Coming of Age: A Boy's Journey to Hajj

by Muhammad Elmarouk Thu October 30, 2014 | 12:00 AM

I’d been saving up to go on Hajj for the past four years, but I still hadn't really gotten anywhere when it came to collecting a significant amount of cash. I had been praying to God to help me figure out a way to go before I became a really old man.  I was in total shock when I found out that a sponsor had agreed to pay for my Hajj and my parents as well this year; I never expected my dreams to come true so quickly.

My parents and I packed some clothes, a few medicines, and as many unscented hygiene products as possible for the upcoming trip. We also took a couple of pairs of sandals each in case any of ours got lost or stolen outside of the many mosques we were going to visit. In total, we had three suitcases to carry. I felt nervous about the whole adventure—the plane trip, finding our hotels, not getting lost among 4 million pilgrims—and wondered how it was going to all fall into place.

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The next morning, we ran out the door toward San Francisco’s airport. We flew to Los Angeles and then to Turkey before reaching Medina, the city of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). From my window seat on the airplane, I could look down and see the glowing lights of the Masjid al-Nabawi (Mosque of the Prophet). My heart started racing. I was full of excitement.

We arrived in Medina at 2 a.m. The architecture was really interesting; arches and pillars made the airport look like a mosque. I had never seen a terminal like this one before. The air was very warm, and the dry heat after the air-conditioned airplane was a bit of a shock.

We got in a cab to get to our hotel. During the ride, I noticed that the land is very undeveloped. There seemed to be dirt everywhere with a bunch of machines working all the time. Once at the hotel, we took quick showers and then set out for the Masjid al-Nabawi.

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This mosque is truly amazing. I loved looking at the way it was built. The arches, the ornate carpets, the sparkling chandeliers were all beautiful, but we liked to sit in the courtyard where we had a great view of the green dome under which the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) lies. Usually after sitting in the courtyard, we visited the Prophet (pbuh). Standing in front of the screen separating us from his grave, we sent our salutations upon him. In the Muslim tradition, after we greet him, he responds back saying the same thing, "Peace and salutations be upon you as well." This is a huge blessing for us. We believe he is also the best of creation and visiting him will ensure ease and an accepted trip. We went a few times to Jannat ul-Baqi, the ancient cemetery that holds many of the male and female companions of the Prophet (pbuh), and stood there quietly and prayed for them. This grave site dates back to 1,400 years ago and still has the original tombs.

During our time in the mosque, we walked barefoot out of respect. I’m not used to going without shoes, so after five hours, my feet felt like they were broken all over. The mosque’s exterior has pillars that stand tall. Right after dawn, they open up into umbrellas so huge that they seem to block out the entire sky. When I watched them expand for the first time, I was struck with awe.

The following days in Medina became a routine of praying in the mosque, sitting and gazing on the green dome, and going to visit the cemetery—all that, and a lot of walking.

Our bus arrived early on the morning of the third day. Before we left Medina, we showered and changed into two white towels. This way of dressing is meant strictly for men, with one towel wrapped around the lower body and the other resting on the left shoulder. The whole time you are dressed this way, you are not allowed to wear anything under the two garments, not even at night. You also can’t clip your nails or hair, wear any type of scent, get into fights or arguments, or kill any animals, including bugs.

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This state of ihram signifies that we are all equal and we are all humble. No matter how much money you make or what race you are, we all look and feel the same. To enter into this state, you must recite an intention stating that you plan to perform Hajj and fulfill all of its requirements.

On the way to Mecca from Medina, we stopped at a special entry point known as the miqaat (everyone arriving in Mecca has a different miqaat depending on where they are coming from). That’s when we made our intentions and knew that we were now in a state of ihram.

Halfway through the ride, I noticed that Saudi Arabia is pretty much all desert with a few cities dotting the landscape. The bus attendant said that it was usually only a four-hour trip from Medina to Mecca, but because of all of the Hajj traffic, it was 12 hours for us. I tried to catch up on my rest when I wasn’t joining all of the other passengers in chanting:

Labbayk, Allahumma, Labbayk!
La shareeka laka.
Innal-hamda wan-ni’matalaka wal-mulk.
La shareeka lak!

