Two of my friends, a married couple, both practising Muslims, recently performed Hajj. A few months after their return from Mecca and Medina, I persuaded them to tell me about their experiences, which they graciously did.
Winnowed: Relief, Happiness, Exhilaration, Exhaustion, Joy. Which of these would have described your emotions best when you reached Mecca?
Friends: A bit of all of those. But mainly, we found it overwhelming. Overwhelming due to the crowds, the mix of nationalities, the different languages, the emotions one witnesses in others, the items to be ticked off the list to complete Hajj, but most important of all, to walk the roads the Prophet (SAW) walked on, to set eyes on the home he lived in (in Medina), to offer prayers at the mosques he built and prayed at (in Mecca and Medina) and to visit his final resting place (in Medina). We saw pilgrims from all over the world, speaking different languages but all with a common purpose. [The abbreviation ‘SAW’ stands for “salla Allahu alaihi wa-sallam”, which in Arabic means “May Allah's peace and blessings be upon the Prophet”]
Winnowed: Is there a limitation on the number of Hajjis each year or limitations on the number of times one can perform Hajj?
Friends: Technically I don’t think there is any restriction in Islam on the number of times Hajj can be performed (one can even perform Hajj on behalf of others who have either passed away before doing Hajj or are living but unable to perform the journey themselves). But due to the large number of Muslims, Saudi Arabia, which is the custodian of both holy sites, has fixed a quota for each country.
Winnowed: So you might want to go and you might not be able to?
Friends: Yes, you need to register in advance.
Winnowed: Was it a lifelong desire to perform Hajj or was it a sudden decision?
Friends: Definitely not a lifelong desire, we started thinking of it in terms of practicality especially after most of our family performed Hajj in the past few years and shared their experiences. It is a common belief that one goes when Allah Almighty calls for you. Kaaba is after all considered to be the home of Allah!
Winnowed: Did you take your kids along?
Friends: No, we did not. Though many people visit with kids we did not think it practical to take kids who won’t understand any of it and we couldn’t have experienced Hajj the same way with kids! Our parents came over to look after them while we were away.
Winnowed: Aw! Lucky you! Now tell me about your actual journey? How did you get to Mecca? Did you travel with a plane-load of other pilgrims?
Friends: We travelled to Jeddah by Cathay Pacific. There are multiple points from where pilgrims come – for example, pilgrims from the US come via Dubai. It was a normal flight and we did have fellow Hajjis, our luggage had special Hajj stamps on them and we enjoyed a complimentary upgrade to business class! From Jeddah we took a Saudia flight to Medina. You also have the option to travel to Mecca directly by bus (there are no flight connections to Mecca – if I am not mistaken there is a restriction on flying over Mecca) or you can also take a bus to Medina.
Winnowed: Stupid question, but is it necessary to go to Medina at all? Can’t you perform Hajj by visiting Mecca alone?
Friends: Depends. Most people, despite their beliefs, will most likely go to Medina as that is the final resting place of the Prophet (SAW) and many of his family and he did live there for many years.
Winnowed: Can you go on Hajj at any time of the year?
Friends: Pilgrimage in the month of Zilhaj and during the specific days is called Hajj. At any other time of the year it is Umrah and carried less sawab (not compulsory and not as “rewarding”).
Winnowed: What are the Hajj days?
Friends: 8 to 13 of Zilhaj are the Hajj days. Hajjis tie their ahram on 8th and proceed to Mina immediately with minimum belongings. Ahram is the white clothing that Hajjis wear. Women can wear stitched clothing but men just wear two pieces of cloth – one wrapped around their upper body like a shawl and second like a lungi around their lower torso. Feet and face must remain open at all times and men will not cover their heads with a topi (not even at prayer time). Women may wear socks but most prefer not to. Once ahram is worn it can only be removed after Hajj is completed! Some of the restrictions while you are in ahram are no cutting nails, hair must not break, you must not see your own reflection, face must not be covered at any time (care must be taken when you wash and wipe your face before prayers!), no marital relations, no fighting, no lying, no killing (not even mosquitoes!), no using perfumed toothpaste or soap or attar, no coloured clothing (bags and slippers can be coloured but not the clothing), etc.
Mina is also called the tent city and is perhaps the only place in the world which is occupied only during the Hajj days. Rest of the year it just lies empty! The whole place is full of tents which can occupy about 50 people at a time, it has electricity, toilet blocks and most important, air conditioning! After wearing ahram, Hajjis are not allowed to go back to Mecca until they have completed their rituals.
On the next day, pilgrims proceed to Arafat. I would say this is the most important day of Hajj. Arafat is the name of a place where the jabal ul rahmat (meaning: mercy) is located. It is believed that anyone who faces the sun at the time of sunset and prays at this site is forgiven and cleansed of all previous sins.
After spending the day at Arafat, pilgrims proceed to spend the night under the stars (yes, armed with nothing but our chatais and plastic bags to collect stones for stoning the devil) in Muzdalifah. We select stones, say our prayers and go to sleep and then proceed to Mina on the next day to stone the biggest devil (there are three devils – small, medium and large). We will do this for the next three days. Men shave all their hair at this point (first ahram restriction falls away) and women cut a small lock as a token. Next each pilgrim offers a sacrifice of a goat or lamb or camel, as one wishes and can afford (second ahram restriction falls away). The Saudi government has a program where they distribute the meat all over the world.
