Hajj Diaries: The Magnetic Power Of Makkah

Hajj Diaries: The Magnetic Power Of Makkah
In this moving narrative, Nilofer Qazi describes her pilgrimage to Makkah that was a spiritual awakening and an intense brush with history. Click here for the first part.


As I went on this pilgrimage, many people told me: "You will feel the Jalali power of Makkah."

This is a male energy – if one can categorise energy by gender: majestic and a sense of great power. My experience was to the contrary, leaving me perplexed.

When I think about my experience of this city's energy, it was nurturing and warm, and I now understand why.

Every Umrah and every Tawaaf around the Kaabah honours and walks in Bibi Hajra's steps. A mother was protecting her child and seeking essential life (substance) at all lengths.

Is this not the very essence of our relationship with our Lord?

For me, this city is a magnet. It pulls your heart and cleanses your soul. It is a space for you and your Creator.

Ziauddin Sardar, the well-known British author who has written extensively about Makkah in his book (https://www.amazon.com/Mecca-Sacred-City-Ziauddin-Sardar/dp/1620402661), once said, "The human need for both solitude and togetherness is all present in Makkah[…] It is the taproot of individual identity and the common link of an entire worldwide community.”

This is the perfect way of explaining the experience of the pilgrim. The millions of souls around you, the noise, the constant movement of humanity and yet, the silent communing with your Maker in absolute purity.

I've tried to explain this to those who have asked what it was like to be there. But some questions can't be answered. They must be experienced.

Having done an Umrah earlier, and then the Haj, I was able to better experience what the pilgrimage is. I say this because the Haj is extremely hectic, time sensitive and there is a lot of traveling back and forth in a short span of time. It is ritualistic and logistically challenging when you think of 2-3 million people moving in a 30 km radius simultaneously.

The time to contemplate and absorb the enormity of what we are undertaking is miniscule. For example, consider the process of arriving at Arafat, the mount where the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) gave his last sermon, and where the day of Judgement will be held. When our beloved Prophet (PBUH) was asked “What is Haj?” His answer was “Arafat.”

This is where we seek forgiveness. This is where all sins are forgiven. Muslims believe Adam was even forgiven his original sin here.

Ahmed Zaka, our group leader, had the sensibility to take us back to Mount Arafat after the Haj was completed. We were unable to experience Arafat with the millions of pilgrims on the mount on the day of Haj, nor able to go near or hear the sermon at Masjid e Namirah. Therefore, after the Haj, we returned to Arafat so that we could climb the mountain (hill actually) and just see and be at the summit to be in our thoughts and prayers. This is the Jabel e Rehmat – the Mount of Forgiveness. I will forever be grateful for that, because on the day of 'Arafat' like so many millions of pilgrims we were unable to see or go to the Mount of Arafat or Masjid e Namirah where the Prophet prayed two prayers before he moved to Muzdalifah.

I must admit: during the Haj, one is so preoccupied with completing our prayers and travelling in time from one location to another that the meditation and absorbing the energy of 1,400 years of collective worship escapes many. It escaped me. I was disappointed at the time, but when we revisited all the places after the Haj, and I had time to contemplate, I believe the purpose of this pilgrimage seeps in slowly but powerfully in one's essential self.

Mina, a neighbourhood 9 km outside of Makkah city, is where we camp during the Haj rituals. It is from here we move between various places for specific rituals. First, we arrived and parked ourselves in a tent (city). I shared my tent with 28 other pilgrims. We spent approximately 22 hours here, time for all five (six including tahajud) prayers, before we move towards Arafat, where we prayed Zuhr and Asr prayers (together as the Prophet did) and then quickly again move before Magrib, to Muzdalifah – an open-air space for the night. For me that was approximately 70 hours of no sleep.

As with large movements of pilgrims, timing is of the essence. Our tour group Zaka is amazing and incredibly organised. But they can't control the logistical arrangements by the government of Saudi or the traffic control managers. It took us nine hours to cover the 11 km distance. We had elderly pilgrims with us and not so abled in our group of 270 pilgrims. Therefore, the group leaders were not comfortable with some of us walking independently this distance. There is always wisdom in God's plans.

We arrived in Muzdalifah at 3 am just (thankfully) before Fajr prayer time. We managed to do our Maghrib and Isha in jamaat (group) on a tiny space of rocky mud ground. And at 3:30 am did our Tahajud prayers and soon after, Fajr, all together, before we left for Mina again.

