Hundreds of thousands of Muslims throughout the world finalized their plans to make the Hajj, the Pilgrimage to Mecca, which is incumbent on the followers of the Islamic faith at least once in their lifetime. More than three million Muslims made the trip last year and for each of them the experience may differ, but the common thread is the understanding of humility and sincerity and the acceptance of the Will of their Creator.
Those desiring to make the Hajj must obtain a visa from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and this was easily attainable in past years. However, following September 11, the Saudi Government has taken certain measures to ensure that those making the trip are Muslims, and secondly, that they are devout followers of Islam and have no connection with others who are bent on creating problems for certain countries.
Before Sept. 11, devotees wishing to make the Hajj would contact various organizations which are involved in making arrangements for the annual Pilgrimage. They are required to have six passport-size photos, their passport, and certain vaccinations required by the Saudi Goverment. This package is sent to the Saudi Embassy in Washington (if eminating from the USA, otherwise from other foreign embassies outside Saudia Arabia) and it is processed in just over two weeks. Now, the leader of any group making the Hajj must TAKE the relevant documents first to the Saudi Embassy and they are examined in detail and background checks made. The leaders of the various groups have to go to Saudi to uplift the visas.
The Saudi Government is custodian of Islam's Holiest Shrine...the Kaaba, as well as the Holy Prophet's Mosque in Medina, but has come in for strong criticism for its support of the American backed coalition which was formed to track down Osama Bin Laden and his followers who have been accused of the terrorist action which resulted in the deaths of some 3,000 individuals, including followers of different faiths and people from a number of different countries including the Caribbean.
The Pilgrimage represents the world's largest single gathering and is not be considered a vacation, as it is for the strong and healthy, demanding sacrifice. It demands humility, patience, tolerance and understanding, and above all, it calls for sincerity in whatever one says or does.
It also demands total commitment to one's Creator, an unquesionable faith in the fulfillment of the Hajj as a pillar of Islam, and an acceptance of the many challenges, some degree of hardships and possible sickness, as a test of one's moral and religious conviction, but it is generally a happy occasion, an opportunity in a lifetime to meet the extended Muslim family and celebrate this grand occasion.
When the Pilgrims reach Makkah (Mecca), the spot where Prophet Abraham (OWBP) first built a house to worship Allah, they are naturally elated and the atmosphere is one of joy. There is a myriad of colors of Africans, many from Nigeria, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Bosnians, Arabs, and others from some 70 nationalities.
It is an amazing factor that despite the jostling in the streets, there is no confrontation. Every Pilgrim takes pride and rushes to help each other in a spirit of brotherhood and love, transcending all barriers of color. That they go by air, sea, road and camel caravan, makes no difference.
It is only by undergoing the rigors of Hajj that one can truly appreciate the importance and significance of this annual event which brings together believers of all color, class and creed, all praying for forgiveness and reciting on an almost 24 hour basis, the words... 'Labbayk, Allahuma Labbayk' (Here I come, Oh Lord, Here I come.), 'Labbayk la sharika Laka Labbayk' (Nothing is equal to you. Here I come, Oh Lord.), 'Innal Hamda Wanni'mat Laka Wal Mulk' (All Praise is Yours, all wealth is yours, all domain is yours), 'La Shaika Lak', (Nothing is equal to YOU.).
The rites of Hajj begin on the eighth day of Zulhijjah, the last month of the Islamic Calendar, which coincides this year with February 21st or 22nd.
Before arriving in Makkah, the men must put on their Ehram - two pieces of unstitched clothing, a prerequisite for the Hajj. The two pieces of unstitched clothing worn by the men serves to underscore the fact that all the Pilgrims were equal before their creator, irrespective of their mundane position of being a King, a President, leader of a country, professional, laborer, etc.
Once they arrive in Makkah, their primary goal is to go to the Haram ash-Sharif, surrounding the Ka'ba. They seize the opportunity of performing Umrah....the circumambulation of the Holy Kaaba seven times and the performance of Sai...walking briskly between Safa and Marwa, in recognition of the plight of Hazrat Ebrahim's (Abraham) wife, Haga, when she rushed between two mountains in search of water for her baby. It was on this occasion when Haga was told to strike the rock from which fresh water emerged. That water still flows today from the well called ZamZam.
After this ritual, the men have to trim their hair and take off their Ehram garments They attend the prayers in the Haram as-Sharif regularly, five times a day, seeking acceptance from their Creator for their pilgrimage, each seeking to touch either the walls of the Kaaba or the Black Stone, a feat that is almost impossible because of the throngs of people.
The next leg of the journey is the trip to Mina which holds the largest tent city in the world. The men have to put on their Ehram again and the journey continued by either buses, cars, trucks, whatever means of transportation is available, and also on foot. Although the distance is a mere six miles, it takes the pilgrims several hours as the streets are packed with hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who walk the distance.
After settling down in the tent city and offering their prayers, the pilgrims set out the next morning for Arafat where the Holy Prophet Muhammad (OWBP) had his farewell message. They spend several hours praying and seeking forgiveness. Soon after sunset, the Pilgrims set out for Muzdalifah, some five miles north of Arafat. The next morning they are required to return to Mina where the Pilgrimage is commemorated. Later the Pilgrims are required to go to the Jamarat All Aqabah. The Jamarat represents three pillars set 200 metres apart, representing Satan's three appearances to Prophet Abraham. The Pilgrims throw pebbles at the three pillars just as Abraham is said to have done.
This part of the pilgrimage is perhaps the most testing as one stumble by a pilgrim could cause a chain reaction and cause chaos of a magnitude that is nothing short of being catasrophic. The Prophet Abraham had a dream in which he saw himself sacrificing that which he loved best..his first born, Ishmael. Though willing to make the sacrifice, Prophet Abraham was instructed to sacrifice a lamb instead, which he did, and which is commemorated even to this day. After the slaughter of the animals, the men shave their heads, took off their Ehram garments and changed to regular clothes.
It is during these crucial hours that the Pilgrims begin assessing what they have accomplished and meditating on whether their prayers have been accepted, as beyond the spiritual joy, the mere physical endurance involved in moving around in the desert heat and being almost crushed by the hundreds of thousands of their brethren.
During this stage of the ending of the pilgrimage each individual ponders over the realization that only piety distinguishes people, not whether one is King, President, leaders, the wealthy, those with historical and royal family names, job status, etc.
They return to their homes as Hajis, AlHaji (male) or Hajin, (female) ready to implement what they have learnt and pledging to enjoy that which is good and forbidding that which is bad.
By Haji Hazrat Ali, Mid-East Correspondent.