Today is our first full day back home from Hajj.
I start this post off knowing that this reflection cannot do justice to the multitude of emotions and openings I felt during this pilgrimage, often and appropriately called “the journey of a lifetime.”
You know that scene in The Return of the King after the hobbits have returned back to the Shire? The four of them are at the Green Dragon, attempting to resume life as it once was. They observe the other hobbits around them prancing around, and then exchange glances with one another, silently acknowledging that they have been to a place and seen things the other hobbits can never even begin to imagine. These four hobbits have changed: life can never be the same again.
I would like to say this is an apt metaphor for what I am feeling now, what the other Hujjaj (pilgrims) are probably feeling now.
Unfortunately for me, I am not Frodo. There is no white ship that will take me to the Undying Lands. Not yet anyway, God-willing. No. The Hujjaj, including myself, are the three other hobbits who will have to navigate life after having been to the two most sacred places in Islam: Makkah and Madinah.
Where do I even begin?
This journey started in November/December actually. After a particularly rough patch in my life, I told Mr. Rafia, “Let’s do Hajj this year.” I felt that it was needed for us, but I particularly needed it. I was at one of the lowest moments in my life and I knew that I had to do something. And what better thing than to embark on Hajj, the fifth pillar of Islam? Hajj, the pilgrimage to Makkah, is required of all able-bodied adult Muslims who can afford the trip. Being the last remaining person in my immediate family to perform Hajj, even before I had knowledge I was to be married, I had resolved in my heart that the first major trip my future husband (whomever he may be) and I would embark on would be to perform Hajj. Alhamdulillah that it actually happened.
With that said, making the intention is no guarantee. As many around me have mentioned, Allah invites you to Hajj. Only if and when you have received that invitation can you embark on this journey.
For the weeks preceding, I was on edge having not received our visas/passports. I’ve heard horror stories from family members who weren’t able to perform Hajj the year they had originally intended, and I was worried that would happen to us, too. For this reason, I thought it best to keep it mum until we knew for sure. Alhamdulillah, we received our passports 4 days before our departure date. That waiting period was our first of many tests to come. For Hajj is a journey of struggle, one that cannot be properly performed without lots and lots of patience, gratitude, and humility.
Once we arrived in Makkah, we had 4 or 5 days before the actual days of Hajj. This was a time we had on our own really to do whatever we wanted. Many people would visit the haram (the sacred precinct of the mosque) and spend as much time close to the Kaʿbah as possible. I however did not. Upon arrival and pretty much my entire time in Makkah before Hajj, I suffered from persistent headaches. My usual one Excedrin for the day did not seem to work. I ended up taking quite a few pills for my headaches; it got to the point where I just had to stop. I was afraid of the damage I may have been doing to my liver and other organs. And even though I had been warned to not compare myself to others, I couldn’t help it. All I did during those first 5 days was lie in bed attempting to sleep, eat, and feel bad about how little I was doing. I prayed almost all of my prayers in my hotel room.
The day before we set out for Mina (where we stay during the days of Hajj), I completely broke down. Not only was I not spiritually or emotionally ready, I was not physically ready for this trip. I felt like a hypocrite for staying in my room for pretty much the entire time. But I needed to break down at that exact moment. Because later that night, with the guidance of a new friend, my Iranian wali as I like to call her (God bless her), I was able to visit the Kaʿbah in somewhat relative peace. While the haram is never not busy, we were able to find a spot to sit down. A nice Iranian man sitting next to us, offered me his chair to sit on. While it’s easy to get stuck on the lack of manners we see during Hajj (people pushing and shoving, not covering their mouth when coughing and sneezing, and littering, to name a few), there are people who go out of their way to show kindness to strangers. It’s something I need to remember and reflect on. While staring at the Kaʿbah, making dua, and doing dhikr, I thought came into my head, “I wonder if I can go and touch it.” Wallahi, not two minutes later, my friend asked me, “You want to go and touch the Kaʿbah?” I was like, “Did you read my mind, girl?” I think she did. With her help, I was able to not only touch the Kaʿbah, but also very briefly stand inside the Hatim, an enclosure which is considered to be a part of the Kaʿbah. It’s not always open, so that fact that I was able to enter it… I felt that God had given me His answer.
