Published at Islamonline.net (now OnIslam.net)
It has been quite a few years since my family left Saudi Arabia. I remember when I was a child, we would frequently go on `Umrah. I have many memories of Al-Haram Ash-Sharif —especially of the Ka`bah and of drinking Zamzam water by the gallon — and I must not forget the Shawarmas (meat sandwiches)! Even though I had a sense of spirituality, I wouldn’t dare suggest that it was anything like the enlightenment I have felt over the past week.
Since the days I started practicing Islam as a young adult, I often wondered and dreamed about what I would do if I were to go back to Makkah, back to the Ka`bah. What would I ask God for, and more importantly, would God accept my supplications? I recognize and understand that as far as my belief is concerned, God is All-Knowing and All-Aware. Thus, if I offer a prayer to God at any time or in any place, He will be fully aware of it. However, there is that indescribable “kick” that consists of being in Makkah and offering prayer to God at the same time.
The Goal Is the Search Itself
Stepping out of the hotel, I was only seconds away from the Bab al-`Umrah (one of the many entrances to Al-Haram). I walked through the passage and right in front of me stood the Ka`bah — what a sight to see! This was it! This is where I had wanted to be for so many years, and I was finally there!
For a brief moment I thought, “Is this it?” as if I had expected much more, some sort of immediate spiritual enlightenment. I spent a moment thinking about the sayings of early Muslim scholars. And I thought to myself, “Now as I am standing here, is it all over? My desire to be here in this sanctuary of God, is this the end?” And I realized that this is not the end of the search any more than the middle rung of a ladder is the end of the ladder. As with the ladder, we have to keep climbing, just as with life and faith — we always continue to develop.
The Black Stone, A Piece of Paradise
During Tawaf, I thought about the Black Stone, a rock that fell from Paradise, which is located in one of the corners of the Ka`bah. It is said that it was as white as milk in the beginning but had become tainted because of the sins of the son of Prophet Adam.
Tradition holds that the Prophet Muhammad had once performed pilgrimage and had kissed the Black Stone. On this occasion, `Umar, one of his Companions, stated, “By God! I know that you are a mere stone, and if I had not seen my beloved Prophet kissing you, I would have never done so.”
Once, during the time of Prophet Muhammad, the Black Stone had been displaced. At the end of a process of rebuilding the Ka`bah, various pagan Arab tribes were haughty with pride; all wanted the privilege of placing the stone back into the Ka`bah again. Despite their worship of false gods and deities, they still believed that Allah was the highest of them all.
They began to quarrel among themselves to the point that they were on the verge of physically attacking each other. Someone then suggested that they seek advice from the first person to come to the scene. Muhammad (not yet a prophet), who was known for his honesty and wisdom, was it, the first person to come to them. He placed the stone on a piece of cloth and then told all the tribal leaders to each hold a side of it and to lift the stone to put it back in place. Each of the tribal leaders thus lifted the stone back into place and war was averted.
After a great deal of musing, I asked myself if I would be able to reach the Black Stone. After all, what could be greater than “touching a piece of Paradise?” I eventually decided against the matter as I would probably need riot gear to navigate through the crowd, and I also noticed many people kissing and touching the stone and couldn’t help but wonder about hygiene.
The Final Stage of Umrah
Having completed the Tawaf, I proceeded to Safa and Marwa mounts to begin the second half of my pilgrimage. On my last circuit between Safa and Marwa, I began to contemplate the final stage of `Umrah, which is the trimming of the hair for women, and for men, the shaving of the head — yes, “skin-head” style. While this procedure is not required, it is certainly recommended and adopted by many. Upon reaching Marwa mount, I gave in to my instincts and chickened out, trimming only a small section of my hair.
I completed the rites of `Umrah within 2 hours. What to do now? It wasn’t really a dilemma. I found myself a nice spot with a view of the Ka`bah where I could rest against one of the many marble pillars. I sat back and contemplated life while watching the pilgrims going around the Ka`bah in Tawaf.
I noticed the birds flying overhead. There was always at least one, and often a small flock would fly in synch around the Ka`bah, in very much the same way that people perform Tawaf.