The most difficult part of my Haj was when we went to Jamraat, a mere 800m from Mina where pilgrims go and 'stone Satan.'

This part of the of Haj is another pre-Islamic pagan ritual, which follows the footsteps of Ibrahim and our beloved Prophet. We symbolically stone Satan seven times, remembering when Satan tried to test Ibrahim by attempting to dissuade him from listening to God's (test) request to sacrifice 'what is most precious to you' (Ismail his son). Similarly, Satan tried again by approaching Bibi Hajra, to prevent the sacrifice. Finally, Satan also tried to persuade Ismail not to allow his father by trying to create a wedge between father and son.

Jamraat is an area where these incidents happened. Today there are three large slabs of granite walls, where pilgrims throw stones, symbolising their rejection of Satan's lures.

This seemingly simple part of the pilgrimage should have been easy peesy, a mere 800 metres from our camp in Mina. But of course, the Almighty is all knowing and has a sense of humour. My experience of walking to Jamraat was an endless trek uphill (5 km) in 50 degrees of sun beating down on my sleep-deprived self. I remember dragging my feet one after the other, praying to God that I do not stumble or faint. I also remember playing footsie with plastic bottles on the ground, constantly trying to make me stumble. As we arrived too stone Satan, Ahmed Zaka sb (God bless him) found a corner where we could throw our stones (pebbles) without anyone in front of us.

God does open ways where He sees the need. All I remember is how difficult it was to come and stone our Satan. The easiest part of the Haj turned out to be the most challenging for me.

There are so many feelings and energies that flow and wash all over, that it is difficult to share them on paper. The sense of community that one builds amongst pilgrim companions instantly creates lifelong friendships of the heart. Spending days and nights with the same purpose, different journeys, helping each other, is a bond that God presents us as a gift. A very personal journey through a collective pilgrimage of service of love. I made lovely friends and was blessed to travel with two close friends.

After the completion of all Haj rituals and an additional Umrah, we had the opportunity to revisit some of the places we had gone as pilgrims. I think this was important. We could feel it from another gaze and have the time to contemplate in peace.

Some of our pilgrim friends had the opportunity to visit and climb Ghar e Hira and Ghar e Noor. Two caves which have very powerful significance in our Muslim history. The former is where Angel Gabriel revealed to Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) that he was the final messenger of God. Hira Cave was a space he frequented often to contemplate and meditate.

Cave Noor was another incredible space. It is here the Prophet sought refuge with Hazrat Abu Bakr (RA), his companion (later the first Caliph), when the pagan Makkans, were hunting him and the first Muslims. Every Muslim child grows up with the story of how a spider protected our beloved Prophet (PBUH) from chasing pagans. It is why we do not kill spiders. That story comes from this cave's history. The spider miraculously spun a web to detract the Makkans from looking inside.

Even more interesting, I learned how the Prophet (PBUH) taught Hazrat Abu Bakr (RA) how to perform Zikr (spiritual meditation and chanting) in this cave. I have always thought Zikr was associated with Hazrat Ali (AS), but according to some, Islamic Zikr began with the Prophet and then through Hazrat Abu Bakr (RA). Interesting.

The snake that bit Hazrat Abu Bakr (RA) and spoke to our beloved Prophet (PBUH) was also in Ghar e Nur. Abu Bakr (RA) placed his hand in a hole where a snake was trying to enter. It bit him. The pain of the bite woke up the resting Prophet(PBUH). The blessed Prophet asked as to what was causing him so much pain. On finding out the reason, immediately Muhammad (PBUH) asked Abu Bakr (RA) to remove his hand and let the snake inside the cave. The Snake spoke to the Prophet (PBUH) and said that he had been waiting to meet him for centuries, as it had been foretold he would come here. In fact, the snake had prayed to God to grant him an extended life, to be able to meet him once, before he returned to the beloved.

This story really struck me deeply.

I have thought on it and why. Every sentient creation of the Almighty has a soul, is of value, loved equally. The respect God gives to all of us is also the respect that we must give to all his creations. From the sentient to the inanimate, the world is His creation, and we are but custodians which must only love, respect and live in harmony.

After the Haj we also had an opportunity to visit some incredible mosques and specifically associated with the Haj. The Al-Khayf Mosque in Mina is where the Prophet (PBUH) prayed during his Haj and delivered one of his last sermons. The name of this mosque has also been mentioned in a well know Islamic prayer called Simat. Few know of this mosque and even fewer that it is only open to the public during the Haj.

