Muslims are required to undertake a pilgimage to Mecca if they can afford to do so. That is the fifth mandatoey reqirement of Islam after reciting the syuhada, praying five times in a day and night,fasting in the month of Ramadhan and paying the zakat. After the pilgimage, a Muslim automatically becomes a Haji.
I was most fortunate to have the opportunity of doing the pilgrimge last October. I've heard and read a lot about it and even did the umrah ( pilgrimage to Mecca only) a couple of times. But the experience of doing the full Haj is entirely different, especially this year when the Haram Mosque is undergoing a thoruogh renovation.
I'm not refering to the religious and spiritual aspect of the pilgrimage but the life experince that one goes through for the 45 to 48 days pilgrimage. The religious and spiritual experince itself is most illuminating but the life experience is to say the least, traumatic. It's most behumbling and humanitizing.
The training given before the pilgrimmage by local community mosqoes and by Tabung Haji (The National Pilgrimage Fund Board) would prepare one wirh all the prayers and recitations (do'a)that the pilgrimage would require. There's no possibility of learning all by heart since some could be very long, unless one has already read and memorized them a few months ahead. There's no necessity to do so anyway since colorful and easy-to-read pamphlets had been prepared for easy consultation while on the move. It's the simularion of the actual activities, ceremony,and procedure involved in performing the Haj that is most edifying. More importantly it's the act of doing things in a group of people you have't met which is most interesting. Adults and senior citizens when grouped together to perform certain activities that require spontaneous cooperation and synchronization can create quite a strange scene. The training and rehearsal only involved a few thousand at a time and a total of 22,000 would-be hajis from Malaysia. The pilgrims from all over the world whobwill congregate in Mecca will run into several millions.
The procedures and activities focused on involveD wearing the ihram - flat unsewn white cloth- and observing its prihibitions throughout the performance of the pilgrimmage's rites, performing the tawaf ( walking around the kaabah, performing the sae (walking and running between two mounts ie Safar and Marwah, stoning the devils at three sites and, of course, performing the various prayers at different places. Actual performance was simulated by the course partipants to get the "feel" of the actual experience.
But nothing is like the actual thing. When we arrived at the alotted hotels im Mecca, the place was teeming with Haj pilgrims, some in ihram others wearing normal though Arabized clothes - the jubah and headcloth. The crowd around and (as ascertained later) within the Haram Mosque was jampacked and almost impenetrable. One immediately realised that the Muslims of the world who congragated in Mecca during the Haj season ( October and November)easily ran into several millions. Almost all were dressed in white.
The routine involved in performing the tawaf and sae need not be discussed here but the behavior of people from varios parts of the world in performing the routine is a very edifying lesson in human behavior of people seeking the grace of Allah. The frantic shouts and recital of various doas, the pushing and jostling to keep in the company or group or friends,the frenzy of heightened emotions and spirituality in calling out to Allah for forgiveness, blessings and love, the crazy rush to kiss the hajal aswad (sacred stone), the wild hacking of the crowd for space to pray or move in and out of the human fiord etc makes one feel that your existence in this world is a mere accident and the world can easily trample on you.
But the more challenging experience was the night spent in Muzalifah collecting some 70 pebbles for the " lontar jumrah", stoning the devils and their friends, sitting around in the crowded space teeming with people in your ihram, with the cold wind blowing in your face. You're required to stay there for nothing less than five and a halh hours emulating what the Prophet (pbuh)did during his pilgrimage to Mecca. It was past 2.00am when we were taken to our tents in Arfah where the wukuf will take place. That's when the Muslims in Malaysia and elwhere celebrate Eidul Adha or Hariraya Haji. Three nights in the crowded tents in Arfah we moved on to Mina where the "lontar jumrah" (stoning the devil) takes place. The first throw involving a 5km walk to and fro with a few walkalators to ease the tired legs, involved throwing seven pebbles at the Jumrah Kubra only.
This must be followed by three more throws on separate days involving all three Jumrahs ie the small, the medium and the big jumrah. All the walks involved thousands of people filling up the roads, the tunnels and the walkalators.
Staying in the crowded tents and sleeping in rows with feet almost touching each other, eating food served in styrofoam trays, waiting in long lines to use the toilet and bathrooms, walking some distance to get hot water to prepare your own breakfast of maggi mee and biscuits, praying in groups in your own tent following an unseen Imam but only hearing his voive over the mike, formed the major chores of the day, choosing your own time to perform the "lontar jumrah" in the morning, afternoon, or night. The campsite and the road to the Jumrah were at all times crowded and jampacked with people, including roadside paddlers selling all sorts of wares from food and drinks to trinkets and clothes.
After four days in Mina, we were brought back to Mecca for the final part of the Haj routine ie performing the "Tawaf Haji" and "Sae". It's the same as doing the umrah but after the first "lontar jumrah kubra" amd the compulsory cutting off a few strands of hair or shaving the head completely ( which I did for the first time in my life) you are allowed to take off the ihram and dress up freely. The ladies however must continue to wear their usual "telekung" (robe) though not necesarily in black or white.
The entire experience of living and perforing the Haj pilgrimage routines for more than a month is really an experience that one can never forget. It's the experience of a lifetime and a Muslim who has not gonebthrough the process even after doing the umrah a couple of times will not know what becoming a full Muslim really means. Subhallah.