The Hajj Exhibition at British Museum finished today. It exceeds the expectation in terms of the number of visitors, as over 119,000 visitors reportedly attended it. This is a few days before its closing. According to the Guardian, 60,000 visitors were Muslims from all over the UK and the rest were non-Muslims.
Amazing. Such illustrates a great interest in catching a glimpse of the fifth pillar in Islam and its climax on the day of Arafah. Annually, on 9th Dzulhijjah, over two millions pilgrims gather in Arafah field near Mina and stay there for the next two days to perform jumrah, the ritual of stoning the evils.
To my mind, the sheer number of pilgrims on the day may be the most impressive gathering on Earth. All men are clad in unsown white two piece clothes whilst the women are covered modestly, except for their faces and hands.
I did not go to see the exhibition. I really wanted to, having heard a wealth of positive vibes from a number of friends and acquaintances who went. I had goose bumps just to hear their description.
In 1996 my parents took me for Hajj. I was twenty-two, overzealous and extremely excited about the prospect to take photographs of Ka’bah and the Haram Mosque. I gripped my SLR firmly, hidden under my torso-length headscarf as I joined the crowd of pilgrims who were walking to the mosque. Taking photographs around the Haram area were strictly not allowed, if not frowned upon.
No sooner had I stood up in front of the Haram Mosque for the first time, my knees were shaking. I felt extremely humble. Words failed me.
After completing our umrah, my father and I climbed up a hill in the outskirt of Mecca. We aimed to see the cave where prophet Muhammad received his first aayah of the Koran. There was neither steps nor designated path on its way to the top. At times I had to crawl and wished I could have been a goat. For I saw many of them climbed up the rocks quickly and bleated, as if they were gloating over their victory. Finally we reached the top after three hours.
The view of the sprawling city of Mecca in the simmering sun was worth the effort. The six towers of the Haram Mosque stood out and pilgrims circling the Ka’bah like a water current.
When I noticed the cave, it surprised me how small it was. It was barely to fit a person, small and narrow. I watched them from a distance as many pilgrims jostled to get into it. At the same time, I was thinking about prophet Muhammad. He went there before he became a prophet almost every night. How uncomfortable it must have been for him; tall and a bloke-type man of all. For his body must have been squeezed to fit into the cave. Furthermore, as the temperature dropped and desert winds beating on his face, what was it like?
Suddenly, I felt small. I was exhausted already just for climbing once. How about the prophet who did it times? What made him stay put when there was no palpable rewards, but his quest for the truth?
The Guardian columnist Sarfraz Manzoor conveyed his anxiety for going for Hajj. His were the mutual feelings I could relate to when my parents ruled that I must go with them. For I had no voice in the matter. Above all, I felt I was not ready at all.
But the daycation to the cave changed everything. The experience was real, for I had traced the path of the God’s last messenger. I went down the hill and slept soundly that night with a new mindset. Personally, it was moving that during Muhammad’s quest of seeking God, he was determined to get the answer. And he thrived. Compared with his, my faith might have been the size of a grain of sand.
Furthermore, my parents insisted on my going because I was a female. In Islam, to perform Hajj and Umrah, a woman has to be accompanied by her mahram , ie. father,brother. “In case your future husband might not be able to take you,” remarked my father.
Last November my husband went alone for Hajj and I stayed at home with our three young children. Had the five of us had gone, it would have been a tough thing for my older children and was not suitable for the baby. So my father was right.
Manzoor mentioned that he came to the exhibition with his mother. For he had promised to take her for Hajj but it does not come to fruition. He admitted his procrastination to the point that his mother’s health has made it impossible for her to go. He seemed to be genuinely sorry about it. I understand. It takes a leap of one’s faith to believe in the virtue of Hajj.
With memories of my Hajj hovered in my mind, I decided not to see the exhibition. On the one hand, I supposed details of the journey would have come back to me. Looking back, having to perform jumrah was my scariest experience. For I was separated from my parents in the midst of it and almost being trampled by a surge of people who were pushing me from the back. But magic happened. As I was about to fall, a strong hand yanked and lifted up my body. Then it pushed me away to the safety of stout sisters who protected me.
(Rest assured, Mr. Manzoor, such accident will not happen any more. My husband had an easy ride for his jumrah. The Saudis have done much better to ensure the comfort of most pilgrims while conducting the stoning ritual).
On the other, it would have made me sheepish had I been in the exhibition. Admittedly, I could not help for not seizing the opportunity of taking stupenduous photographs of Ka’bah from the highest floor at Hilton suite. My cousin happened to work in the hotel, which was just opposite the mosque and had the key to the suite. Also, in the morning and at some nights, I frequented the markets in Mecca with him; browsing items, looking at bargains or just being part of the vibrant atmosphere. Well, I should have dedicated more time to dzikr and reciting the Koran, rather than treated the journey as an ordinary travelling.
Thus, the least I could do was sending my Hajj experience, which has been uploaded on Hajj stories. Having read others’, I come to conclude one thing: that we felt humbled and are equal in front of God.
The exhibition must end, but surely, for the vast majority the experience of being there would linger at the back of their minds.
Over fifteen years ago was for me and I still can recall the extraordinary moments.
Lastly, I beg to differ with the notion on “Saudi involvement” in the matter. I sincerely hope Sarfraz Manzoor and the likes of him will gain an understanding to realise that Hajj is purely educating people, ie. Muslims, about themselves, politics aside.
To sum up, through Hajj I feel grateful to be a Muslimah.
*Photographs are courtesy of my husband’s*