I was curious about this mosque and did a little research. The word "Khayf" means the feet of the mountain, also the land between two mountains. This mosque is built at the feet of Safa'ih (Sabih) mountain in Mina. Islamic scholars claim many prophets have come to this location and prayed here. And therefore, the Last Prophet (PBUH) of God, is one in a series which has blessed this place of worship. Something quite powerful about that when one stands there. The topography of this entire area is like my Balochistan. At a subliminal level, I think the bond is strengthened by the visual similarity.

Another landmark Masjid is Mashar al-Haram, which is in Muzdalifah. This mosque marks where the Prophet (PBUH) prayed during his Haj. It is located midway between Masjid al-Khayf in Mina and Masjid al-Namirah in Arafat.

As I have mentioned earlier my experience of Muzdalifah is one for the books. Only those who have experienced Haj would understand how we could take 9 hours to travel 11 km. It was quite the journey. Instead of spending 9 hours in the open air of Muzdalifah, we just barely made it in time for Fajr prayers. I can only hope the organisers of the Haj improve the traffic management so that there is less emphasis on the facilitation of VIPs, who are provided open roads, while blocking the millions of pilgrims, jamming them onto congested one way traffic. God has His plans and purpose and therefore there must be a lesson and learning in these realities.

There are some observations that I can't in good conscience overlook. The Haj is an equaliser if there is ever an opportunity for Muslims during the most sacred of pilgrimages. But the VIP culture that has grown, over the decades and generations, has become starkly disconcerting.
I recall asking our guide through the Haj as to “Where are the homes of our first Muslims in Makkah?” Just imagining them and their lives here fills me with such wonderment and curiosity. Where is the local museum or archives of the first Muslims?

As a Hajan it is very unsettling to see pilgrims on the road asleep, exhausted on heaps of plastic waste, hot burning cement and tarmac roads. Everyone has come to Makkah at great expense and for some, lifetime of savings for this religious duty. The Saudis are custodians of the two holiest of Mosques and have but one duty – prepare for the Haj and Hajans all year round.

Today, the areas around the hills of Makkah are bereft of bush-grass, shrub or its original arid rocky sand. The modernisation of this area has tarmacked every inch of rocky hilly terrain into a cemented heat-absorbing parking lot. The heat of 48-50 degrees Celsius is exponentially worsened by every concrete structure that has replaced the mud sand and rock terrain.

Muzdalifah, which is an integral part of the Haj experience, is meant to be where pilgrims commune under the open skies. Instead of sand, mud and natural terrain as their bed, the pilgrims must sleep and lie down on concrete.

In one way, God was very kind and kept us in the bus for most of the time we should have been in Muzdalifah – for this reason? I prayed and contemplated as we choked our way to Muzdalifah.

I thought of a saying I read about Makkah, '"We sow not wheat or sorghum, the pilgrims are our crops." I think it would be wise to remember the purpose of any modernisation or development of the holiest of holy areas. We must remain with nature as God intended.

When I returned from Haj, I had an overwhelming need to better understand Makkah.

I did not know that 'Makkah’ was a girl's name in old Arabic! I did you know the city of Makkah has five names! All of them are mentioned in the Holy Quran: Makkah, Bakkah, Al-Balad, Al-Qaryah, and Umm-ul-Qura. I love the idea of having so many names. It gives depth angles and perspectives. Multiplicity in Unity. In fact, it reminds me of some of the wonderful conversations I had with taxi drivers, local shopkeepers and residents.

A Rohingya taxi driver blew my mind when he said, “You think New York is a multi-cultural city, Makkah has every community you can imagine represented here.” It dawned on me how true that is. For millennia people from around the world have come here; some stayed back and settled naturally. I met other Rohingya shopkeepers settled here for 5 generations; had an amazing meal at an Uzbek restaurant, run by someone who moved here 11 generations ago. There were lots of Bengalis. I believe there is a Sindhi neighbourhood in Makkah as well. There will be so many other communities, their life stories of settlement in Makkah would be so fascinating. I hope someone has done work in this area. This would enrich our knowledge of the city that beckons a billion and more.

A conversation I had rings in my heart, "Mecca used to be a symbol of Muslim diversity and it needs to be again."