(Here we come, O Allah, here we come!
Here we come!
No partner have You.
Here we come!
Praise indeed and blessings are Yours—the Kingdom too.
No partner have You!)

When we reached the hotel in Mecca, I was surprised and disappointed at all of the garbage everywhere. I saw dumpster cans everywhere too, but the trash was piled around it instead of in it. With 4 million pilgrims visiting Mecca from all over the world, it’s obvious that there will be all sorts of people with all sorts of understandings. But it really saddened my heart to see the environmental state of Muslims which I felt was a reflection of the spiritual state of the ummah (global community). Our Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) taught us to take care of the earth, but people seem to have forgotten his message. I wonder what he would think if he saw the Muslim man I saw who drank from a cup and then carelessly threw it on the ground and stepped on it before walking away. There had been a garbage can right next to him.

The roads to the mosque were jam-packed with cars. What should have taken five minutes by bus ended up taking an hour. We disembarked and went into the Masjid al-Haram (the Sacred Mosque). Islamic tradition tells us that whatever you pray for when you first lay your eyes on the Ka’abah—the black cube building built by the Prophet Abraham and his son Ishmael—will come true. We walked in with our heads lowered because we didn’t want to be caught by surprise. At one point, my father told me to look up and pray. I had been planning to pray, “Please let all of my prayers from now on be accepted,” but I was too overwhelmed to even say anything. I had seen the Ka’abah all my life in pictures only. I knew it was the House of God. I knew it had been built by Abraham thousands of years ago as the first dedicated site of worship. I knew that people had been going around the Ka’abah nonstop for millennia. I knew that 1.6 billion Muslims turned toward it five times a day to say their prayers. All I could think was, “Wow. I’m finally here. This is a miracle.”

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I performed the seven circuits counterclockwise around the Ka’abah with my parents, saying the sacred chants. Some people say that moving counterclockwise is symbolic of racing against time during our life on earth; we are trying to do good deeds as quickly as possible before we die. Each circuit is called a tawaaf and it took about an hour to complete seven of them. The whole time we were moving, we were praying. I recited the line from the second chapter of the Quran:

Rabbana atina fid-dunya hasanatan wa fil 'akhirati hasanatan waqina 'adhaban-nar.

(Our Lord, grant us good in this world and good in the hereafter, and save us from the chastisement of the fire.)

We then made our way over to the two hills of Safa and Marwah. These are the hills between which Abraham’s wife, Hagar, ran when she was looking for water for her baby Ishmael. You can only see a bit of the rocks from the hills now, since most of it has been tiled over or is protected by glass gates.

Running between the hills seven times is known as sayee, and it took us about an hour to perform this tradition. We recited prayers as we walked and jogged. The amount of people was unbelievable. Seeing the variety of races and ethnicities reminded me of “It’s a Small World” at Disneyland, except this was real life. The amount of different cultures and languages all in one place is simply mind-blowing. I was also surprised to see old and disabled people trooping their way through such physical exercises. Watching them made me realize how blessed I was to be doing the Hajj at such a young age when I am still strong and capable.

In Mecca, we stayed in an apartment complex. Our room was small, with five beds. We spent our days either resting or visiting the mosque and praying. On the third day, we took the bus to Minna, which is filled with millions of white tents packed tightly next to each other. When we got to our tents, I noticed that we were next to many other countries’ tents. Every nationality had its own tent, but there was only one bathroom to cater to more than 200 people. The lines were insane. I spent the rest of the day trying to sleep on a mattress that was just absorbing heat—it felt as though the sun’s rays were coming in through the tent walls.

