A vision of death

Sitting in the car, zooming along I-94, I suddenly felt like this was a funeral procession – my funeral.  It was Christmas day, 2005, and I was on my way to Detroit Metro airport to begin my journey to Saudi Arabia.  I was going to perform the Hajj – a religious pilgrimage that all Muslims must make at least once in their lives – but I really felt at that moment that I was getting ready for judgment day.

I felt like someone who was transitioning from this world to the next.  My family members were going to drop me off at the airport and go back to the comforts of home.  Meanwhile I would be traveling to an unknown, mysterious place that I had heard so much about.  I was going to be dressed in nothing but two white sheets, just like we Muslims bury our dead.  I would be standing in front of God, accounting for all my deeds, confessing my sins, and asking for forgiveness.

The Guys

At Dubai airport.  The guys in my group, just before boarding our flight to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

My mind was making all sorts of connections between death and Hajj.  I wondered if I would see my family again.  It occurred to me that God must have made pilgrimage an obligation on us so that we would remember death, and make course corrections in our lives.

The journey of Hajj takes you through a roller coaster of emotions, and soon I started thinking about more practical matters – Did I have my passport, did I pack everything I needed, would there be enough time between connecting flights.  As I got to the airport I found that I was the last of my group to arrive, as usual.

I was traveling with a few family members and others from our local mosque.  It felt so good to be with them.  My feelings now turned to excitement.  We started talking about the trip, and how each one of us had been preparing.  We talked about what we were going to do, the rites and rituals, the books about Hajj we had brought along to read on the plane, as if cramming for a test.

In the footsteps of Abraham

A couple of months before this trip our group started meeting on weekends to learn about the Hajj.  We would gather in the mosque, or one of our homes to go over the things we needed to know, and to plan all the logistical details.  Sometimes we would watch documentary films on Hajj to familiarize ourselves with locations, and the sequence of events.

The journey to Mecca (Makkah), the city where most of the rituals of Hajj are performed, is so easy these days compared to the past.  Over the last few decades air travel has made it possible for pilgrims from all over the world to get there in a matter of hours.  Less than a hundred years ago people from far away countries, like Indonesia, arrived by ship.  The journey took at least a couple of months each way.  Pilgrims from neighboring countries, like Iraq, Palestine, and Yemen, came via camel caravans or on foot.  Traveling like that through the scorching desert of Arabia is unimaginable for me.

People have been making pilgrimage to Makkah for thousands of years.  Even before the Prophet Muhammad, Makkah was a center of pilgrimage, and the pagan Arabs performed Hajj every year.  They claimed it was the tradition of their forefathers, Ibraheem (Abraham) and Isma’eel (Ishmael).  The Qur’an, which Muslims believe is the final revelation of God to mankind, confirms this:

“And (remember) when We made the House (at Mecca) a resort for mankind and a sanctuary, (saying): Take as your place of worship the place where Abraham stood (to pray). And We imposed a duty upon Abraham and Ishmael, (saying): Purify My house for those who go around, and those who meditate therein, and those who bow down, and prostrate themselves (in worship).

And when Abraham prayed: My Lord! Make this a region of security and bestow upon its people fruits, such of them as believe in God and the Last Day, He answered: As for him who disbelieves, I shall leave him in contentment for a while, then I shall compel him to the doom of fire–a hapless journey’s end!

And when Abraham and Ishmael were raising the foundations of the House, (Abraham prayed): Our Lord! Accept from us (this duty). Lo! Thou, only Thou, art the Hearer, the Knower.

Our Lord! And make us submissive unto Thee, and of our seed a nation submissive unto Thee, and show us our ways of worship, and relent toward us. Lo! Thou, only Thou, art the Relenting, the Merciful.”  (Qur’an, 2:125-128, as translated from Arabic by Marmaduke Picktall)

KabaAtNight

 A view of the Ka’ba – The cuboid structure built by Abraham and Ishmael

To be continued…