Publication:Colo Spgs Gazette; Date:Jan 15, 2005; Section:Life; Page Number:31


THE Journey OF A Lifetime

For Muslims, pilgrimage to Mecca fulfills a sacred duty

By PAUL ASAY THE GAZETTE



    Of all the world’s religious pilgrimages, none compares to the hajj.

    For five days every year, 2 million Muslims from around the world crowd into and around the holy city of Mecca in western Saudi Arabia to perform sacred rituals connected with the hajj and the umrah, or “lesser hajj.”

    These pilgrims don’t share a language, culture or social status, but they do hold to a common faith and have a common purpose: to perform ancient rites that honor God.

    “It’s amazing,” said Javid Saleem, a Colorado Springs man who performed the hajj in 1999. “So many people in one place, it’s hard to describe.”

    The hajj, which literally means “pilgrimage” in Arabic, takes place during a five-day period during the Islamic month of Dhu Al-Hijjah. That period probably will start Wednesday this year. The umrah, a one-day event, can be per-
formed any time, but typically it’s done right before the hajj.

    The hajj is one of the world’s most impressive spectacles, and one without equal in modern religion. Jews pray by the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem and Catholics visit St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, but their faiths don’t require it.

    For Muslims — men and women — a pilgrimage to Mecca is one of Islam’s Five Pillars, a mandatory trip that must be made if the believer is physically and financially able. The hajj brings heaven a step closer.

    Many Muslims work their entire lives to earn enough money to pay for the trip, and those who do (an estimated 10 percent of Muslims worldwide) often are overwhelmed by the experience. The first look at the Kaaba, the sacred shrine in the heart of Mecca that the patriarch Abraham is said to have built more than 4,000 years ago, is particularly powerful.

    “All their life, they’ve been praying (in its direction), seeing this image,” said Iqbal Chaudhry, who performed the hajj last year. “And to see it — you see, basically, the tears come. It’s too emotional for them.

    “It happens to everybody,” he adds. “First time, it’s too much.”

    “Overwhelming,” said Sam Khanfar, who performed the hajj in 2001. “It’s a different experience.”

    “I think you’re in a different state of mind from the moment you’re there,” said Arshad Yousufi. “The focus becomes God. I felt I was close to God, and all the people didn’t matter.”

    All pilgrims dress in a white garment called an ihram. The ihram emphasizes equality before God, and that equality, pilgrims say, is apparent throughout.

    “There’s a feeling of brotherhood,” Yousufi said. “There is a feeling of being united (by faith).”

    The size of the hajj now is restricted to about 2 million people, most of whom are selected by a lottery, according to Chaudhry. Countries are allowed a certain number of pilgrims. Because the United States has a relatively small Islamic population, American pilgrims rarely have trouble getting in.

    Non-Muslims cannot participate in the hajj. In fact, they’re not allowed in the sacred city of Mecca — ever.

    But many of the rituals performed during the hajj have an ecumenical flavor to them. The hajj is far more centered on Abraham — patriarch of Islam, Judaism and Christianity — than on Muhammad, Islam’s primary prophet.

    For Muslims who live in more affluent Western countries, the trip is relatively easy to set up. Several companies offer hajj packages.

    A basic package costs about $2,000; luxury-minded pilgrims who want to extend their stays might spend $6,000 or more.

    But the hajj itself is never easy. The heat and dust and crowds can be brutal, Muslims say.

    Pilgrims often sleep in tents for two nights during the hajj, and one night they sleep in open desert with countless fellow pilgrims, many of whom are walking or praying or chanting.

    It can be dangerous, too. More than 200 people were trampled to death last year at Mina, where the “stoning of the devil” takes place.

    But many Muslims hope to go back, if they can; they want to perform the rituals better, see other sites or share the experience with family members. Chaudhry, for instance, wants to take his wife next time.

    “It is a wonderful experience,” he said. “I think the second time you can do things better — not in terms of the ritual, but there were so many places I couldn’t go.”

