In part 1 I chronicled the first half of my journey. Now read on for the rest.
Arrival in Makkah
After a short interlude to drop our bags off at the hotel and decipher the a/c controls, we hurried along the crowded streets to the holiest site in Islam. When I try to remember it, the whole experience feels like a vivid dream.
Excitement had returned to my party, and brought with it shortness of breath and a slight tightening of the throat. We were all grinning like idiots, and were doing all we could to stop ourselves pushing and running towards our ultimate target.
As we neared the entrance to the mosque, we had to be careful not to shove others out of the way to get through, even though we ourselves were being jostled and elbowed from all corners by other eager pilgrims.
We had arrived long after Taraweh prayer had finished, but this in no way meant that the mosque was anything except full to the brim.
The distance from the main entrance to the open courtyard containing the Ka’bah seemed to go on forever. As we neared the opening, we all looked at the floor, to ensure when we finally looked at the Ka’bah we would see the whole thing rather than just a portion of it. Finally, we got to the top of the short flight of steps leading down into the courtyard.
I stopped, and took out the small scrap of paper on which were written the du’aas that I had failed to memorise in time. Although there were thousands of people all around me, some who were shouting, I cannot remember hearing anything at all. I was too lost in my own little world to acknowledge the existence of other people. I finally plucked up the courage to raise my head.
Seeing the Ka’bah
I have listened to many accounts of people’s first sight of the holy Ka’bah, the site of the first mosque built on earth by Prophet Adam Peace and Blessings of Allah be upon him, rebuilt by Prophet Ibrahim Peace and Blessings of Allah be upon him and his son Prophet Isma’il Peace and Blessings of Allah be upon him and taken over by the pagan Arabs before the Prophet Muhammad Peace and Blessings of Allah be upon him and his companions (ra) re-dedicated it to the worship the One True God, Allah (swt), Alone.
Unsurprisingly, many people talk of being overcome with emotion, breaking down in tears or being left speechless. Personally, I cannot say that exactly the same type of feeling was awoken in me. I do not have quite the same emotional connection with it that people who have grown up as Muslims do. I didn’t want to manufacture teary eyes for myself, and I just stared, unable to peel my eyes away.
It is difficult to describe the beauty of something so simple: A large cube covered with black cloth on which is embroidered some gold lettering. But its beauty is not in its physical properties. It is what the Ka’bah represents that is utterly beautiful: the simplicity of the relationship between Almighty Allah (swt), and His creation.
All that is needed to worship the Creator, Sustainer, Lord and Judge of everything that is in existence, is a clean, flat space on which a believer prostrates in devotion.
The trance-like state of reflection in which I stood was broken by the realisation that I had come here to do more than just stand in open-eyed amazement.
My party gathered our thoughts and the group leader designated a place at which we would meet after our seven Tawaf (circulations of the Ka’bah), before we would move onto the next section of our Umrah.
We were each given a buddy, who we were under strict instruction not to be split up from so that we wouldn’t ‘lose’ anybody. I was paired with a very close friend of mine. As we started our first Tawaf, we decided to get as near to the middle as possible, so we might get a chance to kiss or touch the Hajar Aswad (Black Stone). The crowd was packed very tightly, but I am experienced in this type of situation (so my younger days of mosh pits and rock festivals had not been a complete waste of time).
It’s a Sunnah to jog on the first four circulations, but as we made our way passed the first three corners and neared the Hajar Aswad, and the crowd got thicker and thicker and our pace ground to a slow walk.
The Hajar Aswad
It is Sunnah to kiss the Black Stone, which is… (explanation and saying of Umar (ra)). It is a sin, however to push other Muslims in order to get close, and this fact has clearly been lost on many pilgrims. Elbows in the ribs, kicks to the shins and many bruises were endured by me and my friend, but we were steadfast in our attempt to get to the Hajar Aswad without hurting anyone else.
We stood, a few meters from the epicenter of the crowd, close enough to see the Black Stone (or, more precisely, to see procession of heads in front of it, kissing it, followed by a shower of hands beating at the head, hurrying it along in order to give someone else a turn). Still we didn’t push, even when a little old lady banged her fists hard on my friend’s back.
He is six foot two with broad shoulders and she shouted in Arabic at him something like (we assumed from her gestures): “Push! Why won’t you push?! You’re huge! You could knock everyone else to the floor! Push, I said!”
The woman eventually gave up on him, and we edged ever closer, one millimeter at a time. My friend and I were pulled apart by the crowds, and we nodded a ‘salaam’ to each other, as we knew where to meet up with the others after we had finished. You’re on your own now, I said to myself.
Suddenly, a stray arm flailed up at me from somewhere knocking my glasses from my face, and they flew up and far away, and then down somewhere deep in the swirling mass of bodies. It took a second to realise what had happened. I had to remind myself not to be annoyed or upset, as this was merely a test from Allah (swt). I was warned that I would be tested, I told myself. I shouldn’t worry about that. I can see about 30% without them, I am in a far too important situation to worry about my glasses. They were completely lost, anyway. Trying to crawl around on the floor while thousands of people were all around and on top of me would not have been a wise plan.
