I just returned from the most amazing trip in my life, it was two weeks with my wife in Saudi Arabia to perform the Hajj (Pilgrimage). Many of my American friends asked me about the trip and what it entailed, this blog posting tries to summarize that.
First, the Hajj is the fifth and final pillar of Islam, the other four being: (1) Conviction that there is only one God, and that Mohammed is his prophet, (2) Five daily prayers (to continuously remember God), (3) Fasting the month of Ramadan (to show obedience to God, but also to remember the less fortunate), and (4) Giving out charity to the poor and needy (about 2.5% of your wealth every year).
Hajj is only required once of Muslims who can afford it both in terms of wealth and health (it is a very tiring and expensive trip). In many ways, the Hajj is like confession, once you perform Hajj all of your sins are erased and you start with a new slate. But Hajj is also a time when God is most likely to answer your prayers, and hence we also ask God for things we want, in addition to asking for forgiveness (Cloudera got many prayers during this trip 🙂 ).
The Hajj takes about five days, and it goes as follows:
- You dress in just two white towels, one that covers your upper half, and one that covers your lower half (and that’s it, no underwear 🙂 ). The idea is twofold: (1) rid yourself of worldly belongings so you can focus on just your worship, and (2) eliminate difference between rich and poor. However, women get to wear normal clothes. There is also a long list of dos and donts once you wear the Hajj costume and declare your intention to perform Hajj (e.g. you are not allowed to kill insects, fight with others, remove hair, clip your nails, get angry, or make love).
Photo 1: I and Shirin during Hajj, I was only wearing two towels 🙂
- Next you go to Mecca, and walk seven laps around the Kabaa, the holiest site in Islam (Men uncover their right shoulder and jog during the first three laps). The Kabaa was originally built by Adam, then later reconstructed by prophet Ibrahim (Abraham). The Kabaa is considered to be linked to the house of God in the heavens.
Photo 2: I took this photo from the roof, the place was packed even though it was 4am in the morning!
- Beside the Kabaa there is the “station of prophet Ibrahim” which has a rock with the feet of prophet Ibrahim engraved in it. After finishing the seven laps around the Kabaa (aka Tawaf), you pray behind the station of prophet Ibrahim, then you drink Zamzam water (holy water), and make prayers for long health (or any thing else you want).
Photo 3: In the station of prophet Ibrahim there is a stone with traces of his feet from the time he reconstructed the Kaaba.
- Next you do seven trips between the Safaa and Marwa, these are the two mounts that Hajar (Hagar) ran between after prophet Ibrahim, her husband, left her there alone with her newborn, Ismael (Ishmael). Hajar made seven trips between those two mounts while seeking water mirages to try and quench her newborn’s thirst. After her last trip God surprised her by opening the Zamzam well right between Ismael’s baby feet. Every year during Hajj more than two million Muslims imitate what this faithful mother did thousands of years ago. We also get to drink Zamzam water, which is considered to be holy water (it does taste very special due to the minerals in that well).
Photo 4: The Safa and Marwa area is now air conditioned and has three levels with escalators between them. It was interesting to see some folks scared of the escalators since it was their first time to see one!
- The next step is to stay from noon till sunset making prayer at the valley of mount Arafaat (aka mount Mercy). You confess your sins (directly to God), repent, and ask for forgiveness. You also make prayers asking for whatever you wish, e.g. cure from a disease, happy family, children, success, wealth, paradise, etc. There are no authentic stories for why mount Arafaat is so special, some unconfirmed stories are that this is where Adam and Eve found each other after they were banished to Earth, another tells that this is the mountain from which prophet Ibrahim preached the oneness of God. At the end of the day of Arafaat God forgives you and you become as sinless as the day your mother gave birth to you (assuming you were sincere in repenting and asking for forgiveness).
Photo 5: Praying at mount Arafaat (Mt Mercy) and surrounding valley (Photo by Faisal Mirza, who was in our group)
- After you are done at Arafaat you head to a place called Muzdalifa, there you collect seven pebbles for stoning the large Jamara (devil symbol), you also perform the night prayer there. We witnessed the worst traffic jam ever during our trip from Arafaat to Muzdalifa, the reason being two million pilgrims all wanting to travel those six miles at the same time (the bus took six hours to travel six miles!)