I was ready for Hajj.
The first day in Mina was essentially a day of rest. By then, my headaches had miraculously stopped. I didn’t even have any coffee or tea for a full week! Subhan’Allah. I see that as a mini-miracle from Allah.
The next day was the big day, “The Day of Hajj,” as it is called. This required us to travel from Mina to the Mount of Arafat, where we are supposed to stand outside on the plains, with hands raised, and make all the duas (supplications) we can think of from around noon until sunset (6 hours). Luckily for us, our group was in the upgraded North American camps and had tents that shielded us from the sun. Millions of others were not so privileged. I felt like a cop-out for mostly staying inside the tents, but even our guides had instructed us to not be out in the sun for more than 15 minutes at a time. Because I have a history of dehydration and its resulting negative effects, I decided that I was not going to risk it. I witnessed one woman collapsing outside of the bathroom stall. I couldn’t do this to myself or risk ruining Mr. Rafia’s hajj because of that. A few days before the trip, I had asked a few close friends and family members to send me a list of prayers to make on their behalf. This is a recommended practice. It is said that during this day, all our sins will be forgiven. In fact, it is a sin to believe that God does not forgive our sins on the Day of Arafat. I had hand-written all the requests I received into my handy dandy purple Hajj journal. And I read them all. With 6 hours to make dua, I had to break down my time in Arafat into a schedule. For the last hour or so, when one is to make the most earnest of pleas, the balling had begun. By then, I had ridden myself of my journal and spoke to God from my heart. We were all so engrossed in our duas, I didn’t really care if people could hear what I was saying to God. I can’t remember what exactly I asked for, but I know for sure among them was to be able to see His Face and to be with the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) in the hereafter. I cried so much that day. But unlike any of the other countless times I have cried, I felt no crying hangover the next day. I see that as a sign that there was something about being there at Arafat that was special and unique. My favorite moment of my Hajj trip, hands-down, was making dua outside as the sun set. It was a brief moment in time, really, but that scene is not one I can ever forget. Visually alone it may not have been the most beautiful sunset a person could see, but it was the most beautiful sunset I had ever witnessed. Feeling and knowing that God had cleansed all of us standing there outside, that can’t be beat.
That evening, we spent the night in Muzdalifah. I was warned by many people, online and off, that this would be the hardest part of Hajj. Because of the diversity of thought in our scholars, there was an option of leaving at midnight instead of at dawn the next day. I had considered taking the early option while I was still in Makkah, suffering from those headaches. But since I was feeling better, I decided to spend the entire night in Muzdalifah instead of returning early to Mina. I had it really easy up until now. I wanted to experience just a small portion of the rough Hajj I was warned about (I am fully cognizant of just how privileged I am to even say such a thing), the kind of Hajj that millions of pilgrims from outside of North America experience. Honestly, even though the bathrooms at Muzdalifah were the worst of the entire trip, I have seen much worse before (I kept on thinking how my trip to India in 2005 prepared me well). Sure, the rocky incline we had to try to sleep on was uncomfortable, the heat was unbearable, and the fumes of the buses were pretty noxious, I have to say that I quite enjoyed (in retrospect!) my eight or so hours there. I felt like the few women who stayed behind bonded in a way I had not yet experienced in my trip thus far. Going to the bathrooms itself was an adventure!