The next day we took the bus to Arafat. This day is considered the most important one of the Hajj. Arafat is the plain where we are told Adam and Eve were reunited on earth. It is also where Abraham almost sacrificed his son Ishmael. Our Prophet (pbuh) told us that all of humanity will be gathered on the plains of Arafat on the Day of Judgment. Prayers recited on the Day of Arafat are the most important. I was rejuvenated, ready to ask God for as much as possible. The scorching sun beat down on me and after a while, I started to feel drowsy. The tradition is to stand under the open sky for as long as possible but after two hours, I had to retreat into my tent. You are supposed to resist the temptation to nap or chitchat on this most special day. Hajj is not complete unless you spend the day in prayer at Arafat. I tried to focus as much as possible. After dinner, the bus came to take us to Muzdalifah.


Photo by Fadi El Binni via Al Jazeera English Creative Commons

My father and I collected 49 pebbles in Muzdalifah. Those pebbles are used for the symbolic pelting of the devil the next day. It really amazes me that there are 4 million people on the Hajj and they are all picking 49 pebbles in a small area, yet there are always pebbles to be found. Some people say that’s a miracle. We spent the night on this big plain of dirt, sleeping on mats that we had been given. People kept stepping over us, making it hard to fall asleep, but I still felt cozy for some reason. Before my eyes closed for the night, I thought: Muzdalifah looks like a sea of white towels.

We woke up around 3 a.m. My ihram (two white garments) was dirty and my nose was killing me from all the dust. We took off with a few friends and walked four miles to the Jamarat, the building that holds the three symbolic devils. (When Abraham was walking in this same area with his son Ishmael to perform the sacrifice God had ordered, the devil appeared to him three times in order to dissuade him.) This trek was done at a slow pace, and I was exhausted. My sandals were killing me. At the tents closest to the Jamarat, we were able to rest and get some food. The Jamarat was a mere five minutes away, but the amount of people flowing in and out made it very tiresome and slow-going. When we reached the area, we threw our seven stones at the first Satan, represented by a big wall. We may have been pelting stones at the exact spot where the devil appeared to Abraham, but we were actually pelting stones at our inner Satan, asking God to help us get rid of whatever evil tendencies we each have inside of us. After that ritual, all of the males got their heads shaved. Having my head shaved felt really weird and looked even weirder.

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We returned to Mecca and did the Tawaf al Ifada. This is the second set of seven circuits (one more set to go!) around the Ka’abah. It was super crowded on the main floor, and every five seconds, I would get split up from my parents. We decided to go up to the second level which was less crowded but took much, much longer. I was dead tired. I felt dirty. I was hot and sweaty. I was surrounded by people and it was hard to move. I felt foggy-brained. I could barely hear anyone. I couldn’t articulate my thoughts. I was fed up muscling my way through everything. I just wanted to rest. I started to cry. I separated myself from my parents and tried to collect my thoughts and get some fresh air (impossible in that crowded environment). As tears streamed down my cheeks, random strangers stopped to console me. They squeezed my shoulders and patted my back, telling me not to cry and that everything was okay. I wanted to tell them to stop, to leave me alone. I just needed some space. After a while, my parents called me back and consoled me, and together we persevered to complete our Hajj.

The next few days, we stayed in the tent city of Minna, returned to the Jamarat to throw 21 stones on the second day and another 21 on the third day (seven for each devil), and rested. A few days before leaving, we did our Tawaaf al-Widah (the Farewell Tawaaf), basically saying goodbye to the Ka’abah. It was a bittersweet moment and I wondered when I would ever get to see it again.

The Hajj was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. It was also the most rewarding. I feel more grown-up now. I learned a lot from it: How to deal with people, how to be patient, how to persevere through fears and frustrations, how to be calm, how to enjoy the moment, how to call on Allah. I’m glad I don’t have to do it again because it’s not something that’s easy to do more than once.

I get to add the title “Haji” to my name now that I have completed the last pillar of Islam. I think I’ve earned that title, and I only hope that my Hajj was accepted by Allah and that He forgives me for any mistakes that I made while I was on it.

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Images by Muhammad Elmarouk (unless otherwise noted)

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