5 Turning Back To God

A few years ago, a close friend and neighbour of mine flew off to begin a life in a new country. For him the growing hatred of Muslims expressed in our midst had reached its pinnacle and he decided that his future was not with Britain. I believed he was overreacting, but still I watched as he packed his bags and then I waved goodbye reluctantly. Not long before that, another friend—a history teacher by profession—announced his defeated observation amongst friends: ‘Now I know how the Jews felt in the 1930s,’ he said. There was a low mood amongst friends at the time; a kind of fear permeating our conversations.

The days of condemning terrorism—with which we could all agree—seemed distant memories; now the institutions and personalities dearest to Muslims were under attack. Voices of moderation were being labelled as voices of extremism, and so we all felt under threat. The reassurance once felt, that a clear distinction had been made between terrorists and the rest of us, had disappeared. The ever-narrowing definition of a moderate Muslim and ever-widening description of the extremist caused little less than despair. Suddenly all of us who practice our faith were extremists and thus a legitimate target for the wrath of right wing, left wing and liberal commentators alike. There was something telling in my friend’s emigration to a hot, unfamiliar country.

Exhaustingly, Muslims are perpetually the focus of attention in television programmes and newspaper articles. The modern anthropologists subject us to a bizarre public examination, never tiring of their quest, proceeding as if there were no Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists or Jews residing within these borders. How many more programmes must we see on women turning to Islam or women choosing hijab, and how many more series on the radicalisation of Muslim youth or documentaries quizzing the eccentric white convert? Whether positive or negative the attention is suffocating, and it is all a distraction, taking us away from the keys of our faith. Negotiating all the talk of conversion, hijab, the status of women, terrorism and the permissibility of this and that, we wonder what happened to the focus of our faith. All these philosophical acrobatics ignore the focal point of our lives. Distracted by politics and emotion, any mention of God appears some way down the list in the topics of our discourse.

The main principle of Islam is not that we should not eat pork, although some Muslims would give that impression. I once learnt only three things from some early Muslim acquaintances: Muslims do not eat pork, they only eat halal meat and they should not drink alcohol. No mention of God at all.

The Arabic word Islam means the submission or surrender of one’s will to God.A person who does this is known as a Muslim. This is why Muslims believe that the religion of all the prophets was Islam—it is said that at least 240,000 were sent throughout human history—and that all of them were Muslims. The first principle of Islam is encapsulated in the Arabic phrase, ‘La ilaha il-Allah.’ This is a testimony of faith which states that there is nothing worthy of worship except God. The two oppositions to this principle are that a person refuses to worship God at all and that a person worships others as well as God. The latter harks back to the first commandment, that ‘The Lord your God is One God.’ This is known as tawhid and it is a concept which affects all aspects of the Muslim’s belief and worship.

A Muslim declares his or her faith by witnessing that none has the right to be worshipped except God and that Muhammad is the Messenger of God. By these words, Muslims reject the worship of anything other than God. This means that they will not worship idols, rivers, rocks or a person. By these words they recognise that they have a direct relationship with God, the Creator of all things. The second half of the statement indicates belief in the Prophethood of Muhammad .This belief means that one believes in and follows the guidance which he brought. The first part of this declaration of faith indicates, however, that if a person were to worship Muhammad they would not be considered a Muslim. In the current climate it is worth reflecting on why we are really here. We must not lose heart or go off track; remember God and He will remember us.[footnote]Qur’an 2:152.[/footnote]

A few years ago as autumn turned to winter, I noticed that there was something wrong with me. I did not know what it was, but my emotions were heightened, I was on edge, easily upset and very inconsistent in my day to day dealings. My mood would swing between the strangest misery and confused folly. The misery revealed itself in the tears that welled up for no apparent reason from the tiniest seed. The folly in the quick humour which would rise rapidly and then die. I seemed to be dissatisfied with myself and my heart ached, feeling heavy in my chest.

