Millions of people undertake the pilgrimage each year and all have their own special memories. One of those millions, Aasiyah Dana recollects the tests and the joys that made her Hajj experience unforgettable.
Featured in Issue 37, page 41 to 43: emel magazine
I may have been claustrophobic my whole life but I never really understood what it meant to fear being caught in the midst of a large crowd, to experience that rush of anxiety and realise that any second now blind panic was going to take over...until Hajj. Three million people in one place, at one time, performing the same religious act is a miracle for those of us lucky enough to witness such a momentous occasion, but for me it was equally daunting as the reality of my journey, and what it meant to participate in this pilgrimage, finally dawned on me.
My first taste of the huge crowds that Hajj draws year upon year came not on our arrival into Makkah, but rather at the mosque at ‘meeqat’ where we, along with other pilgrims leaving Madinah, stopped to put on our ihram. As soon as we had said our prayers, made our intentions for the coming days, and entered into the auspicious state of ihram, we returned once more to the large car park where, row after row, coaches were parked, all on their way to Makkah and all of them full to capacity.
Outside of the Hajj period the road from Madina to Makkah normally takes around four hours, so when we were told by the group leaders that we would spend close to 15 hours travelling to our destination I was shocked. Amazingly though, the coach ride was neither tiring nor tedious. As with our arrival into Saudi when we had to wait 20 hours at Jeddah Airport for a connecting flight to Medina, time flew by and before we knew it the famous minarets of Makkah were visible for all to see.
After a short rest we headed out onto the streets in search of a taxi to take us to the Haram since in the days leading up to Hajj, we had to stay in a hotel that lay closer to Mina than it did the Haram. Our driver dropped us off as close to the mosque as possible,but with traffic jams which made London rush hour seem a trifle, and hordes of people, many of whom were literally living on the pavements, with their belongings strewn around them, we had a tricky path to manoeuvre.
We performed umrah with relative ease: despite the large numbers there was still enough room for people to move around comfortably, something that was impossible once Hajj had finished and everyone returned to Makkah for their farewells. At one point my mum, sister and I were separated from my dad and brother, and it was only a chance spotting that reunited us after nearly an hour of looking. Upon completion of our umrah we headed back outside on to the main road to spot an empty taxi which would take us back to our hotel and our longed for beds where we could finally rest our weary bodies.
For a long time however, there were no cars heading out of Makkah – a seeming catastrophe as each of us had in our hands, 10 litre containers of ZamZam water. We walked along the road until I, exhausted and dehydrated, began to feel dizzy and had to sit on the pavement amidst the chaos of vehicles and people. It was in that moment that I realised for the first time in my life what it meant, how it really felt, to be poor. I knew that eventually I would return to the hotel, even if we found no transport we could walk the few miles, and it was the thought of the comfort that awaited us at the end of the long, tiring day, that kept me from breaking down into tears in a situation that felt so unbearable, alien and frightening.
How hard it must be, I thought to myself, for those who have no shelter to return to, who cannot reassure themselves with the knowledge that this state is temporary, and that soon the noise, dirt and heat will, when cocooned in a five-star hotel with all the world’s amenities at your fingertips, be nothing but a distant memory. As I learned over the next few days, the poor and needy have strength and courage far superior to those of us who have only ever lived comfortable existences, who have never known hardship and take for granted all that we have been blessed with.
On the first morning of the five official days of Hajj, as I looked out of my bedroom window I saw, in continuous processions, groups of people walking upon the bridge that would soon lead them, and us, into what would effectively become one of the largest cities in the country. The tented city of Mina was a short distance from our hotel, but our tents were located on the opposite border so it took us two hours to arrive at the place where we would reside for most of the coming five days; a place that soon came to feel like home.
The people in the tents next to us became our neighbours; the particular part of Mina where our our tents were became our neighbourhood, and the stretch of land that our tent had been erected on, our street. When we left Mina for the final time, the thought of the deserted walkways which had so recently been filled with the sound of people, and the tent doors flapping open to reveal empty mattresses in the eerie silence of a ghost town made me sad, as though we had left a good friend behind, uncertain as to when we would meet again.
The one ritual I was scared of performing was the pelting of the devil, having heard stories of stampedes and pilgrims crushed to death. When the time finally came for us to make our way to the jamaraat I, like many other young girls in our group performing Hajj for the first time, felt anxious and full of trepidation. My apprehension was heightened by my claustrophobia because up until this point we had avoided large crowds but I knew now that I had to face my fear head on.
During the 45 minute walk, I calmed myself down through prayers: it was in such moments as these that I could comprehend not only the immense power of prayer, but also the importance of surrendering yourself completely to the protection and guidance of Allah. The times when I felt most terrified were also the times when my faith was strengthened. As we neared Jamaraat we came up to a bridge which connected the various paths leading into the heart of Mina, and what I saw before me physically took my breath away.
Each and every available space was taken up by a pilgrim so that for miles on end, all that was visible was a mass of white, moving slowly towards their shared goal. The sheer volume of people opened up my eyes to the great popularity and strength of Islam and, though it may sound ignorant, I was amazed to learn that there were Muslims in countries I had never even heard of.
To behold so many men, women and children in ihram, all appearing equal, their worldly status forgotten as they walked side by side was awe-inspiring and depicted beautifully the great love that the followers of Islam have for their religion. As the crowds thickened near the three pillars which mark in solid forms the places where the devil tried to divert Prophet Abraham from God’s orders, we were caught in the middle of a large group.
I remember feeling sheer terror and panic overcome me as my worst nightmare seemed to unfold but by the grace of Allah, we were saved, shaken but unharmed. Later that day, the goats were sacrificed, we were released from the state of ihram, and we had just one final act of the pilgrimage to perform, the tawaf-ul-wida. All too soon our Hajj was over, the people, the places, the rituals and the emotions just memories to cherish for a lifetime. When hearing that I have had the good fortune of going on Hajj, many people ask me the same question: what did I take away from the experience?
My answer is simple. Being on prilgrimage opened my eyes to a simple truth: that it is the little things in life that we need to work on and improve in order to make the bigger changes needed in our lives. Too often we focus on big, life-altering actions when simply being nicer to one another, showing more gratitude to Allah, empathising with those less fortunate than us, and generally just trying to be better human beings, we can bring humility and kindness into our lives:an act that will automatically lead us closer to God.
Hajj is by no means easy, but it is without doubt a wonderfully rewarding and enriching experience. Only after completing it can I say I fully comprehend the significance of both the ritual and that of the title ‘hajji’ bestowed upon those chosen by Allah to participate in this most incredible of journeys. l “To behold so many men, women and children in ihram, all appearing equal, their worldly status forgotten as they walked side by side was awe-inspiring and depicted beautifully the great love they have for their religion.”