21 December 2006: It is our forth day in Medina in the warming heat of Arabia according to our own grand master plan. Shortly we will depart for Mecca and the wondrous House. Planned months in advance and carefully financed—ihram sourced a month before departure, suitcases packed two weeks before—but though we plot and plan, Allah is always the best of planners. Here I sit in my own study, warming myself against the icy air beside the radiator, the fog outside covering the hill across the valley, the house across the street obscured by this hanging haze.
Our flight was last Sunday, but it left without us. Awaiting our visas, Tuesday was the next available flight, but still our visas failed to materialise. We planned, hopefully, for Wednesday, but even if it had all come through our plane would have been grounded by the heavy fog suffocating Heathrow airport. Now we plan for Friday, our visas secure we believe, but the meteorologists think the fog will hold for another day or so. Perhaps we will fly on Saturday. Perhaps not. Perhaps we will fly to Mecca direct and there will be no Medina for us this time. Perhaps not. We plot and plan, but Allah is the best of planners. And Allah is ever with the patient.
We finally got on our way on Sunday 24 December after a couple of false starts, making our way to Stansted airport at half a day’s notice. How lovely to meet with our companions again, each face beaming despite the draining tensions of the past week and the many miles travelled my some of them to get here on time. An evening of further delays could not knock our patience now; we knew we had been called.
While preparing for Hajj, most of the advice I had received had seemed overwhelmingly negative, my well-meant counsellors insisting that they only intended to prepare me for the inevitable. Yet, good though their intentions were, their guidance merely filled me with gloom, undermining my emotional preparations for this incredible expedition. When I set out on my own journey, therefore, I was determined not to moan or fret and to count Allah’s blessings instead. And there were many, even before we arrived: the kindness of friends who dropped everything to take us to the airport, the generosity of airport security staff who took us back to the main terminal for food after the shops closed on Christmas Eve at our satellite gate, the free sandwiches from Pret. Not to mention beautiful company.
We arrived at Medina in the morning, circling the city and sending our salams to the Prophet as we glided above his mosque, its white minarets a centimetre apart, and descended through the cloudless cobalt sky for an easy landing. Alhamdulilah: another blessing. Although we were only able to stay there for two days, our visit was filled with great bounties. We spent wonderful moments in the Prophet’s mosque, visited Uhud and other significant sites, stocked up on provisions for our journey and found ourselves very well fed. It is strange to find that our stay was so short, for my memories could fill a week. How grateful I am to one of my companions who pulled me from my slumber before Fajr on Boxing Day: wearied by my lack of sleep, I would have snoozed until the last athan had he not reminded me where we were and the reward attached to it. Instead we hurried to the mosque to pray tahajud and contemplate on the magnificence of God’s creation, setting in place a routine for the remainder of our stay on sacred soil.
I was soon to discover that our expectations do not always mirror reality. On route to Mecca by bus, we found that the famous golden sand dunes depicted on the big screen in The Message were the product of artistic licence; we found a rock strewn, grey-brown volcanic landscape. After entering the state of Ihram our journey took all day, passing by with relative ease until our arrival at the outskirts of Mecca. There was plenty of cause to say Alhamdulilah: I was taken by the generosity of the charities that provided packed lunches and bottles of water for every pilgrim passing through. That feeling of gratitude was to repeat throughout our Hajj as we encountered the generosity of others.
Our Hajj however was not without its difficulties. In days of old the tribulations faced by the pilgrim on his journey to Mecca included the assault of ravaging bandits determined to make quick profits by pillaging the winding desert caravans. In our own age, say some, the road to Mecca is easy, a comfortable voyage by jetliner to comfortable five-star accommodation. That may be so for some, but others of us unlucky enough to encounter the twenty-first century bandits know that all of us are tested by degrees according to our intention and will.
Today’s bandits come in different guises. Some may claim to be mujuhideen, while others ascribe to themselves Islamic legitimacy unaware even to themselves that they are no more than petty criminals. But what of the businessmen who sell Hajj Packages to hundreds of eager pilgrims only to leave the worshipers high and dry? Our own Hajj was filled with great blessings, too many to enumerate: the kindness shown to us by others, the generosity of strangers, the beauty of our two days in Medina, the ease with which we completed many of our rites. We were truly humbled by the experience. Yet with every period of ease there was hardship, just as with every period of hardship there came ease. Thus the most frequent thoughts that recurred in my mind over and over again were those words of the Qur’an: ‘Do the believers think they will say, “We Believe” and will not be tested?’
Though we travelled as a group, we were all tested as individuals. Personally I found great ease—to the extent that I now fear my Hajj was wanting—but others in our group found our Hajj deeply challenging and a great test. Walking the Hajj made it for me, but was difficult for others. Our stay in the tents at Mina as orphans to another group was a beautiful experience for me—there I discovered one of my closest friends from England as well as folk from the two villages I lived in as a child—and yet it was an uncomfortable period of tension for others. Where there was difficulty though, it was always possible to see good and if not good at least humour: at Arafat I asked Allah to aid me in controlling my tongue and the very same night I lost my voice. In any case, I think all of us drew great inspiration from the most senior member of our group, whose great strength and perseverance throughout was a lesson for us all.
I do have regrets of course. The first is that I did not go to Hajj with a firm grounding in Fiqh. This personal preference arose after a snap decision that I made during the course of my Hajj rites which I immediately regretted and which continued to bother me until I had paid a penalty of compensation. Other regrets are more personal. At the end of the day, however, we can only do our best and overall my Hajj was a wonderful experience, even as the illness that started on my return from Arafat began to change my mood. On Hajj expectations rarely mirror reality: the image of Arafat in my mind was very different from what I found there, while Mudzalifa could not have been further removed. But more than that, I found myself often impressed when I had been prepared to be disappointed, humbled by the efforts of those who helped to make our pilgrimage what it was and grateful to have been invited to the House when I thought I was not ready. Labbaik Allah humma labbaik. Labbaik la sharika laka labbaik. Innal hamda, wan-ni’mata, laka walmulk. Laa sharika lak.