THE HAJJ pilgrimage experience is so transcendental and so sublime, so profound and so enthralling, so euphoric and, to some extent, so confounding that it defies ordinary human verbal expression.
This is the conclusion I inevitably reached, having had the blessed opportunity, together with my wife, to partake of HAJJ 2009.
At its height, and on occasion, one witnesses a spectacle of seeming mass euphoria and apparent hysteria bordering on a frenzy of emotional excess as thousands and thousands of pilgrims march along, noisily chanting the HAJJ mantra in glorification of God at various decibels of individual intensity. This collectively cascades to a crescendo, then gradually falls and rises again and again in a virtually never-ending chain of monumental rhythm and voluptuous excitement.
Watching the sheer mass of solid human traffic inexorably pushing in one direction or the other, one is driven to view the huge columns as though they were a people fired up and marching to a boiling war front.
The atmosphere evoked is otherworldly, even eerie in its ferocity. It is breath-taking, almost frightening to behold. To attempt to break into this mass motion is to court inevitable death by being inadvertently trampled upon. The nearest comparison possible is observing huge columns of wild forest bees in flight.
These scenes are equally re-enacted repeatedly in the process of pilgrims circling the KAABA in the holy city of Mecca during the HAJJ period.
As the whole atmosphere is soaked in sound and movement, the loudest chant one hears in the Arabic language translates loosely as follows:-
“Here I am at Your service O Lord, here I come.
I come in response to Your divine call. I affirm that You have no Partner and that all the praise belongs to You and that every Favour proceeds from You.
To you belongs the Dominion.
It is this philosophy of absolute surrender to God and self-sacrifice which underpins and informs the whole purpose and conduct of the HAJJ pilgrimage.
The HAJJ is a religious and spiritual observance of Muslims. It is, however, only obligatory for adult Muslims who have the financial means and physical ability to undertake the journey.
The KAABA is central to the HAJJ pilgrimage. The Holy Quran describes the KAABA as the first house founded by the patriach Abraham for all mankind for the purpose of worshiping the one true God; that it is a place full of blessings, guidance, security and manifest signs. Accordingly pilgrimage thereto is a sacred duty for all those able to do so, from all over the globe, in order to obtain clear benefits therefrom. (QURAN 3: 972, 98; 22: 28, 29 and 31).
The HAJJ Pilgrimage is the fifth and last of the Five Pillars of Islam. It is enjoined upon every adult Muslim capable of undertaking the HAJJ once in a life time.
The first and foremost of the Five Pillars is the affirmation that there is none worthy of worship except Allah (God) and that Muhammed (sa) is Allah's servant and His Messenger.
The second is the performance of five daily (ritual) prayers.
The third is to give a certain proportion of one's wealth for charity (Zakaat). The fourth is to undergo one month of fasting (from dawn to sun-set) each year during the month of Ramadhan.
It is logical to presume, therefore, that, under normal circumstances, one cannot even begin to contemplate undertaking the HAJJ unless one had applied themselves honestly and systematically to fulfilling the four prior Pillars of Islam.
HAJJ then can and should only be performed for the purpose, basically, of seeking the pleasure of God and His nearness. Its objective cannot be to achieve worldly or material benefits or to boost one's ego by, for instance, assuming the title of AL-HAJJ.
Understandably, the source of financing the HAJJ should not be dubious or unlawful, nor should one perform the HAJJ without having first fulfilled one's domestic obligations, by way of safeguarding the family's maintenance or upkeep.
Additionally, before undertaking the HAJJ, the intended pilgrim must have settled all his just debts. It is important to emphasise also that to undertake the HAJJ one must be in reasonably good physical health. The HAJJ rites and programmes entail considerable physical exertion, emotional and psychological strain and hardship, strict discipline and absolute sacrifice and forebearance.
The HAJJ is a holy and sacred enterprise. It is an endeavour by which one devotes a certain period of one's life almost exclusively to the service of one's God and Creator.
At the same time, one has to apply oneself to promoting good deeds while advancing the course of upright and moral life.
Embarking upon the HAJJ Pilgrimage, therefore, entails considerable soul-searching. Thus, the first essential rite of HAJJ is for the pilgrim to place himself or herself in what is referred to as the State of IHRAM.
This means, you have to consecrate or dedicate yourself wholly to God, in undertaking the HAJJ, by personally reciting an invocation, coupled with a ritual cleansing bath and specific ritual prayer.
The state of IHRAM is accompanied by numerous observances, restrictions and strict prohibitions. For the period of IHRAM, the male pilgrim puts on exclusively and entirely two white pieces of unsewn cloth (or towels) – one to wrap around the waist and the other to cover the upper part of the body, excluding the head. No underwear whatsoever is worn Women may, however, wear any decent clothing of their own choice, provided it adequately covers their body.
Every intending pilgrim enters into the State of IHRAM at a specified geographic location in Saudi Arabia. Doing so is compulsory, the breach of which is subject to specific sanctions. Each of these places is generically referred to as MIQAT. They are located on the different routes leading to MECCA.
Prohibitions connected with entering into the state of IHRAM include the following: One cannot cut one's hair or nails, nor can you use perfumed soap in bathing, or apply perfume or scent.
Hunting is forbidden. Killing any animal or destroying a living thing is prohibited. In fact, generally, one cannot intentionally kill even an insect or uproot a tree, plant, shrub or pluck a green leaf. Sexual intercourse is wholly not permitted; nor can you propose to contract marriage. Provocative or insensitive conduct, including the use of abusive or foul language, or causing harm or injury to another is disallowed.
