Some 20,000 Muslim pilgrims from Malaysia will be in the midst. I went on what for most is that once-in-a-lifetime journey last year. This is my story.
Though a seasoned traveller that I was up to then, the pilgrimage was something else. It took me close to two years to prepare for a journey that required more than just a suitcase of clothes, travel documents and some money.
Mental preparedness was more important and while the courses provided by the Malaysian Pilgrims Fund Board (Tabung Haji) helped tremendously, I also knew that the pilgrimage experience was never the same for two individuals.
Pilgrims making their way to cast stones at a pillar, symbolising the stoning of Satan, in Mina, near Mecca. AP pic
The haj pilgrimage is the largest congregation of any kind in the world and I got the sense of being in a very crowded place the moment I walked out of the Immigration checkpoint at the special haj terminal at King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah.
From thereon, the phrase “patience is a virtue” was no longer just a saying. It became a necessity to ensure successful completion of the Islamic faith’s fifth and final pillar.
The bus terminal outside the haj complex at the airport was filled with people, all lined up according to their nationalities, waiting for buses that would take them to Mecca.
It was not until four hours after I touched down that I finally got onto mine and the journey to the holy city, including stops at more checkpoints, took another couple of hours. I had no complaints though, since meals, drinks and basic amenities were readily available.
I had the first look of the grand mosque, Masjidil Haram, at dusk that day. It was as grand as I had seen it in pictures, gloriously bathed in white lights in the fading sun and teeming with people.
I accepted that I would have to live with the crowd for the 45 days that I would be on the journey, including the nine days I would spend in the city of Madinah, where Prophet Muhammad started spreading the faith in earnest about 1,436 years ago.
Huge as it was, the grand mosque was filled to the brim when I got there. There was room only at the rooftop, from where, after dusk prayers, I was able to catch a full view of the Kaabah, a structure built by Prophet Ibrahim centuries ago, and is now a point where Muslims the world over face towards when they pray.
Not an inch of the Mataf, the area where pilgrims perform the Tawaf by circumambulating the Kaabah seven times in a counterclockwise direction, wasn’t filled with people, including on the three levels of additional structures built in recent years to accommodate the ever increasing number of pilgrims.
Pushing and shoving are only to be expected when performing the ritual. After 10 days in Mecca, the haj journey proper started when, on the eighth day of the Zulhijjah month of the Muslim calendar, I left with millions of other pilgrims for the tent city of Mina, about half-an-hour by bus. Mina, where the Jamarat complex, or place where pilgrims perform the stoning ritual is located, had tents as far as my eyes could see.
The tent I shared with 14 other Malaysian pilgrims was about three kilometres from the huge stoning ritual complex, connected by the Mouassim pedestrian tunnel.
By then, everyone was in the state of Ihram, the only attire permitted being two pieces of white unsewn cloth. There, the crowd was even bigger, as those who had started their pilgrimage by going to Madinah first had entered Mecca, to join the rest for the haj ritual. Mina offered challenges of its own, especially due to long queues for the toilet and shower facilities.
The pinnacle of the haj pilgrimage was on the ninth day of the month of Zulhijjah, where I made the journey to the bone-dry plains of Arafah for the Wukuf, joining close to three million others.
According to Islamic teaching, Wukuf is the day of redemption and also one that provides a window to how the assembly on judgment day would look like.
The Arafah plains have another significance, being the place where Prophet Muhammad delivered his final sermon at the Uranah Valley, where he began by telling his followers, “O people, lend me an attentive ear, for I know not whether after this year, I shall ever be amongst you again. Therefore, listen to what I am saying to you very carefully.”
The prophet passed on shortly thereafter. After the sermons, we were encouraged to spend some time to reflect upon ourselves. That same evening, I headed back for Mina, stopping enroute in Muzdalifah as required by ritual, and also to collect pebbles to perform, beginning the next day, the stoning rituals.
By then, almost everybody was coughing, perhaps because of the dust and extremely dry weather. Being in the huge crowd, too, perhaps, made the coughing spread even more easily.
The next three days in Mina were occupied with walking to and from the Jamarat for the stoning rituals, before I returned to Mecca to perform the Tawaf and Saei (a ritual depicting Prophet Ibrahim’s wife Hajar’s frantic search for water after being left behind with their son, Ismail).
The Saie entails walking about 400m between two points, seven times. By then, I was in my normal attire and once the final ritual was completed, so, too, was my haj pilgrimage.
I spent two more weeks in Mecca before leaving by bus to Madinah to visit more sites sacred to the Islamic faith, including the huge Nabawi Mosque and the final resting place of Prophet Muhammad. Madinah, like Mecca, was filled with people when I got there.
The place was bustling with commerce. It was the last leg of my journey before leaving for home nine days later.