Rob L. Wagner روب لستر واقنر

October 18, 2015

The Haj: A unique experience for Muslims

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By Rob L. Wagner

The Arab Weekly

18 September 2015

Jeddah – Kharizada Kasrat Rai, his body thin and his skin darkened by the sun, per­formed in 2013 what so many men and women endured before him over the centu­ries: He walked from his homeland through dangerous territory to per­form the haj in Mecca.

Rai, at 37, walked 6,387 km from Karachi through Pakistan, Iran and Jordan to reach Saudi Arabia. In Jor­dan he took the old western route, a path worn deep from the foot­steps of millions of the faithful be­fore him, south to Tabuk. He then moved on to Medina and Mecca.

“My determination to reach Mecca and witness the marvels of Medina only added to my resilience to complete my journey,” Rai said.

Probably few pilgrims are pre­pared for the hardships of such a journey. In previous centuries, it took a lifetime of saving and some­times a year to make the trek. Pil­grims performing haj numbered in the thousands.

Cheap air travel and tour compa­nies now have enabled just about any Muslim to perform the most important religious duty of his life. An estimated 2.5 million worship­pers are expected to perform the rites in 2015.

The fifth pillar of Islam, haj is a ritual Muslims should perform at least once in their lifetime. To per­form the rite one must be a Muslim and an adult with a sound mind and possess the physical ability to perform the rituals. The worship­per must also have the financial re­sources to make the pilgrimage and still provide for one’s dependents at home. Successfully completing haj, usually over five days during Dhu al-Hijjah, the last month of the Is­lamic calendar, gives the worship­per a place in paradise.

Given that haj is performed in Mecca, where the weather can be inhospitable and the terrain rocky and unforgiving, the ritual can be difficult for the elderly.

Men must wear the Ihram, a plain white garment that eliminates the appearance of wealth and status and allows all worshippers, now standing in purity, to appear as equals before Allah.

The haj ritual dates to about 2000BC when Allah commanded the Prophet Abraham to leave his wife, Hajar, and son, Ishmael, in the Mecca desert. Hajar ran be­tween the hills searching for water for her son but found none. Just when she had given up hope, Ish­mael scratched the ground with his leg and a spring erupted under his foot. Afterwards Allah commanded Abraham to build the Kaaba to in­vite people to perform pilgrimage.

The pilgrimage consists of Tawaf by circumambulating the Kaaba and walking between the Safa and Marwah hills to re-enact Hajar’s search for water. The ritual is fol­lowed by standing on Mount Arafat, the most important act of haj, from morning to sunset to pray for Allah’s forgiveness. Pilgrims also climb the Mount of Mercy for prayers.

The last significant act requires pilgrims to stop at Muzdalifah to collect seven small stones to carry to Mina. Once they arrive, and over three days, they move along a wide pedestrian walkway to cast the stones at three stone pillars, which represent Satan. Here, the worship­pers praise Allah while rejecting Satan.

At the end of haj the faithful cir­cle the Kaaba seven times in fare­well and have their hair shaved to signify the end of the rituals.

Jeddah resident Irfan Moham­med, who performed his pilgrim­age in 1997 and had an opportunity to be in Mecca on business during the haj in 2014, said the Ministry of Haj has made tremendous improve­ments in increasing the comfort to worshipers.

“There are a lot less illegal pil­grims in Mecca in recent years,” Mohammed said. It makes for a more comfortable haj because there is more space and better lodging. Sanitation has improved. Eighteen years ago it was very ugly but the hygienic conditions have improved.”

He noted that safety has been the government’s top priority. Be­tween 1990 and 2006 nearly 2,500 pilgrims died in stampedes, due mostly to crowding, particularly at the stone pillars representing Satan and Jamaraat Bridge. The bridge and pillars were demolished and replaced by a multi-level bridge and large columns.

Just before the 2015 haj, on Sep­tember 11th, a crane accident re­sulted in the deaths of more than 100 people.

“It was very hectic before,” Mo­hammed said. “Now the entrance points are better organised and the crowd movement is orderly.”

The holy days of the Eid al-Ad­ha follow haj and begin with the slaughter of a goat or a sheep to honour Allah. The slaughter stems from Allah’s test of Abraham to slaughter his son, Ismael, as a ges­ture of submission. God intervened in the sacrifice.

The meat from the animal is supposed to be divided into three parts: one-third for charity, a third for extended relatives, friends and neighbours and one-third for the family. It’s a period when families may fast or increase their worship­ping.

Technology has dramatically changed how pilgrims arrive in Mecca to perform haj. Better or­ganisational methods have made it possible to safely accommodate millions but the rituals remain identical to the time of Abraham. On rare occasions pilgrims, such as Rai, continue to emulate Mus­lim ancestors by making the diffi­cult journey on foot as an expres­sion of honouring those who have achieved paradise.

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