What Hajj really means

2009-12-28 00:00

STANDING with about three million people from all over the globe and reciting this prayer sounds like a life-changing experience. Muslims who have been on pilgrimage or Hajj to Mecca will tell you that indeed it is.

About 200 Pietermaritzburg residents were among the 5 000 South Africans who returned recently from Hajj in Saudi Arabia. The group included businessman ­Zaid ­Bayat and has wife Farhana, of Mountain Rise, and Cape Town dietician Ayesha ­Seedat, who grew up in Port Shepstone.

Seedat went with her husband Zaheed: “We were fortunate to go at a young age, as many people go only when they are old as they have to save up all their lives to go.”

For Seedat, the highlight of the seven-week trip was “seeing so many people from different walks of life, different races and colours, unified in their desire to get to a higher level of spirituality. I found what I was looking for and it was definitely the experience of a lifetime,” she said.

The Bayats made their own pilgrimage in 1996 and this year went as volunteer helpers with Khidmatul A’waam Pilgrim services (Kaps) [see box].

Male pilgrims wear Ihraam or Hajj clothing consisting of two sheets of white unhemmed cloth. Women must dress modestly, covering their figures from head to toe and showing only their faces and hands. The clothing symbolises humility, modesty and that “we are all special, all equal in the eyes of the Almighty. There is no difference between a prince and a pauper”.

Seedat believes she returned “more aware of the Creator, a softer person and definitely more patient. You have to have much patience to deal with many things on the trip, like the crowds of people and the traffic congestion.”

Hajj is the fifth pillar of Islam, which all Muslims are required to do once in their life, if health and finances permit it. It is not only the largest annual gathering of Muslims, but the largest pilgrimage in the world. Saudi Arabia has established a Hajj Ministry (Muassassa) especially to handle the logistics of the approximately five million people who usually pass through the country during the week of Hajj. The number was limited to three million this year because of concern about swine ’flu. In allocating visas to go on Hajj, the South African Umrah and Hajj council (SAHUC) gives priority to the elderly and first-time pilgrims.

The Hajj is associated with the life of The Prophet Muhammed (PBUH) from the seventh century, but pilgrims perform rituals dating back thousands of years to the time of Prophet Ibraham, his wife Hajar and their son Ishmael (Abraham, Hagar and Ishmael in the Old Testament). The rituals or worship are designed to “advance the bonds of Islamic unity and sacrifice”.

The pilgrimage centres around five days of rituals carried out in Mecca, Mina, Arafat and Muzdalifa [see map]. It takes place each year between the eighth and the 13th of Dhu al-Hijjah, the 12th month of the Islamic lunar calendar. The dates change annually because the lunar calendar is 11 days shorter than the Gregorian calendar that the world ­uses. For example, in 2008 the Hajj took place from December 6 to 11. This year it was from November 25 to 29.

During the days of the Hajj, pilgrims stay in the tent town of Mina, go to the plains of Mount Arafat to stand in prayer, spend the night in Muzdalifa, throw stones in a ritual stoning of the devil in Mina, perform a ritual of animal sacrifice, shave their heads or trim their hair, and then walk counter-clockwise seven times around the Ka’bah, the cube-shaped building which acts as the Muslim direction of prayer, run back and forth between the hills of Al-Safa and Al-Marwa, drink water from the Zamzam Well and celebrate the global festival of Eid al-Adha [see box].

According to Zaid Bayat, many people believe that “Islam is a rigid religion, but it is not. Although the rituals to be performed during Hajj are set, some procedures and facilities have changed in response to people’s needs. For example, because of the crowds, it is no longer required to kiss the Hajre ­Aswad (Black Rock), but to point to it with the right hand is sufficient. Similarly, pilgrims no longer have to carry out animal sacrifice themselves. The Hajj Ministry has also gone to great lengths to be inclusive and accommodate people with special needs, the elderly and sick. There are special routes for wheelchairs and facilities for people with sight and hearing disabilities.”