After Muzdalifah, I felt the rest of Hajj was a walk in the park, relatively speaking. We were still hot, we were still sleep-deprived, I was still suffering from my usual bathroom issues while traveling, but the hardest parts were over. We had two more tawafs (circumambulation of the Kaʿbah) to do and the stoning of the jamaraat on each of the last three days. And while the crowds only got bigger and bigger each day, we were fine. I got to touch the ka’aba a few more times, I survived the tumult of the jamaraat…
But my personal favourite memory of this time was getting lost during our final sa’ee (walking between the hills of Safwa and Marwa, a reenactment of Hajira (Hagar) when she ran between the two hills in search of water for her newborn Ismail (Ishmael). Not knowing where Mr. Rafia was and remembering being told that our bus would depart back to Mina in a few minutes, I had my own sa’ee moment, running barefoot on the stone ground for what I feel must have been close to one mile, trying to figure out how to exit the haram to make sure the bus did not leave without me. My running “training” came in quite handy, I must say. Ironically (I do believe God has a sense of humour), I ended up not only not being late, I was actually one of the first few people back to our meeting spot! A lesson that I learned in that moment was that despite all that I worry about, God always manages to bring me back safely to where I need to be. I also felt really proud to be a runner that night – like it was more than just something I was doing for my physical body. My physical experience with running allowed me that night to experience a small portion of the spiritual element of Hajira’s struggle, without which it would have likely remained merely a ritual. Subhan’Allah. I feel because of that, whenever I doubt myself as a runner from now on, this moment will give me a boost. God-willing. Being late for a bus is not the same thing as running in the desert in search of nourishment for your crying baby, but that’s just a sign of how far I still need to go on this spiritual journey of mine.
After all the rites of Hajj were completed, we set out for Madinah, the city of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). That first day there, I got sick. After being in those cramped Mina tents with people coughing and sneezing every minute, it was bound to happen. Alhamdulillah, I did not get sick during the days of Hajj. I don’t know how I would have coped if I had.
We only had three days in Madinah and I wanted to make the most of my time there, especially since I essentially lost the first day being sick in bed. On the second day, finally feeling better, I set out to visit Masjid al Nabawwi, the Prophet’s mosque. I was in utter awe of its beauty. I have visited some nice mosques in North America and in general, I love visiting houses of worship. But this, this was something else entirely.
I was in awe of the Kaʿbah too the first time I saw it. But these were two different kinds of awe. When you look at the Kaʿbah, you feel like a subject in front of the King. This is actually how you should be feeling, awe in the face of Majesty. You feel like you are nothing. You feel completely undeserving. But when I saw the Prophet’s Mosque, what I felt was a sense of calm, reassurance. I’m actually really happy that our group went to Madinah after Makkah. Sure, it made getting into ihram a bit more tricky, but it was worth it. After hardship comes ease, as the Qur’an says. And I felt it. Possibly because we were on the third floor in our hotel in Madinah, as opposed to the 11th in Makkah, I went to the Prophet’s Mosque multiple times. There was an ease in doing this. I didn’t have to embark two hours beforehand to find a spot to sit and pray. I was also feeling much better in Madinah (after the first day), so that helped.
The big thing in Madinah is praying inside the Rawdah. This is where the Prophet’s house was, where his minbar (pulpit) is, and where he, along with two of his closest companions, is buried. As you can imagine, the Rawdah is very crowded. In addition, women’s access to the Rawdah is restricted, not only in time but also in space. But I had to try to enter it at least once. There was pushing and shoving. It was actually more offensive than the pushing and shoving I witnessed during tawaf. And this was all women! Again, I was prepared for this, as my sister had warned me beforehand. My hand almost got twisted and I had to push back against gravity to prevent falling on someone who was praying. There was this force from behind that was just impossible to withstand. It was chaotic. I can’t quite remember if it was more or less chaotic than the airport in Hyderabad in 2005. But unlike in Hyderabad, I mostly kept my cool. I even joked and laughed at the craziness of it all. I didn’t get to pray with much concentration or tranquility, as my two friends had to form a barricade around me while I prayed. Our goal was to not get trampled on. I so wish I could have spent more time in the Rawdah. But seeing as the women’s section was completely cordoned off and we couldn’t see anything (each year, the women’s access to the Rawdah is increasingly restricted), we had to be practical about our time inside.
We visited a bunch of different important sites in Madinah, but each time, I was reminded that as a woman I wouldn’t be able to physically witness what the men could. I could complain and would be perfectly justified in doing so, as there is nothing in the religion that mandates such segregation, but the biggest test of Hajj is to take it all in and not complain. Every pilgrim faces different tests. This was one of mine. Honestly, it forced me and serves as a reminder to reflect on the spiritual component of our ibadat (acts of worship). While seeing the Kaʿbah in person, I hope and pray, makes my prayer stronger, it is not the Kaʿbah we worship. It is only the direction to which we orient ourselves, for human beings in our limited capacities need a physical direction to turn to. It is God whom we worship. God in this world can never be seen by us common folk (only the Prophet had that honor during his Night Journey), nor can He be fully understood by our limited intellects. And yet, we still worship Him because we know that even though we cannot see Him, He sees us. Not being able to physically see the things I wanted/want to see forces me to flex the spiritual and mental muscles that are needed for prayer. Essentially, each time I pray, I am praying in the direction of the Kaʿbah, not seeing the object of my worship, but knowing in my heart that He sees me.