Returning to England following a summer spent overseas, I quizzed myself about my unhappiness and decided that I could change it by engaging in one project or another. Each attempt lasted barely two weeks. There was a group writing initiative, to which I contributed five articles before hurriedly retracting four of them again, turning my back on the project because of the melancholy which kept overcoming me. It was all ups and downs, backwards and forwards, proposals and withdrawals. At work I wanted to be a writer, then a graphic designer, next an IT trainer, then a communications officer; and then, just as I was offered an interview for the latter, I was resigned once more to my role. Perhaps tomorrow would bring a better day, I concluded; perhaps it was not so bad.

Verily mankind is ungrateful. My first job after university was very comfortable. I earned a better salary then than I did for the next few years. It was located on a country estate outside Maidenhead, in converted stables between a lovely walled garden and a grand mansion with manicured grounds. The chairman liked his fast cars but he was generous to us, keeping the fridge stocked up every week to provide his staff with a free lunch. For some reason, though, I was dissatisfied, despite a great wage for the simplest graphics work.

When the company downsized after the slump in the market following the attacks on the United States in September 2001 and I was out of a job, I started my own business wherein I would pass my days creating beautiful books—that most beloved pursuit of mine—but I became dissatisfied once more despite the eminent works that were passed my way. There had to be something better, I told myself, and so I moved onwards to new ground. I ended up as an office manager in a busy training department, a role that brought me numerous challenges and adventures. Yet again I became discontented and so the cycle restarted once more.

What was it that drove me over the edge again and again? Why was it that I was never satisfied with what I had? Was my situation not better than that of the poor soul who sets up his table on a bridge over the Bosporus every summer evening in Istanbul to sell ice-cold, bright-yellow lemonade to hot and tired commuters? Indeed, was my situation not better than those dry, scorching days I spent administering an internet café in the summer of 2003, with the fumes of traffic numbing my brain? Or the hours spent serving prickly Thai and unsophisticated Lebanese cuisine to 300 customers over lunchtime off Berkeley Square?

Perhaps it was pride: pride, which made me think that the job I was doing was never good enough; pride, which got in the way of an honest day’s work, making it seem worthless and me worthless as a result. I thought I had been stumbling away from a path I knew when I was younger and more devoted to treating the lump of flesh beneath my ribs.

One of the first books I was given to read when I became Muslim in 1998 concerned the purification of the soul. When I reflected on those uncomfortable symptoms as autumn turned to winter, I realised that it was time to return to that work and others like it, recognising what it was that was creating this unease. My soul had been neglected as the smog and noise of a violent and political world obscured the reality of faith. As this realisation dawned on me I sat alone one night and prayed.

Oh my Lord, put comfort back into my heart and do not let me die other than as one who has earned Your pleasure. Take away this heaviness and ache in my chest and replace it with lightness and appreciation of the sweetness of all of Your blessings. Oh my Lord, let me return to You with a good heart.

Some months later I put my eldest brother’s name into Google one afternoon and clicked on search; information about him came up in the first listing out of 476,000 returns. He had been involved in a number of landmark cases in the High Court and Court of Appeal, and Chambers and Partners listed him as an up and coming individual. I then put in my sister’s name: she also came up first out of 51,000, with eight further listings on the same page for her work on single-crystal X-ray crystallography. I immediately felt a pang of regret, looking in on myself. In the next instant I was wondering what studies I could undertake to get out of this rut—to be something besides my siblings. A moment later I realised that only pride lay behind this urge.

