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The International Writers Magazine: Life

A pilgrimage to Mecca
Marwan Asmar
High-minded, upright, gracious, dignified, stately, awesome pictures travelling between my body, mind and soul, it's inexplicable, faith to the fore, divine and solid, inside feelings of religiosity and livable aspects, as if living between two worlds.


As I sat down at 3 o'clock am on the steps of Al Haram Mosque staring at Al Kaabah, feelings of awe and wonder went through my veins. In front 1000s and 1000s in white shrouds circulating this house of God continue. Existing since time immemorial Al Kaabah represented a heavenly Islam.

It's faith in Allah and belief in the Almighty, an existential celestial power over our heads, dominating our way of thinking and ultimately providence that we are put on this earth for a purpose and an objective.

I joined the circumambulation earlier the previous day. But now it’s the morning after, 9 o'clock, the sun starting to glow, circling in accordance with Islamic belief. I went round seven times uttering prayers to a higher far beyond us, and which we are told about in the Koran, and even extolled in the Torah and the Bible.

Once I reached the Kabaah grounds, the tiredness from my feet upwards vanished. I melted with a crowed of chanters and worshippers, becoming anonymous in a human mass appealing to a oneness far higher than the understanding of the human mind.

This is indeed the house of God were 1.5 billion Muslims world-over turn to in prayers five times daily. I am with my wife and thousands of others in front, praising the Lord.
At first it was too difficult to comprehend. The Kaabah, the large domineering square-shaped elongated mosque that surrounds it, the long minarets brightly lit at night began slowly to sink in my inner-self.

Being there for the first time is a mighty psychological event, beyond dreams. We are here for the purification of our souls in an existence beyond our daily life, extractabilities and worldliness.

We are on an Islamic pilgrimage, our role to increase our prayers and worship and try and become exemplary Muslims by following God orders and dictates. Part of the teachings require Muslims to perform Hajj at least once in their life but can visit the holy places as many times as they want on an Umra as we are doing.

Part of the practices is to walk the Safa and Marwa, two long pathways, slightly less than one kilometer in length each, and a symbolic representation of the number of times Hager walked up and down in search of water for her then baby Ishmael who was crying of thirst. On the first night we started at 10 o'clock at night, Safa and Marwa were beaming with people, hurriedly moving here and there.

According to Islamic traditions found in the other celestial religions like Judaism and Christianity, Ibrahaam left Hager because he was ordered by God. She called upon him to answer if it's God's will that they'd be left here, and he just nodded in agreement. Then she shouted Allah will protect us.
After frantically walking the Safa and Marwa seven times which had hills at both ends, she returned to find water sprouting at the feet of little Ishmael. And so the story goes, it is here were a town grew, as tribesmen from the desert sensing there was water in the area, began to congregate and build a civilization.

According to Islamic teachings Ibrahaam returned to the area in later years and built the Kaabah with his son Ishmael who had been adopted by one of the clans that had come to settle in this area. And for a while he became its custodian.

Zamzam, the water-well continued to exist throughout the centuries, and the gushing water today satisfies the thirst of pilgrims who come to the Mecca from all corners of the world.
Figures vary as to the number of guests—guests of the lord as they are called—who visit Mecca each year. Some say 13 million visitors perform the pilgrimage each year but other numbers vary from 25 to 35 million perform the Islamic act annually.

No one knows where the Zamzaam water comes from, where is its source or sources, a well that keeps gushing out. Through many refilled containers located in the different praying areas surrounding the Kaabah, those on the pilgrimage are frequently drenching the water down in small plastic cups.

In our three-day stay there, we just stayed in the large prayer halls. For it was awe contemplation, not just spending my time in prayers and worship, but fathoming the nature of Islamic architecture built to add to the sense of religiosity.

Marbled floors, columns, and endless arches dominated the environs, following patterns in settings, repetitive and simple. Each 'corner' characterized in long, thick columns, floors and linked by arches copied to give an angle that are consistent and uniformed.

It's a prayer precinct full of carpets and endless number of people from a multitude of nationalities, praying, reading the Koran, occasionally chatting to one another, a layback atmosphere, reverent, but empty of austerity. It was calm and peaceful, a relaxation to the heart.
At the front of the prayer precincts, terraces lead further downwards—not far—to Al Kaabah. If you gaze out in front, further to the right, and left, the arches and the columns continue with the Kaabah in the middle. It looks like a large square with arches and columns.