Once this is done, Hajjis may return to Mecca to give their tawaf (seven circumambulations of the Kaaba equal to one tawaf and can take anywhere from 40 minutes to an hour and a half!). Once the tawaf is given and once you have walked seven times between Safa and Marwah you may remove your ahram, have a bath and wear coloured clothes again. Your Hajj is completed, you are officially a Haji and your sins, up to this point in time, are all forgiven. We return to Mina to sleep and stone the devils until the morning of the 13th coming to Mecca only during the day to give tawafs. Only after this point are pilgrims allowed to return to Mecca and sleep in Mecca.
Winnowed: Can you tell me a bit more about the stoning the devil ritual? What’s the significance?
Friends: When Prophet Ebrahim (pbuh) was ordered by Allah Almighty to build the Kaaba, the devil tried to distract him thrice at three different places. The stones are placed (I think) in the same three locations. [‘pbuh’ is the commonly used abbreviation for ‘peace be upon him’]
Winnowed: What are the chances of getting hurt while throwing the stones?
Friends: I think this used to be the place where stampedes used to happen but the Saudi government has organised the area so pilgrims can stone the devils at ground level or any of the two upper levels. As such, the crowds are controlled and better managed. There is also very heavy security/volunteers at most of these places and I suppose anyone misbehaving will be swiftly led out!
Winnowed: So you went to Medina, Mecca, Mina and then back to Mecca is it?
Friends: Yes. More like Medina, Mecca, Mina, Arafat, Muzdalifah, Mina and Mecca!
Winnowed: What are the other significant sites one sees in Medina and Mecca?
Friends: The Masjid ul Nabawi, which is the first mosque the Prophet (SAW) built when he came to Medina. A splendid structure, it has been expanded from its original size to accommodate the swell of pilgrims. It houses the Prophet’s (SAW) and his daughter Fatema’s (AS) homes and also the Prophet’s final resting place. One can still see the mimbar (meaning: platform) where he climbed to lead the prayers. [The abbreviation ‘AS’ means "Alayhi Salam", which in Arabic means "May Allah bless him"]
Outside is jannatul baqi where many of the Prophet’s (SAW) family are buried including his son, grandson, his daughters and his aunts. Only men are allowed to enter the compound.
One also sees the Masjid ul Quba, which includes pointers to the old kibla viz baitul muqaddas or Jerusalem (kibla meaning: direction in which all muslims turn for their prayers) and the current kibla (i.e the Kaaba). There are several other mosques that one can visit which the Prophet (SAW) built in his time and where pilgrims try to offer their prayers.
In Mecca, one can visit the final resting place of the Prophet’s first wife, Khadija (AS).
One can also visit the Jabal (meaning: mountain) ul Noor (meaning: light) where the Prophet (SAW) received his first revelation. Many pilgrims climb up to the cave to visit this site. There are also some museums.
Winnowed: What about food and accommodation. When a few million people descend on a place at the same time, I can only imagine how crowded it must have been.
Friends: It depends, food and accommodation is organised by your community or the group that you are travelling with. Most of it is very well taken care of. The Saudi government offers lunch boxes and water bottles to all pilgrims that enter Mecca! Water fountains are abundant and food in Mecca is generally cheap and delicious!
Winnowed: I guess some other communities or nationalities might have had better arrangements. Or worse.
Friends: Some are better than others but I suppose everyone tries to improve each year and no matter how well you do there is always scope for better arrangements! I suppose given the sudden influx of pilgrims it is hard to manage expectations and everyone just tries to do their best. It is a humbling experience to see the hard living conditions of many pilgrims, to see the aged and crippled walk along side but never complaining. Many visit with young children even newborns, all the children were so well behaved, I never heard any crying despite the glaring heat and crushing crowds! If this is not a miracle, what is?
Winnowed: Are men and women segregated when you pray?
Friends: In Medina, yes. In Mecca, no. The crowds are too vast in Mecca for any effective segregation.
Winnowed: Tell me something really extraordinary or beautiful about Mecca
Friends: One of the most beautiful things about Mecca is the abundance of zam zam water fountains near the Kaaba. The legend of zam zam is that Prophet Ebrahim (pbuh) went to Mecca to build the Kaaba with his wife, Haajar, and his son, Ismail, as he was ordered by Allah Almighty. Prophet Ismail (AS), was still an infant and dying of thirst while his mother ran seven times between the hills of Safa and Marwah to look for water. When she came back, her son knocked his heels in the sandy desert and water sprang out which is known as zam zam. The well of zam zam was hidden for many years afterwards and revealed to the Prophet’s (SAW) grandfather, Abdul Muttalib, in a dream. Since then, for more than 1400 years, this well of zam zam has not dried up. It is believed to have healing powers and all pilgrims drink this water to their fill after giving tawaf and even sprinkle some on their faces. Almost all pilgrims will bring back zam zam to give to family and friends. We brought back a 10 litre can!
Even today (though moved from its original position), there is a small structure that marks the place (called Makame Ebrahim) where Prophet Ebrahim (pbuh) stood and built the Kaaba. It is believed that a small semi circular area (which is cordoned off) is the final resting place of his son, Prophet Ismail (pbuh) (called Hijre Ismail). The well of zam zam is also located within the precincts of Kaaba but is no longer open to the public.
Winnowed: What about security arrangements in Mecca and Medina?
Friends: I saw a couple of road accidents. Security is very high (and conspicuous) in all public places.
Winnowed: Are you saying there wasn’t a single thing that you didn’t like about the entire pilgrimage? Nothing went wrong? (shaking my head in disbelief)
Friends: (with smiles) No, nothing went wrong. If at all we had to grumble, we would say that the Saudis could put in a bit more effort into signposting especially in multiple languages in Mina, since you have to walk everywhere and it is just very easy to get lost (which does not sound too bad but is actually very scary).