An American Journalist on the Hajj (Part 2)

Presented hereunder is the second installment of the American journalist, Michael Jansen’s personal account of her first Hajj experience. The first part was published in the October 2013 issue of Young Muslim Digest.



ith new understanding in our hearts, we streamed into the little desert town of Mina, where Muhammad and his Companions spent the night on their way to ‘Arafat. Following in his footsteps we halted at Mina, set in a steep-sided wadi, barren and brown, only three quarters of a mile across on the Mecca side, but widening into the plain of Muzdalifah. At the narrow end of the wadi stand the three stone pillars, the Jamarat, which represent the three attempts made by Satan to prevent Abraham from sacrificing his son. As the wadi broadens, there are streets of pastel-painted buildings, three to four stories high, in which pilgrims are housed. At the edge of the built-up area are the Mina field hospital, the public bathhouse, blocks housing the Hajj Administration and the vast tent city, sprawling as far as you can see, filling the wadi, creeping up its rugged sides and spilling forth upon Muzdalifah.

In the building in which I stayed, I found that I had six Pakistani women and seven children as roommates. As their blankets and mattresses were already spread out and their baggage stowed, I could just find a slice of floor large enough for the narrow foam-rubber mattress I had bought in the Jiddah suq. It was a clean, cool and pleasant room, with gaily striped rugs on the floor and a propeller fan for ventilation. I have no idea how old our hostel was—or how long hajjis have been settling into similar buildings—but I do know that there were such khans at Mina when the Swiss traveler, Burckhardt, performed the Hajj in 1814.

I immediately set out to explore Mina and found it fascinating. Stalls selling iced drinks, cloth, ready-made clothing, toys and strings of beads lined the streets. There were goods from the world over: watches from Japan, bananas from Guatemala, apples from Lebanon, citrus fruits from Jordan, bolts of cloth from Hong Kong and India, dresses and shirts from Africa, chocolates from Switzerland, sandals from China, an accumulation of goods as heterogeneous in origin as the pilgrims themselves.

In the afternoon, I also explored the tent city where most of the pilgrims live—and found that it was a city in every sense of the word, with broad avenues and narrow streets, sanitation facilities and running water. Along the highway, I saw free dispensaries, first-aid tents, a small Swiss plane spraying the area against fleas and flies, and some helicopters hovering overhead to help ambulance teams find pilgrims in need of medical attention. The tents were of all shapes and sizes, and for many purposes. There were striped tents and flowered tents and multi-colored tents; soaring pavilions with beautiful patterns inside and long low halls with partitioned rooms; tents for sleeping and tents for eating; privy tents and bathing tents.

In the evenings, as I lay on my little mattress, I could look out the window at the curious apparition of the building across the street which had green and pink sugar-icing towers and was decorated with geometric designs and flower motifs. How lovely I thought, drowsily, that a place devoted to spiritual pursuits should be decorated with flights of fancy—how lovely and human . . .

Before dawn the next day—the ninth of Dhu al-Hijjah and the second day of the Hajj—I rose to the call of prayer, made my ablutions and performed the Salah, and opened my Koran to the introduction to refresh my memory on the life of the Prophet, particularly on his Farewell Pilgrimage, which Muslims have ever since tried to emulate. Thus, it became my practice during the Pilgrimage to turn to the Koran, or to a book on the meaning of the Prophet’s message, whenever I felt puzzled or when I had a problem.

At about eight o’clock, I tossed my gear onto the roof of one of our mutawwif‘s little coaster buses, climbed up and made myself comfortable among the bedrolls and bundles of the pilgrims within. The street was jammed with cars, buses and trucks brimming with hajjis and their goods, waiting for the signal to begin the journey to ‘Arafat. The din of the engines drowned out this signal—but there must have been one, for, in one instant, we all were moving, sailing smartly and smoothly above the traffic, waving gaily to other happy passengers, all part of the mighty river flowing from Mina to ‘Arafat. “Labbayk, Allahumma, Labbayk!” cried a group of Africans from the back of a small truck, and the multitude joined in, each nationality responding in its own accent, to the Divine call issued more than thirteen centuries before:

“And proclaim unto mankind the Pilgrimage. They will come to thee on foot and on every lean camel; they will come from every deep ravine” (The Koran, Surah XXII, verse 27).

