After Hajj, a New Innocence
- HOLY RITUALS IN MECCA, NEW INNOCENCE IN LIVES
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
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
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
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
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
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
FOR YOUNG AMERICANS, HAJJ IS AN EPIC ADVENTURE
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
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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