‘After Hajj, One Is Reborn’: Praying For a ‘Normal’ Hajj Next Year
Historian Rana Safvi narrates Hajj stories of her parents and aunt, and finally, her own experience at Mecca.
The literal meaning of the word ‘Hajj’ is, ‘going to a place’ or ‘the act of moving around.’ But for Muslims, the word carries a great deal of significance as it is now the name given to the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, the holy city in Saudi Arabia, in the month of Dhul Hijjah.
The Hajj pilgrimage is the fifth pillar of Islam and is to be undertaken once in a lifetime by those who can afford it, and have the means to live a secure life after that. Also, it has not been made compulsory for everyone – only for those who can afford it.
Why ‘Al-hajj’ Title Is A Coveted One
Hajj is today a far simpler affair than it was when it started, and pilgrims would come on foot or camel from different parts of the Islamic lands. When Indians first started going to Mecca it was by ship from the port of Surat. We have accounts of Mughal ladies who went there. A few personal diaries exist of the Hajj during the 19th and 20th centuries. I find them fascinating, especially the difference in the degree of ease that exists now. Those were the times when not everyone could do the Hajj, and it wasn’t so easy and affordable that everyone could go.
Most people went there after retirement, and only when there was this great spiritual desire to do so. It wasn’t a trip that could be embarked upon just for the sake of ticking a box. That is why the title of ‘Al-hajj’ was so prized.
One endured innumerable difficulties to perform Hajj. Many perished in the journey.
While growing up, I was fascinated by the stories of the sea journeys that my grandparents undertook to perform the Hajj. My grandparents, aunts and uncles had gone by sea for a pilgrimage to Iraq in 1952, and had been thoroughly seasick and miserable. However, that didn’t deter my grandparents from embarking on the hajj in 1956 again by sea, so great was the desire to perform hajj.
My childhood memories of course are sketchy, and the ones I remember vividly are the ship stories – so I asked my aunt and uncles.
‘Time Is A Great Healer’
My aunt, Atia Rizvi, reminisces, “I was about twelve years old and had heard from someone that whoever goes to perform the Hajj never comes back, so I was inconsolable. But my parents went ahead with their programme. A huge crowd of relatives had gathered to see them off at Aligarh station, and there was rejoicing all around. At that time, only the lucky few could perform Hajj, and only a handful of ladies that too. My sister-in-law’s parents and the indispensable Bahadur Bhai were also with them. Only these five persons were going from Aligarh and there was great jubilation all around.”
“Anyhow, I came back home weeping, bitterly inconsolable. But somehow life became normal. Time is a great healer you see,” my aunt continued.
“Two months had passed, and we were eagerly awaiting their arrival. They finally arrived. We were all agog, waiting to hear all about their saga. We listened to all the details with bated breath. They had boarded the ship in Bombay as Mumbai was then called. Their voyage lasted nine or ten days. I have forgotten the name of the harbour, but the Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia (Mr Mustafa Kamal Kidwai who was a colleague of my grandfather in the civil services) received them and took them to his home. They stayed there for some time. The ambassador coaxed Ammi to buy gold because it was cheap there. But Bhai Abba was dead against it. He said that ‘after having a impeccable record in government service, I will not indulge in such a practice’. He said he had come to perform Hajj and not to make money. So Ammi returned what she had bought and agreed with Bhai Abba.”
Bahadur Bhai was Dadas’s retainer and a legend in the family. Slightly older than my father, he had joined my Dada’s service when Dada was posted as District Magistrate of Basti in UP in 1936 or so as a young boy. He was inseparable from my grandfather and served him till his death.
So of course Bahadur Bhai went too. Such was the aura of Hajj then and so difficult to undertake that Bahadur bhai was forever known as the ‘Haji saheb’, and the only one in many villages around to have performed it.
Unfortunately, in those days, the pilgrims were segregated in camps as per Shia-Sunni sects, and as soon as Bahadur Bhai and Dada and the group got down, they were sent in separate lines, as Bahadur Bhai was a Sunni.
