends and family. Some come from the lap of luxury, have never eaten anything except with a silver spoon. Some count themselves lucky the nights they sleep knowing what they will eat tomorrow. Most people these days travel by airplane, but some come on buses, on ships, on foot, sometimes even on bicycle.
Everyone comes parched. Everyone comes with regrets. Everyone comes with words they wish they hadn’t said, relationships they wish they had mended, an optimism that God almighty who has brought them here will make things right. Everyone had a tipping point where they realized this was the year; everyone has reasons why they almost didn’t come. Everyone has left something or someone behind. Everyone is focused on the life of the hereafter. Everyone sees a little bit of themselves in everyone else.
For five days, these three million people are divided into groups that they have traveled with, and they will be inseparable. They will eat and sleep together in tents, they will walk together for miles. They will carry each others bags and push strangers’ wheelchairs. They will share what food and water they get freely. They will spray overheating brothers and sisters with water, should they get their hands on a spray bottle. Doctors will drop everything to attend to anyone who needs anything, pushing their own prayers to the side to answer the prayers of others.
For days, as they make the journey together, they will bond. They sit and lie in their tents and talk to pass the time, to get to know their neighbors. They find common interests, common pasts, common struggles. The things that keep them apart in their daily lives no longer do. Race does not matter, wealth does not matter, status does not matter. The only thing that matters is racing in doing good, increasing in piety, in seeking a new chapter with one’s soul. It is a beautiful thing that unfolds, this common humanity that is revealed, the kinds of people you meet and learn from.
My great grandmother used to say that there are three ways to really get to know a person: eat with them, travel with them, or entrust them with something. Hajj gives ample opportunity for all three. And through this intimate opportunity to discover others, we come to learn more about ourselves.
The ancient Arabs had a maxim: “Things are known by their opposites.” It follows then that gratitude flows from constriction, that you know the value of a thing once it’s gone, even temporarily. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and thankfulness is an expression of love.
If you’ve ever seen a picture of Hajj, you might have seen a sea of men all wearing the same two white sheets, theihram. All men are required to wear nothing but these two sheets of white, unstitched cloth (and a pair of slippers).
These sheets are simple, and yet complicated. They slip, they slide, they clump and overheat some body parts and leave others exposed. They are a reminder that one day this is all we will leave this world with: two sheets to shroud us as we are lowered into our subterranean beds, nothing more.
By the middle day of Hajj, the ihram becomes well worn, familiar, stained. The uneasiness of the first day is gone, after spending more than 48 continuous hours in it. The breeze that flows below feels welcome, the folds that keep the bottom half from revealing one’s dignity are a little more sure, a little more loose. And yet, on that third day when the ihram comes off, it is gratitude that one feels. What a luxury sleeves are, tubes of cloth that house the limbs without restricting movement. And pockets! What a welcome haven for hands and personal effects. Undergarments to wick away sweat, colors to more quickly identify one another, styles from the world over to behold and appreciate.
Hajj starts out and ends in what has become in modern times a tent city, a placed called Mina. These tents are humongous, large enough to hold dozens of people, sometimes even hundreds if multiple tents are connected. Different Hajj groups from different countries serving people of different economic means offer varying levels of amenities, but the underlying experience is the same: communal living in close quarters, makeshift bathrooms that are shared between several tents, hardly any privacy. For most pilgrims this is a step down from the level of accommodation they enjoyed in Makkah and Madinah, as they got ready for the days of Hajj to begin. Gone are the 4 and 5 star hotels, the buffets, the soft sheets and fancy soaps. For most pilgrims who are well-off in their normal lives, it is a far cry from the creature comforts of home. You may find yourself sleeping inches away from a stranger on a thin mattress, both of you unable to use scented things for the next few days as a condition of ihram. Your possessions are stuffed in small bags, crammed into corners or hanging from hooks. You are lucky to have shade and A/C under the relentless Arabian sun, but you have little control over the temperature or the lights or the noise. You will yourself to rest today, because tomorrow is the day of Arafat, the most important day of Hajj.