I recall asking our guide through the Haj as to “Where are the homes of our first Muslims in Makkah?” Just imagining them and their lives here fills me with such wonderment and curiosity. Where is the local museum or archives of the first Muslims? I was told that there are fewer than 20 structures remaining in Makkah that date back to the time of the Prophet (PBUH) 1,400 years ago. The lost histories includes the house of Bibi Khadijah, the wife of the Prophet (PBUH), which was demolished to make way for public lavatories. The house of Abu Bakr (RA), the Prophet's companion, is now the site of the local Hilton hotel; and the Mosque of Abu-Qubais, now the location of the King's palace in Makkah.

As we walked from the Haram Sharif on one of our visits, our guide pointed to where the Prophet's (PBUH) home was on Suq al-Layl Street. It is behind the Kaabah and the Haram Sharif. Close by is also Bibi Khadija's home before she married the Prophet (PBUH). This area is called Banu Hashim district. This area has so much history of our beloved Prophet (PBUH), including the home of his uncle Abu Talib. It is here where the Prophet of Islam was born on the 12th of Rabi al-Awal of the Year of the Elephant, a date that corresponds to 8 June 570.

Bibi Khadijah was an independent wealthy businesswoman. Her home with Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was in the Fatima al-Zahra' Street. It is here she bore six children; two sons, Qasim and Abdullah (neither survived infancy) and four daughters: Zaynab, Ruqayyah, Umm Kulthum and Fatimah. All these historic homes are no longer visible. They have been destroyed over time and now are rubble under fortress palaces overlooking the Haram Sharif.

Time doesn't wait for monuments or markings. There are two revered graveyards for Muslims, one in Madinah Sharif called Jannat e Baqi and one in Makkah, Jannat al Mullah.

In Jannat al Mullah, there are many first Muslims buried. Foremost is Bibi Khadija, along with her two sons. The Prophet's (PBUH) grandfather, many first Muslim companions and scholars are also resting here. This graveyard was walking distance from our hotel in Makkah. It is barricaded and women are not allowed to enter. Some things haven't changed sadly. In the tradition of the Wahabis, the graves are unmarked and barely mud mounds. Thankfully, Bibi Khadija's grave site is distinguished by a mud lane, separating it from the others and it is guarded. I paid my salaams and Fatiha from behind a latticed wall. I am sure our beloved Mother heard our prayers and salaams.

I was curious as to where our Prophet's (PBUH) mother Bibi Aminah was buried. I was told that her final resting place was outside of Makkah toward Madinahh, in a place called Al Abwa. When Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was six years old, Bibi Aminah took him to visit her relatives in Yathrib (Madinah old name). Soon after they returned to Makkah a month later, Bibi Aminah fell ill and passed away around the year 577 or 578. She was buried in a village called Al-Abwa. Her grave was apparently bulldozed in 1998. The Saudi government did not want her grave to become a pilgrimage site. They believe that is an un-Islamic practice.

Reading some of the old travellers to Makkah, I came across some very interesting notes.

“Makkah always hazardous, open at the best of times only to a small proportion of affluent Muslims, the pilgrimage brought a taste of high Islamic civilisation to a provincial trading town.”

Medieval travel writers such as the Persian Nasir Khusraw and the Tunisian Ibn Battuta described the city's brackish water and perfume-steeped women – "of rare and surpassing beauty, pious and chaste." They traipsed round the tourist traps (starting with the birthplace of the Prophet PBUH), building up to the Haj itself, when the compass of the city expanded, in a splendid contemporary phrase, like "a uterus for the foetus.”

Can you imagine Makkah like that? How times have changed.

Another amazing account of Makkah comes from Nawab Sikander Begum, ruler of Bhopal, who was robbed blind by the Makkans and subjected to an ordeal by hospitality by the Sharif of Makkah, who besieged her with food without extending her the courtesy of an invitation. At length, she deplored the holy city's "miserly and covetous" inhabitants, and regretted that it had become a magnet for every dubious type from her own country. There are fascinating stories of pilgrims and travellers about this city.

What I am more curious about now are the current inhabitants and their stories.

A city born out of giving water to a babe, cradling multiple civilisations, thrived as a trading route for explores of all hues. Today there is a religious bar on non-Muslims entering Makkah. This came into effect long after the Prophet's (PBUH) death and had a profoundly damaging effect on what Sardar describes as the "moral heart of his mission … peaceful coexistence."