Ten years ago, I was blessed to go for Hajj. Unlike some people who think and prepare for a lifetime before going, my Hajj came to me unanticipated. I had found Islam less than five years prior, and I was just out of college without any savings to spend on such a journey. Further, the very concept of Hajj was alien. No one in my family had ever traveled out of the country – none of us even had passports. My non-Muslim family had a very hard time with the whole idea, not understanding its purpose and finding the idea very frightening, potentially dangerous. All they could see was their daughter going off to the Middle East with people they didn't know, and so they were very worried. But I guess it was meant to be, because somehow everything worked out, and I was soon in Saudi Arabia with millions of other pilgrims.
What follows are a few things from my Hajj that have stayed with me a decade later.
I will never forget the feeling of tranquility and holiness around the Prophet's Mosque and Jannat al-Baqi in Medina. The desolate, desecrated nature of the graves in Baqi was discordant with the holiness that permeated the air and earth in that place. Everyone in our caravan felt very much at home, and thoughts of family, jobs, or anything back in North America never had room for entry. It was if a previous life had ended, we had all been reborn, and were living a new life, the real life, finally.
I met more Muslims and made more lasting connections on Hajj than any other experience. Random Iranian Shia strangers would bestow gifts and kindnesses upon discovering a fellow Shia from another country – even though it was not their country, I often felt like I was being hosted by them, rather than the Saudis; it seemed to me more that it was their place, even though they were journeyers like myself. The Saudis I met were excited to see an American – sure, I had lots of money to spend that I was holding back on – and if they were Shia, were very cautious about showing any aspect of their belief. The people in my caravan took care of me; I would have been totally lost without their companionship and guidance, as many of them had performed Hajj before and always seemed to know where to go and what to do next.
Before going for Hajj, I had no particular emotional reaction to seeing images of the Ka'ba, but when I actually saw it for the first time in person, I was awestruck and in tears. I was just amazed to be there, so far from home, with millions of people from all over the world, and with physical structures that connected me to Prophets and Imams (peace be upon them all). I knew it was a gift and a miracle to be there.
I learned a level of patience and tolerance that I never even thought about before. I saw real poverty for the first time and remember thinking often about the throngs of people who had no accommodations and were just sleeping on the streets, even in dumpsters, and yet, like me, this was a journey of a life time for them, and they had probably worked much harder to get there than I had. The poverty in Saudi Arabia outside of the main areas pilgrims frequented was stark in contrast to the sometimes gaudy excessiveness that sat right next to it. A pilgrim is not in control during Hajj: he or she is just another drop in a sea and learns to just wait, just endure, just exist, just feel, just be. While in one sense the journey is a very selfish one – one is striving to have this deed accepted and not wasted, you're very special, called there by God while many others were not able to make it – in another sense, the individuality fades away. You're not special on Hajj, but rather, you're totally unimportant and not unique from anyone else around you – you're focused on the Creator and the spiritual tasks with very little thought of the world, of comfort or discomfort.
I remember being really quite surprised to discover that Safa and Marwa were not mountains but smoothed small hills and under a roof at that. Incongruities and surprises like that happened constantly – one minute all would be holy and peaceful, the next you would be jarred by someone's hostility in the crowd, one sight would be as you expect, the next would be entirely different. While the haram was an amazing place, the most memorable experience for me in Mecca was the evening when several thousand Shias filled a plaza to perform Dua Kumayl, courageously organized by Iranian pilgrims. Saudi police in riot gear surrounded us, but the gathering began and ended without incident. Anything is possible with God, and nothing is possible without God – Hajj showed me that repeatedly.
Coming home from Hajj was the hardest part of the journey. Readjusting to normal life was very difficult, because it was like accepting a fake, two-dimensional reality after seeing the real, 3D HD world for the first time. But I could no more explain my physical and spiritual journey to my non-Muslim family than a land-dwelling animal could describe its world to a fish that lived confined to the depths of the sea. I didn't feel glad to be back, and while my parents were so relieved to have me back, I was not the same me that had left them. I discovered the real challenge of Hajj came after it was over. When you're back in your ordinary, mundane life, can you hold on to the lessons, relationships, feelings, and spiritual gains outside of that focused, spiritually-charged environment? Or will you let the old you come back and take over?
If not everyone can go for Hajj, perhaps everyone can create or find some spiritually-charged environment to be a humble pilgrim in now and then – a conference, a retreat, or a special prayer room in your home with guests that inspire you spiritually. I think we all need to be pilgrims from this world from time to time to help us not get lost in it.