The next night, after a long day on Arafat, is spent in Muzdalifah, which is a plain, open area between Arafat and Mina. The only thing to do here besides pray is to rest. But unlike Mina, there are no tents here. In fact, the only structures in modern times are the bathrooms, built only to be used this one night of the year. In Muzdalifah, pilgrims are required to sleep beneath the open sky, nothing separating them from the heavens. Surprisingly, many pilgrims find that they sleep soundly here. There’s something tangible about God’s mercy enveloping you in that open state of vulnerability, where any passing bird or pregnant cloud could leave you helpless. The desert cools, a breeze blows. There is a sea of humanity in every direction, men and women, sprawled out and resting, snoring, praying, laughing, reflecting. It is unlike anything in this world, and a reminder of what is to come. That one day, clothed in these same two sheets, we will be beneath the ground rather than above it, none of our worldly possessions accompanying us. We hope for a breeze to come through our graves as a premonition of Paradise, the way the wind cools our exhausted bodies now. We will be brought to judgement before God one day, all of humanity assembled together, and maybe it will look something like this.
After a night in Muzdalifah, under the open sky and on a bed of warm stones and dust, simple structures appear to be immense blessings. How amazing a roof is, to protect one from the sun and the rain? Or a real bed, to support one’s contours? Walls to keep out critters and people, to afford one privacy at least from those outside? Fans and air conditioning to provide temperature control? The next morning when the pilgrims return to Mina, the tents seem like the height of luxury. After Hajj when they return to their hotels in Makkah and Madinah, the rooms where previously they could find fault, seem now impeccable. Home, when the pilgrim returns to it, gives comfort in ways it never did before.
One of the best pieces of advice I got in preparation for Hajj was to come with a dua list, so that I don’t forget anything when it’s game time. I hadn’t fully realized before going how much of Hajj is just downtime filled with dua, how much is just taking time to ask God for the things you want. There’s not a whole let else going on at Mina, and Arafat is all about making time for dua.
Dua is the essence of worship. There are etiquettes to dua, but unlike most other forms of worship, there are hardly any rules. You can do it at any time, at any place, in any language, loudly or quietly, publicly or privately, eloquently or incoherently, smiling or bawling, for anything, for anyone. It’s a beautiful lesson from Hajj that the emphasis on making time for quality dua during those sacred days is something you can take home with you. Long after your hair has grown back and the journey becomes a distant memory, you can take the practice of turning to God with a sincerity and vulnerability that is exclusive to your relationship with Him, and ask. And while people may grow tired of you the more you ask of them, the Prophet told us, God never tires of His servants asking Him. He loves that you ask Him, for it is the rawest, truest form of submission to ask the One who is the source of everything.
Hajj is like a series of trust falls, there are constantly situations that unfold where your only recourse is patience and trust. Sometimes buses break down, or meals are delayed, or you may find yourself lost from your group. Every pilgrim has his own stories of problems that arose during their Hajj, and how the only way they got through was by turning to Allah. It’s common to hear people tell about small, specific duas that were answered immediately— someone craving chai passes by a tent where someone offers it to him, someone missing a loved one finds a message from them, someone feeling heat finds a seat next to a fan. All these small things as if to say, “I hear you my servant; ask, and I will answer”.
On the day of Arafat I found myself waiting in line for the bathroom just before Dhuhr prayer. A portion of the line was out in the sun, far enough away from the nearby trees to be shaded. When I say that I felt my brain boil, my bald head completely exposed to the noon sun like the shiny bottom of a pot exposed to a stovetop, I mean it. I’ve never felt heat so viscerally before.
There’s a hadith where the Prophet peace be upon him talks about people gathered on the Day of Judgement, awaiting judgement. The sun will be close to their heads and only a pious few will have shade. People will sweat based on their sins, some relatively dry, some almost drowning in their own sweat. All of humanity will be gathered on a plain similar to this one, and will wait to see the result of a life’s worth of deeds.
After Dhuhr and Asr prayers and the best mandi I have ever tasted in my life (courtesy of the Saudi government, which these days provides lunch on the day of Arafat as a token of welcome to the pilgrims), the essence of the day of Arafat starts. It is all about dua, and I took out my list that I had prepared, and found a spot close to a fan, and sat down on the soft red carpets in the tents here, reclined against a pillow. I began making my way down my list, but the heat, the full belly, and the relaxed atmosphere in the tent all lulled me, and I felt ashamed that having made it this far, I now found myself battling the same laziness that plagues me back home. Wouldn’t it be nice if I could get the strength to take this blessed afternoon for what it was worth?
