Hajj Diaries: When The Call Comes

Hajj Diaries: When The Call Comes
My sister and I first visited Saudi Arabia when we were six and seven years old, respectively. My parents were performing their Umrah in Makkah at the time. 

We landed in Jeddah, a grey and not so inviting city. If memory serves me, I remember driving somewhere (probably Makkah), but I have little memory of the city itself. It was not a modern or glitzy cityscape, nor did it have any high rises that one tends to associate with Gulf countries today.

I vaguely remember touching the Ka'aba's wall. My memory keeps bringing up the vivid coolness of the holy waters from the Aab-e-Zam Zam spring while my mother ritualistically ran between the Safa and Marva hills. I also recall feeling abandoned while she performed this ritual. 

Why was my mother running away from me? I thought.

Those were the thoughts of the juvenile I was then. 

Many decades later, in 2023, I embarked on my first Umrah pilgrimage with a friend. The trip included a Ziarat of Damascus, where I paid my respects at Bibi Zainab's tomb. And a few weeks ago, I ventured there for a second time as I also completed my Hajj.

"How was it, Hajjan bibi?" everyone asks. 

In sincerity, this is not an easy question to answer.

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The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia recently allowed single women to visit and perform religious pilgrimages at Makkah Mukarma and Madina Sharif, without the precondition of having a male Mehram. It naturally opened the gates for half of the world's Muslim population to finally visit the holiest of places on their terms. 

Visiting the Beloved

Makkah is the designated home of the Beloved. In the Holy Quran, the Beloved informs us that He is everywhere, closer to us than our jugular vein. Still, understanding human nature and our sense of community, he asks us to come to Makkah and pay homage at the Khaana-e-Ka'aba. 
Moving in concentric circles also represents combining the reality on Earth, our lives as we know it, with the eternal truth of the afterlife. The circling is a symbol of consciousness of living in this unity

The Ka'aba has been a place of worship well before the message of Islam was revealed and a place of pilgrimage since Adam (AS). Visiting Makkah and performing specific rituals is one of the five critical pillars of Islam. Any Muslim who is able in mind and body for the rigours, and can afford the journey, is enjoined to undertake this pilgrimage.

The city, towards which over a billion souls turn daily, is located in the province of Hejaz in western Saudi Arabia. I have never really thought about this city as anything but the home of the Khaana-e-Ka'aba. But it does mean that it has also never occupied much space in my mind.

But having visited the city twice in the short span of three months and spent time with one's heart, seeing with all my senses, it is truly a very special corner of mother Earth. 

My curiosity to learn its history has been piqued.

The fifth pillar

Islam, the religion of peace and service, is a very simple creed. The Hajj is one of (the five) ordained pillars for Muslims. It is a pilgrimage (reenacting) in the footsteps of Prophet Mohammad (Peace Be Upon Him), who completed the Hajj once in his life (towards the end of his life on Earth). It is a pilgrimage which includes many traditions in worshipping and remembering the Creator of our universe.

The rituals and traditions of the Hajj pilgrimage include some which date to pre-Islamic times. 

Circumambulating counterclockwise around the Ka'aba is a ritual which predates the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). But circling seven times is a Muslim tradition based on Islamic philosophy and the Prophet's (PBUH) example (sunnat). 

The Ka'aba represents Islam's central idea of 'Oneness'. This idea is central to all monotheistic spiritual traditions - "Tawhid".

Moving in concentric circles also represents combining the reality on Earth, our lives as we know it, with the eternal truth of the afterlife. The circling is a symbol of consciousness of living in this unity.

Seven represents the belief that there are seven layers or steps of attaining the truth. There is a belief in Islamic spiritualism that there are seven aspects to our essential self/soul. Each turn around the Ka'aba represents a phase, a stage in our existence. 

I understand this as our ego realises its essential self through seven levels of consciousness. Each revolution around the Ka'aba is a journey towards the ultimate truth. It is a meditation, a prayer, a worship in realisation.

I read somewhere a description of it as: 'The planets rotate around the sun, the electrons around the nucleus, the moth around the candle'. Rotating around the source of life (representatively), a centering of oneself in alignment with pure love (worship).

