Saudi Hajj

Muslim pilgrims pray as they watch thousands of pilgrims circumambulate around the Kaaba, the cubic building at the Grand Mosque, ahead of the Hajj pilgrimage in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia on Aug. 9. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims have arrived in the kingdom to participate in the annual hajj pilgrimage, a ritual required of all able-bodied Muslims at least once in their life. 

It’s the fifth pillar of Islam, a required spiritual pilgrimage for more than a billion Muslims around the world.

But hajj – a five-day journey to Mecca, Saudi Arabia – is not viewed as a bemoaned obligation of Islamic followership. For most, it is a dream trip to the holy city, a chance to experience redemption and forgiveness, and for those who are able, making the trip is a once-in-a-lifetime, life-altering experience.

hajj offers a specific timeline of events. Beginning in Mecca, pilgrims change into ihrams or traditional white attire, which is required to perform the hajj. On the first day, they walk around the Kaaba – the great black cube structure, where seas of Muslim believers circle in an act known as tawaf. This is followed by the sa’i, or walking between the hills of Safa and Marwa seven times, and finally moving on to Mina, where they stay overnight.

Day 2 includes a visit to Mt. Arafat for reflection and repentance. Day 3 is an overnight journey to Muzdalifah, where they collect seven pebbles. Day 3 includes casting the pebbles at a pillar representing the devil in jamarat. Day 4 includes another tawaf and sa’i in Mecca, and on the last days, the pilgrims return to Mina.

hajj coincides with Eid-al-Adha, or the festival of sacrifice also known as the “Big Eid,” which tells the story of God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son, Ismael. As Abraham agrees and demonstrates great faith and trust, God provides a lamb to be sacrificed, showing mercy on Abraham and his son. It is believed Abraham built the Kaaba and centuries later, in 628 A.D., with more than a thousand Muslim followers in tow, the Prophet Mohammad led the first pilgrimage to Mecca, ushering in the tradition of hajj.

Victoria Islamic Center imam, Osama Hassan, has made the journey three times, returning home only days ago from this third trip to Mecca. The Advocate caught up with him while visiting family in Egypt immediately after his trip days ago, and he spoke on his recent pilgrimage and the thrill of experiencing God’s mercy with millions of fellow brothers from nations around the globe.

Q: Describe how you felt the first time you were able to make the journey?

A: My first trip was in 2015, and it was when I first got my green card. The first thing I did as a new legal resident of the United States was to make travel arrangements for the hajj. I was so excited. You know, hajj is the fifth pillar of Islam, so for every Muslim, in their heart, it is their dream to make the trip. You cannot imagine how excited I was to fulfill my dream and visit the house built by Abraham. My dream came true.

Q: How does one prepare to make this trip? Saudi Arabia is becoming more open to tourism, but is there a travel agency you go through for hajj? Do you need certain vaccinations?

A: You have to get a visa from the embassy, and not everyone can go. There are 1.7 billion Muslims around the world, and Saudi could not host that many at one time. In the United States, 20,000 are given visas to make the journey. I did need to get two shots and have that paper with my passport. And we do use a travel agency because we are required to go with a group. You cannot go alone.

Q: Why does everyone wear the ihram when they make the hajj?

A: You will realize that when you get there everyone is in the same (attire). It’s like a towel that we wear and you can get them in Saudi. It shows that we are all equal. No one can tell if you’re rich or poor, or where you are from. When you look around, everyone is the same and there is no difference between us. They are given away for free or you can buy one there.

Q: Do you ever travel with friends or family, or is this a trip you take for yourself?

A: Usually, it’s hard to meet anyone there because there are so many people. Even it’s hard to meet a relative. But we are in a camp, and you meet other people, many from the United States: young people, couples, children who are 7 and 8 years old, and others who come from everywhere. There were 3,000 people in our camp this year and our group had 740 people. We all had breakfast, lunch and dinner together, we stayed at the same hotel. And as an imam, I have some extra responsibilities to talk with people and offer them guidance and answer their questions.

Q: And when you talk to others on the trip, what are they telling you about their experience?

A: hajj, for us, is kind of a reminder of the life. We get so involved in the life and forget about the hereafter. So we go to Mecca and we wear those towels for three and four days and it doesn’t matter how rich you are, or how poor you are. And after that, we stay in the camp, and you’re reminded about what is important in life. A lot of time, you will see famous people, or very rich people, but you can’t imagine how humble they are. They come and have their private moments and ask for solutions with how they can change. The whole idea of the journey is that it changes our hearts. Over there, everyone is so very humble; the trip makes the heart soft.

Q: Did you experience any significant moments while you were there this time?

A: When we were visiting Mt. Arafat, it was so hot, 45 degrees (113 degrees Fahrenheit) hot. And it started raining. We were so excited to see the rain because when it rains it’s like God is sending his mercy. Everyone was like a child and it was very exciting for everyone to witness because it does not rain very often at all in Saudi. We stayed overnight in this place and there was no tent. I slept in a sleeping bag looking up at the sky. I called it an all-stars hotel, because there were so many stars. I can’t explain the emotion. You know, you feel the tear come from your eye, and you feel it in your heart, just to follow the prophet Abraham. It’s very exciting.

Q: Do you feel different when you come home from hajj? Do you feel closer to God?

A: Yes, you feel this. And the thing we learn is sometimes we get so busy with our lives and we complain about things happening at home, at our church or mosque, but when you come home from hajj, you realize life is so short and the only thing we are taking with us when we leave this life is our good action. We realize God forgives us, and we are servants of God, and that we must forgive others the way we seek to be forgiven by God. It’s a blessing, and the more thankful we are, the more God will give you. The way you come closer to God shows how powerful it is for God to forgive us, and all we have to do is ask him to forgive us.

Jennifer Preyss-Mathlouthi writes about religion and faith for the Victoria Advocate. You can reach her at jenniferpreyss.com, or on Twitter @jenniferpreyss.

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