For months I had been lamenting my place in the world of work—I commonly described it as being stranded—but I had decided just to go with the flow, to go where my Lord took me, to submit to His plan instead of crying over mine. Applications and interviews aligned to my interests had yielded no results; the description of my current role had seemed to be what I was looking for, but its reality had proved far removed. Stranded there, at last I began to recognise that I had a station according to my efforts—and others had a station according to theirs. Latterly, I had found myself in the company of intellectuals and had started to consider myself one by association, but the reality was entirely different. That friends of mine are solicitors, teachers, academics and diplomats does not alter the fact that I am a simple worker whose eight-hour days pay the bills and little more. Over a number of months, the past that led me here had preoccupied me, but acknowledging mistakes cannot alter time. There has always been a reason for every path I have taken, though often I could not comprehend it at the time. I try to pray istikarah at every juncture and move onwards accordingly. Friends ask me what I aspire to achieve in life: every time I just shrug my shoulders and mutter that I do not die other than as one who has earned his Creator’s pleasure. A dear friend of mine, now a high-flying diplomat overseas, once gave me a telling off in the final weeks of my degree when he asked me what my intentions were. I informed him that I did not know and he promptly told me that this was not good enough, that we all had to aspire to something. What he would think of me today, I wondered, if he knew that my answer nine years later was still the same. I have dreams, of course, but all I can say with any certainty is that I want to honour God.

I only have these pangs of regret every now and then, when I realise how my siblings are doing and what my friends have achieved. But what lies behind this? I work to live, not vice versa. That simple job of mine paid the bills, puts food on the table. Does any man need any more? It is only pride that fosters these regrets of mine: the desire to be a great success, to be a match for my loved ones, to be known amongst the people, but that is not my station. Those who have reached great heights did so through hard work and perseverance, for we only reap what we sow.

Between my soul and God lie my heart and my deeds. The greatest obstacle that has stood in the way of my own spiritual progress over the past few years has been me. I have faced addictions, desires and distractions that taunt me, keeping me from realising any lofty goals. I once wrote to a friend with some thoughts that were pressing on me just then:

I fear I am regressing spiritually. I am torn between chasing after my religion and other matters, but more and more it is the other matters that dominate. I feel I really need help to get back on track because I cannot sustain anything on my own. I can bow down one evening in sincere repentance, only to slip again two days later. It is like I am falling.

There were times in the past when such realisation drove me to instant reform, but now I found myself with a kind of dispassionate resignation which troubled me, the lack of emotion worrying me. Emotion can drive change, creating energy and impetus. Instead I had this quiet realisation—I knew what I needed to do, but did not have the great drive. I had a problem, I told myself, and that was me.

Yet another truth dawned on me within a matter of days. The truth is that there is not going to be a starter whistle that tells us that now is the time to start putting our house in order: it is not going to work that way. We are going to have to realise that we need to take action and make a real effort. It is going to be hard, but it is the only way. Perseverance is the key: we have slipped much and we have a lot to do to get back on track.

The initial realisation came to me within just a few hours. It was not immediate, for there was another trip-up before I got there, but at last I took myself away and uttered the remembrance of God for two hours in my garden. I took my little purple pocket prayer book with me and repeated every supplication that seemed relevant to my state. With it came some ease and some resolve. I just need strength and perseverance now, I told myself, for I had been down this path before. There is not going to be some great fanfare—we just have to get going and try our best. It is up to us to make the effort, for nobody else is going to live our lives for us.

As one of those unfortunate souls that frequently makes mistakes and then repents, only to repeat them again over and over, I am often found reflecting on what Christians refer to as ‘the addictive power of sin’. Faced with this phenomenon, I believe it is easy to appreciate how many Christians come to conclude that there is no escape from sin except through a dramatic external intervention; while I would argue that their solution is an illogical extreme, given that we only recognise sin in the light of what God has defined as good and bad, there is no escaping that sense of despair when we constantly replicate the same mistakes throughout the years of our lives. Muslims are, of course, reminded of the words of the Prophet that had God created a community that would not err, He would have removed it and brought one that would err then ask for forgiveness, and He would certainly still forgive its people.[footnote]Hadith recorded in the sahih collection of Muslim.[/footnote] Indeed we are reminded of the famous Hadith Qudsi in which we are promised forgiveness, no matter what we have done, as long as we turn back to Him in repentance, and of other passages from the Qur’an:

He said, ‘And who despairs of his Lord’s mercy except those who have gone astray?’[footnote]Qur’an 15:56.[/footnote]

Say,‘O My servants who have transgressed against themselves, do not despair of God’s mercy. Certainly God can forgive all sins, for it is He who is the Forgiving, the Merciful.[footnote]Qur’an 39:53.[/footnote]