A short while later, we heard the cackling of lightning followed by the rumble of thunder over the plain. And then, a torrential downpour started. The atmosphere turned absolutely electric, as pilgrims rushed outside to stand in the walkways, eyes to the heavens, hands outstretched. It is believed that rain is a mercy from God, that it is a blessed time to ask duas during rainfalls because mercy is already descending in that moment. Pilgrims all around were sobbing, begging, imploring for salvation, forgiveness, goodness, strength, for all manner of khair for this life and the next. Over the course of the next hour the rain was consistent, and the temperature dropped a good twenty degrees, so that by the time the storm passed the weather was comfortable, dare I say even cool. It was unreal to feel a manifestation of mercy so forcefully, to release a dua upwards and hear thunder echoing, as if your prayers were being answered in that very moment. Countless dreams made their way upwards that day, one had just to look around to see the masses of worshippers baring their souls upwards. How much more infinite was the divine love that descended on us that day that we didn’t have the eyes to see?
Trust in God (Tawakkul)
A defining quality of the believer is his tawakkul, or his trust in God. He will make all the necessary preparations and will choose the right thing, no matter the hardships, and will trust in God to make his path easy. It’s a quality that’s hard to practice due to the balance and the faith it requires, but it is such a powerful thing which makes the believer impervious to life’s ups and downs.
Everyone finds moments in Hajj where they face some self-doubt, where it seems too hard or too challenging in one aspect or another. We are humans, after all, flawed and impatient. It is precisely these moments however that set the stage to learn how to trust in the Almighty. He tells us in a narration that if His servant takes one step towards Him, He will take ten steps towards the servant. All that’s required of us is to trust, and to make the move.
The most salient example of this for me happened on the fourth day of Hajj. To set the scene, the third day of Hajj, called Yaum al Nahr, the Day of Sacrifice, was one of the most taxing ones yet. On this day we had to walk from our tent in Mina all the way to the pillars of Jamraat, which represent Satan. These three pillars are erected in the spots where Abraham pelted the devil when he appeared to him, and we pilgrims are commanded to do the same, a physical re-enactment to remind us that we are here on this planet to struggle against our own base desires and the whispers of the devil, and to strive towards closeness to God. On this day we also complete an Umrah, a set of rites which in normal times is a lesser pilgrimage, composed of seven rounds around the Ka’bah (tawaf) and seven trips between the twin mountains of Safa and Marwa (sa’ee), all in the footsteps of the family of Abraham.
General jet lag and compounding tiredness from the last several days aside, there was a lot of walking on this day. It started mid-morning while the sun was at its hottest, as we walked from our tents at the farther end of Mina’s tent city towards Jamraat. I must have drank and sweat two liters of water during this hour-long walk, made hotter by the body heat of the masses of people all assigned the same time slot as our group. When we finished at Jamraat we walked another half an hour, continuing through the midday heat, to a building where it was arranged for us to shave our heads and shower before taking a bus to the Sacred Mosque to complete the Umrah, which also consisted of a few hours of walking. By the time we made it back to our tents in Mina late that night, we were absolutely spent.
I was already thinking to myself how we would do the same walk to Jamraat the next morning when a medical situation emerged in our group. One of the elder women who was traveling alone had a complication and would be unable to stay in the Mina tents the next few nights. She would need to be transferred to the building where we had shaved earlier that day, where she could be more comfortable, and have quicker access to medical care.
However that building was a vacant with nobody stationed there, and she had no family with her to keep her company, and she was not in any condition to be left alone. One of the doctors in our group as well as our imam would need to stay close to her. There were no spare buses or taxis available for the next few days that could come to our tent to transport her there either, so she would need to be transported on foot.
We deliberated for a few minutes as a group before deciding that the next day our entire group would take her to that building and stay there together with her. We would adjust somehow into that space as we had adjusted in Mina, but we preferred that to leaving her alone. This meant that in a few hours, when the sun strengthened, we would be repeating the walk past Jamraat to the building, this time carrying all of our things with us due to the lack of buses available. Being an able-bodied young man, this meant walking not just with my bags but also anyone else’s who needed an extra hand.
I knew it was the right thing to do for us to alter our plans like this, but I was deflated. How could we walk so far in the noon summer desert sun, with considerable more weight than the previous day, after having spent so much energy already? I slept uneasily for just a couple of hours, anxious at what the next day would bring.