As noted earlier on, the dress code is simple and almost Spartan. One may only wear open sandals or slippers, by way of foot-wear.
In short, during the period of IHRAM, one is expected to exhibit total humility and courteousness as well as to concentrate fully and always in worshipping and glorifying God, thereby acquiring high spiritual benefits.
The idea then is that, after subjecting oneself to such an extra-ordinary regime of discipline and forebearance during the period of the HAJJ, one is expected, thereafter, to live a life of self-discipline, self-sacrifice, orderliness, humility and moral uprightness, being always mindful of doing good to humanity with the view to seeking the pleasure and favour of God.
This implies that cultivating and developing personal spirituality and ethical conduct is the very essence of the HAJJ Pilgrimage.
To return from HAJJ, and then to engage oneself in crookery, fraud, cheating, immoral behaviour, arrogance or palpable worldliness or materialism constitute a clear antithesis of the purpose and intent of HAJJ and could even nullify one's HAJJ.
What were my experiences and observations during my HAJJ? Without a shadow of doubt, I went through a great deal and, naturally, learnt a lot of lessons as well.
A significant issue is the opacity that surrounds the matter of HAJJ in this country. As a Ghanaian Muslim, I have been struck, and almost appalled, by the secrecy and shocking ignorance that is associated with HAJJ in Ghana.
Besides, all sorts of myths and tales have been woven around the HAJJ, not the least of which is the thread- bare contention that rituals performed during the HAJJ automatically make pilgrims suddenly and filthily rich upon their return to the country.
There are very few or no educational programmes existing to sensitize or to enlighten intending pilgrims, especially, first-time pilgrims, about the essence of HAJJ, the rites, the processes, procedures and practical demands and prohibitions associated with the pilgrimage, particularly when one gets to Saudi Arabia, which is the actual theatre of HAJJ activities.
Personally, I was, for instance, horribly embarrassed when I arrived in Saudi Arabia with a huge bag full of clothing and footwear only to find that I just had no need or use for them. In the end, it became an albatross around my neck.
A HAJJ traveller must be advised to travel very, very light. A couple of dresses and footwear is just fine.
For the one month I was in Arabia for the HAJJ, I practically wore only bath-room slippers (charlie-wate). And I did not wear more than three of the numerous clothes I carried there from Ghana. Perhaps one or two only of formal Ghanaian wear is all that may be needed, possibly to be worn during the Eid festival.
In any event, one could always profitably procure a few walk-about clothing in Arabia. This would also save the pilgrim excess-baggage problems on the return journey.
It is in the interest of our nation and the individual pilgrim that, as much as possible, sickly or very old persons are actively discouraged from embarking on the HAJJ journey because of the sheer pressures and exertions of the pilgrimage programme in Saudi Arabia.
In Arabia, during the HAJJ season, one is thunder-struck by the universal character and appeal of the Islamic religion. One encounters thousands, if not millions of people from virtually every nation and every part of our Globe.
The sheer diversity of human types is incredible. They come in all shapes and sizes, colour and height, language and dialect. One cannot help but marvel at the wonders of creation. You feel totally humbled, almost lost and insignificant in the mind-boggling assemblage of human beings packed in a relatively small geographic space and over a short span of time.
My wife and I were most lucky to have been on the first flight, which took us directly to the Holy City of Medina where we spent nearly one week before the HAJJ proper started. In the event, we had the opportunity to savour the sights and sounds of Medina by embarking upon various excursions.
In Medina, as with Mecca, one is awe-struck by the pain-staking efforts to preserve the Islamic heritage. Every landmark of early Muslim history is developed and preserved.
Pilgrims are fervently encouraged not merely to visit those significant places, but to know about their values and, more especially, to offer prayers for the early or pioneer Muslims and martyrs.
At Medina, the Mosque of Prophet Muhammed was the natural first port of call.
It is a massive edifice, and an architectural master-piece. Apart from the equally huge Mosque enclosing the KAABA in Mecca (THE HARAM) the Prophet's Mosque in Medina is the holiest place of Worship which every Muslim dreams to pray in.
The grave of the Holy Prophet as well as those of his two successors, Hazrat Abu Bakar and Umar, are located within this particular mosque and encased in intricately woven golden structures. According to Islamic beliefs and tradition, a prayer in this Mosque is rewarded with blessings equivalent to one thousand times or more than a prayer said in any ordinary mosque. Every visitor must needs go to the Prophet's grave to offer special prayers for him and for his two companions, whose bodies lie beside him.
Near-by is the grave yard called Baqi which holds the mortal remains of the Third Khali-fah, Uthman Ibn Affan, together with other companions of the Holy Prophet Muhammed, including those of the martyrs who died in the early battle of Uhud. Next to this is another grave yard where the Prophet's wife, AISHA lies buried. The pilgrim is also enjoined to go to these places to offer prayers for the deceased.
The numerous sets of gates found in the Prophet's Mosque are simply breath-taking, being crafted in intricate golden strands which glitter gloriously. The gates are named after prominent companions of the Holy Prophet, including all his four successors (Khalifahs), as well as some Saudi Kings.
Observing the grandeur of the gates, the idea that a good name is certainly better than riches settled on my consciousness with particular intensity. These persons whose memories are impressively captured in the massive and beautifully crafted gates named after them can truly be seen to be alive today, even though they lived and died some 1,500 years ago. Surely, whatever wealth they possessed had long perished without trace.
To be continued