The haj experience leaves an indelible mark on those who’ve undertaken this spiritual journey, writes Intan Maizura Ahmad Kamal
AMONG other things, haj means “to continuously strive to reach one’s goal” and is the last of the five pillars of Islam. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime obligation for those who have the physical and financial means to undertake this journey to Mecca.
It’s a journey I have yet to make although the niat (intention) is there. One day, I tell myself.
Many Muslims I know embark on the haj with the hopes of returning permanently affected by the spirituality that they feel during the pilgrimage. Many aspire to see a change or deep spiritual transformation of self upon their return.
“I want to come back a better person, with greater empathy for those around me” a friend confided in me as she prepared for her journey a couple of years ago.
“It’s inner peace that I’m looking for,” said another.
I remember being awed by my own parents’ stories of their experience. I never tire of their tales of the weird, wondrous and wonderful, at times disbelieving but later acknowledging them as special miracles of the holy land. They, and many others like them, have emerged from the pilgrimage with important lessons which they’ve gone on to adapt and apply in their life and to their relationships with family and friends.
APPRECIATING ONE’S LOT
“My husband and I have gone on the haj twice, in 2001 and in 2008,” says lecturer Dr Fauziah Hassan. The mother-of-four, who confesses that she’s currently on a mission to spend more quality time with her family, recalls with clarity her pilgrimage as if it was only yesterday.
“Two experiences remain etched in my mind,” says the 51-year-old. “One was the first time I set eyes on the Grand Kaaba. At that moment, I felt nothing else mattered. I just wanted to be there and to be there forever. Every time the image comes to mind, I feel as if my soul is uplifted and fulfilled.”
The second, recalls Fauziah, is the sight of a sea of white in the middle of the desert in Muzdalifah (an open level area near Mecca). “It was the pilgrims. There were no tents and no shelters. Just bare soil under us and the sky over our heads. I thought this must be how the field of Mahsyar would be like — everyone gathered at the same place as equals.”
Suffice to say, performing the haj is not without its challenges. “My biggest challenge was battling with myself to continue with the daily rituals, of braving the crowd to get to the mosque, waking up in the middle of the night to go to the mosque and perform my tahajud and other prayers. There were times when my naf (desires) kept telling me to just stay back and do it in the comfort of my room instead,” she says.
There were plenty of lessons learnt from the haj experience, concedes Fauziah. “I realised that it wasn’t just about having physical strength. Spiritual strength mattered more. Everything becomes effortless when it’s performed in the name of the Almighty.”
She says that, in addition to prayers, she derived spiritual strength from observing her surroundings. “For instance, as my husband and I were walking to the mosque in the wee hours of the morning, we saw pilgrims sleeping on the pavements under the open sky. They never complained and sure enough, they were often among the first to get to the mosque for the fajar (dawn) prayers.”
On another occasion, she was performing the tawaf and felt the excruciating pain of the exercise. “Sweat trickled down my body, my legs were hurting and just ahead of me, I saw a woman crawling on all fours, with a sleeping baby tied to her back, doing the tawaf. It was a truly humbling experience. I learnt then the virtues of gratitude,” she says.
Adding, Fauziah muses: “The answer was right in front of me. I was looking at people who were better off than me when I should’ve been looking at those who were worse off. I’ve been blessed with a lot more than others yet, throughout my life, I’ve never been truly satisfied with what I have. A valuable lesson I learnt is that it’s not about having more but appreciating what you already have.”
Looking thoughtful, she concludes: “Iman or faith needs to be progressively strengthened and consistently reinforced. Despite our hectic daily life, we must make time for Allah. I also remind myself and my family members to be conscious of our own desires in every decision and actions taken. Faith will lead one to true happiness, inner peace, and contentment.”
CAREFUL IN THOUGHTS AND ACTION
Kelantan-born Aimy Bazura Mohamed, an IT business analyst-cum-project manager, had the opportunity to perform her haj 14 years ago. The mother of one (plus five stepchildren) was 35 at the time and undertook this spiritual journey together with her parents (their second time).
“It was my dad’s idea for us to go,” recalls the bubbly 49-year-old. “When I was in my late 20s and early 30s, I had saved money to go travelling every year. Whenever I asked my dad for permission to go on holiday, he would give his consent. But in 1997, when I sought his consent for a trip to New Zealand, his answer was different. He said that since I had enough money to go for holiday, and time to take off from work, it meant that I was ready to perform my haj.”
He told her he was worried that all her travels would be haram if she didn’t at least perform her haj once in her life. “When I heard him say that, I told him that I couldn’t possibly go without a muhrim (relative within the prohibited degrees of marriage). He volunteered to accompany me. And when mum heard about it, she wanted to come too.”