CONTACT THE WRITER: 636-0367 or

    pasay@gazette.com

RITUALS OF THE HAJJ AND UMRAH

The hajj and umrah are religious obligations for most Muslims. The rituals are as follows: c The tawaf: During the tawaf, traditionally done on arrival in Mecca, pilgrims circle a black shrine in the city, called the Kaaba, seven times. Muslims circle the huge shrine in a counterclockwise motion, reciting prayers as they walk. Iqbal Chaudhry, who performed the hajj last year, said many people recite, in Arabic, “Here I am at your service, oh God. Here I am at your service.” The shrine is said to have been built by Abraham, patriarch of the monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and his son Ishmael, from whom most Middle Eastern people trace their ancestry.

c Walking between Safa and Marwa: This ceremony is done after circling the Kaaba, re-enacting Hagar’s search for water for her son, Ishmael, before God revealed a well to her. Safa and Marwa are two hills. In Islamic tradition, according to Iqbad, the infant Ishmael was left in the valley between them while Hagar searched for water. Today, the strip of land between the hills is enclosed and pilgrims walk and jog on a marble floor. Chaudhry said some run as Hagar did, but often it’s too crowded to do anything but walk. “During hajj, you’re going with the flow,” he said. “It gets very crowded. Basically, people are stacked.” The two ceremonies described above conclude the umrah, or “lesser hajj.” c Mina: On the first day of the official hajj, Chaudhry traveled to the region of Mina and stayed in an airtioned tent. The tents have beds, but only recently were provided with mattresses. “In one tent, probably 60 or 70 people can stay,” he said. “It’s simple living.” c Arafat: A trip to the hill of Arafat takes up the second day. This is the only part of the hajj that deals specifically with the prophet Muhammad; Arafat is where the prophet gave his last sermon, Chaudhry said.

“People go in the morning and stay there all day,” he said.

Islam does not require any specific prayers to be said at Arafat, but most pilgrims spend the day in prayer and contemplation. c Muzdalifah: On the evening of the second day, Chaudhry spent the night in a place called Muzdalifah, where he slept, he said, “in the open.”

“That was the most difficult night for me, because you are out(side), and there’s a lot of dust because people walk about, and there are a lot of transportation busses.”

A stay in Muzdalifah is not a required part of the hajj, but most pilgrims spend the night here. Pilgrims also collect pebbles from the plains there for the last major ritual of the hajj.

c Mina and the stoning of the devil:

This symbolic stoning of temptation traditionally takes place on the third day of the hajj. Pilgrims throw the pebbles they collected at Muzalifah at three pillars near Mina.

The pillars represent Satan. In Islam, God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son, Ishmael. Satan tried to persuade Abraham to ignore God’s command. Abraham threw rocks at the devil to drive him away. When Satan tempted Hagar and Ishmael, they also threw rocks at him.

Muslims must make animal sacrifices to God on this day, commemorating the event. After that, Muslims shave their heads or cut their hair and return to Mecca for another tawaf and pilgrimage between the hills of Safa and Marwa.

According to Chadhry, Muslims spend another two nights in Mina to complete the hajj, throwing stones at the pillars each day they remain in the city.

    SOURCES: Iqbal Chaudhry, Wikipedia.

    org, hajj.al-islam.com


THE ASSOCIATED PRESS - CENTER OF FAITH: Tens of thousands of Muslim pilgrims perform afternoon prayers at the Grand Mosque in Mecca last year. The Kaaba, the black cube in the upper center of the frame, inside the Grand Mosque, is a sacred shrine said to have been built by Abraham more than 4,000 years ago.






JERILEE BENNETT, THE GAZETTE - PILGRIM’S PRIDE: Colorado Springs resident Iqbal Chaudhry made the pilgrimage to Mecca — performing the hajj — last year. A tapestry depicting the Kaaba in the holy city of Mecca hangs in his living room. Non-Muslims aren’t allowed into the holy city.



THE ASSOCIATED PRESS - CASTING OUT EVIL: Muslim pilgrims perform a symbolic stoning of the devil as they throw pebbles at a pillar in Mina, just outside the city of Mecca, during the 2004 hajj.