We are aware of so many words which give us hope, and yet the sense of gloom is real, for recurring repentance for oft-repeated errors begins to feel hollow, shallow and half-hearted. It is true that I am not the worst of people, but my criteria for judging myself is not the standard set by the behaviour of others; my errors may well seem insignificant in a world of widespread bloodshed, but the Middle Way is not defined as the path between the shifting extremes of the day. We judge ourselves against a fixed standard. The earliest Christians would have been aware that all was not lost in the face of sin—even the parables recorded in the contemporary Gospel cannon make this clear—but today’s discourse incessantly emphasises the need for a redeeming saviour.

When I look at my own response to the errors I make, I see ignorance at its heart. Ignorance feeds despair, for addiction is persuasive. If we convince ourselves that our addiction is incurable—as is the Christian’s theological position, even though we find that many Christians are in fact people of high moral calibre who are clearly not subsumed in sin—a sense of hopelessness is really only a natural response. In my case, ignorance affects me in many, seemingly quite distinct ways, but which are, in fact, all interrelated. An ignorant response to our errors is tied to the ignorance that leads to them in the first place. Yet still we read in the Qur’an that none despairs of God’s mercy except one who has gone astray; He encourages us to repent repeatedly.

I am carried back to my thoughts during a recent sojourn in a village in Artvin Province, Turkey. People in that forested valley not far from the border with Georgia generally lead happy, contented lives and are self-sufficient in many ways, but I was still struck by the hardship of much of their lives. I met widows on the sides of those valleys, and children who had lost their fathers, mothers who had lost their sons. I watched as old men busied themselves chopping logs for the stove and women collected hay for their animals, each preparing for the cold winter that would draw down on them in a few months’ time. I witnessed much more than this and I reflected on it in light of my own life and the way I live it. My life has always been characterised by remarkable ease—I have never experienced real hardship—and yet what can be said of the way I live it? I am lazy and often feeble, capable of telling myself that I am doing okay when I achieve nothing in weeks and weeks. What my experience in the Black Sea taught me—and this thought kept recurring throughout my stay—was that our Lord must have far higher expectations of us than I have ever acknowledged, that He requires a higher standard. The great hardship I witnessed convinced me that my laziness and feebleness in the face of so much ease could not possibly be acceptable to our Creator. Taking stock of my life, truthfulness—not humility— confesses that there is not a lot to be proud of. I may well deny that need for a redeeming saviour, but I remain tarnished by the legacy of that tradition, for instead of striving against my lower self, my laziness, my weakness and my emotional addictions, I have allowed myself to succumb to them. Jesus was sent to sinners not saints, Christians often remind us, but we recognise that this was one of the roles of our noble Prophet too: the point is that they were sent to sinners so that they might reform themselves and become the best of people.

Muslims believe that the day God created our souls He took a solemn oath from us in which we promised that in exchange for freewill we would do His will on earth. A billion years or more may have passed since then, but the passage of time and forgetfulness has never been an excuse for abandoning our promises. I wish I could say that I was perfect, that I am a pious believer whose heart is clean and strong. Instead, looking in on myself, the words of a 19th-century Scottish preacher frequently return to my mind: ‘To good and evil equal bent, And both a devil and a saint.’ I wish I could say I was perfect, but instead the recurring realisation day and night, even if I do not act upon it, is that I must repent. I have so much for which I must and its time is drawing near.

Repent and ask your Lord’s forgiveness before you leave this world. Before the world occupies all your time, hurry to do deeds to save yourself.[footnote]Hadith recorded in the collection of Ibn Majah.[/footnote]

I have been here before, but that is life: those recurring cycles and phases. Now is the time. And yes I will repeat these words in the future, no doubt. But now is the time. And if I return, then now will be the time again. So we repent over and over, renewing our faith week after week, driving onwards towards the inevitable event. That day when our bodies will not breathe another breath and our souls will hang there waiting—still alive, but unable to put forth any more deeds. Perhaps we will hang there in our graves for another billion years as our bodies become dust, but a day will come. How did we honour that solemn oath of ours back millennia ago?