They would only meet after the Hajj was over and they were boarding the ship to return again.
They stayed there for around two months. My aunt tells me that thanks to the ambassador, my Dada was invited for a reception by the Saudi king.
Post-Hajj: Tired But Spiritually Uplifted
A Hajj journey was a long and laborious one in those days.
For my parents, the Hajj was a dream which they too undertook after retirement. As per Islamic norms, they made provision for their old age, wrote their wills, and left by flight in 1984. They had undertaken a 45-day Hajj ziarat trip, so they first went to Iraq and then went to Medina and Mecca. All overland trips were by buses, and the tour operator they had gone with was to arrange everything. It was in the summers and long hours were to be spent in the bus, so the food was normally khichri or dal-chawal which was prepared by the cooks traveling with them.
Amma and Baba came back bone-tired but spiritually uplifted.
My mother was a heart patient and we had all been worried about her, but she came back healthier than before.
Baba had developed fever during the Hajj and I still remember an incident he told me. He was doing the tawaf (circumambulation of the Kaaba) in the inner circle when suddenly he felt the breath being squeezed out of his body. He called out, “Maula madad kijiye” (Maula, please help me). He says he has no idea how it happened, but he felt he was lifted and his next memory is completing the tawaf in a less crowded outer row.
Wiping Out Class & Status
When my grandparents went in the 1950s, the accommodations for pilgrims were pretty rudimentary. Later, when my parents went, there were simple and basic hotels.
As a lot of money (proportionate to our income) was required, not all could go for Hajj and I had never imagined I would be able to perform it.
But by God's grace my husband was posted in Saudi Arabia, and I joined a group going for the Hajj.
We had performed a number of umrah or minor pilgrimages before that, but nothing prepared me for the Hajj experience. The Hajj includes two umrahs, sai and a number of other rituals which I will describe later. An umrah is just a circumambulation of the Kaaba and sai.
We started with a ritual called tying ihram, where we make a niyat (vow/intention) of performing Hajj. The place where ihram is worn is called miqat, and there are five designated places for that depending on the direction the pilgrims enter Mecca from. Here, men wear two pieces of unstitched cloth and women cover their hair.
The significance of the ihram is that all men and women should look and dress the same, in simple unstitched cloth, so that all differences of class and status are wiped out.
In this state, pilgrims are not allowed to hunt or kill any living beings, participate in sexual intercourse, cut hair or nails, or wear make-up or perfume. Even looking or preening in front of the mirror is frowned upon.
These restrictions end only when the Hajj is complete.
How The Name ‘ZamZam’ Came To Be
We then performed our first umrah which is the start of the Hajj. There are different prayers for each ritual to make it a more meaningful experience for the person performing it, but I am only describing the act itself.
It was a tight crush and we just kept moving in an emotional state, praying as we went. I remember thinking in that great crush that I must emulate the Bombay local passengers and just allow myself to move with the crowd and not fight it.
The sai or running up and down the two hills of Safa and Marwah, where Hajirah ran to find water for her infant son Ismail, after Abraham left them there in God’s care, was a very moving one for me.
Abraham had brought Hajirah to this land from Palestine and left her in a desolate spot with an infant son, in God’s care. Fearful that wild animals may harm the baby who was crying under the tree, Hajirah kept her gaze turned towards him, then steeling herself to go forward.
When she reached the top of one hill she would see a mirage of water on the other side and run towards it. She ran up and down the hills seven times, chasing the mirage, her baby’s distant cries echoing in her ears. Exhausted, she realised there was no water for her, and as she bent down in despair, she realised that there was silence around her. Her baby had stopped crying.
Frightened, tired, the young mother hurriedly made her way towards the baby to find an angel guarding her son and a spring gurgling near him, which the angel was digging with his foot.
She rushed towards the spring crying, ‘Zamzam, Zamzam,’ (Stop, stop) for she was now scared the baby may drown in the water. Till date that is what the spring is called.