I remembered hearing a story about the bird and the fire. When Prophet Abraham was thrown into a fire that filled up two valleys by the evil ruler Nimrod, some birds were flying overhead. Some of the larger birds saw a smaller bird that kept on flying to the ocean to scoop up some water and then flying back to drop the water onto the fire. After seeing the small bird going back and forth a few times, the larger birds asked him why he was doing that, as such tiny drops of water could not possibly put out such a large fire. The small bird replied that he did so because on the Day of Judgment, God would ask him what he did when Abraham was in the fire, and he wanted to be able to answer that he did everything within his ability to extinguish the fire. I couldn’t help to think how lucky that bird was to have a conscience that wondered about its actions in such a way, and how few of us there are in this world who think beyond our own selves.
The Path of Monotheism
I also wondered about the idols that used to be in the Ka`bah — where did they come from? And how and why did they arrive in Makkah? Al-Kalbi’s text, Kitab al-Asnam (The Book of Idols), discusses the history of idolatry in the Arabian Peninsula and observes how the simple truth of Abraham’s teachings was corrupted while `Amr ibn Luhay held the custodianship of the Ka`bah. `Amr had traveled to Syria to visit a healing hot spring, and while there he had noticed people worshiping idols. They told him that these idols could bring rain for the land and victory against the enemy, so he brought some of them to Makkah and placed them around the Ka`bah.
I wondered if it wasn’t for `Amr’s single trip to cure his illness, would the people who had until then followed the tradition of Abraham left the path of monotheism?
I observed that men and women are not segregated while performing the rituals of `Umrah —to the extent that men and women pray almost without considering whom they are praying behind.
I recalled the statement of Imam Malik said that a man’s prayer behind a woman is perfectly legitimate. I also wondered whether the statement of Imam Malik, when he referred to a mahram as a person in whose company a woman would be safe and not necessarily a male relative, would be valid.
Presumably this interpretation was due to the mistreatment of women in Madinah at the time, who would be verbally as well as physically abused in the streets. Unfortunately, I see very little difference between the abuse of the first Muslim women and the actions of many young Muslim men today who taunt and abuse girls in shopping malls! History seems to repeat itself.
I contemplated the treatment of the non-Muslims who had lived among the Muslim communities in Arabia during the time of the Prophet. The Jews in Madinah then co-existed with Muslims and were not at all mistreated or dealt with unjustly. Even upon the death of the Prophet, one of his wives had taken his shield to a Jew to pawn it. How could she have done that if there had been no Jews living in the area, as we are told by some of our own historians? I wondered how it is that people selectively accept the teachings of Islam or even its history.
Contemplating Life and People
The more I thought about the various situations and dilemmas that our community faces, the angrier I became. What started with a smile at being privileged to admire the first sanctuary dedicated to the worship God, turned into a frown. I sat there watching the people performing Tawaf and wondered what exactly was going through their minds.
I observed many people clinging to the Ka`bah. From a distance I could see them crying, the tears rolling down their faces. I felt how every person has his or her own problems, dilemmas, issues that all need to be addressed. I remembered the story about two companions who were traveling in the desert. When they decided to put up their tent, one companion went out in search for food. When the one who remained in the tent was alone, a beautiful woman entered the tent and offered him illegal sexual relations. He told her that her beauty was unsurpassed and that he was tempted, but for fear of God he would not sell the hereafter for a few moments of unlawful lust, and told her to leave. When the other companion returned with the food, he found his friend crying alone in the tent. Prompted, the crying man told of what happened and admitted that he had barely been able to control himself.
His companion also began to cry. When the other asked why he was crying, he replied that if it had been him in the tent, he would not have been able to resist and would have squandered his hereafter for a few moments of unlawful lust. When I remembered this story, a tear came to my eye because who knows what I would have done in the same situation.
Story after story, account after account, thought after thought came, and I ended up spending a great deal of my `Umrah contemplating life and people. It was not, however, an easy or uneventful pilgrimage. Were I to base my experience on the manners of some of the people I met, I wouldn’t have dared to recommend the journey to anyone else.
Life, however, seems full of compromises and choices; one either accepts the differences in people, their actions and their upbringings, or one can let such differences lead to the destruction of one’s own soul.
Before my departure from Makkah, I almost gave in to the temptation of touching the Black Stone. If, God forbid, my `Umrah had not been accepted, maybe the stone could have absorbed all my sins and left me sinless like a newborn baby, as it had absorbed the sins of Adam’s son.
But I quickly realized that, after all, it was just a stone and it is only Allah the Almighty Who forgives, guides, and provides.
Problems, complications, and people’s bad attitudes aside, even though I do not know when or where I will die or when and if I will reach Heaven — I can at least say that for now I have touched a piece of Paradise. What a wonderful mercy from Allah indeed!