A Voyage Devotion

[Yesterday Moslems from throughout the world converged upon Mecca, to fulfill the fifth pillar of the Islamic faith, a pilgrimage to the holy city. The following article describes their journey.]

The roads to Mecca were jammed with lengthy processions of vehicles: flashy American cars, Japanese tricycle vans, barefoot pedestrians. As travelers reached the checking post marking the border of the city, they stopped and waited for a guard to inspect their passports for religious identification before he opened the road to them. Only Moslems were allowed to enter Mecca, since they alone came for the religious reasons which justify entering a city that has been closed to non-Moslems for almost 1300 years. En route to the city, the rhythmic prayer of the pilgrims fills the air:

Labbayk Allahuma Labbayk

I answer thy summons O Lord, I answer

I answer thy summons, Thou hast no partner to Thee, I answer.

Verily Thine is the praise

The blessing and the sovereignty of the Universe.

Thou hast no partner to Thee.

Some come across the Red Sea from North Africa and Egypt to the Port of Suez, where they crowd on boats going to the Port of Jedda and then take buses to Mecca. Many come from Turkey, Iran and Syria in packed buses across desert roads. Thousands fly from East Asia: India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. And Moslems from America come over on chartered flights scheduled specially for the pilgrimage.

In preparation for the pilgrimage, the male pilgrim must wash his body, shed his everyday dress and wear two pieces of unsewn sheets: one around the waist and the other over the shoulders. The female pilgrim is required to wear a long dress and cover her hair. The pilgrimage is considered the most fortunate moment of one's life, the time when one can travel to the Blessed City asking for God's forgiveness, hoping for complete forgiveness of one's sins and transgressions. Thus men's sheets and women's dresses are usually white, signifying a purer rebirth of the soul.

With this dress the pilgrim enters the state of 'ihram' consecration. He must abstain from all modes of gratification of personal vanity, beautification of the body, and indulgence of its desires. More emphatically the pilgrim should refrain from hurting or destroying anything that is alive; peace must reign, especially then.

In this state, every pilgrim enters Mecca as an equal; all are humble before God. The King of Saudi Arabia, the President of Egypt, the Sultan of Omman, the Shah of Iran, all are indistinguishable from their subjects, dressed in the same two-sheet simple dress. Worldly conventions are discarded, distinctions eliminated, racial disparities unrecognized. One is freed from one's bondage to both oneself and others, affirming a direct commitment to the One and Only Being, admitting Him as the sole dispenser of one's fate. Coming to pay tribute to the Creator, the pilgrim is no longer a subject of any state, system or regime, rather he transcends these restrictive impositions to a higher and more universal rank. On this level all are equal in their subjugation and God rules supreme.

Driven by persecution from Mecca after he had started preaching the new religion, the Prophet Mohammed wept as he left his home and fled to Medina. He had been born and raised there among his tribe and often had shepherded his uncle's flock on its mountains. And in one of those lonely mountains was the cave where he had received the very first revelation announcing the deliverance of a new and final message.

The Mecca of today bears little resemblance to that of the seventh century. It is a rather small town embedded in a range of harsh volcanic mountains. Modern tall buildings dwarf older houses, and the markets wind along narrow streets and alleys. In the heart of the city lies the huge star-shaped Haram Mosque, and in the middle of its courtyard stands the Ka'ba, the holiest shrine of Islam. Given the honorific title of "House of God" by God Himself in the Koran, the Ka'ba has thus been venerated by Moslems. It is a simple four-walled structure of black, cemented stone, empty from the inside. Believed by Muslims to have been built first by Adam and later raised by the prophet Abraham and his son Ishmael in compliance with God's command, the Ka'ba remained a sacred place of worship throughout the history of pagan Arabia.

With the conquest of Mecca eight years after the Hegira, Mohammed destroyed the idols and cleansed the sacred house of its pagan deities. He re-established it as a place of worship to God alone. Reverting it to its original use he could then perform the pilgrimage "hajj," setting an example for millions of his followers throughout the ages. All rituals of the pilgrimage are rich in traditions reflecting the religious actions of Abraham (Mohammed).