‘After I Did My Tauba, I Felt A Weight Lifting Off Me’
After Islam was revealed to Prophet Mohammad and instructions given on how to perform the pilgrimage or Hajj, God honored Hajirah’s sacrifice. This desolate spot where Hajirah was left, is not only the most sacred spot in Islam but among the busiest pilgrim sites in the world today. Today, every pilgrim has to walk up and down the two hills of Safa and Marwah, seven times, keeping their face turned towards the spot where Hajira had left Ismail. Every pilgrim, too, drinks from the spring of Zamzam.
I kept looking towards the Kaaba and wondering what a mother's feeling would have been at having left her young son on the earth, crying with thirst.
I had tears running down my cheeks as I prayed for my children. After that I too went and drank from Zamzam. At the time of the late afternoon prayers, all pilgrims gather on Mt Arafat which is the place where it is said that Adam prayed for forgiveness.
I know it sounds trite, but the feeling on that hill is unbelievable, and after I did my tauba (repentance), it felt as if a weight had lifted off my soul.
Which Ritual During Hajj Causes Maximum Casualties?
The next journey was to Muzdalfah at night, where we were to perform our morning prayers. After that we headed towards Mina, where we gathered stones for ‘stoning the Devil’ called ramy al-jamarāt in Mina. The Devil is symbolic of Shaitan, who tempted Abraham when he was obeying God's command. The three pillars represent the attempts of the Devil to tempt Abraham as he was going to obey God’s command. The first pillar and the largest represents the occasion when he was going to sacrifice Ismail as per God’s command. Ismail was replaced by a ram, and that is celebrated with a ritual sacrifice on 10 Zul Hijjah, known as Eid al-Adha Bakreid in India. The Hajj is completed only after each pilgrim offers a sacrifice.
Abraham pelted the Devil with stones as per instructions given to him by the archangel Gabriel. The present day ‘stoning’ signifies the act of casting aside one’s ego and desires in the path of obedience of God.
Every year the maximum casualties take place at this ritual, and though the government has made great advances and now it’s not three stone pillars but a huge wall with a causeway, the crush is unbelievable – there were anxious moments even though I was extremely careful.
We have to spend a minimum of two nights in Mina in tents as per the custom. It is the world’s largest tent city, and though our tent was fairly simple, albeit air-conditioned, we heard of some very beautifully appointed tents with all facilities.
(When my sister and her family performed the Hajj in 1997, a fire broke out in the tent city at Mina. Those were the days when there was no mobile service, and I remember those two days of extreme anxiety till we got news of their safety.)
The next morning, we got the sacrifice done. I opted for meat to be canned and sent to the needy. Shaving hair for the men and trimming for women is another ritual, and that is why hajis return with shaved heads.
After finishing it, I went for my farewell tawaf. We were officially Al-Hajj or Al- Hajjan. We congratulated each other, tears rolling down our cheeks at having completed the Hajj, and gratitude for God for giving us this opportunity.
Seeing our emotional state our tour organisers arranged for a celebratory meal – we had the famous chicken from a local chain called Al-Bake.
And from the sublime to the ridiculous there’s a saying: ‘pilgrims come saying Labbaik (I am here), and go back with the name of Al-Bake on their lips.’
I still tremble when I remember those days and nights. It was my most memorable experience, and I'm grateful to God I could do it when I was young and whole of body. Despite every modern ease it is still a physical challenge. They say that ‘one is reborn after Hajj, and it’s as if they have come out of a mother’s womb.’
This year there are restrictions, and I pray that by next year, the world is healed and Hajj can continue as usual. My cousin and family, who were scheduled to go this year, are of course disappointed, but glad that steps are being taken to safeguard people especially in the light of instructions given by the Prophet.
(Rana Safvi is the founder and moderator of the popular #shair platform on Twitter, which is credited for reviving popular interest in Urdu poetry. She tweets @iamrana. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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