We started out just before noon, and the first five minutes were just as hot as they had been the day before, and we started sweating immediately, our muscles straining under the added weight of the luggage. And then— completely out of nowhere—a cloud came over us. The forecast did not predict a cloud, and we could not remember seeing one anywhere when we had left our tents. And yet here it was, directly overhead, screening us from the oppressive sun. The appearance of the cloud oddly enough felt like the removal of a veil; God is everywhere, always, and behind everything that happens, but this felt so direct, so intentional, that we could not help but feel rejuvienated as if we were under the literal shadow of His grace. We carried on in lighthearted conversation and chanting the refrain of Hajj: Labbaik, Allahumma Labbaik, I am here, oh Allah, I am here. Before we knew it we arrived at Jamraat, our walk a good fifteen minutes faster than the day before.
We pelted the pillars the same as we did the day before, but this time something remarkable happened. Just as we finished pelting the last pillar, a crack of thunder rebounded around, and we saw flashes of lightning. Suddenly it started pouring. Water seemed to flow from the sky as if the heavens themselves opened up above. Within minutes small cliffs turned into waterfalls around us, and the streets were swept with several inches of water carrying everything short of parked cars along with it. We had never seen anything like it, a flash flood in the desert, that came from the cloud which followed us on our walk, which celebrated our completion of Jamraat. As if once we renounced what those pillars stood for, we were immediately washed with cold, fresh rain.
We navigated stairs and slippery streets cautiously, looking out for one another. We gave our arms to the elderly, moving slowly down the steps towards the street. We made it finally to a tunnel along the road where we had a chance to catch our breaths, and we were absolutely drenched, laughing like maniacs at our good fortune. We had forgotten all about the heat and the sun and the weight of the bags and the aching in our legs. We were like children under a water fountain, engulfed in the moment, in the infinite mercy of the Most Merciful.
I hope I never forget what that moment felt like.
Guests of God
The locals of Makkah— the customs and immigration officers, the waiters, taxi drivers, hotel attendants, janitors, doctors— all who take great pride in serving pilgrims year after year refer to the pilgrims as Dhuyoof-ur-Rahman, the Guests of the Most Merciful.
I’m ashamed to admit it but there was a point in my Hajj, sitting on a Mina mattress, nostalgic for the material comforts I was accustomed to, where I wondered about this phrase. Was the discomfort I felt part of this hospitality? Of the Most Merciful?
I was reminded shortly thereafter of two things. The first goes back to the very purpose of pilgrimage, why even do it? Why spend thousands of dollars, precious days of vacation time, and all sorts of physical and emotional energy to be here? The Prophet, peace be upon him, mentioned that the reward for an accepted Hajj is nothing less than Paradise. That the person who completed a Hajj comes back with his slate of bad deeds forgiven, like a newborn baby comes into this world blameless, pure. What’s more, is that after Hajj the Haaji is instructed to assume that his Hajj was accepted. It is a sin to doubt that God Almighty did not forgive you— we are so commanded to believe in His mercy. Was a few days of this training, a few days of patience, of limited sacrifice, not worth the chance at spiritual rebirth, of eternal Paradise? What better thing could any host offer his guests?
The second thing was that a pre-requisite for being a guest is to be invited. To think, that no more than three million people came that year, out of one and a half billion Muslims in the world. Just a 0.002% chance that you would be included in any random group of haajis at best, never mind all the things that had to go right in your life to put you here today: sound health, sufficient financial resources, and the biggest blessing of all, a bent of heart that pulled you towards undertaking this journey in the first place. There are stories of people who have tried their whole lives to come and could never save enough, or find the time, or ran into insurmountable obstacles along the way. If we assembled here today were not Dhuyoof-ur-Rahman, who were?
There is also a tangible aspect to this divine hospitality. There are common stories of pilgrims sitting in the Sacred Mosque, gazing upon the Ka’bah, wishing for something only for a stranger to suddenly materialize with it— a piping hot cup of tea, a piece of cake, a gift of some kind. These instances are deeply personal, sometimes these desires are not even verbalized into duas and yet they come true. The best hosts in this world have limits to what they can do for their guests; what limits can there be on the Creator of Imagination?
Lastly, I’ll say this. There is no substitute for going, and if you’re still reading and have made it this far, you owe it to yourself to experience Hajj once in your life. Just make a wish in your heart. You may not know how or when, but perhaps someday you too will get an invitation and things will work out such that you will find yourself on the plains of Arafat, incredulous at having arrived at long last.
I pray that God envelops you in His grace and mercy, and I ask that you do the same for me. Perhaps we will meet again in a place better than this one, our scales heavy with good deeds, our hearts clean.