State of Ihraam

As our airplane flew over the Arabian desert towards Jeddah, an announcement was made which would seem very strange if this was any other flight. We were told that the plane would cross the sacred boundary in about twenty minutes. All the passengers had been anxiously awaiting this announcement. It meant that we had to enter the state of ‘ihraam’ soon.

Ihraam is a state that a pilgrim must be in before approaching Makkah. It literally means ‘to forbid’. In this state pilgrims forbid upon themselves things which otherwise would be allowed. For example, once pilgrims enter the state of ihraam, they can no longer clip their nails, cut or pluck their hair, have marital relations, hunt, or cut down trees. Men have to be dressed in only two pieces of un-stitched white cloth. We had already changed into our pilgrim attire before the flight, because it is impractical to do so in a crowded airplane.


To be in a state of ihraam also means that pilgrims must be on their best behavior. They must stay away from sins, and must avoid conflict at virtually any cost. As the Qur’an instructs us: “…whoever undertakes the pilgrimage in those [months] shall, while on pilgrimage, abstain from lewd speech, from all wicked conduct, and from quarrelling; and whatever good you may do, God is aware of it. And make provision for yourselves – but, verily, the best of all provisions is God-consciousness: remain, then, conscious of Me, O you who are endowed with insight!” (Qur’an 2:197). If a pilgrim slips and violates any of the conditions of ihraam their Hajj could become invalid unless they repent, and pay to feed needy people.

Jeddah airport

Our flight landed in Jeddah on the afternoon of Dec 27, 2005. This city of about 4 million residents is on the shore of the Red Sea, and is close to Makkah. It has been the main gateway for Haajis since about 1400 years. In the past, all the pilgrims arriving by ship landed at the Jeddah sea port. Today only a small proportion of Haajis arrive by ship – most of them from Egypt and Sudan, which are just across the Red Sea. The vast majority of pilgrims fly into Jeddah’s expansive international airport.

Jeddah’s airport is unique in that it has an entire terminal building dedicated for pilgrims. Moreover, the Hajj terminal is unique in the way it operates. Airplanes are parked on the tarmac, and passengers board buses which take them to one of dozens of waiting rooms in the terminal building. These waiting rooms have bathrooms and rows of chairs, so passengers arriving after flying for many hours can relax a bit.

Groups upon groups of pilgrims enter and leave these waiting rooms in a steady stream. They wait in these rooms until an immigration officer calls passengers from a particular flight to line up at immigration counters. This system works very well, because the number of pilgrims flying into Jeddah airport around Hajj time is so large that if all passengers stood in line for immigration as soon as they disembarked, they would have to stand for hours.

After pilgrims collect their luggage and go through customs, they exit the main terminal building and walk into an enormous open space with a roof which is shaped like tents. This area is also unique to the Hajj terminal at Jeddah airport. It is divided into seven color-coded sections. Each color corresponds to a particular region of the world, and all Haajis must go to the section that their country of departure falls under.



Here passengers wait for buses to take them to Mecca. All the typical airport facilities are available in this area, but being here is a test of one’s patience, because the wait for a bus could be many hours long. It’s not that there is a shortage of buses. On the contrary, empty buses are lined up on the road. It’s just that getting pilgrims and all their luggage on to these buses becomes the bottle neck in the system. Somewhat like going to the pharmacy and waiting half an hour to get a prescription filled.

The battle ahead

It was while waiting for the bus that my attention shifted to the people around me. I felt like we were all going to take part in a great battle. The scene was right out of some Hollywood war movie – One airplane after another bringing in troops. The huge expansive base bustling with activity. Hungry and tired troops being fed at mess halls. Columns of soldiers marching here and there; wearing the same uniform but with different regimental flags. Veterans giving the young recruits advice and comforting words. Buses taking the troops and their gear to the battle front. Sergeants leading their squads in singing the army’s anthem, “Labbaik Allahumma labbaik, labbaika la shareeka laka labbaik…” (Here I am at Your service O Lord, here I am. Here I am at Your service, You have no partner, here I am at Your service. For You alone is All Praise and All Grace, and for You alone is The Sovereignty. You have no partner).

The difference between the scene I had witnessed at Jeddah airport and a Hollywood war movie was that all us pilgrims had gathered for a metaphorical battle. Rather than sacrificing our blood and our lives, we were all sacrificing our wealth, our time, and our comfort. Rather than fighting for honor, country, and justice; we were struggling to gain God-consciousness. We were there to fight against our own vain desires and rebellious tendencies rather than against a physical enemy.

To be continued…