Guests of God: 2.5 Million Muslims Worship in Makkah, Saudi Arabia in This Year's Hajj

They will arrive from over 160 countries; many have already departed for their journey as I write. Some are old, some young, some unborn, some about to leave this life and go into the next. They will all come, however, just as the Qu’ran predicted: “on every kind of camel”.

This week, Thursday marks the eve of Hajj, centered on the ancient city of Makkah, located in the Hijaz area of southwestern Saudi Arabia. Today more than 1.4 million Muslims will arrive by air. Often at the rate of 50,000 per hour, columns of robed pilgrims will stream through Jeddah’s specially designed, gleaming Hajj terminals. Others will arrive by land and even sea. In recent years, annually, Hajj has hosted more than 2.5 million Muslims as they engage in the most sacred rituals in Islam.

Hajj involves a series of rites, timed over several days. The rituals involve entering a spiritual state of purity through prayer, bathing and dress and immediately, paying homage to God at the Ka’ba in the Al Haram Mosque located at the center of Makkah.  In the days to come, millions at a time will circumambulate this extraordinary cuboid building (draped in a black embroidered veil), which has stood for four millennia in the center of what was, for so long, a caravan stop for nomadic merchants.

The Ka’aba is a 49 ft square cuboid “House of God” which Abraham himself built, with guidance from the Archangel Gabriel. After circulating this building which seems as if to emanate an electrifying charge in the atmosphere around it, Muslims move en masse to supplicate in the near by Mina environ, home to the semi-permanent ‘Tent City” where the entire gathering resides for several days. A number of other rituals follow, including standing in prayer on the plain of Arafat where the Prophet Mohammed (SAW) gave his final sermon to his followers and God is believed to be closest to his worshippers at this site. After the exhausting day, considered the pinnacle of Hajj, pilgrims spend a night in prayer in the plain of Muzdallifah, outdoors. At first dawn, the millions begin the march towards a dramatic denunciation of Iblis, the fallen angel -- Satan -- symbolized in the stoning of three pillars at Jamaraat. Finally, reborn, pilgrims again return to Makkah, simulating Hagar’s desperate searching for water for her crying child, and soon after, bid farewell to their Maker by circumambulating the Ka’aba once more. With a final glance at the Ka’aba, Muslims pray they may return to this celestial place once more before death and depart the city limits at once.

Much of Islam is based on orthopraxy and not orthodoxy. Hajj is perhaps most emblematic of this theme. Muslims do not go to Hajj for scholarship, rather they go to observe important rituals, which capture the actions of both the Prophet Mohammed (SAW) and the Prophet Abraham.

Islam’s most important rite has been unfolding for almost 1500 years since the Prophet Mohammed (SAW) first performed the Islamic Hajj. Preparations for the colossal event this year have been underway for months, especially fevered in the current climate of global H1N1 pandemic influenza. The King of Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah Bin-Abd-al-Aziz Al Saud -- in his nation’s role as the Custodian for the Two Holy Cities in Islam (Makkah and Madinah) -- takes Hajj responsibilities very seriously. Safeguarding the pilgrims, the ‘Guests of God’, is an act of grace considered zakat (Islamic charity). It is within the Muslim world an unparalleled privilege to serve these Guests. Each year the Kingdom expends billions of riyals in preparation for every imaginable detail such a mass gathering presents, from healthcare, security, food, water, accommodations, emergency response services, immigration and even repatriation of those who faithful who pass away engaged in the rigors of Hajj.

 Unlike Olympic Games, Hajj planners do not have a seven year period for languid preparations. Hajj is annual, allowing at most,  a nine month lead-time until pilgrims begin to gather for each new subsequent Hajj season. Planners move fast, and must be agile to a world where SARS can appear one year and Avian Flu another. The degree of international collaboration involved in coordinating 160 nations and their preparations for sending pilgrims is in itself a mammoth undertaking, especially when new infections or emerging diseases threaten to impact Hajj travelers. This year, King Abdullah himself is intensely engaged in pandemic preparations, meeting with Hajj planners personally. He is deeply concerned about the impact of a global pandemic on Hajj travels and feels personally accountable for the welfare of Hajj visitors to his country. His concern is manifested in unprecedented investment and access to the world’s leading experts in mass gathering medicine, pandemic preparedness and crowd dynamics.  Many of these experts are themselves Saudi nationals who have acquired extraordinary expertise in mass gatherings through their Hajj management experience and research. Nonetheless even though H1N1 is a serious concern,  pandemic or not, Hajj must go on.

Hajj is eternally a place of dynamism, through time and space, and essentially has never come to a halt, since it first began.  Hajj is the largest mass gathering in the world and the most culturally and geographically diverse. Representing an extraordinary congress of humanity, anyone who has experienced Hajj understands the diversity embodying Islam. My own Hajj would emerge to be an emphatically transformative experience, leading to a new area of academic interest, the kernel of my first nonfiction book and a growing spirituality which had eluded me despite years of ritualistic observation of Islam.

