Upon first sight

About a dozen of us walked from the hotel lobby towards the Sacred Mosque. It was past 2 A.M. in Makkah. We were led by the imam of our Rochester Hills mosque, who had performed Hajj once before. The Sacred Mosque has many gates, but we were going to enter through the gate that Prophet Muhammad had entered when he arrived here for pilgrimage centuries ago. This is because we Muslims try our best to imitate our Prophet in his actions to show our love for him.

During the walk from the hotel to the entrance of the mosque, I thought about how I would react when I laid eyes on the Ka’bah for the first time. I had heard from others that it is an incredibly moving experience. But, I always thought of myself as someone whose faith was based on logical reasoning, not on emotions or spirituality. In fact, I wasn’t even sure if I had ever had a ‘spiritual’ experience.

As we entered the mosque, we had to walk a bit before we could see the Ka’bah. We came up a flight of stairs, and there it was! Its black cover, illuminated by flood lights, was clearly visible in the middle of the night. We all stopped, and our imam raised his hands in prayer. He asked God for forgiveness, for peace in this life, and peace in the hereafter. To my surprise, I was completely overwhelmed by a rush of emotions. The rational thinking that I considered a hallmark of my faith, just vanished. Tears began flowing down my cheeks, and I covered my face with my hands.

As I regained my composure, I gazed at the Ka’bah, thanking God for allowing me to be his guest in this noble sanctuary. I thought about the thousands of times that I had prayed to God facing in the direction of this cubical structure. This place had been a part of my life for decades, but I was seeing it with my eyes for the first time.

Umrah – The first ritual

We descended a few steps into the courtyard to start performing the Umrah (minor pilgrimage). This is the first set of rituals Haajis do as they arrive in Makkah. Umrah entails being in a state of Ihraam, going around the Ka’bah seven times, praying where Prophet Abraham prayed, drinking water from the well of Zamzam, and walking seven times between two small hills, called Safa and Marwah. All of these rituals of pilgrimage are associated with Prophet Abraham.

Even at that time of the night, the courtyard of the Sacred Mosque was very crowded. We decided to stay together as a group through the entire process, but that turned out to be almost impossible. One by one my group members broke off, and soon I found myself going around the Ka’bah on my own. As I got closer to the Ka’bah the crowd became very dense, so I decided to stay on the outside of the rotating mass of pilgrims.

I had a small handbook with me which described all the steps and prayers of Umrah, so I was not too worried about being separated from my group. I also knew where our hotel was, so there was no danger of not finding my way ‘home’ after completing the Umrah. Following the steps outlined in my book, I had walked seven times around the Ka’bah, and prayed behind the spot where Prophet Abraham is said to have prayed after he completed building the Ka’bah.

The invisible well

The next step was to go down to the well of Zamzam, and drink some water from it. This well is also described in the Bible. It is said to have sprung up when Hagar and Ishmael were left in this barren valley by Abraham. As told in Genesis 21:17-21:

“God heard the boy (Ishmael) crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink. God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer. While he was living in the Desert of Paran (Arabic: Faran), his mother got a wife for him from Egypt.” (NIV)

Using the picture in my handbook as a guide, I began walking around the courtyard, looking for stairs that went down to the well of Zamzam. I hadn’t noticed any such stairs while I was circumambulating the Ka’bah, but perhaps I just hadn’t been paying attention, I thought. However, after several minutes of searching, I could not find the well of Zamzam anywhere. I was puzzled by this unexpected problem. I kept looking at the picture in the book, and then looking at the courtyard. It seemed the stairs were just not where they were supposed to be.

ZamZam

As I stood there, completely unsure of what to do next, I suddenly saw one of our group members with his wife and two daughters. I immediately went to him and told him about my confusion. He smiled, and informed me that the picture in my Hajj handbook was a few years old. The stairs leading down to the well of Zamzam had been closed to accommodate more pilgrims in the courtyard. In fact, it was now quite convenient to drink Zamzam water. You just had to go to one of the multitude of taps installed all around the building. I was amazed how I had managed to miss this rather important detail despite months of preparation for the journey.

In honor of Hagar

I thanked my group member for his help, and he graciously offered me to tag along with his family for the next step of the Umrah, which was to walk between Safa and Marwah. The tradition of walking between these two hills also comes from the story of Abraham’s wife, Hagar. Prophet Muhammad is reported to have said that in her frantic search for water, Hagar climbed these hills seven times before the angel showed her the well. He also told his followers where Hagar ran instead of walked because she could not see her son, Ishmael, from where she was. The start and finish of the area where she ran is now marked by green lights. Prophet Muhammad encouraged pilgrims to walk briskly, or jog, through that area in honor of Hagar.

SafaMarwah

Just as we finished walking between Safa and Marwah, the call for the morning-prayer ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oM5hNuAmWs0 ) started on the Mosque’s speakers. It had taken me close to four hours to finish this first ritual of pilgrimage. I performed the morning-prayer in congregation, and came out of the building. Needless to say, I was immensely relieved and very happy. I ended up seeing most of my group members outside one of the gates of Marwah. We had all finished the Umrah at about the same time. Everyone’s faces were visibly relaxed, and we all started sharing our experiences. It was now time to get out of the state of Ihraam, and get some much needed rest.

To be continued…