- The next step is to go to Minna, the city with the devil symbols, there you pelt the largest of the devil symbols with the seven pebbles you collected from Muzdalifa. The historic story behind pelting the devil comes from Satan being furious that prophet Ibrahim had total belief in God and was willing to sacrifice his own son to prove that. Satan tried to sway prophet Ibrahim away from obeying God’s orders, but prophet Ibrahim did not listen and started throwing stones at the devil.
Photo 6: Rows and rows of tents are erected in Minna just for the Hajj week, then all of them are removed after it is done.
- After the stoning comes the sacrifice, and this is where you donate a large sheep to poor people, this is a holiday for Muslims, it is called Eid Al-Adha, or Feast of Sacrifice (it is analogous to Thanksgiving in the US, with Sheep instead of Turkey). In the old days the sacrifice had to be done inside Mecca, but with two million Muslims making Hajj these days it does not make sense for all the sacrifices to be made in Mecca. So what the Saudi government does is collect money for the sacrifice and distribute that across the world (the money still has to be used to provide a sheep sacrifice). The story of the sacrifice comes from God ordering prophet Ibrahim to sacrifice his son Ismael. After prophet Ibrahim put his son down and tried to slice his neck, God sent a sheep to prophet Ibrahim since he passed the test and asked him to slaughter the sheep instead.
- Now, if you are a man then you shave one inch of your head hair (which means shaving all of your hair if you got short hair), and if you are a woman then you just cut off a lock of hair from the end. Once you have done that then you can take off the towels and put on normal clothes, but the Hajj is not over yet.
Photo 7: Look ma, no hair 🙂 In this photo I am standing in front of the devil symbol (it is the large wall in the background).
- For next two, or three days, you throw more pebbles at the devil symbols. You throw seven at each of them (the small, medium, and large symbols), so twenty one on each day.
- Next, you go back go Mecca and perform another set of seven laps followed by a prayer behind the station of prophet Ibrahim (no walking between Safa and Marwa, just seven laps around the Kabaa), this is called tawaf al-ifadah and it completes the Hajj
- Finally, before leaving Mecca, i.e. on day of your departure, you do another set of seven laps, essentially saying farewell to the holiest site in Islam. This was the most crowded day, as all pilgrims finished the other actions and descended on the Kaaba to make the farewell laps. I was simply awe struck to see all these people from all corners of the earth united with the same purpose. To put things in perspective, the largest events at the Beijing 2008 Olympics only had 100,000 people.
Photo 8: This photo is from a set of really nice Hajj photos at Boston.com’s “The Big Picture” blog. The Kabaa is the black dot in the middle of the structure with lots of pilgrims around it, the Safa and Marwa mounts are at opposing ends of the stretch covered with blue on the left (they are building another floor, hence the cover). The super huge hotel behind the haram mosque is called “Grand Zamzam”, I was staying at the hotel to the right of it, which is called “Makkah Hilton Towers”.
Before performing Hajj in Mecca, we also got to visit Madina, home of the Masjid Nabawy (Prophet’s Mosque), the second holiest site in Islam (the first being the Kaaba, and the third being the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem). Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) is buried inside this mosque. We also visited a number of interesting sites in Madina, like areas of famous early Islamic battles and the graveyards associated with them.
Both Mecca and Madina reminded me of Las Vegas in a weird way: they are in the middle of the desert and the downtown of the city is comprised of super large hotels, however, instead of gambling, drinking, and nudity there is prayer, charity, and fasting 🙂
Photo 9: The Prophet’s mosque is on the left side of this photo, on the right side there is hotel after hotel after hotel, all with mega shopping malls inside them.
In conclusion, performing this pilgrimage is something that I will never forget, and it was double rewarding to experience all this with my wife by my side while the kids stayed back at home under my mom’s care 🙂 (thanks mom).
Salam (aka Peace),
PS: It is customary to put (pbuh) after the name of prophet Mohammed, it means “Peace Be Upon Him”. If you are curious to learn more about prophet Mohammed, then I highly recommend “The Sealed Nectar“, which is a biography available at Amazon.com and many other places.