At ‘Arafat I set out at once for Jabal al-Rahmah, the Mount of Mercy, where, at the foot of a dark granite hill on the edge of the plain, the Prophet had stood to deliver the sermon during his Farewell Pilgrimage. At the base, many pilgrims stood, eyes uplifted to the dazzling white pillar erected near the top of the 200-foot slope. Some prayed, others sat on mats talking, family groups had their photographs taken and a knot of Africans crowded beneath a striped beach umbrella chanted ‘Labbayk.’ One mutawwif, leading a long line of Turks, exhorted them through a loud-speaker. Television cameras scanned the goings-on from a scaffold, perched high above our heads. Keeping pace with me was an obviously sophisticated pilgrim, chatting animatedly to his wife, apparently oblivious of where he was and what was happening around him. But then he looked up and, seeing the Mount just before him, stopped in his tracks and burst into a flood of tears.

As I began to ascend the Mount, a tall African generously shared the shade of his green silk umbrella with me and I recalled the Prophet’s word:

“. . . Above all else, never forget that each Muslim is the brother of all others: for all Muslims in this world form one race of brothers.”

Back in the tent, I found that the Pakistani ladies—now part of my group—had not visited the Mount of Mercy. Instead, they sat on their bedrolls, reading their Korans. For me, the meaning of those words was enhanced outside in the streets of ‘Arafat, at the foot of the Mount and on the barren plain enclosed by stark azure mountains on three sides. I went out and walked alone until I found a place I could peacefully stand and gaze at the Mount, in my own private commemoration of the Wuquf, or ‘the Standing,’ of the congregation for the Prophet’s sermon. There were many of us who stood in the streets of ‘Arafat that day, under the noon sun, recalling that God had given His last revelation to Muhammad at ‘Arafat:

“This day I have perfected your religion for you, completed My favor upon you, and have chosen for you Islam as your religion” (the Koran, Surah V, verse 4).

When they heard those words, the Prophet’s Companions wept, for they knew that he would not remain with them long, and every pilgrim who has ‘stood’ at ‘Arafat since has felt the same sense of loss.

After the noon prayer, the multitude at ‘Arafat seemed to heave a great sigh of relief, and the atmosphere changed from grave devotion to lighthearted serenity. There is a lovely story about the Prophet which explains the transformation at ‘Arafat, a story which few pilgrims know, but the essence of which they all feel in their hearts.

While he was at Mina during his Farewell Pilgrimage, Muhammad seemed glum, but his Companions, who felt his mood, hesitated to ask him why. At ‘Arafat the next day, however, the Prophet’s face glowed with happiness. One of the Companions asked him what had happened, why his spirits had changed from gloom to gaiety. The Prophet replied that the day before, he had been depressed because he had asked God to forgive the pilgrims all their sins and God had replied that He could forgive only the sins against Himself. He could not forgive the sins they had committed against one another. But now, He had said that He would forgive all the sins of the pilgrims at ‘Arafat. And from that day onward pilgrims have left ‘Arafat free men and women, reborn and without sin, for there is no concept of original sin in Islam.

Back in our compound, I found the magic of ‘Arafat had made everyone serenely happy. A picnic atmosphere had swept across the plain. In our tent we were served enormous dishes of lamb and chicken cooked in spices with rice, and a sweet saffron-rice pudding. After lunch, the streets filled with people, long trains of pilgrims marching behind banners proclaiming their nationalities, families gathering in the shade of little striped awnings attached to their cars, men and women sipping tea in refreshment tents. I passed one youth in his Ihram who was encased in plaster from his ribs down to one ankle and I wondered if he had had a skiing accident. I came across the ‘Children’s Lost Tent,’ manned by patient Boy Scouts who had a supply of toys to divert their crying wards until their parents claimed them.

As the sun dropped toward the horizon, the multitude at ‘Arafat began to stow their things on top of the buses, to strike their tents and pull up poles and stakes. I reclaimed my place on top of my bus and found that I had been joined by a Pakistani businessman, Mr. M.M. Ahmad, and his wife who, I learned in the course of our conversation, had made the Hajj 17 times.

“But why?” I asked. “I thought most people made the Hajj just once.”

“Well,” he replied thoughtfully. “We don’t always plan to come, my wife and I … but then the time for the Hajj comes round and we cannot stay away.”

As we talked—we were discussing the four schools of Islamic jurisprudence and sipping sugared tea—the sunset cannon boomed and the vast happy caravan began the slow journey to Muzdalifah with a thunderous shout of ‘Labbayk!’

At Muzdalifah, where traffic police, wearing belts of flashing lights across their chests and carrying red torches, directed us to a camping site, we gathered 49 stones, stumbling over the rugged hills of Muzdalifah in the dark, and then I shared a supper of delicacies with the Ahmads which had been brought all the way from Pakistan for the occasion. Later, we stretched out under the cold, distant stars to sleep and as the hum of the multitude died down to a whisper, dropped off to sleep one by one, released by God from the weight of our transgressions and filled with the joy of ‘Arafat.

[To be concluded]

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