Ever since I came back from my obligatory Hajj in 1989 I had always dreamt to be the guest of God once again. The opportunity came this year, and I was ecstatic.  In the last two decades things definitely have changed. I was full of excitement and joy, as well as with some natural anxiety. Would my physical and spiritual journey be smooth? Would it be accepted by God?

Although I have been to Umrah couple of times after 1989, Hajj is special with its spirit and significance.  Once again I would be in Makkah, the birthplace of our beloved Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), and the land where Prophet Abraham (upon him be peace) left his wife Hajar and son Ismail by the will of God. Once again I would be in Mina where Abraham was about to sacrifice his beloved son to testify that his love for God superseded everything. I would be in Arafah, where Prophet Muhammad delivered his epoch making farewell speech that is still shining and will guide believers until the Day of Judgement. Once again I would be retracing my journey on historic and holy places I fell in love with and where I felt I was showered by God’s mercy and blessings. I was overwhelmed.

Makkah is the centre of the world for Muslims, as it holds the holy Kabah, a black structure situated in the middle of Masjid al-Haram. Muslims all over the globe face the direction of the Kabah during prayers (Qibla), be it the compulsory five a day or during any ritual prayer. I would be standing in front of it and circling it anti-clockwise seven times and running seven times between the two hills Safa and Marwa in commemoration of Hajar who, out of desperation for help, ran between these two hills. The Kabah, a simple structure built by Abraham and Ismail, fills a believer’s heart with awe of its splendour and ecstasy of spirit. Muslims in its precinct forget the world they leave behind. It symbolises the unity of all Muslims worldwide. It equalises Muslims of all background.

Once someone is in the holy land in the midst of a sea of human beings of different colour, culture and language, you feel spiritually and emotionally upbeat and overwhelmed – no matter what your background is or where you come from, whether you are a man or woman, young or old, black or white. The few days in Makkah, Mina, Arafah and Muzdalifa are etched in your mind and heart. You change for good, you come out different from your past where you may have been doing wrong or harmful things, you lose your transient existence on earth; you immerse in the intense love of God and float on His limitless mercy. From hard core sinners to the elevated pious, the experience could be similar if one genuinely comes to Hajj with pure intention.

Hajj, the fifth pillar of Islam, is the largest human gathering for a divine purpose on earth. As the number of Muslims have grown and communication and other facilities have become easier, three to four million Muslims assemble for a common goal, to cleanse themselves from their past sins and wrong-doings. Hajj must be carried out at least once in a lifetime by every able-bodied Muslim who can afford to do so.It demonstrates the solidarity of Muslim people from across the globe and their individual and collective submission to God.

Hajj is a blessed journey, its being a guest of God and full of divine mercy. It is a migration toward God with a few prescribed religious rituals practiced by Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessing be upon him). Hajj is the epitome of public expression of the Unity of God, Tawheed.  It is a physical as well as an emotional and spiritual journey of human beings in need of love and acceptance by God.

Hajj is about responding to God’s call for submission. It is a pilgrimage for God alone and the fortunate ones are His real guests. Pilgrims attend historic places with tears of joy and love for God, with the following confession.

‘Here I am O Lord, here I am. Here I am, no partner do You have, O Lord.  Truly, the praise and the favour is Yours and the dominion. No partner do You have.’

It is the journey in commemoration of two extraordinary men who changed the shape of human history. Prophet Abraham who, while passing through tests and sacrifices put to him by God, established pristine monotheism, and Prophet Muhammad who successfully restored this monotheism by God’s will.

Hajj has some essential rituals without which it will be Hajj no more. Some of these rituals are compulsory (Fard) and some are recommended. One also has to refrain from some prohibitions (Haram). These rituals start before entering the holy city of Makkah (Miqat) with men wearing two pieces of un-sewn white garment and with the pure intention to complete Hajj. Women can wear any modest dress.

There are specific rituals in four holy places – Makkah, Mina, Arafah and Muzdalifah. Rituals that are sanctioned by Islam make a Hajj acceptable (Hajj Mabrur) to God. The outcome of a successful Hajj is the reward from God, when one’s sin is wiped out by God and he starts a new life with the innocence of a new born baby. The proof of this is the pilgrim starts a life with piety, within the boundary of Islam.

Renowned Muslim personalities over the centuries performed Hajj and left their impression in writing. One of them was Malcolm X, the American civil rights leader, describes the atmosphere he experienced at Hajj as follows,

There were tens of thousands of pilgrims, from all over the world. They were of all colors, from blue-eyed blondes to black-skinned Africans. But we were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to believe never could exist between the white and the non-white. America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem. You may be shocked by these words coming from me. But on this pilgrimage, what I have seen, and experienced, has forced me to rearrange much of my thought patterns previously held.

Managing the sheer number of people with intense passion and religious fervour has always been a challenge to the authorities. As a result, there have been many sad incidents in the past with huge casualties, e.g., the loss of hundreds of lives due to stampedes and other mishaps. Stampedes had occurred in the past mainly when pilgrims tried to throw pebbles in the Jamarat and run between the two hills of Safa and Marwa. In 2006 alone there were some 600 casualties. The Saudi government, over the years, made improvements for pilgrims in the Jamarat and providing better arrangements for running between Safa and Marwa. Modernisation of facilities and using modern crowd control is proving effective.

A Saudi source on this year’s Hajj would tell us how massive the arrangement is and how challenging the few days are;

  • An estimated 2.5 million Muslims registered pilgrims performed Hajj this year – 1.8 million from abroad and ¾ million from inside Saudi Arabia. But there would be at least another one million unregistered pilgrims doing the basics of Hajj.
  • Every Muslim country has a Hajj quota of 1,000 pilgrims per million inhabitants, the biggest contingent of 200,000 pilgrims are fromIndonesia.
  • Saudi Arabiadeployed some 63,000 security forces, including 3,500 anti-riot policemen backed by 450 armoured vehicles, while the civil defence deployed 22,000 forces and 6,000 vehicles.
  • Some 1,500 CCTV cameras were installed in and around Makkah’s Grand Mosque and 29 police stations were open to serve the holy places.
  • Some 20,000 health workers were mobilised to cope with any emergency and a number of rescue helicopters were kept ready to serve the faithful.
  • More than 12,000 male and female guides, known as mutawif, helped organise the pilgrims’ stay.
  • The Grand Mosque at the centre of Makkah, where pilgrims gather to pray and circle Kaaba covers 368,000 square meters and can hold more than 1.5 million people.

Hajj’s blessings on social life and the attitude of Muslims have been phenomenal. Extensive research has been carried out across the world. A 2008 study on the longer-term effect of participating in Hajj, entitled Estimating the Impact of the Hajj: Religion and Tolerance in Islam’s Global Gathering, Harvard University’s John F Kennedy School found that Muslim communities become more open after the Hajj experience and it promotes peaceful coexistence, equality, and harmony (http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1124213##).

The report specifically states that the Hajj “increases belief in equality and harmony among ethnic groups and Islamic communities and that “Hajjis (those who have performed the Hajj) show increased belief in peace, and in equality and harmony among adherents of different religions”.

With key challenges of materialism and commercialisation of life on the one hand and inequality and injustice in the world on the other, Hajj could genuinely be a solution to the emptiness of human hearts and corruption of human actions. With an increasing number of Muslims participating in the Hajj it is important that the Saudi government and the Muslim countries keep on continuously improving the physical arrangements of Hajj. However, the most important thing is to make sure that a tranquil and spiritual environment is maintained in the holy land, especially during Hajj.