THE haj season this year officially closed two weeks ago. It was, gratefully, a smooth and successful season with several historic feats achieved for Malaysian pilgrims, among them, fast-track immigration pre-clearance and air-conditioned tents in Arafah.
Since returning after covering the pilgrimage as a journalist and performing the haj at the same time, I’ve been trying to put my thoughts in order. It’s challenging as it feels like an entire lifetime passed in the reasonably short period of 55 days I was in the Holy Land.
Arriving at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport just a few seconds to our National Day, and back on familiar ground in the days thereafter, it felt as if nothing has changed, but so much, in effect, has.
Haj, it has been said, is a powerful experience, and a catalyst for change like no other. And it is.
There was much I learnt being part of a global community of more than two million people. We trekked under the scorching heat of the desert sun, and waded through the crush of people together, sharing not just succulent Ajwa dates and refreshment, but tears and laughter.
I saw how it’s possible for people of different colour, backgrounds, and stations in life to co-exist as one. No one is on a pedestal higher than the other, or more important. Everyone looks the same and is clothed in similar garments, free of all their worldly trappings. We may not know the different languages spoken, but everyone understands each other completely when reciting the talbiah, takbir and verses from the Quran.
This incredible diversity of people who journeyed from all corners of the globe for a singular purpose is indeed a sight to behold and you will be made acutely aware how small you are amid this ocean of humanity.
If only this spirit, as well as sense of community, charity and brotherhood can be replicated at all other times, and in all places.
I also learnt that the haj is not to be feared. Some are reluctant to fulfil the fifth pillar of Islam and put it off until they are in their twilight years not because of financial constraints but because of a sense of unworthiness or unpreparedness. I felt the same too and these thoughts were swirling in my head: am I ready? There is still so much I don’t know. What if I embarrass myself by doing something wrong?
I will, therefore, always be grateful for this advice: “Don’t wait. Go when you are invited. As long as you go with sincerity and an open heart, InsyaAllah, all will be well.”
In Makkah, I met elderly pilgrims who regretted making the journey so late in their lives as obstacles are more difficult to surmount when the body is frail and weak.
Indeed, much has been said about how physically demanding the haj is. It can be arduous, especially now in the summer months, when temperatures soar above 40°C.
This is hot enough to cause mobile phones to overheat and shut down.
Thus, it is crucial to be prepared. There will be discomfort, inconveniences, long waits and even longer walks during Masyair, when pilgrims move from Makkah to Arafah, Muzdalifah and Mina to perform the haj rituals. Even religious guides from Tabung Haji (TH), Malaysia’s pilgrims fund, advise people not to neglect physical preparations — exercising and eating nutritiously — before departing for the Holy Land. Spiritual preparations alone do not suffice as a certain level of fitness is required for all the walking.
And just how long are the walks? At Mina alone, it is at least 7km daily under the blazing sun from the tent site to the multi-storey Jamarat Complex for the stoning ritual, and back.
Thankfully, when it seemed like my legs were turning to jelly, I would see determined senior citizens charging ahead with their walking sticks, and come across Saudi volunteers with water sprays shouting, “Five more minutes!”, and feel re-energised.
For women, it is also important to be armed with knowledge, especially with regards menstruation, as ignorance can have serious consequences.
Ask a religious guide if unsure. Nothing is too embarrassing when it comes to something as important as the haj, which most people have an opportunity to perform only once in their lifetime.
As it is, the highest number of inquiries received by TH guides are from women concerned about menstruating during the haj, a situation brought about by the increasingly younger age of pilgrims.
But what I learnt most of all from my journey is what Islam is. Not how it is often portrayed. Not unforgiving, judgmental or eager to punish. Not about hate, anger or retribution, and not about brimstone and hellfire.
Throughout the haj journey for me, there is a sense of Islam as it is in its truest form. One can feel it when in the holy cities.
This feeling of love, mercy, and compassion; it permeates the air at the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah, which was once the home of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), and the Grand Mosque in Makkah.
The sight of the Kaabah within the Grand Mosque, and the undulating sea of people circling it is mesmerising, almost hypnotic.
This is where Muslims face five times every day in prayer, no matter where they are in the world.
And many had been here before me, making this journey on camel, foot, by ship and now air to answer the call by Prophet Ibrahim (pbuh) so many years ago.
It’s easy to lose track of time and be lost in the embrace of these holiest sites in Islam.
The feeling is difficult to describe. But perhaps it is not meant to be.
The writer is NSTP Convergence