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Hajj draws Muslims closer to spiritual roots

Monday, March 22, 1999

By Ervin Dyer, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The sight of the grand mosque in Mecca is nothing short of stunning. It is as magnificent as it is graceful. The building and its courtyard are large enough to hold more than 2 million people. The walls, floors and arches of the mosques are made of marble. Scattered about the cool interiors are plush prayer rugs and elaborate carts filled with Korans, the Muslim holy book. The sunlight that filters through the many porticos washes the mosque in a golden glow.

  Walter Shaahid shows the front part of Kaaba with Qu'an text that he brought back from Mecca. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette)

After five years, the memories of seeing the mosque for the first time still hold for Walter Shaahid, 42, of Garfield, who in 1994 made hajj, the spiritual pilgrimage that millions of Muslims undertake each year to Mecca.

As of yesterday, people from all over the world began flooding into the holy city in Saudi Arabia in preparation for the six-day, centuries-old religious observance, which starts Thursday and draws Muslims closer to their spiritual roots.

The hajj begins on the eighth day of Dhul-Hijjah, the 12th month on the Islamic lunar calendar, and is marked as a period of sacred religious rituals and a time of extreme peace. It connects the pilgrims to the struggles and sacrifices of the prophet Abraham, his wife Hagar and their son Ishmael, to whom Muslims trace their spiritual origins.

Yet for all its religious symbolism and beauty, physically hajj can be a beast.

"Remember," said Shaahid, "you go to do Allah's bidding. It's not a vacation."

Not by a long shot.

The spiritual journey is a grueling passage. It can be hot, germy and sometimes fatal. In the searing desert sun, temperatures in Saudi Arabia can range from 80 to more than 100 degrees during the day - in the shade.

Because Dhul-Hijjah is a lunar month, it begins about 11 days earlier each year and occasionally shifts the hajj into some cooler periods.

As the holy city for Muslims, Mecca attracts crowds around the clock every day of the year. During hajj those numbers can swell to overwhelming. Last year, an estimated 2.3 million pilgrims flocked to the city. When Shaahid went he shared a room with 15 people in accommodations that were built to hold only three. "We slept on mats," he said.

Despite the peaceful theme of hajj, the crowds get an enormous spiritual energy, said Adel Fergany, a computer scientist from Monroeville, who made hajj in 1997 and plans to attend this year with his wife. While the high degree of emotionalism transcends much of the physical difficulty, he said, any misstep can be magnified.

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Last year, for example, 180 people were trampled as the throngs rushed forward to "stone the devil," an ancient ritual symbolizing the rejection of evil. The year before, 343 people were killed when a fire - swept by high winds - stormed through 70,000 tents that pilgrims had set up in the hillsides outside of Mecca. Tragic as they are, the deaths are part of the fabric of Islamic tradition, which holds that Allah sends Muslims who die during the pilgrimage directly to paradise.

Allah himself must have known that when the multitudes gathered in Mecca they would be challenged. As a result, it is commanded that Muslims keep their cool for the entire trip, not hurting anything, not even a fly. Arguments are forbidden, as are marital sexual relations. All who go must strive for cleanliness and purity.

Remaining calm, however, is no easy task. Moving around the tightly packed hordes can be irritating, said Shaahid.

The intensity of the experience elevates even simple tasks into a test of faith.

Saudi officials and businesses supply plenty of water, but gaining entry to bathrooms can slow to a crawl, and having access to mosques and other holy sites can reach a standstill.

Holy it may be, but Mecca is a city nevertheless. So, commercialism is a reality, and the attitudes of businessmen and bureaucrats can cause major stress. Not far from the Grand Mosque, places such as McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken have set up shop, and vendors constantly hawk their trinkets and perfumes. Pilgrims should be aware that taxi drivers, bank tellers, guards and others may not reflect the spirit of hajj.

"I didn't have any problems," said Nasir Rashada, 55, of Swissvale, who made the hajj last year. "But you could see they were pretty busy folk."

Unity and devotion

Hajj is one of five "pillars" of Islam, which form the framework for Muslim life. The others are: Shahada, a declaration of faith; Salat, obligatory prayers done five times a day; Zakat, sharing wealth with the less fortunate; and fasting from first light until sundown every year during the month of Ramadan.