Repent and ask your Lord’s forgiveness before you leave this world. Before the world occupies all your time, hurry to do deeds to save yourself.

Now is the time, and tomorrow will be the time, and a month from now will be the time, for every moment is the present until it passes. Tawbah—turning back to God—means to return to correct action after error, asking for God’s forgiveness and turning away from wrong actions. We know that God is the Compassionate, the Most Merciful, but it is only when we recognise that our turning to Him is in fact His turning to us that we begin to appreciate the height of His mercy. At the head of every chapter bar one of the Qur’an are the Arabic words, Bismillahi ar-Rahmani ar-Rahim—in the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful. In its etymology, the word rahim is related to the word raham, which means ‘womb’, and so Muslims believe that God’s mercy envelops and nurtures the whole of creation in the same way that the womb envelops and nurtures each of us before our birth.

We cannot travel this road alone, for we are dependent on our Lord in everything we do. As individuals and as communities we often lose sight of our direction, becoming obsessed with our own ideas and aspirations, which, although innocent or well-meant at first, can soon take us away from the realities of our existence. How often do we abandon our ideals, taking ourselves off in directions that oppose the beliefs that we hold dear? Our faith—whether we are Christian or Muslim—calls us to peace, justice, kindness, compassion, gentleness, generosity, honesty, modesty and humility, but often we find ourselves drafted in to support one side against another regardless of where the goodness lies.

I recognise that laziness is one of my chronic diseases, but as I said to a friend one night, most of the time I am just too lazy to do anything about it—and that laziness prevents me from tackling the other diseases of my heart. Yet in a world of Alcoholics Anonymous for slaves of the bottle and smoking cessation counselling for nicotine devotees, ‘the addictive power of sin’ seems to be a rather lame excuse for idleness. In time, we come to realise as individuals and societies that our only hope is to turn back to God and follow His way, for we are dependent on our Lord in everything that we do. However reluctant we may be, a time comes when we can no longer escape this reality.

Just as I was meeting my future wife for the first time, my manager at work was in the midst of preparations for his own marriage into an elite Bengali family and the strain was becoming apparent with every passing day. The mounting financial pressure looked set to become too much as the family’s dowry expectations appeared to grow and grow. It was as if he was purchasing a mountain of gold for his bride to be. Not long afterwards it would be my turn: what would my beloved stipulate? Strings of pearls, diamonds and rubies, 500 bars of gold? None of these it turned out. All she begged of me was a promise, that I would take her for the hajj—the pilgrimage to Mecca that Muslims perform once in their lifetime. It was the only treasure that could please her, the only wealth that would satisfy.

Hajj is an obligatory act of worship for every able Muslim and so I knew that one day I would have to set out on this grand expedition. Yet I thought that it would be in later life, if not when old and grey then at least in the years approaching that age. I was not ready, I told myself, to go on that great adventure. Although I had no doubt that one day I would perform that pilgrimage I had to give the request some thought for it was my mountain of gold. My manager feared falling into debt; I feared that it was a promise I could not fulfil.

As each year passed us by, my wife’s yearning to visit the Holy Mosque increased, but I avoided making concrete plans all the same. It was almost allegoric of my entire life in so many ways and certainly of my relationship with my faith: despite a pressing imminence and acceptance of a promise, this reluctance continued to accompany me. I was indeed conscious of my oath, but still I tried to convince myself that its fulfilment could be postponed for now. I had not made adequate provisions yet, I would say as each hajj season approached, but this excuse would not remain forever. As the fifth anniversary of our marriage drew near, I finally resolved to honour my word and set out to make apposite plans.

