Student takes sacred Islamic journey

Joining a 3-million-strong congregation in Mecca to perform the Hajj

By: Hanif Yazdi
   Editor’s Note: Rutgers University freshman Hanif Yazdi was born in Houston and his father was born in Morristown, but his mother and grandparents were born in Iran. Ever since the West Windsor resident can remember, he has wanted to make the pilgrimage to Mecca that every able-bodied and financially capable Muslim is expected to make at least once. (Only 5 percent of Muslims actually go on the Hajj, which takes place during the Islamic month of Dhu al-Hijjah.) Neither of Mr. Yazdi’s parents has made the pilgrimage.

   The family is not fundamentalist or orthodox, but liberal Shi’a Muslims, said Mr. Yazdi. Their religious observance includes praying five times a day, observing holidays and fasting on Ramadan.

   "Being religious means having a good character," he said. "We don’t drink or eat pork or any meat that is not halal (slaughtered under strict laws)."

   For the Hajj, Mr. Yazdi flew to Dubai, then Medina, where he met up with a caravan of Iranian Shi’as that had been pre-arranged through a travel agent. Non-Muslims are not permitted to enter the city. The caravan leader, or imam, always encouraged the group to make safety a priority, said Mr. Yazdi. The group ate and stayed in hotels most nights of the two-and-a-half week journey, but stayed in a tent city while in Mina. Although the level of accommodations varies among hajjis, or pilgrams, all are to be equal in the eyes of Allah. "In the desert, there is no way to distinguish among people," said Mr. Yazdi.

   Three million people attended the Hajj. "I never saw so many people in my life," said Mr. Yazdi. "You feel small, but like a part of humanity, with no ego. You just walk with the crowd. It’s very powerful, you feel connected in a way you can’t get anywhere else."

   Mr. Yazdi left Mina before the stampede that killed several hundred during the stoning of the jamarat ritual Jan. 12.

— Ilene Dube
   This winter, I joined 10,000 American pilgrims on a sacred journey to the heart of Islam. I traveled to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia to perform the Hajj, a requirement for every able-bodied and financially capable Muslim man and woman. There, I joined a 3-million-strong congregation of the faithful, hailing from every corner of the earth.
   Before entering the sacred city, each pilgrim must enter a special state known as "ihram." While in this state, I had to cast aside my worldly clothes for two simple sheets. I was banned from, among other things, looking at mirrors, killing insects, uprooting plants or saying a harsh word to anyone. The pilgrims’ new clothes and heightened spiritual state served to emphasize the common destiny of all humans before their creator.
   Mecca is home to Islam’s holiest shrine, the Ka’ba, a simple cube observant Muslims face to pray five times each day of their lives. Commonly called the "House of God," the Ka’ba is believed to have been mankind’s first place of worship, sanctified by Adam himself, and later rebuilt by the prophet Abraham and his son, Ishmael. Right beside this sacred house lies the grave of Hagar, a poor black slave women and second wife of Abraham. As a part of the Hajj ritual, Muslims must circle the Ka’ba as well as Hagar’s grave in a rite known as the "tawaaf."
   Entering the tawaaf was a powerful spiritual, emotional and intellectual experience. Merging with an ocean of humanity, I acted my part in a cosmic performance. I walked as a planet around the sun, a butterfly around a candle or an electron around an atom’s core. As I circled, I marveled at the melting pot of humanity around me, bumping and gliding in never-ending revolutions of faith. I saw Nigerians, Albanians, Turks, Malaysians, Indians, Arabs, Texans and Danes all united in submission to a single god, marching with a single voice in a single direction.
   And yet the Hajj is as varied as its pilgrims, each gathering a deeply personal meaning from the experience.
   After the tawaaf, I had to retrace the steps of Hagar as she ran frantically seven times between two hills of Safa and Marwa searching for water for her young Ishmael. She eventually found a spring churning up at the feet of her son, where pilgrims now drink and remember after re-enacting Hagar’s frantic trek.
   Another portion of the Hajj involves stopovers in three desert locations on the outskirts of Mecca. The most significant, Arafah, is home to the Mountain of Mercy, believed to be the place where Adam and Eve first set foot on earth when expelled from paradise. The mountain is a constant reminder of Arafah’s role as a place for honest self-reflection. The goal of the Arafah stopover is to help the pilgrim come to know him or herself. There, I forced myself to face my failures and shortcomings. I thought of my friends, loved ones and all the people I might have wronged in life and I thought of how I could be a better neighbor, citizen and Muslim when I got back home.
   The next stop was Muzdalifah, where pilgrims must spend the night in a valley, without tents or accommodations of any kind. The stop in Muzdalifah is a re-enactment of the final judgment, where Muslims believe that all mankind will be held accountable for their actions in their present lives.
   The final stop is Mina, the site of this year’s tragic stampede. Mina is a place filled with the Abrahamic story of sacrifice. We must first throw stones at three pillars representing Satan, thinking all the while of the personal conclusions we reached in Arafah. As I threw each of my seven stones, I remembered one shortcoming that had plagued my life. It is a psychologically important event, where a person’s vices are symbolically cast out of his or her being with each throw. I thought of being late to class, losing my temper and failing to keep my promises as a few vices I was happy to cast away forever.
   The pillars are built on the spot where Satan is believed to have tried to tempt Abraham into not sacrificing his son as God had commanded. When Abraham defied these temptations, he was rewarded with a ram that he was ordered to sacrifice in the place of his son. In line with this tradition, Muslims arrange for a goat to be slaughtered, the meat of which is shipped all over the world to feed the needy. We then shave our heads as a sign of submission and humility before God, thus sacrificing a piece of our wealth and a piece of our ego, and emerging with the victorious character of the prophet Abraham.
   An empty desert all year, Mina is transformed into an international tent city of 3 million in under 24 hours. I literally stumbled into one country after another as I walked through its streets and alleys. In a casual stroll through the different sections of Mina, I visited Iran, India, Morocco and Afghanistan. The Hajj, with Mina as its most vivid example, represents a kind of United Nations where ordinary people, not country leaders, are the main participants. There, I served as an American ambassador to the Muslim world, and I now return as a bridge between the Muslim world and the West.
   Hajj, crystallized into its present Islamic mold 1,400 years ago, has served as a continuous yet evolving religious ritual that grows more dynamic and fascinating each year. In a region filled with conflict, the Hajj represents a chance to get in touch with my own humanity and to appreciate that humanity in others. I hope and pray that I see the effects of this pilgrimage in my character in the coming years.