An American Journalist on the Hajj (Part-3)

Presented hereunder is the concluding part of the American journalist, Michael Jansen’s personal account of her first Hajj experience. The first and second installments of this serial feature were published in the October and November 2013 issues of Young Muslim Digest respectively.

 

A

t dawn, cannon announced the morning prayer. In the chill mist that blanketed the plain, I began to walk from Muzdalifah to the pillars at Mina. In order to keep their little groups together, some hajjis had raised distinctive standards on long poles: teapots and paper bags, rags and plastic bottles, posters and flags were solemnly held aloft. The problem of losing hajjis was solved by the mutawwifs in various ways. Some gave their charges little cards with their addresses at Mina which a lost hajji could present to the nearest Boy Scout or policeman so he could be sent to the correct tent. Desert tribesmen traveled in tight little rings, women and children on the inside, men forming an elastic outer circle. But it was the Iranians who had devised the most ingenious way of keeping track of their ladies, they simply stitched their addresses onto the back of the billowing white cloaks in which the women enveloped themselves from top to toe. Nearing Mina we met two smiling men carrying a cleaned and dressed lamb in a basket between them. They had completed the Sacrifice and were on their way home to roast the Adha lamb. “Hajj Mabrur!”— “May your Hajj be acceptable to God!”— passersby called in greeting. As we met more and more people carrying meat from the Sacrifice, I began to feel uneasy. Since I have not completely outgrown the tenderheartedness I had known as a child, I had balked at the idea of the Sacrifice long before being confronted with it—and now the time had come to do it. What was I to do? As a girl I had cared for lost dogs or stray cats, adopting any fledgling that had fallen from its nest, splinting a bird’s broken leg with a matchstick and feeding injured butterflies on sugar syrup. But a companion had been adamant. “You must do the Sacrifice. There is no question of your not being able to afford it.” Yet, I now felt even more oppressed because my sense of kinship with animals had been revived by a renewed respect for all life generated by the prohibition against harming undomesticated plants or animals while wearing the Ihram.

Back at our building at Mina, I turned to the Qur’an. I found that the Sacrifice has many meanings: it commemorates Abraham’s offering of his son’s life and God’s rejection of this sacrifice in exchange for Abraham’s submission to God’s will; it marks the end of idolatry among the Arabs; it is an offering of thanksgiving to the God of Creation, Who has been so benevolent to mankind; and it teaches the well-to-do to share their blessings, to “eat thereof (the Sacrifice) and feed the beggar and suppliant” (the Qur’an, Sura XXII, verse 36).

As I pondered what I had read, a great weight was lifted from my conscience. I suddenly saw that the Sacrifice upholds the sacredness of life, that it, in fact, constitutes a pledge by the pilgrim that he will slay for sustenance only. And where I had felt reluctance before, I now felt eagerness to fulfill all the requirements of my Pilgrimage. But before the Sacrifice there was the Stoning.

Because I was well ahead of the mass of pilgrims coming from Muzdalifah, I was able to approach the Jamrah quite easily. I took careful aim and cast the first seven pebbles home: one… two… three. They flew in shallow arcs… tic… tic… tic, as they hit the pillar. I felt complete solidarity with the people all round, both great and humble; people who were at that moment striking out at their weaknesses, their misdeeds against God and one another… tac… tac… tac against the pillar. The earnestness with which the majority of the pilgrims—peasants and villagers of Africa and Asia—approached the Jamrah shamed the more worldly of us who, feeling foolish, initially hesitated on the edges of the crowd. But with each stone, I felt more strongly the link between past and present, between the Patriarch Abraham and this vast assemblage: the millennia dissolved and the good intentions and resolutions of all the pilgrims who had cast their stones over the ages were fused into the collective Muslim will to follow ‘the Right Path.’

