Every year, millions of Muslims from all over the world gather in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, for the world’s largest gathering of people. They come in a show of humility and unity to perform the fifth pillar of Islam, a pilgrimage called Hajj.
The five pillars of Islam are five basic tenets of faith, and according to Sunni Muslim tradition, they are summarized in the Hadith of Gabriel. Muslims should perform Shahada, which is the declaration of one God; Salat, which is ritual prayer five times a day; Sawm, the fasting and self restraint during the month of Ramadan; Zakat, the giving of money to the poor; and lastly, Hajj. Muslims have performed Hajj every year for the past 14 centuries and while the journey is a challenging one, it remains a dream of spiritual fulfillment for the devote believers.
In 1950, the number of pilgrims was less than 100,000. Today, due to the accessibility and ease of travel, it is more than 2.5 million. The Saudi government has spent nearly $25 billion on expanding facilities for such pilgrims, and must deal with the yearly logistical challenges of controlling large crowds, providing food, sanitation facilities and emergency shelter for the diverse group of travellers.
In early times, pilgrims once travelled by foot or on horseback, sometimes taking months or even years to trek through mountainous terrain and desert. Today, a vast majority come from abroad travelling by plane. Saudi Arabia has been able to accommodate the large migration of travellers through the implementation of strict controls. Travel plans must be made through the Saudi government and an approved travel agent in order to obtain entry, accommodation and transportation in Saudi Arabia during the Hajj season which occurs during the last month of the Islamic calendar every year. This year it was October 13–18.
Stricter penalties have recently been in place for pilgrims without a permit. For example, non-Saudis who perform Hajj without a permit face immediate deportation and a 10-year ban from returning to Saudi Arabia. Non-Muslims are not allowed to travel to the holy cities of Mecca and Madina during this time and strict travel restrictions apply to all pilgrims. While this may seem extremely stringent, these measures are necessary to prevent incidents of mass stampedes and to control the number of pilgrims.
Rose Geransar was one of the millions of Muslims who undertook the journey this year. Geransar was able plow through the challenges of obtaining a proper visa to travel from Calgary to Madina, and her experience was enlightening and fulfilling.
“Our trip started with five days in Madina, and what a stay it was. There will be no other night in my life that will compare to those spent in quiet prayer and contemplation in the empty courtyard of Masjid al-Nabi,” says Geransar. The Masjid al-Nabi, meaning the Prophet’s Mosque, is the historic mosque of the Prophet Muhammad and also the site of his burial. This mosque is surrounded by the Garden of Baqi which is the historic burial place of several of the Prophet’s family members and closest companions. Despite the mosque’s significance to Islamic history, it was destroyed by the Saudi regime in 1925. The Wahabi, under King Ibn Saud, desolated the garden cemetery despite protests by the international Muslim community.
From there, Geransar travelled south to Mecca, a bustling centre of trade and commerce, to begin the pilgrimage. Mecca is scattered with hundreds of shops glittered with gold, a huge intrusive shopping center filled with beautiful merchandise, and tons of hotel boutiques just steps away from the Holy Mosque.
“This is where you learn to keep your goal in mind, strive towards that goal despite materialistic distractions, and persevere until you achieve that goal — no matter what others around you might be doing,” says Geransar of the distractions presented in Mecca.
Her real journey began at the Holy Kaaba in Mecca, and from there they travelled as a communion to Mount Arafat, then to the valley of Mozdalifa, to the camp of Mina, and back to the Kaaba.
Muslims believe the Kaaba was built by the Prophet Abraham and his son Ishmael. While the journey of Hajj is in some ways a re-enactment of Prophet Muhammad’s journey, some Hadiths say the journey dates back to Prophet Abraham and his wife Hagar. Different sites and the activities performed there symbolize the stages of spiritual purification. The purpose of Hajj lies not in the physical movement of the body from one place to another, but rather the spiritual journey of the soul as it overcomes obstacle after obstacle to become closer to its Lord.
“The journey of Hajj is usually completed later in life. Being one of the three youngest adults in our group, I was asked by fellow travellers why I considered going for Hajj at such a young age,” Geransar says. In the end, she says, her age played to her benefit as she was physically, financially and emotionally capable for the journey, and felt that this was the opportune time for her to go.
Geransar found that responsibilities, daily chores and expectations were overwhelming to her in today’s society, and felt that she was forgetting the importance of remembering and connecting with God. Hajj provided the opportunity for her to do that, and it was a journey towards self-discovery through reflection and contemplation.
The word “haram” means “sanctuary,” and Masjid al-Haram, the mosque surrounding the Kaaba, is a sanctuary for the Muslim devotee. It dates from 1570 and takes the form of a quadrangle surrounded by stone walls. It is the holiest site in Islam and has a long history of expansion.
