Synced: Hajj 2011


In late September, my life began to smear. A horrid pace began to take its toll. Ramadan had just concluded and I was off to Malaysia to film 26 episodes of Reflections for T.V. al-Hijrah (to be done in 5 days), my wife’s visa status still hung in the balance, my financial situation was “code red” and thoughts of relocating from the Bay to Boston were simmering. In short, I was tired, dead tired. Added to that was a massive workload that hit that Tuesday afternoon. Desk-side, I began to sift though loads of work when an email stuck out – a break to the madness that halted everything: “Suhaib, our pastor canceled! Can you make it with us this year?” That was it! A desired escape that would eject me from the pages of my life and give me some much needed GPS-ing: an invitation to Hajj.

Hajj is an act of worship that takes place in Mecca once a year for Muslims who can financially and physically bear it. Before starting the Hajj, a person takes a bath, changes into special dress. For men, this is a simple, non-stitched garment (something similar to towels that cover his private areas) and simple sandals; For women, it’s anything in accordance to Islamic dress. A person who does this is called a muhrim and stays in that state for the duration of Hajj, moving from the city of Mecca to a small valley called Mina on the 8th night of the Islamic calendar, Dhul Hijah.. At dawn of the next day the Hajjis head to the plain of Arafat where they spend the day in worship by supplicating, reflecting, or reading the Qur’an. After that, they leave Arafat shortly after sunset and spend a good part of the night in a place called Muzdalifa; they return to Mina the next morning. Next, they throw stones at the major pillar, to remember God, return to Mecca to observe certain religious rituals in the Sacred Mosque, the men cut their hair, and then they all return to Mina for the 11th, 12th, and, if they choose, they stay there until the 13th day of the month. In short, there is a lot of walking and a lot of people – this year between 4 and 5 million attended Hajj.

I had been to Mecca before, once on Hajj ten years ago, and once for the minor pilgrimage (`Umrah) a few years back, but this time was different. I was older and my thirst had changed. My first Hajj was for Mecca. This Hajj was for repair. The first time was muddled with awe. This time was different; I was broken. If my first Hajj was an attempt to be Malcolm-esque, this one was an attempt to be al-Ghazali: to escape – to find peace through isolation. But things were far from peaceful.

Upon my return to the States from Malaysia, I was told I had one day left to get everything done! I left the airport and headed straight for the county’s health department. Shots done! Next it was picture time. Done! Then, I had to rush to FedEx everything before 5pm. Done! It was not until late into the evening that I had a chance to finally put my head to bed and my body in “Airplane Mode.” But, before I could, a storm set in. My phone began to blaze with streaks of lightening, warning of incoming showers; unattended messages from the last 2 weeks began to pour in. I was now, like never before, searching desperately for the eject button.

People ask, “What is Hajj like?” “Did you gain that spiritual high?” The answer is, yes. But, what I learned from Hajj is that in many cases, eject is not the best option. My experience taught me that Hajj is not so much internal as it is external. Instead of mute, I hit bass boost. Hajj was not a place to escape and gain some internal insight. It was a place to pray on an escalator, the sidewalk and, in some cases, on people’s heels. It was a place where getting bumped and stepped on is constant. All of that while managing demands of every sort, internal and external, and ordered by God to keep it all cool; to keep Him in my sights while being hit by wave after wave of discomfort; to keep a balance between acts of worship, serving others and taking care of myself. My job was to sync my responsibilities to God with humanity. What I learned about myself was priceless.

My attempt at seclusion was just a manifestation of my selfishness. Hajj taught me that to truly give, to truly attain bliss, I must turn that spiritual energy inward and outward, trying my best to let what few good qualities I had crack the darkness of my soul and shine. It was not about me, it was about us. What I discovered was that instead of instructing us to flee from this world, faith encourages its engagement; to reflect God’s grace to others. Because that is one of the greatest signs of His benevolence:

“The merciful ones, God is merciful to them.”

“Who does not exercise mercy, will not receive God’s mercy.”

“Spread excellence, as God has been excellent to you.”

All these important religious texts kept echoing in my mind.

So, now that I handled the stress and strain of walking, eating, waiting, praying, crying, supplicating and living with 4 million people, the work load at my office will seem less, angry congregants will pass without trouble and the stress of life, family, and kids will drop a few notches. What makes all this incredible is that it was learnt in one of the most crowded and uncomfortable places I have ever been. But, instead of fleeing from it, I understood that it was by engaging in it that I was able to escape myself! Hajj gave me a great respect for “The best medicine tastes the worst.” I can only thank God that the patient doesn’t write the prescription.

