Hajj embodies solidarity; Eid Al Adha reflects sacrifice. As we enter the season of pilgrimage, Aftab H. Kola reflects on his experiences of making this spiritual journey.
The Holy Pilgrimage of Hajj is a global journey into the heart of Islam. Each year, nearly three million Muslims converge on Saudi Arabia’s Makkah and Medinah – Islam’s two holiest sanctuaries to answer the divine call of performing the rite of Hajj. One of the five foundational pillars of Islam, Hajj – the pilgrimage to Makkah – is a series of religious rites that take place during the Dhu al-Hijjah, the last month of the Islamic calendar.
The spiritual and humanitarian significance of Hajj extends beyond the act of the rites themselves, built on a foundation of tradition that date as far back as the records of the Prophet Ibrahim, his wife Hagar, and son Ishmael.
The Holy Pilgrimage of Hajj reinforces and strengthens Muslim unity and solidarity as worshippers gather in Makkah and other holy sites dressed in the same attire and reciting the same verse – ‘Labbaik Allahuma labbaik, Labbaik la shareeka laka labbai’ (Here I am O Allah, at Thy service. Here I am, Thou art without partner, here I am. All praise and blessings are Thine, and Dominion. Thou art without partner). It’s a rite that seeks to teach the faithful the values, principals, and objectives upon which Islam molds the qualities and characters of an individual.
The act of Hajj is an enjoined duty and a divine one made between the eighth and 13th days of the 12th month (Dhu al-Hijjah) of the Islamic lunar year. Muslims, if they can afford it financially and are in good health, must endeavour to make the pilgrimage at least once in their lifetime.
I had the honour of performing Hajj several years back and have visited Makkah every year since for Umrah (a short pilgrimage). Before setting out on the journey, its rites and preparations begin even at home. I had to ensure that all wrongs are redressed; pay all my debts; had enough funds to undertake the journey while setting aside enough extra for the maintenance of my family while I was away; and prepare myself for good conduct throughout the pilgrimage.
I landed first in Medinah a few days prior to the start of Hajj and, though a stopover here doesn’t fall on the pilgrimage route, a visit to Islam’s second holiest sanctuary is an equally immersive experience and is highly-recommended, with many pilgrims visiting it either before or after Hajj. Before departing Medinah to Makkah, we drape ourselves in the ‘ihram’ – the two pieces of unsewn, white cloth that each male pilgrim must wear prior to performing Hajj or Umrah – and make ‘niyah’, uttering our intention of performing the Holy Pilgrimage aloud.
After a four-hour coach ride from Medinah, we arrive in Makkah to perform Umrah first. This was on the seventh day of Dhu al-Hijjah, two days prior to actually embarking on Hajj. Here, we spend our time in the Masjid al-Haram – the Sacred Mosque of Makkah – praying, reciting the Quran, and engaging in devotional ‘zikr’.
On the eighth morning of Dhu al-Hijjah, we join a concourse of worshippers chanting the ‘talbiyah’ – the Muslim prayer invoked by pilgrims as intention to perform the sacred rite of Hajj in the name of Allah only and his glory – and enter the valley of Mina, a tiny, uninhabited village about seven kilometres east of Makkah where we spend the night in fire-proof tents. It’s worth noting that there are now train services that will take you directly from Makkah to Mina and further, but we made the trek on foot.
The scene at Mina touches my heart deeply; I’ve been waiting for this moment all my life and thank Allah for providing me an opportunity to make this holiest of pilgrimages. All around me religious fervour is writ large on the faces of my fellow pilgrims as the valley reverberated with chants of ‘talbiyah’ as three million pilgrims from around the world converged on the tent city – their first stop on the way to the Plain of Arafat.
Saudi Arabia has taken the utmost care to arrange excellent facilities for the throngs of pilgrims that descend upon the Kingdom during Hajj in greater numbers each year. The time we spent on the Plain of Arafat was precious and devoted to prayer, genuine repentance for one’s sins, prayers for the dead and the living, and prayers to be cleansed through Hajj. For it was here that the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) delivered his last Hajj sermon 14 centuries ago.
The Plain of Arafat is considered the climax or pinnacle of the Hajj pilgrimage – yet it’s not the conclusion as a few days more remain. Though, speaking from my experience, at no other place and at no other location in my lifetime have I, as a believer, felt so intensely and confidently that I am approaching a merciful, responsive, and loving Allah and that all my prayers would be answered.
From Arafat, we returned enroute to Mina, spending the night at Muzdalifa, a valley between mountains in the north and south. Here, we engaged in worship and gathered pebbles for the symbolic ritual of stoning the devil on the following day. At dawn, we trudged, towards the multi-storey Jamrat Complex a kilometre away from our tent. Here we joined in throwing seven pea-sized pebbles at Jamrat Al-Aqaba – one of the three elliptical walls representing the devil.
It was a sight that stays with me until now. Assisted by hundreds of ever-smiling security officials, the ritual – of which millions took part – was conducted in a peaceful and orderly fashion, with special assistance provided for the elderly.
On the 10th day of Dhu al-Hijjah, we prepare to celebrate Eid Al Adha – the ‘Feast of the Sacrifice.’ Those who can afford it buy a sheep or goat, or a share of a sacrificial animal, sacrifice it, and distribute a portion of the meat to the poor. After celebrating Eid, we repeated the stoning ritual for a further two days, hurling seven pebbles a day at each of the three walls inside the Jamrat Complex before returning to Makkah for ‘tawaf’ – the ritual of circling the holy Kaaba seven times in supplication to Allah.
Hajj is now complete, and I leave feeling reborn; a sense of renewal and devotion prevail; a sense that my sins have been washed away. It’s a pilgrimage that will remain with me as one of life’s most essential experiences.