The first of these traditions is the circumambulation of the Ka'ba. Starting at a certain corner, the worshipper completes seven rounds while reciting prayers, calling for mercy and forgiveness and professing total submission to God. Hundreds of thousands of people flow in circles around the Ka'ba each day and night during the whole year, for this practice is not limited to the period of the pilgrimage. During the night the crowds thin out and the worshipper can pray in close vicinity to the Ka'ba. Moslems sit under the endless arches of the mosque reading the Koran, but starting with dawn, the mosque fills up with worshippers flocking in for morning prayers, the first of the required daily five prayers. Then everybody faces the walls of the Ka'ba and prays towards it. The Ka'ba functions as the focal point toward which Moslems all over the world stand in prayer to profess their subjugation to God.

Yesterday, on the ninth of Dhu'l-Hijja, the Ka'ba was virtually deserted. It was the principal day of the pilgrimage, when all pilgrims assemble in the Valley of Arafat, 14 miles east of Mecca, between noon and sunset. The road to Arafat is inevitably blocked by heavy traffic and many pilgrims prefer to go on foot. The Saudi Arabian government enlists extra help to manage the traffic for this hectic day, and each year the road is widened in an attempt to ease the jamming.

Approaching Arafat, one sees a white sea of tents stretching across the wide valley. The Saudi Arabian government establishes these camps to provide shelter for the pilgrims on that day. Each camp is assigned a leader in charge of a group of pilgrims, responsible for their transportation, feeding and housing.

In this valley, according to the Koran, Adam first met Eve after their separate descent from Eden. In the midst of this valley is the Mount of Mercy, where Mohammed delivered a sermon to his companions during their return from the "farewell-pilgrimage." There he transmitted to them the final revelation of the Koran that had been delivered to him thoughout a period of 23 years: "This day I [God] perfected your religion for you, and completed My favor unto you, and decreed Islam as your faith." The message of Islam was delivered totally; less than a year later Mohammed died.

The whole wisdom of the pilgrimage unfolds as one walks along the valley of Arafat on this day. The pilgrim encounters millions of Moslems from all over the world. Though they are of different nationalities, races and colors, they all are united by the common bond of Islam. Asians, Africans, Arabs, Europeans and Americans all assemble there for a common purpose, joined by historical tradition. On this day the pilgrim awakens to the realization that he is part of a tremendous whole that goes beyond worldly distinctions and time restrictions. He feels the immense power of Islam as it weaves its universal and humane principles in all people of the world. A bond of brotherhood ensues forming the nucleus for future world peace. Freed from the blinding limitations of secular nationalism, the Moslem can begin to identify himself with a universal message that calls for brotherly cohesiveness and peaceful co-existence.

At sunset a mass exodus from Arafat begins. The pilgrims head for Muzdalifa, in the direction of Mecca. There they spend the night in the open, under the star-lit sky. The stillness of the night closes upon each, inducing a feeling of direct communion between the worshipper and the Creator. They offer prayers and recite supplications as they keep vigil during this blessed night. As the night expires, the pilgrims resume their journey back to Mecca.

With the break of dawn yesterday, the tenth of Dhu'l-Hijja, Moslems all over the world rise to celebrate the Bairam Feast. All head for the mosques to perform the feast's congregational morning prayers. The financially able have lambs slaughtered in memory of God's merciful exchange of a lamb for Abraham's intended sacrifice of his son. The meat is then distributed to the poor, the needy relations, and neighbors, leaving one-third for the family. Children eagerly put on their new clothes and collect a bonus allowance to spend during the feast holiday. Families exchange visits and greetings all day long.

In Mecca the pilgrims end their state of "ihram" by a symbolic shortening of the hair. They resume their commitment to the present and the particular once more. They revert to their own dress. Many travel to Medina, the second most revered city in Islam, where Mohammed established the first Islamic state and where he is buried in a corner of the "Nabawi" Mosque.

The home-coming of the pilgrims is vociferously celebrated. Some families light up the streets and houses with colored bulbs and offer sherbet and sweet drinks to visitors. Friends and relatives and neighbors call on the pilgrims to congratulate them on their trip to the Blessed Land and give them the well-deserved title of "haaj" (male pilgrim) and "haaja" (female pilgrim). Henceforth this title precedes their names, lending them a religious distinction and an honored social status.

Whenever the time for prayer occurs, the haaj and haaja stand facing the direction of Mecca and feel transported beyond time and space to those days when they stood in the Haram Mosque close to the Ka'ba, part of a multitude of worshippers bowing in acquiesence to the call of God.

Sanaa Makhlouf is a first year graduate student from Egypt studying Islamic history.