I had heard stories of people being trampled to death, so I didn’t give my glasses much of a chance to remain unscathed, and navigating the crowds while standing up was proving difficult enough as it was.
I turned my attention back to the matter-at-hand, which was the Hajar Aswad. Suddenly a gap opened up and I saw my chance, I stepped forward and reached out my fingers to touch the Black Stone, I then bought my hand to my mouth and kissed it. Before I knew it I had been pulled away by the current of people, and my time there was bought to an end.
Later on in my stay in Makkah I actually got the chance to kiss the Black Stone too, Alhamdulillah. As I began to start on my second circuit of the Ka’bah, a hand grabbed my shoulder tightly and spun me round. A man with a huge smile thrust something into my palm; it was my glasses!
How he saw them was amazing, but how he also managed to see that they had flown from my nose, and then how he managed to find me was truly startling. Perhaps he was an angel. I said ‘Thank you’ in as many languages as I could remember to make sure he realised how grateful I was, but I think the delight he saw on my face was all the thanks he desired.
As I completed the rest of my Umrah, I thought about how, in such a short space of time, I had seen two extremes of human nature: selfishness and generosity.
Completion of Umrah
My friends and I left the mosque, our heads raw from being shaved or our hair being cut. We exchanged our personal accounts of what had happened, and had to pinch ourselves that we had completed all the rituals of our pilgrimage to Makkah. Only a few hours earlier the whole experience had lain out in front of us, daunting and unknown, but it was now a treasured memory.
We were all aware of what this meant: Umrah during Ramadan is equal to completing Hajj in its reward, i.e. forgiveness for all our previous sins, if Allah (swt) had accepted it. We found a small, friendly restaurant where we ordered many drinks and large portions of chicken and rice. We had to remember that it was still Ramadan, and we would still be fasting the following day. Before very long, the time for Fajr drew near.
We returned to the mosque, and sat down together in the courtyard, with the holy Ka’bah standing proudly in front of us. At this point we didn’t need to say anything to each other, we were all in a dream-like state of mind. We sat quietly and calmly, waiting for the Adhaan for Fajr.
The Last 10 Nights of Ramadan
Over the remainder of our stay in Makkah, my friends and I tried to get into a routine in order to make the best of our time. We would sleep between Fajr and Zhuhr prayers, and then stay in the Masjid al-Haram from ‘Asr onwards.
It was so time consuming to get into the mosque, and to find a place to sit once inside, that it was not worth leaving after Maghrib to go and eat if we wanted to pray ‘Isha and Taraweh afterwards.
So we would break our fast with Zam-Zam water and dates, and maybe a little bread if we could sneak it past the security guards.
After Taraweh we would go and eat almost a whole barbecued chicken each, or take advantage of the fact that KFC and Burger King were halal (I hadn’t realised how much I had missed them since becoming a Muslim).
As the nights passed, and the moon in the sky got gradually smaller and smaller, we realised that our time in this blessed place was coming to an end. I don’t know whether I would have wound down in my efforts if it had not been for my friends’ constant encouragement.
We would all constantly remind each other of the importance of what we were doing and why we were there. There are many different types of trial that we can face in life, and the way to pass the trials in our religion is to surround ourselves with good, honest, practicing brothers or sisters.
There are very few people who can push themselves to struggle and work hard, all the time. But if we have companions to encourage us with this, it becomes much easier.
On the morning of ‘Eid, I stood in the Masjid al-Haram next to the Zam-Zam water taps. It felt like a novelty to be able to drink in broad sunshine, and I was taking advantage of it.
The words ‘jubilance’ or ‘euphoria’ do not do justice to the atmosphere in the mosque that morning. It was as if everyone was floating a few feet above the ground, such was the delight (and light) in their faces. But ‘Eid also brought with it a feeling of sadness.
As soon as the ‘Eid prayer finished, we hurried back to our hotel to pack and start our long journey home. We fought our way through our last crowd, in Jeddah airport, and talked about if and when we would try to return, for Hajj.
As we sat our slumped our tired bodies onto the seats of the plane, I thought about what I would miss from my adventure.
A few things were the simplicity of the day-to-day routine, nobody caring about what type of clothes anyone else was wearing and the fact that one prayer in the Masjid al-Haram is equal in value to 100,000 prayers back home. It had not been a ‘holiday’, in the traditional sense, back I was still feeling more refreshed than if I had spent two weeks lying on a beach drinking fruit smoothies through a curly straw.
My time in Makkah and Madina had been full of difficult tests and unique experiences, but I realised that my real test was about to start, on my return home to London.
Would I be able to put into practice what I had learned on my pilgrimage? Could my faith remain strong with all the materialism and distractions of the UK? I rested my head back on my seat, closed my eyes and drifted off into a deep sleep.
My body may have been returning home, but in my dreams and in my heart I could remain in the Masjid al-Haram forever.