Experiencing tragedy, understanding on pilgrimage to Mecca

Muslims around the world pray in the direction of the Kaaba, in the courtyard of the Grand Mosque, five times a day.
Muslims around the world pray in the direction of the Kaaba, in the courtyard of the Grand Mosque, five times a day. Courtesy of Rose Hamid

“Here I am God, here I am” in Arabic, “Labbaik Allah, huma Labbaik.” This is part of a mantra repeated in unison by all who go to Hajj, an answer to God’s invitation to make Hajj, a pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, required by all physically and financially capable Muslims. My son and I returned home last week after accepting that invitation.

Aside from fulfilling our Islamic duty to attend and perform the required rituals, Hajj is a personal time to reconnect with God, repent and ask for forgiveness. As we humbled ourselves before God, following His commands, I pondered the significance of our actions.

As we circled the Kaaba, the cube-like structure standing on the site where Abraham and Ismail/Ishmael built the first house to worship God, I knew the structure itself didn’t hold power. Although Muslims around the world pray in the direction of the Kaaba five times a day, we don’t pray to the structure. When I pray now, I visualize the Kaaba in my mind and feel connected to all who also face it in prayer.

As we walked between the hills of Safa and Marwah, remembering the faith and perseverance Hagar had when she was alone in the desert seeking help for her infant son, I was aware how blessed I was to have my grown son beside me, in an air-conditioned pavilion.

As we threw pebbles at the three pillars representing the devil, in remembrance of Abraham throwing stones at the devil who tried to convince Abraham not to sacrifice his son, I was aware the pillars were not the actual devil. The ritual is a reminder to shun the suggestions of the devil.

As we spent the day in Arafat in repentance, asking for forgiveness, I was keenly aware that our group had air-conditioned tents, working bathrooms and plenty of food, while others were in makeshift tents on the streets.

After hearing the devastating news of those who died in the crushing crowds during Hajj, I wondered why God asks us to come to these places and perform these rites, when He knew His followers would grow to such numbers. The answer that keeps coming back to me, the thing that continues to bring me to tears and thank God for His mercy and His blessings is my memory of His people.

Although male pilgrims are required to wear two plain pieces of white cloth, to demonstrate how we are all equal in the eyes of God, when I looked around, our differences were evident. I think God wants us to see that we can be vastly different but still come together in our dedication to pleasing God.

With close to 3 million people in one place, I was continuously touched by the human experiences, how patient so many were and the way people seemed to be competing to be kind to one another: making space for someone to pray, opening an umbrella to offer shade to a woman in a wheelchair, creating a protective barrier around those praying in crowded spots, helping people find their way, sharing food, water or even a smile.

There are certain recommended prayers at certain parts of the rituals. It is not necessary to say them in Arabic; I learned them in English. But when I heard people from Russia, Malaysia, Nigeria, etc., saying the prayers in unison in Arabic, I wanted to join them. So I learned them in Arabic and became part of that collective.

It was during those moments that I felt I understood why God invites us to Hajj.

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