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God Almighty states the following in the Holy Quran: 

"The seven heavens and the earth, and all beings therein, declare His glory: there not a thing but celebrates His praise; and yet ye understand not how they declare His glory...". (Al-Isra, 44).

Entering Masjid-al-Haraam

When I entered Haram Sharif, the mosque complex of the Khaana-e-Ka'aba, a first glance made me think this was like any other large, modern mosque. 

But as I walked deeper inside the halls, following the crowds towards the central atrium, an area called the Mataf, and the site of the Khaana-e-Ka'aba, the sense of excitement was palpable. 

If one enters the complex from the King Faisal or King Fahd gates, one can catch a glimpse of the black and gold embroidered Kiswah covering the Ka'aba, framed through a balcony courtyard.

Only when one descends to the ground level and looks at it directly, its simplicity strikes you. It beckons to you. It is a magnet. 

My first response upon coming across this sight, I remember, was to smile.

Standing in the centre - or is it a centre, I do not know - it stood there as thousands of souls circumnavigated around it, praying.

In movies, you often come across moments when there is noise everywhere and, in your mind (heart), or your reality, there is but one focus - without any noise. That comes closest to describing my Ka'aba experience.

The Khaana-e-Ka'aba experience

When the Azaan is sounded, the energy pivots in the entire complex. The stillness at this moment is sublime.

If you are fortunate enough to be able to say your prayers in the Mataf area, it is an experience you simply cannot forget. 

Everyone stands in a circle, contrary to the lines one sees at regular prayer congregations. This is the only place on Earth where this is done. 

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You do not have to look down on your prayer mat, imagining that you are standing before the Ka'aba, it is right there in front of you. It is present during your Takbir (standing), Ruku (bowing), Sajda and Tashahhud (sitting). Here, you do not have to imagine - you can just look up and feel. 

The first time I prayed at the Ka'aba, I was so overwhelmed that it is impossible to describe.

Cube of divinity

The cube structure has been built and rebuilt several times over centuries. The last major renovation took place in 1996. 

Muslims believe that it was first built by Hazrat Adam (AS). Then it was rebuilt by Hazrat Ibrahim (AS) and later Prophet Mohammad (PBUH).
Lots of change without essentially altering. Or altering completely without changing.

In the past 1,400 years, the Ka'aba has been renovated and rebuilt due to man-made and natural disasters. 

In 683 AD, the Umayyads tried to seize the Ka'aba. In the fires caused by the siege, the Ka'aba was damaged. But during its reconstruction, a space - which was once inside the Ka'aba - was left. This area is now called the Hateem. I was fortunate enough to pray there and say my peace with our Creator a couple of times.

In 1631 AD, after floods ravaged the city, the Ka'aba and the surrounding mosque had to be rebuilt entirely.

I had not realised how often the Ka'aba had to be rebuilt, changing and transforming it with each rebuild. It is something to think about. Lots of change without essentially altering. Or altering completely without changing.

The four corners of the Ka'aba roughly point along four directions; the Black Stone (Hajar-e-Aswad) is placed on the Eastern corner; the Northern wall is called Iraqi, the Western the Levantine, and the Southern corner is Yemeni.

The rock from God?

Every pilgrim who makes it to the Khaana-e-Ka'aba desires to touch, kiss and be near Hajar-e-Aswad (Blackstone). 

The story of this supposed meteorite, inset in the eastern corner of the Ka'aba's wall, is fascinating.  

Tradition says that five years before Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) was ordained with Prophethood, he helped broker peace among the local warring tribes in Makkah. 

To resolve the dispute, he removed a sheet of cloth and placed the Hajar-e-Aswad on the fabric. Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) then asked each tribe's leader to grab hold of a corner of the fabric, walked them to the eastern corner of the Ka'aba's wall, and asked them to place it.

This is how the meteorite was placed in the corner of the Ka'aba, a symbol of unity amongst differing warring tribes, a symbol of peace.

This story makes sense because the pagan dwellers of pre-Islamic Makkah worshipped many deities inside the Ka'aba. Home to so many pre-Islamic deities, common ground was needed to appease all the tribes.

