Monday, April 10, 2006

Written on Feb. 8, '03

When the Call Comes: A Pilgrim's Progress

About 2.5 million Muslims from around the world - 45 percent of them women – will be congregating in Makkah, Saudi Arabia, this month to perform the hajj, the once-in-a-lifetime obligation for believers.

Over 10,000 American Muslims are expected to be among the pilgrims seeking to turn over a new leaf in their lives through the demanding rites of the hajj. Many are driven by a sense of urgency in a world mired in hate, bigotry and war. “This may be our last chance,” goes a morbid sentiment. “Who knows what greater calamity will befall humanity by the time the next hajj comes around?”

I am familiar with the feeling. I performed the hajj in 2002. I had planned to do it earlier but one thing or the other always came up, suggesting that my intention was perhaps flawed. Then came September 11, 2001. Terrorists claiming Islam as guidance struck America, taking 3,000 innocent lives. The attacks brought rage, resolve and a vivid sense of mortality. Life, we learned anew, was fleeting. Be grateful for what you have -- health, family, freedom. Fulfill your obligations before it is too late. I had to travel to the birthplace of Islam to understand what my faith meant to me and how I, as a moderate Muslim, could help reclaim it from my radical co-religionists. Nothing less than the soul of Islam was at stake.

And so it came to be that on a warm night in February 2002, I am among a group of American Muslims at the Jeddah airport on the coast of the Red Sea in Saudi Arabia, patiently waiting for customs clearance. We had flown the previous day from San Francisco and, at Frankfurt, had changed into ihram (purification), consisting of two pieces of unstitched white cloth. The women wore simple white dresses with head coverings. The modest clothing signified our equality before Allah and the leaving behind of all worldly ties.

The formal pilgrimage is several days away but we have come early for familiarity with the ancient rites and extra time for reflection and remembrance of Allah in the hope that we will be at the peak of our spirituality during the hajj.

A new day has literally dawned by the time we clear customs and board the buses to take us to Makkah, 50 miles away. Approaching the holy city, we begin to recite the talbiyah (invocation) of pilgrimage: Here I am at Your command, O Allah, here I am. Here I am at Your command. You are without partner. Yours is all praise and grace and dominion. You are without partner.
We are to chant this refrain throughout the pilgrimage.

To read the complete article, please visit

No comments: