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After Hajj, a New Innocence

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    HOLY RITUALS IN MECCA, NEW INNOCENCE IN LIVES Michelle M. Martinez Express-News 12/29/06
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 8, 2007
      Michelle M. Martinez

      Salah Shamsi was one of about 2 million Muslims who gathered last year
      in the Islamic holy city of Mecca for a pilgrimage.
      The ritual was arduous at times, requiring the Pakistani native to
      walk many miles and endure long hours of prayer. He and his wife,
      Rukhsana, who now live in San Antonio, set aside money for nearly a
      dozen years to pay for the trip. Yet the feeling of forgiveness they
      felt there was worth every penny, Salah Shamsi said.

      "I was literally shivering and asking for the forgiveness of Allah,
      that I don't make any mistakes," he said.

      Muslims must make the mandatory trip to the city in Saudi Arabia at
      least once in their lifetime, the way they've been doing for
      centuries, so long as they can afford it and are physically able. The
      experience grants them a clean slate, returning them to the innocence
      of a sinless baby, according to the Koran, which the world's 1.2
      billion Muslims believe is the literal word of God as revealed to the
      Prophet Mohammad.

      The holy pilgrimage, or hajj, is one of the five pillars of Islam —
      the requirements of Muslims to be in good standing with Allah. About 2
      million Muslims — roughly 12,000 of them from the United States — will
      take part.

      Each year in at least the past five years, between 10 and 20 Muslims
      from San Antonio journey to Mecca, said Nazli Siddiqui, a longtime
      leader in the local Muslim community.

      Because Muslims follow a lunar calendar, the timing of the hajj is
      different every year. The pilgrimage, which this year began Thursday
      and ends today, commemorates the story of Abraham's willingness to
      sacrifice his son, as told in the Koran. However, a voice from heaven
      instructs him to sacrifice a ram instead.

      Muslims believe that test of faith came after God instructed Abraham
      to take his second wife, Hagar, and their son Ishmael to Mecca, a
      barren, rocky valley, and to abandon them there.

      When their food and water supplies ran out, Hagar desperately searched
      between two hills looking for a fresh water supply. Then water sprang
      from a well, which today is called the well of Zamzam. Those hills and
      the well are a part of hajj rituals.

      The required rituals begin in Mina, just outside Mecca, where hajjis ,
      as the participants are called, spend the day in prayer, dressed in
      white garb.

      On the second day, they go to Mount Arafat, where they repent and seek
      God's forgiveness. Muslims believe that prayers made on Mount Arafat
      will be answered, said San Antonio Imam Omar Shakir.

      "We're all praying for forgiveness. We're praying for paradise," said
      Shakir, who converted from Christianity to Islam in 1975 and performed
      hajj two years ago. "We're praying for our relatives. We're praying
      for everything."

      On the night of the second day, the pilgrims proceed to Muzdalifah, a
      valley between Mina and Mount Arafat, and begin collecting stones for
      their next ritual — the pelting of pillars, known as the Jamarat,
      representing the devil.

      The throwing of stones happens in Mina, on the third day, before the
      pilgrims return to Mecca to walk seven times around the holiest
      structure in the Islam faith — the Ka'bah, or cube.

      The mammoth shrine, covered in a black cloth and embroidered with
      verses from the Koran in gold thread, is believed to stand on the site
      where Abraham built the first house of worship.

      Sarwat Husain, president of the Council on American Islamic Relations
      in San Antonio, said the prayers she had been prepared to recite froze
      in her head when she came face to face with the Ka'bah.

      "I thought, 'My God, this is it,'" said Husain, who made the
      pilgrimage last year. "I never thought I would get there. I just don't
      have the words to explain what it did to me."

      Before hajj is complete, pilgrims must walk seven times between the
      two hills that Hagar ran between in search of water.

      Husain said it took her more than two hours to circle the Ka'bah seven
      times. That ritual, she said, is by far the most strenuous because
      pilgrims are not allowed to rest before they are done.

      Modern transportation makes other parts of the pilgrimage more
      comfortable, she said, with buses provided by the Saudi government
      taking pilgrims from one ritual site to the next.

      Still, the journey is not without danger.

      The Jamarat has been the scene of six stampedes since 1994, which have
      killed more than 1,000 pilgrims, including 363 during the last hajj in
      January 2006. Now, Saudi Arabian officials are giving pilgrims tips on
      how to relieve overcrowding.

      Instructions include not bringing luggage to the Jamarat, not camping
      on streets leading to rite sites and not thronging to the Jamarat at
      noon, when the Prophet Mohammad is said to have performed his
      stone-throwing ritual.

      Husain said the trip opened her eyes to equality — men and women, rich
      and poor worshipping side by side. Shamsi said he returned to San
      Antonio with a greater compassion for the less fortunate.

      But, the challenge, Husain said, will be maintaining the fresh start
      that completing hajj has given her.

      "Every step you have to watch," she said. "And that is the test of
      being in the world."

      mmartinez @ express-news.net



      MINA, Saudi Arabia -- The 20-year-old American tells his hajj
      pilgrimage stories a mile a minute, his hands moving in excitement _
      about how he arrived in Mecca days ago, lost amid the massive crowds,
      and saw a man drop dead while circling the Kaaba.

      "Dude, I saw it, the guy had the most peaceful smile on his face,"
      Adil Muschelewicz, performing the pilgrimage for the first time, said
      Sunday, his head shaved bald after a ritual a day earlier.

