Experiencing the Hajj in Mecca

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I’ve always been fascinated with the Islamic tradition of the Hajj, the mandatory pilgrimage to Mecca that all good Muslims must undertake at least once in their lives. I’m still enjoying “In the Land of Invisible Women” and Qanta Ahmed goes into great detail about this most cherished and closed event that turned her from a ‘lite’ Muslim to a much more devout one.

Her decision to make the trip to Mecca was greeted with delight by her fellow doctors and residents in the Saudi hospital where she works. It was the number of pilgrims that amazed me as I read her exhuberant report of the experience. Joining the march around the cube-shaped Kaaba, seven obligitory rotations, she joins a crowd of hundreds of thousands, swept into a joyous delirium of religious fervor. Here, we realize she is at the apex of Islam, no holier place on earth exists.

Entering the Grand mosque at Mecca called Al-Masjid al-Haram, that holds 750,000 pilgrims on three floors, she describes a sea of white clad bodies, all carefully veiled, no hair showing, segregated by sex. It’s hard to imagine a building that holds a crowd seven times as big as most major football arenas, and it is this same torrent of humanity and absolute flood of people throughout the entire two-week experience.

A convoy of hundreds of thousands of buses take pilgrims to the Plains of Mount Arafat, where they will camp in air conditioned tents. One night she’s called to help a sick women in a faraway tent; en route she realizes that there are hundreds of thousands more pilgrims who spend the night beneath trucks and on the roadsides. They can’t afford to be in the tents, but endure the desert cold with no complaints.

Ahmed’s description of her powerful transformation as a result of doing the Hajj left even an athiest like me impressed; jealous of the joy that being a true believer brought her.