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19 Comments

  1. Julie - UK says:

    Imam Suhaib, thanks for your honesty! I can relate to much of this, my own Hajj journey happened very last minute and I was also thrust into the ‘chaos’ that is Hajj. And you are right, that quiet, calm, solace that we all think we will find…..just doesn’t happen. But as you say, surely that is the challenge and yes, where the reward lies :-). God Bless you for the great work you are doing.

  2. Fezz says:

    Lol. Sounds like a spiritual warzone. But the last ones standing with their temper witheld, anger restrained and frustration unloaded claim the prize. Intersting how the most stressful part of Hajj has shifted from (in the past) being the journey to Makkah to (at present) being the actual rituals themselves.

  3. Ramadan says:

    Jazakallahu khayr sheikh, it was very inspirational mashallah.

  4. Yasmin says:

    Jazakallah khair for this very true and eloquent post!

  5. Aisha, UK says:

    Assalam-o-Alaikulm Imam Suhaib,

    This was a great article and I was Allhamdullillah awarded the opportunity to go to Hajj this year. It was my first time in Saudi Arabia and so it was an interesting experience. Yes you are right, it was difficult where pushing and shoving was normal but Allhamdullillah Allah made us overcome these hardships and challenges and blessed us in being able to complete all Hajj rituals.

    (Allah knows best)

  6. Omar A. says:

    Assalam alaikum Imam. I really appreciate you sharing your experience. It helps myself and other readers understand that men (and women) of spiritual knowledge are only human too, like the rest of us, and bring them down to earth. Too often, I see scholars being asked to provide everything from marriage advice to financial advise and everything in between. This is a LOT to ask of one person. Surely, scholars have a wisdom which permeates all aspects of life, but we need to develop “subject matter experts” in our community so as to lift the excessive burden off of our shuyukh. I also see scholars face the pressure of celebrity (for example, they are surrounded after a talk, asked to take photos, etc). I myself and tempted (who wouldn’t want to be associated with someone they respect), but I purposely lay low, and try to give some space. We appreciate you making yourself so accessible (in person and via these sorts of written anecdotes). Thanks again for sharing your personal experience (in addition to the sacred knowledge) and I look forward to more of these types of insights, iA.

  7. Haroon says:

    An encapsulating read. One can only hope the virtues of Hajj remain long enough for the next time!

  8. AR says:

    Very insightful and true. JazakAllah very much for this

  9. Sofia says:

    It’s wonderful to read an account from someone who also went in the year I was called :-) alhumdolillah

    Certain aspects were tougher to deal with than others…for me ..hygiene n basic manners & etiquettes were an issue among certain sections of the global Muslim community. Still ..being my first ever visit, I was humbled by Gods call…and in complete awe the whole time I was there.

    I have an unusual request to make, imam suhaib..please pray for me :-) its been 4 weeks since I returned from this epic journey, and already it feels so much has happened since that I’m beginning to get pulled in & lost in this world and I fear risking the contract I’ve made with the Almighty. I desperately want to return and my soul once again longs for the beauty that is His house & tranquility all around the haramain. I pray everyone gets to experience this once in their lifetime inshallah.

    Thankyou for allowing me to re live my dream, momentarily. :-)

  10. Zoheb says:

    Jazakallah khayr for this timely reminder Imam Will!

  11. Yaqub says:

    As’salaamolaikum. Honesty with articulation in regards to sharing your experience with one of the pillars of a Muslim’s faith..thank you for sharing your thoughts Imam Webb.

    For those of us who haven’t yet had the chance to partake in Hajj (myself included)…may Allah SWT grant us the opportunity to do so iA.

  12. A Wife says:

    THESE COMMENTS MEANT A LOT TO ME: “My attempt at seclusion was just a manifestation of my selfishness. Hajj taught me that to truly give, to truly attain bliss, I must turn that spiritual energy inward and outward, trying my best to let what few good qualities I had crack the darkness of my soul and shine. It was not about me, it was about us. What I discovered was that instead of instructing us to flee from this world, faith encourages its engagement; to reflect God’s grace to others. Because that is one of the greatest signs of His benevolence..” – the reason why it meant so much to me is that some religious people insist that they need to get away from it all, and go away for a few days every month or so to ‘revive’ their imaan! Leaving their families behind. What about the parents & wives & kids? They are at home trudging through life too! So it seems very selfish that some men would want to go away from it all… Apologies for the rant. Something that strikes a cord with me personally. JazakAllah brother Web for being straigtforward & honest. May Allah make things easy for you…

  13. Ms Ishak says:

    SubhanAllah what you described is so true. Hajj is the great equalizer…the strength required to dig deep within oneself and apply patience and fortitude is just unfathomable. But once you go over that threshold and ‘get’ the lesson… Its is really an opportunity for growth and a beautiful thing. Syukur alhamdulillah I managed to complete my Hajj..despite being hospitalised and struck with a cough which is still with me, I had the most amazing journey and really understand that there is beauty in striving and humility.