Men and women go on Hajj and carry out the same rituals, but separate facilities are provided for accommodation and in some places of worship. Non-Muslims are not permitted to enter some of the holiest places, but the reasons for this are said to be unclear.

Seedat advises future pilgrims to prepare well, both spiritually and physically. “Find out all you can about the rituals involved. It is physically demanding, not only because of the heat, but also because you walk every day for five days. You also need to exercise tolerance and patience because of the crowds, so you need to be prepared for that.”

The Bayats said that for many of the members of the Kaps group, “It was the achievement of a life-long ambition to go on this pilgrimage. Some people in their 70s and 80s had saved all their lives to go. Everywhere you go you are walking on history and visiting places that have significance in the faith,” said Zaid Bayat.

“Hajj is not a tourist journey or a holiday. Pilgrims must realise that its purpose is worship, to become more God-conscious and a better Muslim. It makes you aware of the sacrifices that The Prophet (PBUH) and his companions went through to bring the faith to us. It helps you appreciate the sacrifices they made for all those who followed them.”

He also said that given South Africa’s racial history, seeing people of all races from all over the world worshipping together, all equal and all one nation as Muslims, was very meaningful.

Farhana Bayat said: “You come back a softer person, more aware and accepting of those around you and more introspective. It makes you re-evaluate your life and look at how you can improve as a person. My spirituality is definitely stronger after going on Hajj. We face Mecca every time we pray, so to actually be there was an overwhelming experience. Mecca is like a magnet — it makes you just want to go back again. If the Almighty wills it, we would love to go again.”

Day one (Eighth Dhul Hijjah): Wearing their Ihraam, pilgrims travel to the tent city of Mina and remain there until early dawn the next morning.

Day two (Ninth Dhul Hijjah ): Pilgrims travel to the valley of Arafat to stand in the open and praise God and meditate. This is a compulsory act of Hajj. The Prophet (PBUH) is thought to have given his last sermon from Mount Arafat. After sunset, they travel to Muzdalifa to spend the night and gather stones for the next day’s ritual.

Day three (10th Dhul Hijjah ): Pilgrims return to Mina and throw seven stones at the pillars of Jamaraat which represents the devil or Shaytaan. The pillars stand at three spots where Shaytaan is believed to have tempted the Prophet ­Abraham while he decided whether to sacrifice his son, Isaac, as demanded by Allah. Because of the crowds, in 2004 the pillars were replaced by long walls, with catch basins below to collect the pebbles.

Pilgrims sacrifice an animal (usually a camel or sheep or goat) or have one sacrificed on their behalf to symbolise God having mercy on Ibraham and replacing his son with a sacrificial ram and for having had the opportunity to perform Hajj. The men then shave their heads and women trim their hair to signify coming out of the state of Ihram and humility to the Almighty in not caring about their physical appearance.

Then they have a bath, put on ordinary clothes and return to the Great Mosque in Mecca for the Tawaf, or walking around the Ka’aba seven times anti-clockwise, which signifies total submission to the Almighty and to follow the example of The Prophet (PBUH). The purpose of Tawaf is to represent symbolically the idea that a Muslim’s life should revolve around thinking and remembering the Almighty only. Then they return to Mina.

At the same time as the sacrifices ­occur at Mecca, Muslims worldwide ­perform similar sacrifices, in a four-day global festival called Eid al-Adha, the days of Sacrifice

Days four and five: Pilgrims spend time in Mina, and continue the ritual of stoning the Jamaraat and worshipping the ­Almighty.

KAPS is a national nonprofit organisation that was launched in 2008 in Gauteng, to try to make the Hajj pilgrimage more affordable to Muslims in southern Africa. The organisation took a group of 600 people this year. The organisation is run by volunteers who give their time and services free. The package tours offered are basic.

Contact: www.kasa.org.za

“Here I am O God, here I am at your service, and you have no partner. Here I am. All praise, grace, and dominion belong to you. You have no partner”.

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