In Sunni Muslim tradition, its location was chosen by God before the creation of the earth, as it is right beneath its equivalent place of worship in heaven, where a multitude of angels worship God every day.
“We entered Mecca after entering the state of Ihram, in which the women dress in long white clothing and the men wear two pieces of white towels,” she says. Ihram is the required cleansing ritual before the pilgrimage.
“In this state, a number of actions become prohibited for the pilgrim, such as looking in a mirror, using fragrance, complaining or cutting nails.” The significance of these rituals, she says, is to put material distractions aside.
“I can describe the peaceful hum of prayers of thousands of people as they circumnavigated the Kaaba,” she says of her initial visit to the Kaaba.
Labayk Allahuma Labayk Labayk. La shareeka laka Labayk. Innal hamda wannimata laka wal mulk. La shareeka Lak, which is translated as Here I am at your service, oh Lord. Here I am. Here I am. No partner do you have. Here I am. Truly, the praise and the favor are yours, and the dominion. No partner do you have.
These are the words chanted by the millions of people as they circle around the centre.
The next part of the journey was physically tiring. The first stop from Mecca is Mount Arafat, a granite hill to the east of the Mecca. Islamic tradition documents that it was on Mount Arafat that Adam and Eve, separated for 200 years following their expulsion from the Garden of Eden, recognized each other and were reunited. On Arafat, Hajj pilgrims spend an entire afternoon in prayer and reflection.
“At sunset, we continued on to Muzdalifa, a valley between Mina and Mount Arafat. The men spent the night in the desert under the open sky, while the woman stopped only briefly, opting to spend the night in Mina instead,” she recounts.
During most Hajj rituals, the circling of the Kaaba for example, men and women are often together, as most travel with their family. In the Baitul Haram, like most mosques around the world, the men and women have separate sections. During travel, such as the journey to Muzdalifa, women can choose alternate paths separate from men if they wish. Women are also expected to dress modestly, which means covering from head to toe. However, men are also expected to dress modestly. Islam dictates that women and men are equal, and a notion of women’s subordination is something that the religion neither endorses nor teaches.
The most controversial part of the journey occurs at Jammarat, the symbolic stone pillars. Numerous pilgrims have died over the years due to overcrowding and the Saudi government’s expenditure to expand the site have been focused on expanding access to this area. According to Islamic tradition, Satan presented himself to prophet Abraham at three different junctures and tried to dissuade him from sacrificing Ishmael, his son. The angel Gabriel came to the prophet and told him to throw seven pebbles at him, causing the devil to disappear. Pilgrims throw pebbles at three stone pillars in Mina. The pebbles can be found at Muzadlifah and carried to the area where the ritual takes place.
“The time at Mina is perhaps the most challenging part of the Hajj journey. Being in hot, crowded tents, with facilities that you are not accustomed to, with many other pilgrims, and the throwing stones directed at Satan is a bit of a challenge for many people,” she says.
The symbolic performance of this part of the pilgrimage is a physical act against selfishness. She states that during this part of the journey a lot of questions and thought came into her mind, reflecting both on herself and the practices of throwing pebbles at the stone pillars.
“The truth is that struggling against your own self, which commands you to be selfish and self-serving, is not an easy task. It takes determination and is usually an incredibly painful process. It takes great perseverance to be successful on the path to spiritual perfection. The symbolic throwing of stones at the devil is supposed to remind you that if you thought that doing the right thing was going to be easy, think again,” she said.
Throughout this journey, the pilgrim faces a list of challenges. A gathering this large — attracting people from all over the world — also brings health and sanitation issues. Saudi Arabia has enforced preventative measures by requiring certain vaccinations before entering the premise to provide the safest possible environment. Sanitation is also emphasized to each and every pilgrim. The servers and workers make efforts to maintain the state of washrooms, clean areas and sanitized facilities. But this is a challenge when you are dealing with millions of people travelling in a highly congested area.
With these challenges, Geransar feels she has learned many valuable lessons, formed life-long friendships and gained insight into her life.
“The friendships formed are lasting not only due to shared happiness, but also to shared difficulties. By observing our group members I realized that patience, rather than youth, was the real source of resilience in the face of those difficulties,” she says.
The purpose of going on Hajj goes beyond the physical aspect of the journey. For Geransar, it was a type of diagnostic test to see whether she had lost herself in the demands of the materialistic world.
“Going for Hajj with the right intention is a reminder to the individual that they are on this earth for a very short period of time and will soon return to their creator. The journey of Hajj therefore addresses the need for spiritual connection and an inner purification of the soul,” she says.
“In the midst of good and bad times, always take a step back and look at the big picture in life. Do not allow the material aspects of life — whether good or bad — to divert you from doing the right thing. Remember that your youth, your wealth, family and friends will not be with you forever, but the impact of your beliefs and actions certainly will, and it will also form your legacy.”