Hajj 2008/1429: Standing alone among millions

A piece of heaven

The anticipation was nearly overwhelming. The trip had been exhausting, the waits in various airport terminals long, the chaos of the throngs of pilgrims diffuse. Finally, however, we boarded our buses and headed for the city in which our Prophet (peace be upon him) was born and where the Message began.

The road to Mecca was tan, dusty, and desert through and through. I could not help but be overcome with fatigue and sleep, despite my discomfort for being so “naked” in my ihram [the loose white garment worn by all male pilgrims]. Yet, what kept me going was the knowledge that, soon, I was to come face to face with God’s House that Abraham (pbuh) built. Soon, Mecca approached, and I was simultaneously surprised and disappointed. Mecca looked like any other ancient Middle Eastern city, with its packed shops, small, dusty streets, and narrow alleyways. Somehow, I expected the city of the Prophet’s birth to be impeccably maintained and sparkling throughout. How else should his city be treated?

My disappointment, however, melted away as soon as I saw it. It played “hide and seek” with me: with each turn of the bus, I would catch a glimpse of the majestic white marble of its walls that would disappear. But, we did not go to the Grand Mosque right away: we had to go to our hotel and get our room keys and deposit our luggage. As soon as I got my key, I dropped my bags and almost ran to the mosque, my wife in hand.

My breath was taken away as I approached the mosque that housed the House of God. Its tall, beautifully ornamented walls and shining marble floors seemed to be a piece of Heaven placed in the midst of this dusty city. It almost had a glow all of its own, independent of the hot, daytime sun that beamed down upon us. I entered into the gate and saw it rise before me: the brick cube covered with a black shroud with gold scripture, the Ka’abah, the House of God that Abraham built. I could barely speak and tears streamed down my face as I finally beheld the structure toward which I had prayed five times a day, every single day, ever since I was nine years old. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, and its image was burned in my consciousness for all time.

As I entered into its sacred domain and performed the tawwaf [circumnavigation], I could not help but be humbled. It was something that I needed. Being a physician, I am surrounded by people who think the world of me and claim that their lives are in my hands. It is something that can easily go to my head, as it has done for countless physicians across the globe. I continually try to resist this temptation, and being at the Ka’abah reminded me that I am nothing, and He is everything. Being in His presence, I had no illusion of being on the same plane with Him. He was Master, I was servant.

Yet, as I continued to walk around His cube, praying and talking to Him, that feeling of being overpowered went away and was replaced by a comforting feeling of friendship and closeness that has stayed with me ever since. I came into His house a fearful, groveling servant and left it a smiling, comforted friend. I knocked upon His door, and He answered me with open arms.

We finished our ‘umrah [the lesser pilgrimage which precedes the Hajj rites] and stayed in Mecca a while before going to Medina to visit the Prophet (pbuh). We came back just as the Hajj rituals were about to begin on the 8th of Dhull Hijjah. We spent the night in Mina and then proceeded to the most important moment in all of the Hajj: standing on the plain of Arafah.

Our accommodations were comfortable enough: a large, carpeted steel structure that was air-conditioned. We had plenty of food and drink, and we spent much of the day in quiet reflection and worship. Yet, when it came time for Asr prayer, the meaning of what I was doing came crashing down. At this moment, I was standing alone before my Lord with nothing but my sins and disobedience to show for myself.

Ever since I was born, He has blessed me with life, breath, sight, sound, touch, and strength. He gave me life when I was dead, in an act of ultimate love and benevolence. He has given me everything good and pure in my life, and He has blessed me with the means and ability to make this trip to Him and shout, “Here I am, O Lord, at Your service.” And when I finally came before Him and said, “Here I am,” all I could muster to bring back to Him were my sins.

I burst in quiet sobs as I bowed in prostration begging His pardon. The more I reflected over His grace and my insolence, the more I sobbed; the more ashamed I became; the more pathetic I felt. I did not know what to say to Him, and so all I could do was sob. Yet, you know what He did? He put His hand on my head and told me, “It’s all right…you are forgiven.” And as the sun set, like my Prophet (pbuh) told me, I was born anew, sinless once more.

The Hajj was the most powerful experience I have ever had, and its sights, sounds, and smells are as fresh today as they were nearly six years ago when I performed the once-in-a-lifetime trek to Mecca. Even though I am thousands upon thousands of miles away, I am called home by His house and the sacred precincts. When others are blessed to go on their trips of a lifetime, I am filled with unspeakable joy, because I know they will get to experience this beauty like I did.

And though I am not performing the Hajj this year, I happily fast on the Day of Arafah, the 9th of Dhul Hijjah, in solidarity with my fellow brothers and sisters who are standing before God on the plain of Arafah and going through their own confessions thousands of miles away. Even though it is hard for me to fast when it is not Ramadan (my coffee dependence is just too strong), on this day it is a welcome sacrifice because it reminds me of the day that I did the same thing. The anguish and sobs were a drastically needed cathartic, and afterwards I felt free and refreshed, relieved of the burden of sin and estrangement that is an inevitable part of the human condition.

Although the effects of the Hajj have faded over the last six years, and my hair has long since grown ever since I shaved it, the memories of the Hajj will always live on. And I am grateful for the fast of Arafah to remind me, each and every year, of how beautiful it was to stand, with humility, before God.

Hesham A. Hassaballa is a Chicago physician and writer. He is the co-author of “The Beliefnet Guide to Islam,” published by Doubleday in 2006. His blog is at godfaithpen.com.


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