Preparing for my pilgrimage to Mecca

A woman garlands Pakistani Hajj pilgrims at an airport terminal for the first Hajj flight to Saudi Arabia, in Karachi.
A woman garlands Pakistani Hajj pilgrims at an airport terminal for the first Hajj flight to Saudi Arabia, in Karachi. AFP/Getty Images

This month, God willing, my son, Samir, and I will perform Hajj, a pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, which all Muslims are obligated to undertake once in their lifetimes, if they are able. Hajj is not a vacation. It’s a serious religious undertaking which, if done correctly, will wash away all sins.

I’m excited because I’ll be fulfilling an obligation to God and getting closer to Him. And I’ll be connecting, not only with the millions of Muslims from all over the world who will be there, but also the billions who have gone before. I’m nervous because there will be millions of people there and some of the rituals are difficult.

Many of the Hajj rituals commemorate Prophet Abraham, his wife Hagar, and his son’s willingness to follow God’s commands. Mecca was a popular stopping point for caravans since Hagar found a fresh-water well there. People have been going to Mecca for pilgrimage from the time Abraham and his son built the Kaaba, the first building on Earth dedicated to the worship of God.

People who lived in the area considered themselves followers of Abraham. But by the time Prophet Muhammad was born in Mecca in 570 AD the faith had been watered down and the message lost. The revelations he started receiving in 610 AD were a reminder of the same message Prophet Abraham had been sent: to worship God and follow His guidance.

Some of the Hajj rituals have been performed since the time of Abraham, while others were taught by Prophet Muhammad. They include standing at Arafat asking for forgiveness, walking around the Kaaba seven times, stoning pillars (which represent the devil), and other rites.

Hajj starts on the eighth day of the Islamic month of Dhu al-Hijjah, which falls around September 21 this year, and lasts six days. A lesser Hajj, called Umrah, does not include going to Mina, Arafat or Muzdalifa (see below) and can be done any time of the year.

Although there are many recommended and extra rituals, the first day of Hajj typically begins in Mina, a town 5 miles east of Mecca, where a tent city is set up exclusively for Hajj.

Before arriving in Mina, pilgrims must perform a ritual cleansing and men don “Ihram,” two pieces of white fabric without any stitching/sewing. One is worn wrapped around the waist reaching below the knees, the other over the shoulders. The purpose of this is so everyone is dressed the same. The rich and poor are indistinguishable. It’s a remembrance of how we are in the sight of God and that we are all one humanity. Women do not have specific dress requirements other than covering what is asked of them daily. The face and hands should NOT be covered.

Once in Ihram, pilgrims spend the first day at Mina in prayer. On the morning of the second day, pilgrims go to Arafat, 9 miles further east, where another tent city is set up. This is the heart of Hajj, the most spiritual part. This is a day pilgrims spend praising God, asking for forgiveness and guidance, making repentance and supplications and asking for protection from the Hell fire. It is said God comes near to those at Arafat.

After sunset, pilgrims leave for Muzdalifah (7.2 miles back toward Mina) and spend the night under the stars until sunrise the next day. This, I’m told, is the most uncomfortable part.

On the third day there are five things that are done, but can be done in any order. Muslims who are not on Hajj celebrate this day as Eid ul Adha, the holiday of the sacrifice.

The five things:

▪ At Mina (1.8 miles west of Muzdalifah), pilgrims throw seven small pebbles at one of three stone pillars. Throwing pebbles at the pillars is a remembrance of Abraham throwing stones at the devil when he tried to convince Abraham not to sacrifice his son.

▪ Each pilgrim must have an animal butchered (sheep, goat, etc) in remembrance of Abraham being presented with a ram to sacrifice instead of his son. Most pilgrims pay for it to be done. The meat is processed, canned and distributed worldwide. Muslims around the world do this even if not on Hajj. One-third of the meat is for one’s family, one-third for friends and neighbors, and one-third for the poor, but many just donate the meat.

▪ Men are required to shave their hair; women only have to cut off about an inch.

▪ Then pilgrims go to Mecca to circle the Kaaba seven times.

▪ When finished, they will walk in a fast pace between the hills of Safa and Marwa seven times in remembrance of Hagar running between the two while she was in the desert looking for a caravan to help her and her infant son. This is where the well of Zam Zam was revealed to Hagar and has been used to this day.

The evening of the third day, pilgrims return to the tent city in Mina to spend the night. On the fourth day they stone all three pillars. They do the same the next day, and the next if they wish.

The final act of Hajj is circling the Kaaba seven times before leaving.

I acknowledge how blessed I am to be able to go to Hajj. Muslims all over the world yearn to go, but most are not able.

The Saudi government has quotas for each country and requires pilgrims go to Hajj with an approved agency. The agency is responsible for acquiring necessary permits and visas, as well as providing accommodations and food, especially in the temporary tent cities set up in Arafat and Mina (required for Hajj). Hajj packages from the US go from $5,500 to $15,000 and up, depending on proximity to the holy sites.

We chose a package with Adam Travel because the local agent, Abbas Raja, is so efficient. He informed us it’s more economical to stay in rooms of four, so my son and I will each be staying in a room with same-gender people we have not met yet. (I hope I don’t get voted off, ha-ha)

I’ve tried to prepare. I’ve read a lot and have attended a Hajj seminar by a local imam. I’ve prepared my will (a requirement for Hajj). I’ve been walking an hour a day (when I can) to get used to all the walking we’ll be doing. I have lightweight clothes with secret pockets to foil pickpockets. I think I’m prepared for the crush of so many people in one space because I was at Times Square for New Year’s Eve in 2012 (not exactly a religious experience).

In spite of all that, I’m concerned my Hajj may not be accepted because if you argue or get angry your Hajj is nullified. Imagine all those people from all over the world, with their different cultures and understandings of what personal space is, coming together with the command to not get angry. It’ll take a lot of patience. Patience is an overriding theme of Hajj. The Quran (2:153) says “Indeed, God is with the patient.”

I pray I stay patient and God accepts my Hajj.

Rose Hamid of Charlotte is president of Muslim Women of the Carolinas.