  14. Alhamdulillah, I too, was humbled by the special invitation to Hajj, this year. I felt that I have learnt more about myself,people and Allah’s greatness and went through an experience beyond words….
    My du’a each day is to be invited again, Insyaallah.

  15. Adam Menhat says:

    I love the show and episodes in Reflections, Tv Al Hijrah. Thank you Imam Suhaib.

  16. Dreamlife says:

    JazakAllah for sharing. I too have realised the selfishness of wanting that seclusion – and how much of life is more about interaction with others – and trying to achieve good that way, rather than holing up and being alone.

    That said, time alone – with Allah – is essential. But the best hours for that are the middle of the night, when everyone’s asleep. I would guess the wisdom in the Prophetic sunnah of tahajjud / qiyam-ul layl is that those are the times where the busy-ness of life subside, and we can focus more clearly beyond this world – on our relationship with Allah.

    May ALlah take all those who haven’t been for Hajj to His sacred House (and for them – remember that – regardless of how ‘possible’ it seems for you to go soon – it all starts with sincere intention, then dua, then your own sincere efforts and sabr…so set yourself up for success in this way).

    And for those who have been, may Allah accept it from us, preserve the reward of it for us until Qiyammah (i.e. not let us lose that reward via sins in this world), enable us to maintain our Hajj and live it till we die; and take us back to those blessed lands many times more.

  17. seef says:

    Thank you Imam Webb for this vivid description of Hajj. I was blessed to also make the Hajj with my wife this year, and the discomfort factor stands out. I am still processing everything i witnessed and experienced, and trying to ‘synthesize’ it all into something seems to be an ongoing process. I experienced Hajj over a few days, but the impact on my mind continues to echo, and probably will for years. The Muslims from all over the world (except South America, I didn’t notice anyone from there), the generosity of the Saudis in constructing all of the facilities was something to behold. The veritable miracles I experienced, for example, I prayed for Allah to bless my rizk, and the next day, when I counted my Saudi Riyals, I had exactly 786. If this hadn’t happened to me, I would be very skeptical that this actually happened, but it did. There were a couple of other times that my prayers to Allah were answered in the most amazing way, and then there were the food miracles. No matter what I asked for – banana bread, banana splits, pancakes, okra, falafel – it was miraculously available in a day or two. The hardships I endured, chief among them the complaining about the hardships from the people around me, added a degree of difficulty to the whole experience. But the miracles, and the wonderful encounters with wonderful people, are things that I am grateful for, things that I hold close, things that speak to me in a language that can only come from Allah. It is the memory of these encounters that sustain me in my post-Hajj high. I am not planning on going back, because I discovered that being close to the Kaaba, although a monumental blessing, is not the same as being close to Allah, so what I pray for now is to be among the Qariboon, those who are close to Allah.
    The Imam’s story is a perfect example of what Hajj represents to each pilgrim: the hardships that we, as believers, must individually struggle through to achieve the ultimate reward. Allah declares in the Quran, “Man achieves nothing but what he strives for.” Hajj forces us to strives, and rewards us each, individually. It is a living breathing metaphor for life itself. I have to disagree with the Imam that it is an escape. Maybe I misunderstood the Imam’s intention, but I don’t feel there is any escape from what Allah intends for us, but there is infinite mercy and protection for us all. In spite of receiving His blessings, we continue to err and to fail, and then we are further blessed by His gift of allowing us to remember Him and to Worship Him and to ask Him directly for His forgiveness, and to thank Him for all these blessings.
    Hajj was a struggle for everyone, and afterwards, sitting outside the Holy Mosque, my wife and I started to play a game to stave off the bitterness we started feeling towards all the masses who relentlessly shoved us: punch buggy smiley guy. We would scan the crowds to find people who were smiling, and because everyone was like us – tired, stressed, living out of a suitcase, hot, thirsty, struggling with bathroom issues, and feeling bad about feeling bad THIS far from the Kaaba, most people were not smiling. But it was never more than a few seconds before we saw another smiley guy.
    May Allah accept out Hajjes, and make it easy for those who intend to go to make the journey.

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