We stopped briefly in Makkah in order to circumambulate the Ka`bah one more time (Tawaf Al-Qudum), this time under the scorching sun.
Just like many other pilgrims, I tried to protect myself with an umbrella, but this proved utterly impossible lest you risk gouging out someone’s eye, or losing your own.
In the yard of the huge mosque, on the level of the Ka`bah, everything became completely grid-locked, so I escaped up to the first storey of the shaded gallery. In return I had to put up with a wider radius.
Circling the Ka`bah seven times up there meant covering a distance of 3.5 miles, and that in 110ºF heat. If his focus is right, to a pilgrim everything comes easy. Someone who was walking by my side even covered the entire distance with his little son on his shoulders!
The view from the first storey was absolutely mesmerizing and of striking aesthetic power. The Ka`bah appears like the motionless center of a giant disc in a slow and silent counter clockwise revolution.
The scene changes only at prayer times: At this point, the Ka`bah becomes the center of concentric circles made up of 40,000 or more shining white bodies who want the same, seek the same, do the same – and thus comes to symbolize total submission on a global scale. Multi-storeyed structures circumscribe the inner court of the mosque, with the Ka`bah at dead center.
Everything is dominated by sumptuous, sometimes green marble. Seven gigantic minarets in Indo-Islamic style are the connecting elements that hold the Ka`bah in its setting like a precious gem. I had to tear myself away – or miss the bus altogether.
After 45 minutes on the bus we finally arrived in the valley of Mina, which is only a little more than 3 miles from Makkah. Mina was going to be our jumping-off point for the Day of `Arafah. And what lets us know what the Day of `Arafah is all about?
“Hajj is `Arafah”, so says the Prophet, and `Arafah is Hajj. There are only a few parallel roadways connecting Mina or Makkah to `Arafah, and more than two million pilgrims are transported over a distance of about 6 to 10 miles on as many as 50,000 buses. They both cause and suffer a truly awesome, unprecedented traffic chaos that could easily qualify for the Guinness Book of Records.
When we finally arrived in the tent city erected around the Mount of `Arafah, the air was glimmering with heat – 120ºF in the shade, which makes it considerably more than 130ºF in the sun! And not a whiff of a breeze in the air.
The neighboring tent belonged to none other than Sheikh Mahfoud Nahnah from Algiers. It became a long and wonderful day of contemplation, reflection, of prayers, and invaluable conversations. Never since my boyhood days, during Jesuit retreat exercises had I possessed this inner certainty of a clear spiritual focus on God.
The Best Day of the Year
The Day of `Arafah is nothing but dialogue with Him. Such is the embodiment of our constant cry: “Here I stand before you, our God!” – Labbayka, Allahuma, labbayk! This, therefore, is the meaning of “tarrying” (wuquf) before God on the plane of `Arafah.
Millions of people, wrapped in burial shrouds, leave everything behind on this day, exist only for God, embrace their mortality, and go on pleading and praying with a degree of fervor and confidence never achieved before – and hardly ever after.
It is the custom to stay in `Arafah until just after sunset, only to hurry off down the 4.5 mile stretch toward Muzdalifah. There was such a rush and confusion that the professor and I had lost our bus. Wandering around among hundreds of buses, we were looking for seats.
Suddenly, I noticed somebody waving me to approach him. It was a friend of mine, Muhammad Azmani, Morocco’s Minister of Industry and Trade. To run into him, in a crowd of two million people! That is how, at a time of crisis, I became a temporary, unofficial member of the official Moroccan Hajj delegation. First this tremendous rush, and now we found ourselves sitting on the stranded bus for a total of three hours, drenched in sweat, before it was able to crawl forward for all but three yards.
As usual, all the pilgrims must try to get to the same place at the same time. The traffic police attempted to intervene, but only succeeded in worsening the chaos. A few pilgrims were trying to take the direct route on foot, across the dark volcanic mountains, their forms contrasting off of the black rocks like lost and lonely white ghosts. Caught in stop and go traffic, we did not reach Muzdalifah – close but yet so far – until 11pm.
Led by an imam from Rabat, we were holding our evening and night prayers together, our sore knees resting on just those tiny but sharp pieces of gravel, the size of chick peas, from which we were to pick up 49 pebbles in order to be appropriately supplied for the rites of stoning (rajm), that were to take place on the following days. At about two o’clock in the morning our bus returned to Mina and stopped near one of the three pillars that were to be stoned.
The intention was to symbolize the final rejection of evil in oneself and also in the world around us. I pushed my way in close enough to hit the pillar with my pebbles, yet also maintained a safe distance to avoid getting caught in a hail of stones from behind. A group of little boys armed with scissors waited in front of our bus. Didn’t I say so?
Since we did not opt for shaving our heads, they at least wanted to cut off a lock for the sum of three riyals, as finally happened. After that, having fulfilled all our Hajj obligations, we could have left the status of ihram and with it stopped wearing our pilgrim’s attire. Instead, we found ourselves so elated that we were swept along in a kind of pious rapture. So before dawn we decided to hurry on to Makkah.
Now we had to walk around the Ka`bah another time, this time in the cover of night (Tawaf Al-Ifadah). At least 200,000 other pilgrims seemed, however, to have had the same brilliant idea and unaccountable energy reserves. Thus the pushing and shoving was even worse than last time.
As a result, the seven-fold circumambulation of “The House”, followed by the jogging and walking back and forth between al Safa and al Marwah, also for seven times, altogether took me a total of two exhausting hours.
It was 4:30 in the morning on the Day of Sacrifice, the 10th day of the month of pilgrimage, and we had to muster our last ounce of strength and composure in order to join 800,000 other believers for the Morning Prayer in the Great Mosque of Makkah, almost in a trance.
The quality of their voices, together with the perfection of their recitation distinguish the muezzins and the imams in the Haram of Makkah as the “crème de la crème”. Their chanting builds into a magnificent incantation of sublime artistic quality. In fact, their recitation of the Qur’an reaches the level of acoustic meditation. Shortly after six am, we had finally made it back to our guest house in Mina.
Homesick for Makkah
After being up and about for 26 hours, we felt emotionally and physically drained. My fellow pilgrims and I embraced each other, exclaiming “Hajj Mubarak! Hajj Maqbul!” (May your hajj be blessed and accepted).
Sheikh Nahnah was sobbing, delighted with my new status. On the third (and last) day, I went right after the Morning Prayer and all by myself, to discharge my duty of ritual stoning, for myself as well as my neighbor. In the streets, the first pilgrims were just beginning to rise from their makeshift beds. Even some street vendors were already up and about.
Combining Hajj with commerce has always been permissible. Many pilgrims are earning their trip back home by selling off whatever they brought from their native countries: ivory trinkets, silver jewelry, or fabrics. An Anatolian farmer crossed my path and asked rather casually: “Seytan nerede?” (Where is the devil?), as if he expected everybody to know this and speak Turkish to boot.
With a deadpan face I gave the correct directions – in Turkish – for him to find the pillar scheduled for stoning that day. Never before had I been able to locate the devil with such a degree of precision.
I decided to sit on the gallery for quite some time, eagerly soaking up the view of this incredibly beautiful mosque so that it would stay with me for a long time. I felt homesick for Makkah even before having left.
The article is an excerpt from the author’s book “Journey to Makkah”.