The family registered themselves at Tabung Haji in 1997 and was informed that they’d have to wait five years for their turn. “Once we’d signed up, I resolved to prepare well for the trip. I walked around Tasik Titiwangsa almost every weekend for three years to build up my stamina. I prayed and asked Allah for three years, after each and every prayer, to give me patience to handle my parents. My mum and I have never been close and we don’t see eye-to-eye on most things. We’d disagree on almost anything and everything. So I was specifically worried about going with her,” she said
As luck would have it, the family didn’t have to wait long after all. In 2000, they got the call up — two years earlier than expected.
There were many highlights to her haj, confides Aimy. “The most memorable was when I first set eyes on the Kaaba and when I first entered Masjid al-Haram. I cried with happiness and gratitude to Allah for allowing me to be there and to see it with my own eyes,” she says.
Aimy recalls feeling humbled during her time in the holy land. “I’ve always been a very independent person. But when I was there, I found myself feeling very vulnerable and dependant on Allah for every little thing that I wanted to do,” she says.
“The feeling of I-am-in-control-of-anything-and-everything that I’d always had, was gone. I felt that Allah controlled everything and only He could decide what I could or couldn’t do and what was going to happen to me. I could feel all His attributes — greatness, mercifulness, and love.”
Aimy also learnt the virtues of patience and tolerance. And to be more careful with one’s thoughts. “Allah hears what we say in our heads and hearts. He tests, punishes and rewards us in real time in Mecca. And so we find ourselves being more careful with our thoughts when we’re there. But it shouldn’t just stop there. We have to practise the same once we’re back home too,” she says.
BELIEVE IN THE CREATOR
For Dr Mohd Idrus Mohd Masirin, a professor in geotechnical and transportation engineering, the opportunity to embark on his haj came six years ago when he was 48.
The Kajang-born went with his wife and sister-in-law. “I had initially planned to share the haj experience with my parents but unfortunately, my father died before my plans could be realised,” he recalls. “It was the saddest day of my life when he left us. But this served to show me that as human beings, we can plan but it’s the Almighty that determines everything in this world.”
Eyes thoughtful, he says he has never forgotten his father. “When I was in Mecca, I continuously prayed for him. I remembered the words of an ustaz who told me that his (my father) soul might be around in Mecca during haj.”
Awe in his voice, he continues: “True enough, one night after performing my solatul hajat, I dreamt of my late father. He was smiling and telling someone that he was happy and at peace now. Then he walked away. I remember waking up with a start and thinking that my wish and doa had been fulfilled.”
The Creator is always with us and He hears, says Mohd Idrus. Many incidents have strengthened his belief.
“One time I was praying in front of the Kaaba, asking for forgiveness, crying and begging for some signs that He was listening to me. Suddenly a man materialised and gave me a Quran and told me to read it. ‘Then you will understand,’ he said.”
The most important lesson he’s learnt from the experience, says the affable father of three, is that in life, one has to be honest and wholehearted in one’s undertakings. “Like doing the haj. You have to commit and surrender yourself to the Creator. In doing so, we will derive strength — not only strength to get through the haj experience but also as we navigate our path in life.”
She was 40 when Rahayu Zulkifli, a dispute settlement facility manager, undertook her spiritual journey to Mecca. The adventurous woman went alone but found herself sharing a 10-bedded room in Mecca. “Being a morning person, I chose to wake up at 2.30am so I could be the first to use the bathroom and be ready to go to Masjid al-Haram,” she says. “There was one particularly memorable morning. I had chosen a spot on the rooftop of the mosque to perform my solat sunaat and to recite the Quran. When the muezzin’s call to prayers came on the loudspeakers, the beautiful call to prayers reverberated throughout the Mecca valley and into the darkness.”
Continuing, she says breathlessly: “There I was, seated on my prayer mat, under millions of stars, alone, just me and my Creator, in the most blessed place on earth. It felt so magical that I just broke down and wept.”
Her experience was nothing short of magical for the 49-year-old Johor-born. “Seeing all these people from all corners of the world, all walks of life, in different shapes and sizes, languages and colour... and they were there for just one purpose: To worship the Almighty and perform the fifth pillar of Islam. The diversity was enchanting.”
Her experience in Mecca taught her many things. The single most important lesson for her? “Total and absolute submission to Allah actually goes a long way towards strengthening us,” she says.
When she returned from the haj, she carried with her the lessons that she learnt. “I got into the habit of reminding my friend, family and myself that whatever happens, it’s meant to be because it’s Allah’s will. He knows what’s best for you even though you may think that the situation is really hopeless.”
This sense of acceptance made the death of her younger sister a lot less painful to bear for Rahayu. “My sister died suddenly in 2010 at 41,” she says. “But I took it as a blessing in disguise. As part of a greater plan that only the Creator knows of. And we, as a family, accepted the outcome with open hearts.”