As it was now time for the Sacrifice, I explained to my companion that I would perform it only if I could arrange to have the animal cooked, eat a part of the meat and give the remainder to someone who was less fortunate than I. (Some hajjis follow this procedure, but most leave the carcass with the attendants at the Place of Sacrifice for distribution among the poor.) We proceeded, therefore, to the Place of Sacrifice, purchased a sheep from one of the Bedouin shepherds who were selling their flocks, sacrificed it and took it, cleaned and ready for cooking, to the proprietor of a shop where a charming rascal called Hajj Muhammad Atiq had agreed to cook it for me. While the meat cooked, I crossed the street to a shop that sold kitchen utensils to buy an aluminum pot, for Hajj Muhammad had flatly refused to allow us to tie up any of his crockery with the meat we planned to distribute. I had just handed the washed pot to Hajj Muhammad when a young French-speaking hajji in street clothes—indicating that he had made the Sacrifice and doffed his Ihram —sprang out of a car which had stopped outside. Presenting me with an unopened bottle of Evian mineral water, he commanded, “Have a drink!” with officious good will and waited until I had done so. “We are leaving,” he announced and threw himself back into the car, well pleased with his demonstration of brotherhood and charity.

An old man, obviously without means, drifted by clutching a loaf of bread from the bakery next door and asked Hajj Muhammad timidly the price of the meat. But it was too costly and he turned to go. My companion leapt up and offered him some of our meat as it lay simmering in the dish. Shakily, the old man held out a nylon bag while Hajj Muhammad spooned in pieces from the pan. “Go in peace,” the old man said as he ambled away.

After eating our fill, we left the shop of Hajj Muhammad in search of a recipient for the rest of the Sacrifice. As we thrust through the crowd in the street, a thin dark hand reached up from the pavement and plucked at my sleeve: “Some bread please, some bread.” And we gave the lot to this crippled man, sitting on a mat with his crutches beside him.

Meanwhile, the story of how I had consulted the Qur’an and then strictly followed God’s command to “feed the beggar and suppliant” had reached my Pakistani roommates and brought about a change in their attitude towards me as a stranger. My adherence to the letter of the law had generated considerable respect, where before their attitude had been wary circumspection. From that time on, I was accepted as one of them; they warmly drew me into their circle. In the golden light of the afternoon which flooded our room, one of the women carefully snipped off a lock of my hair to mark the completion of the key rituals.

After packing some clean clothing into a bag, I caught a bus to Mecca to perform the Tawaf and Sa’y of the Pilgrimage. The ride gave me a moment to reflect on what had happened to me since I had left Mecca two days earlier. Before I had embarked on the Pilgrimage, its rituals seemed to me just so many curious exercises. But as I participated in the events of the Pilgrimage, the meaning of these rites unfolded, my understanding of Islam was deepened and I learned more fully what it meant to be a Muslim. Indeed, this is why God had commanded Muhammad to issue the call for the Pilgrimage:

“That they (the pilgrims) may witness things that are of benefit to them . . .” (The Qur’an, Surah XXII, verse 28).

Back at the Mecca Hotel, the time had come to doff the Ihram, shower and put on fresh clothing for the Tawaf:

“… Let them make an end of their unkemptness and pay their vows and go round the Ancient House” (The Qur’an, Surah XXII, verse 29).

The courtyard was not as crowded as it had been when we performed the ‘Umrah. After engaging a mutawwif, I began the circuits, graceful gray and white pigeons fluttering overhead. From the minarets above us, the call to prayer pierced the silence of the Sacred Mosque and my guide led us to the edge of the oval floor where we prepared for the congregational devotions of the evening Salah. In the radiant evening, the throng stood and knelt in unison round the House built by Abraham to proclaim the oneness of God and the unity of mankind. At that moment I understood why Muslims turn toward this great black cube in prayer.

Back in Mina, I called on a man recommended to me by a friend, a man learned in the ways of religion, whose face simply radiates his inner peace and goodness. “When you come here,” he said, “you are calling on God, you are entering His House. The Talbiyah is your application for admittance to His House, a request for an appointment with Him. And that you were able to make the Pilgrimage at all is a sign of God’s willingness to accept you. It is a very great blessing for you, for all of us.”

As for the rest, it ended swiftly. I returned to Mina one more time—to find my Pakistani ladies shopping and visiting happily—took part in the final stoning of the pillars and stood entranced as the final cannon thundered and a deafening shout of joy rose up from the multitude all round: “God is Most Great!” I then returned to Mecca to make a final Tawaf around the Ka’bah. I joined in the prayers of a passing group, mixing their devotions with my own. I drank some water from the Well of Zamzam and then sat in solitude in the colonnade. Finally, I walked round for a last look at the marvelous silver door of the Ka’bah and bade the Ancient House farewell. Driving to Jiddah along the open highway, I began to see the outside world with the eyes of one who has stood at ‘Arafat.