Hajj is costly and laborious and so Muslims must prepare and save before they can go. Muslims must be of adequate means, go on their own finances devoid of loans or debts and must be able-bodied, healthy and strong. Islam strongly discourages the weak, ill or frail to go or the poor, to avoid any additional affliction on already challenged lives. But those who have the financial and physical wherewithal are in fact expected to perform Hajj once in this lifetime, both men and women are equally accountable to perform Hajj.

It is said one can never go to Hajj until one receives an ‘invitation’ from God. If the invitation comes, Muslims must heed it. Each Muslim who makes Hajj usually has a story  which captures the serendipity in which the remote possibility of an imagined Hajj becomes reality. Whatever the circumstances, in many cultures Hajj is pursued only when close to the end of life, in preparation for the hereafter and thus follows a lifetime of increasing piety. In cultures, including SE Asia’s Indonesia, for instance, and also Malaysia, many pilgrims are often of a younger age, reflecting perhaps more affluence but also the cultural preferences of marrying a woman who has already performed Hajj.

Until I had entered the forecourt of the Al Haram Mosque in Makkah, I had only ever been part of one mass gathering. It came to mind as I confronted the Ka’ba. I felt small in the crowds, remembering I had once watched U2 perform their ‘Pop’ concert in the now demolished Shea Stadium. As Bono moved through the crowd of 50,000, I grasped the meaning of celebrity. Several years later, as I approached the Ka’aba, I began to feel the edges of Divinity. I was walking  on the ground floor of the three-level mosque, each floor of which has a capacity of 750,000. God was bigger than Bono.

Way bigger.

This introduction to the scale of humanity and the insignificance of my own dimensions was an important reminder of the fragility of life and the scale of creation. Understanding my ‘smallness’ was good for an overgrown ego. But even more so, Hajj was key for me feeling at home in Islam and finding my place. As a westernized British female Muslim of Pakistani heritage who had made a home in New York City, I finally felt at home at Hajj surrounded by Muslims who looked and spoke pretty much like I did and were ultimately just as hybrid as myself. Too often, when we are introduced to religion in our childhoods it is served alongside culture without distinction. Cultural mores often overwhelm spiritual ones. Allowing cultural expectations to fall away by observing Muslims from every culture helped me at last engage in Islam.

This week, as we watch the pilgrims engage in their rites on CNN with Wolf Blitzer or on Al Jazeera with Riz Khan, one theme will transcend all others: cooperation. And at a time when the world is so lacking in both the will and the opportunity for cooperation, this is a key time to be reminded of this basic human quality which preserves our societies, wherever and whatever they may be.

How do 2.5 million manage to perform all these complex steps and movements in confined spaces without the crowds disintegrating into utter and irretrievable chaos? The answer is that everyone is part of a smaller, informal group and these clutches of worshipers are very much enjoined to conduct their Hajj rites in the spirit of collaboration and concern for the weaker, less able:  a wonderful metaphor for the world beyond Hajj.

Scholars have long discussed the innate meanings of Hajj in a number of metaphorical contexts. The best place I have read about that is in Robert Bianchi’s seminal academic work “Guests of God: Pilgrimage and Politics in the Islamic World”. Bianchi helps us understand Hajj is a symbolic metaphor for how all Muslims can collaborate to contribute to peaceful, ordered and supportive society. We must do this whether we choose our homes in Manhattan County or Majma in the Najd.

Because Hajj ultimately subsumes all cultures and all races, its messages are universal and global. For the short few days that the millions gather, in the eyes of their Maker and one another, they are equal in clothing, status, vantage and rank. The crowd is uniform and cannot be distinguished. An Egyptian professor of English literature prays  next to an African American nurse aide from Newark, New Jersey, an  Arab prince prays abreast with a  shepherd, a reformed Mumbai gangster prays, sobbing, comforted by a Lahori polo-player. For these short dynamic days, in the world of Hajj, they are equal. This after all, is how humanity was intended in the context of Divine ideals.

Never has there been a more important time for Muslims to engage in greater introspection, self-evaluation and insight. We face a Muslim world rife with conflicts, sectarian hatreds, misogyny and  injustice. We face misunderstanding, Islamophobia and exploitation by nefarious elements who come from within our midst and pose as Muslims when their conduct and code could not be more alien.

As the millions move through the Hajj rituals this week, let us all aspire to greater humility, courage and engagement to improve and advance the constructive contributions Muslims can make around the world, while helping the less advantaged among us. Lets us aspire to being conduits for benevolent Islamic ideals and instruments of clarity in times of crisis and confusion.  Let us do that wherever we may be, whomever we are, however we can. Let us serve our societies as Muslims are enjoined: through creative contribution and as Hajj teaches us, through cooperation and a deep sense of public service, service to our societies. Hajj reminds us that we have three duties as Muslims: duty to ourselves, duty to our Maker and duty to our society.

Society waits, Muslims.

Will we rise to the task and meet our duty to society?