Hajj Journal:
This Cultural Hajj

Cultural Islam to me is that which Muslims do, no matter how significant on the scale of affirmation of the divine unity. It is often focused on a seemingly random set of religious priorities. For example, attempting to get 30 of the 70 or so women in our tent at Mina to read each a one juz’ of Qur’an last night was a simple request for some task of devotion. As it stands, once I encountered the woman (who coincidently performed none of the other sacred acts because she let her nephew do them for her instead) who deters us from doing it because in her estimation, the Prophet Muhammad never did it. To which I actually try to argue, well he never wore glasses either, or actually facilitated the collection of the Qur’an in writing. This resulted in an ad-hoc lesson about the history of the Qur’an.

At this point I realized one thing about this cultural hajj—it was NOT my culture. I needed a collective of funky progressive Sufi, activists, scholars to feel my culture and my community. So I decided on the next best thing from then on: I would do what I thought would best enhance my experience of the hajj and I would stay away from the rest, opting for silence if somebody else’s culture got too close.

The variance of different cultural Islams prevented the women in our tent from creating an immediate community for the days ahead. At one point, the group leader wanted to inform the men and women together about the rites of Mina, Arafat, Ramy Jamarat and Muzdhalifah, but the women could not see to open the tent between ours and the men. Thus a cultural enclave now took precedent over simple information. At this point then I knew I could not share my experience with the others, so I made my intention to focus on what I had come for as well.

It might have been a little melancholy, but I came up with the idea that this is the hajj that Allah gave me. So, my question was, what do people come to hajj for? I admit, I was intent on a profound religious experience and am so sorry to learn that from the sight of it, the difference is three thousand dollars! So, don’t shortchange yourself, folks. Anyone who wants the best, in today’s economic terms, must be willing to pay for it. Because, it is possible to come to Allah’s house, or to stand in Arafat on the day of mercy and miss the whole point.

The conditions at Arafat are also tents (for most), but with no noisy AC it is actually more open and breezy. Anyway we only spend the day there. Once all the busloads were there and midday came along, we managed to open the tents between the women’s section and the men’s section to listen to a sermon (in English). Then we combined and shortened the Zuhr and Asr prayers. This is so striking to me—the normal five times daily prayer is reconfigured in such a way that meditation and asking for forgiveness is greater than daily prayer. That is all we do. The whole afternoon we were on our own. About half of the women in our tent took this mandate seriously and literally. We stood, or sat in supplication, meditation, and reading for the entire afternoon. The other half gossiped and slept. I was so worried that I would fall asleep from sheer deprivation and exhaustion that midway into the afternoon, I left the tent to explore. Actually I had already explored earlier, and knew that we were near enough to Jabal al-Rahman the mountain of Mercy that I could walk it. So I did and offered most of the same prayers standing there.

The lovely thing is that since it was visible from the exit gate to our section at Arafat, all I had to do was keep it in sight until I arrived. Now this reminded me of when I first moved to Richmond, Virginia. I used to make a lot of trips to the airport, for my own travel or to pick up family and friends. The road signs had a little airplane logo to designate the way to the airport. I never got lost going, but always got lost trying to get back home. I used to say, there needs to be a sign with a little picture of my house to direct me. I knew how to get to the mountain but I forgot to make markers for getting back! Anyway, while wandering around until I found the road with that gate that led to our tent, I did get to observe the breadth of differences for classes attending the hajj. Enough to appreciate that while our tent was plain desert covered with carpet and a canvas enclosure without air conditioning, many people had far less than that. Never mind the VIP conditions.

I managed to return to the tent for more reading meditation and prayer until about half hour before sunset when the women joined the men again (our ONLY semblance of being a “group”) and a long du’a was read in Arabic. Again later I heard complaints that since this was in Arabic it excluded the non-Arabic speakers. So that is what happens when your group speaks four languages—not all of them can be spoken simultaneously. Someone will have to go unacknowledged.

Our time at Arafat is over at sunset, and all we need to do is wait for the buses to take us to Muzdhalifah. Of course they did not come at the time promised, and while most people waited outside the tent, I laid down inside in the dark. That is until I got bit by a mosquito, remembered that I was still in ihram, and I resisted my temptation to kill it on contact!

To understand Muzdhalifah, think back to the time of the Prophet Muhammad (saw), when there were NO electrical lights, NO paved roads, NO phones. There was no way for anyone to know that a caravan had arrived until it was pretty near to its destination. Then a missionary was sent to alert the people of the town that that caravan had nearly arrived and was camped in the outskirts the night before their arrival. This allows for the townspeople to get ready to receive them. There is NOTHING sacred about Muzdhalifah. It is a stopover. We do pray maghrib and ‘isha prayer combined, but there is nothing else. We are not even required to spend the full night there.

However, our group leader suggested that the less we have between our ihram and the bare ground, the more “blessings.” Unfortunately, I took this literally and proceeded with only my prayer rug to this spot. Imagine my surprise when people loaded off buses with sleeping bags (the MOST prudent thing to have), king-size pillows, and other makeshift ways to spend the night in minimal discomfort.

Actually when the option of was given to take a late night bus back to Mina for women and the disabled, I definitely decided I would take it. I mean, the previous night at Mina worrying about Arafat, was preceded by the last night in Makkah worrying about the bus to Mina. I could use a decent night’s sleep after the most important day of hajj was completed with no greater incident than needing to find my way back from the Mountain of Mercy.

As with everything else; the bus did not appear as described. Although a few people did make it off the plain of Arafat before sunrise, most of us stayed. It is wondrous to watch busloads of people pouring in all night long and then when they arrive they form prayer lines to make their maghrib and isha prayers well into the night. Then before daybreak, after making fajr prayer, we get to go back to Mina. Good thing too, because we were handed one bottle of water when we left Arafat and no food, and that was it until we get back to Mina.

Two buses came for our group around 9:30 a.m. and people acted like they had spent the night in the desert: they rushed the bus, pushing and shoving each other to be allowed to board. I believed that no matter what we would not be left stranded, so I did not push with the mob. Consequently I was left behind, with about 20 other people from our group. It included two women in wheelchairs, two other handicapped women, one mother with a small boy in a stroller, and a few families who would not be separated just to squeeze onto the buses. We stayed in the desert until all of the nearly five million people had gone. The sun was now over the mountains that had shielded us until that time. Remember that a single bottle of water was all we had been given?

Admittedly, I was outraged: how could the disabled be left on the desert?

The good part of this story is that we ended up on what I called the barakat bus: the bus of blessing. No one ever spoke about our being left behind the first two buses. Ours was the bus where the disabled and mothers with small children boarded first. Our spirit was one of renewal and grace. The other barakat for me was finally getting the company I needed to get through the remainder of the hajj, including, coincidently my own roommate. But first, I had to get through my lowest point.

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