Although Arabic is the central language of the Koran, many of those performing the pilgrimage were non Arabs, from Iran, Turkey, India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia and even China and Thailand. The world is in Mecca.

Arab pilgrims, apart from Egyptians seemed in a distinct minority although the prayer format and the supplication is in Arabic. I couldn't help but contemplate on the fact these are people don't know anything about the language yet firmly believe in a religion whose tongue and diction is markedly different from anything they heard and spoken.

Hordes and hordes assemble in the different prayer halls, especially at the periods leading to prayers, whether it's just before sunrise, at noontime, afternoon, sundown or later evening.
Many people begin to congregate waiting for prayers with places becoming so tight it's hard to find a place. At many times the men squeeze next to each other. Sometimes, there are no places on the carpets that people have to pray on the starched-white marble floors forming rows of human bondage.

In such times people outside the precinct which is walled by grey facades and large brown doors, is distinctly Islamic and oriental,  reflecting the area, many people assemble ready to join the prayer.

The precinct is within short distance of many hotels and apartments which are part of complexes that house malls, restaurants areas, cafes and the like. Quite frequently if the prayer starts in front of the Imam, and you are late, you can put your Salat mat on the floor and virtually pray anywhere taking position alongside with many other people. I had no mat, so it was standing and kneeling on the floor. I found such humility to God amazing as many just stood there on the virtual ground and performed their religious duties.

As long as you have made your ablutions, washing of hands, mouth, nose, arms, head, ears, neck and feet, you can stand with hands folded at the waist in front of God.

cleaning The holy precinct is spotless as cleaning is going on 24-hours a day. Teams of cleaners with high tech cleaning machines cordon off small areas at a time and clean quickly so the pilgrims are not interrupted and prayers maintained. This is made throughout the mosque and around the Kaabah, being maintained spotlessly clean all time. Individual cleaners are placed throughout the haram in different areas, along corridors especially next to the Zamzam water containers which are kept full.

Pilgrims waiting for the prayer call frequently read the holy book many times which Muslims are required to do. Although I know a number of Chapter-Surrahs of the Koran, I did not manage to read the book.

While I was there, I concentrated on supplication prayers, looking at the Kaabah with its 24-hour circumambulation of people, that was a sight to see by itself, or walking the corridors and halls of the different parts of the holy precinct which exhibited sameness, giving one the spiritual feeling of continuity and wonder.

Because of the great number of people who visit the holy places, the authorities had already built a second and a third floor. Open halls here are slightly larger but replicate the below floor. Also there is a special course to go around Al Kaabah from atop but this is much longer. Still, there are few people judiciously walking.

And for those with disabilities there are electrical chairs you can hire, sit and maneuver. There is also wheel chairs, which my wife insisted I sit in at different times like during the first night I walked around Al Kaabah. Then a hired help pushed me, doing the same in Safa and Marwa
The whole of the precinct is a handicapped-friendly place with many special ramps, taking into account that some people could only perform their religious duties sitting down. I must admit I felt somewhat strange sitting in a wheel chair and have someone push me, the first time I circumambulated Al Kaabah, that's why I insisted on doing it again the next day standing up.
Mecca the holy place and the cradle of Islam is a great city for the Islamic world and arguably internationally because together with Medina Al Monawara (City of Light) this is where Islam was born, a religion that was fought by the people who rejected its message as revealed by Prophet Mohammad (SAAWS).

Our journey to the holy places in fact started in Al Madina, where its people originally accepted Prophet Mohammad after being forced to leave Mecca. It was felt his "Islamic" message was disrupting the economic interests of those in power and that would stop people from coming to Mecca to trade because of the new thinking that was preached about the oneness of God. Mecca had then 360 idols which people came to see, if people started it believe in the oneness of God, they feared that would lead to disruption simply put.
Like Mecca, there was a holy Islamic precinct dominated by one huge mosque, at the front of which was the place where Prophet Mohammad was buried. Many people were there virtually from every conceivable nation around the world. Next to God, he was most revered for spreading the word of Islam around the world.

Our two-day visit to Madina was a preparation for the awe and reverence we were about to experience in Mecca, that was around 500 kilometers south and took us about seven hours by coach.

My pilgrimage was an experimentation in spiritual development, there was a great feeling of human mass and oneness which you can only experience in such a holy place as Mecca.

© Marwan Asmar June 11th 2011
Riyadh Sketches
Marwan Asmar

There is a feeling of dilettantism expressed in its urbanism sprawl, society and structure.

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