All Muslims who are physically and financially able must make hajj at least once in their lifetime.

At its most basic, getting to hajj is an act of worship that must be undertaken in peace and with single-minded devotion.

The rituals performed there are part of an observance that's more than 3,700 years old. They stretch back more than 1,000 years before the story of Moses crossing the Red Sea to the Muslim prophet Abraham, a central figure also to the Jewish and Christian faiths.

Abraham is important to Muslims because he is the prophet who consciously accepted the oneness of God and introduced the attitude of equal humanity to the Muslim community. Both themes are central to hajj, as it is a time to remove earthly barriers and unite in spirit and celebrate the rejection of idol worship.

The mass gathering of millions draped in ihram, the hajj wardrobe of two white unsewn pieces of cotton, not able to tell rich from poor, is an extraordinary symbol of this unity and equality.

Because of the loose, sometimes revealing nature of the clothing, women are not required to wear it, though it is mandatory for male pilgrims.

Witnessing the diverse cultures standing in brotherhood and reconnecting to one God can be transforming. It was an experience that changed Malcolm X's often militant views toward his blue-eyed, blond-haired brethren.

Labors of spirit

By most accounts, the other rituals of hajj are just as moving.

The first is the tawaf, which requires that pilgrims circle seven times around the Kaaba, the sacred structure in the grand mosque that is believed to have been built by Adam and rebuilt by Abraham.

Attorney Peter Wright, 38, of Edgewood made hajj in 1997 and remembers the ritual well.

"It is an experience of extremes," he said. "I had a chance to touch the Kaaba and standing there in my ihram, stripped down to humanity and feeling at one with everybody else, you don't miss the symbolism. But it was crowded and there was a lot of jostling." Wright can't remember how he got so near the Kaaba, but, he said, "You just go with the flow."

For the sa'i, or hastening, pilgrims must run or briskly walk seven times between the two hills of Safa and Marwa, which are a mile apart. This is the route taken by Abraham's wife, Hagar, who was left alone in the desert and was looking for water for her child when the nearby well of Zamzam miraculously gushed forth.

This ritual shows that Islam recognizes the struggles of women, said Rashida Brookins of Highland Park. Brookins, a mother of seven and grandmother of 11, went to Mecca in 1998 for the last 10 days of Ramadan. That holy time, while sacred, is considered to be a lesser hajj because all the rituals aren't required.

Brookins is headed back this year and is looking forward to full participation in hajj, she said, "while I still can."

Pilgrims also must travel outside of Mecca to perform several of the rituals. In Mina, a few miles from the holy city, they stay for almost 24 hours, and then proceed to the nearby Plain of Arafat, where the Prophet Muhammad gave his farewell sermon.

They then travel to the town of Muzdalifah, collect pea-size pebbles and symbolically throw them at the devil. Toward the end of hajj, pilgrims sacrifice an animal and give meat to the poor, clip their hair, do another seven rounds of the Kaaba and walk between Safa and Marwa, throwing more pebbles on two different days. On the final day, they make another seven circuits around the Kaaba.

Pilgrims exert considerable physical effort during hajj. From beginning to end, the rites demand a great deal of strength and endurance. Pilgrims can eat during the hajj, but many use some days of the occasion to fast.

The constant crush of hundreds of thousands of other pilgrims, each trying to perform the same rites at the same time in limited spaces and very hot weather, compounds the stress and heightens the demand for good physical conditioning and mental toughness.

In preparing for the rigors, Shaahid began a program of walking and jogging for 20 to 30 minutes a day about three to four months before his departure.

There also is much mental preparation. Pilgrims are encouraged to familiarize themselves with all aspects of hajj, memorizing and learning the meaning of the prayers involved, which are recited in Arabic.

The more you know about hajj and its obligations and prohibitions, said Shaahid, the more comfortable and at peace you will feel during the whole process.

In many ways, he added, overcoming the stresses of hajj is a metaphor for what must be done in life.

"The aim is to always seek the peace of Allah," he said. "It teaches us that all of life is a spiritual quest."

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