      The young man from Easley, S.C., had arrived alone in Mecca because of
      a travel agent mix-up that prevented his family from arriving for
      three days. He was with hundreds of thousands of others circling the
      Kaaba, a massive cube-shaped stone structure draped in black cloth
      that is Islam's holiest site, when he saw the elderly man fall dead.
      The body was quickly lifted out of the crowd.

      Muschelewicz didn't know the cause of the man's death - exhaustion
      maybe, he said - but it became one of the many powerful religious
      moments that have shaken him during the trip.

      "I looked at his face and I looked at the Kaaba, and it was like he
      was happy, he'd gotten close to God. It just went boom, like this deep
      bass line in my heart," he said. "It was so emotional. I was by
      myself, in this wild place I'd never been before."

      For young American Muslims far from home, the hajj pilgrimage is an
      awesome adventure that they say deepens their faith and connects them
      with the wide range of Muslim peoples.

      The annual hajj is overwhelming even for those who have done it before.

      Some 3 million pilgrims from all over the world move between the
      holiest sites of Islam, in and around Mecca, over the course of five
      days, tracing the steps of the Prophet Muhammad and Ibrahim _ or
      Abraham to Christians and Jews _ considered in Islam as the first Muslim.

      Traffic jams are epic - it can take more than an hour for a bus to
      drive 200 yards.

      Amid the hundreds of thousands of people moving on foot for miles, you
      can turn and find the friend by your side has disappeared. Pilgrims
      often go days on only a few hours sleep, snatched whenever possible
      amid the constant movement.

      It is also a sensory overload, with a soundtrack in languages from
      around the world _ Arabic, English, Turkish, Malay and Bahasa, Urdu
      and Hindi. Intense poverty collides with wealth, with some pilgrims
      sleeping on the garbage-strewn pavement and others staying in
      "five-star" tents with meals and other facilities provided.

      More than 20,000 Americans are participating in this year's hajj, a
      higher number than usual because the pilgrimage, which began Thursday
      and ends Monday, coincides with Christmas and New Year's holidays.

      At the hajj, Muslims seek forgiveness of their sins and meditate on
      their faith.

      But for American Muslim parents, it is also a chance to connect their
      children with a religious heritage they have only heard about growing
      up in the U.S. Some of the younger pilgrims _ children of immigrants
      from the Islamic world may have occasionally visited their parents'
      homelands. Others, whose parents are converts to Islam like
      Muschelewicz have less direct connection to the Middle East.

      An aerial view of two of three huge stone pillars as Muslim pilgrims
      seen cast stones at it in the symbolic stoning of the devil for the
      second day in Mina, near Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Sunday, Dec. 31, 2006.
      Some threw with fury, others just tossed their stones quietly cursing
      evil and temptation as some 3 million Muslims performed a symbolic
      stoning of the devil Sunday in one of the most dramatic and dangerous
      rites of the hajj pilgrimage. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra) (Khalil Hamra - AP)

      "This is really a learning experience for the young," said Tabassam
      Qureshi, of Westchester, N.Y. He and other Americans were resting in
      their tent at Mina, a desert valley outside Mecca where Sunday and
      Monday's rites take place.

      His son Amir slept nearby, recovering from burst blisters on his feet.
      The elder Qureshi recalled their own adventures over the past few
      days: spending 16 hours on a bus caught in traffic between the holy
      cities of Medina and Mecca and sleeping outside on blankets in the
      dirt outside another holy site, Muzdalifa.

      "Today, I put my hand on Amir's shoulder and asked him what he's
      learned, and he said, 'sabr'" _ Arabic for patience, said Qureshi.
      "They learn that you have to help each other to get through
      difficulty. And he'll go back and tell his friends all about it."

      In the tent, the young men _ women stay in separate tents _ swapped
      tales about the past week. They talked about the awe they felt
      performing the rites, the people they had met _ even about the
      Indonesian women pilgrims and how forcefully they push through the
      crowds. "They're small, but if you get in their way, watch out," one

      Muschelewicz recounted how their tour bus was clipped by a Saudi army
      vehicle as they arrived in Mina two nights earlier. They had to
      abandon the bus and tried to walk to their tent camp.

      "We got out of the bus and it was like a video game. You got this huge
      mass of people coming at you. This Saudi soldier was like, you can't
      go this way, and I was all ready to go Keanu Reeves on him, I was
      ready to break the Matrix," he said.

      Not the usual hajj lingo _ but it's a common feeling among the
      pilgrims, confusion on which way to go amid the massive crowds.

      His father, Ken, said he and his wife had been planing the trip for
      two years, a chance for his son and daughter, Aliya, and mother-in-law
      to experience the pilgrimage, which he first took in 1995.

      "It's been eye-opening for both of them," he said.

      Tahar Amrouni, a 21-year-old from Houston, said that "you realize the
      sheer magnitude of the Muslim world, how different all the Muslim
      cultures are and what they share."

      "I see people here with only the clothes on their back, and I thank
      God for what I have," Amrouni said

      As he spoke, his father came over and proudly handed him the knitted
      skullcap worn by "hajjis," those who have performed the pilgrimage.
      Amrouni worked it down over the stubble on his shaved head.

      "Does it fit OK?" he asked. "I can't tell, is it on right?"



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