Prophet Mohammad (PBUH), heralded as a conflict-remover and peace-maker, would have certainly adopted such a placating strategy to achieve peace. It is also symbolic he placed it outside of the Ka'aba rather than inside. 

The Hajar-e-Aswad was broken into eight pieces during the siege by the Umayyads in 683 AD. A catapult had smashed into it, leaving it broken. Later, Abdullah bin Zubair rejoined the black stone, piece by piece, using silver ligament in a process closer to the Japanese art of Kintsugi, where gold is used instead of silver to effect the repair.

Even more incredible, in 930 AD, the Hajar-e-Aswad was stolen by the Qarmatians, a Muslim sect from eastern Arabia. They looted Makkah and took the sacred stone to Ihsaa. It would be another 22 years before the Abbasids retrieved the Hajar-e-Aswad and returned it to its designated place in 952 AD.

This story and proximity helped satiate my curiosity about how the Hajar-e-Aswad got to that particular corner of the Ka'aba!

Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is known to have loved scents. The Hajar-e-Aswad and the black and gold drape over the Khaana-e-Ka'aba are perfumed with a scented oil - - Attar -- called Haajr-e-Aswad. 

I am not a fan of Attar, but this combination of oils and musk was heavenly. 

Muslims believe the Hajar-e-Aswad (Blackstone) is a piece from 'heaven' and is part and parcel of the Khaana-e-Ka'aba. It is believed that it was originally white in colour, but after absorbing the sins of humanity, its shade has transformed.

In reality, though, the colour of the Hajar-e-Aswad is amber and is a series of eight (meteorite) stones combined in a mesh to appear as one stone. It is now also encased in a silver peek hole that juts out of the eastern corner of the Ka'aba. 

It is also where we begin our Tawaaf for Umrah. 

Connecting with our past

The Khaana-e-Ka'aba has many wonderment parts and symbols that connect us to our past. 

One of these is Maqaam-e-Ibrahim. It is known as the place where Prophet Ibrahim (AS) stood as he rebuilt the holy building.

During my Umrah in March and then later during the Umrah just before the Hajj, I had the fortune of touching the monument of Ibrahim (AS) during every Tawaaf. Clearly, there is some message here and blessings from the CreatorCreator.

One can see the outline of a footprint, believed to belong to Prophet Ibrahim (AS), is visible on a small, red stone. This stone is encased in a tall, long gold case, which stands in front of the Ka'aba on the western side. 

Pilgrims pass it, behind or in front of it, during every Tawaaf. As we pass it, we pay respect and offer a prayer.

The Holy Quran refers to this footprint as Maqaam-e-Ibrahim, in Surah Al-Baqarh verse 125:

"When We made the House (Ka'bah of Makkah) a frequented place for men and a place of peace! Make from the Station of Ibrāhīm a place of prayer."

There is much history in every inch of the Mataaf (the area around the Khaana-e-Ka'aba).

The western courtyard of the Ka'aba is called the Hijr-e-Ismail, where Bibi Hajra's home once stood (with Ibrahim (AS) and Ismail (AS)). From here, Ibrahim built the Khana-e-Ka'aba.

I am reiterating these well-known facts of the pilgrimage of Hajj because they are so innately associated with Bibi Hajra, a woman of substance. 

Makkah became a thriving trading route once Aab-e-Zam Zam was discovered. 

As the traditions go, Bibi Hajra (AS) (the wife of Prophet Ibrahim (AS) and mother of Prophet Ismail (AS)) is responsible for the discovery of the holiest of water. 

In her anxiety to find water for her baby, she ran from one hill, Saafa, to another, Marwa. She repeated this frantic journey seven times before baby Ismail's (AS) heel indicated the location from whence the Zam Zam spring sprouted water. 

Ever since, the city of Makkah has thrived and sustained a community. 

But she did not monopolise this precious resource. Instead, she allowed anyone who needed it to have free access. 

Religious historians tell us that Adam (AS) built the first Khaana-e-Ka'aba when he walked the Earth. Ibrahim (AS) was instructed to rebuild it.

This is article is the first in a series of diaries penned by the author from her Hajj experience. Subsequent parts will be included below.