Despite not being able to enter the Rawdah in peace (it’s not tranquil for the men either, by the way), I nevertheless had an urge to visit and pray in the mosque as much as I could. The mosque is just so beautiful. It was only in Madinah that I felt it was okay to take a few photos. I was done with Hajj, so it didn’t feel sacrilegious to pull out my camera. But I was very conscious to not let my phone’s camera serve as my eyes.
Still as frequently as I went, relatively-speaking, it was never enough. I wanted a sense of serenity in the masjid. I hadn’t gotten it yet. So on the day we were set to leave this beautiful city for our temporal homes, I decided that instead of going to breakfast first, I would visit the mosque one last time. It wasn’t time for prayer, but the beautiful thing about Islam is that you can offer volunteer prayers almost anytime. I went at around 9 am. The mosque was pretty empty. I found a spot all the way at the front of the women’s section. I had the space pretty much all to myself. The domes were open, sunlight was filtering through, and I cried the softest and most peaceful of tears as I prayed and sat in contemplation. This was the first time in my life I really allowed myself to feel like a descendant of the Prophet (peace be upon him). I don’t like to draw attention to this fact, because piety not lineage is what matters most to God. But being in this mosque, the resting place of our Nabi (peace be upon him), I felt this swirl of emotion I still cannot make sense of. I was so happy to be in this place. So happy to be a Muslim. I felt a love for Rasulullah (peace be upon him) I don’t think I had ever experienced before. I stayed there in silence for a solid 15-20 minutes, I think. Then, two Turkish women sat next to me and I realized my time was up. As I made my way out, people started to fill in. I am so grateful I had my small moment of peace and contemplation. It was a beautiful way to end this visit, a beautiful final memory of my time in Madinah.
And now I am back home.
I am aware that this post contravenes many writing conventions: it is verbose, it is part diary, part homily, part-something else entirely. But I just had to blog about it and I had to do it while it is still fresh in my head.
Upon our return, when the few people I spoke to asked me how my Hajj was, I told them, “I can’t say in a word.” I want to say ‘Amazing’ but that would not do it justice. I need to write it out before I can speak to anyone in detail.” I told my sister to wait when I spoke to her yesterday morning. I knew she didn’t want to hear that, but I am a person who needs to write before I can speak. This actually is my second iteration of writing. My first is the real-time journal I kept with me during Hajj. When others were sleeping or socializing, I took advantage of my insomnia and shyness to write. I am so glad I did. This post nor any post could do justice to what I wrote in that journal – and what I wrote in that journal could never do justice to what I felt and what I feel. Even though for readability’s sake it would have been better for me to sit on my experiences before writing this, I couldn’t and don’t want to wait. There are times when the memories are too important. This is one of those times. It is also our first jumu’ah (Friday) back. Jumu’ah is a blessed day and I always try to do things on Jumu’ah for the extra blessings :)
Maybe in the next few days I can write a post or two on more of the spiritual aspects, all the lessons I have learned, and/or how I want to be a better Muslim and person post-Hajj, but I had to write this particular piece right now. I wouldn’t be my blogger self if I didn’t. I couldn’t attend to everything that happened, obviously; this post would be 6,000 words if I did. So, this’ll have to do for now.
Oh and one more thing! As we were making our way back home, I saw a stuffed PURPLE COW at the Dubai airport. I hadn’t really bought anything for myself, so I was like, I deserve this as a memento of my trip. After going back and forth on names, I finally decided on Moozdalifah. Here she is praying on the green carpet that is supposed to be a replica of the Rawdah.
Life may never be the same again for me, but I am still a crazy cow lover!
P.S. If you spot any errors in my timeline, please do not hesitate to let me know. I obviously could not cover everything, but want to make sure that I am as accurate as possible in all my depictions.