A year later I would stand on the Plain of Arafat amidst two million worshippers and raise my supplicating hands up in front of me. It was on Mount Arafat, perhaps 100 metres behind me, that our Prophet delivered his Farewell Sermon in the final year of his life. Having left our tent just after dawn that day and walked to Arafat reciting traditional words—Here I am, O God, here I am, here I am, You have no partner, here I am, surely all praise, favour and authority belongs to You—we spent the day in prayer, shedding tears for our remiss over the preceding years. Although I stood amidst the multitudes I was alone: alone before my Creator, seeking His forgiveness, returning to Him. Just days before, we had wondered if we would ever see that day—another metaphor of our lives—for it appeared that our group had succumbed to 21st-century banditry. Our visas had failed to materialise in the days before our flight not due to dawdling bureaucracy, but because our agent had not submitted our passports to the embassy. We lost our flight not because we did not have our visas in time, but because our agent had not booked our seats. We had no place to rest our heads, not because we had missed our flights and had thus lost our rooms in a hotel, but because our agent did nothing for us except take all of our money. Today’s brigands come in many 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 worshippers high and dry? Four days after our intended departure, I made the following entry in my diary:

21 December 2006: It is our fourth 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 had wondered if we would ever see that day, but now I was standing on the plain all alone, despite the masses all around me, estranged from my wife, my friends and my travelling companions until the sun began to set, my hands raised out before me. There on the sandy earth I recommitted myself to God, driving away my reluctance as best I could, even if it would take another year for a truth to sink in, that there will be no foghorn to inform us that now is the time to start putting our house in order. It is for me to make an effort and, persevering, take action. Thus I committed myself to turning back to God, to return to correct actions after so many errors, to beg for God’s forgiveness and to finally turn away from wrong. Over the years I have repented repeatedly, but what is remorse worth without sincere resolve to change?

It was on Christmas morning that we arrived in Medina—that sanctuary of the early Muslims who fled persecution in Mecca— circling the city and sending our salams to the Prophet as we glided above his mosque through the cloudless cobalt sky, its white minarets a centimetre apart as we descended. Although we were only able to stay there for two days before journeying onwards for the hajj, our visit was filled with immense bounties. I spent wonderful moments in the Prophet’s mosque, in the middle of the night, in the morning and in the afternoon. It is strange to find that our stay was so short, for my memories seem to fill a week. How grateful I am to one of my companions who pulled me from my slumber before the morning prayer on Boxing Day: wearied by my lack of sleep, I would have snoozed until the last adhan had he not reminded me where we were. 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.

Travelling onwards, I would discover that our expectations do not always mirror reality. En 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. 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 philanthropy of others over and over again, even as degrees of hardship tested us.

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 five-star accommodation—ease, considering that my Qur’an teacher’s grandfather’s grandfather journeyed an entire year from his home in Algeria to Mecca only a matter of decades before. Though as that may be for some, others of us unlucky enough to encounter the 21st-century bandits know that all of us are tested by degrees according to our intention and will. My 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. I was truly humbled by the experience. Yet with every period of ease there was hardship, just as with every period of hardship there came relief. Thus the most frequently recurring thoughts were of those words of the Qur’an: ‘Do the believers think they will say, “We Believe” and will not be tested?’[footnote]Qur’an 29:2.[/footnote]

Though we travelled as a group, we were all tried as individuals. I found great ease in much of my hajj, but others in our group found it deeply challenging. Walking our 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. Still, where there was difficulty, it was always possible to see good and if not good at least humour: at Arafat I asked God to aid me in controlling my tongue and the very same night I lost my voice, as the illness that accompanied me for the remainder of our stay struck me down.

If for some people the pilgrimage is nothing but a dramatic spectacle—a meaningless ritual to the utilitarian mind—for me it was filled with symbolism. It generated a multitude of similes for my own life, my faith and the position of the community of believers to which I belong. Our preparations for hajj exposed our powerlessness as we watched our best laid plans disintegrate before our eyes. Our final departure at half a day’s notice after we had abandoned all hope of seeing hajj that year was proof that everything occurs by the will of God. The prayers on the plain were a great lesson in patience: exactly one year on, as millions more flooded into Arafat to crown their own hajj, I began a new job which pleased me, lifting me from my morass at last. The construction of a vast shopping mall just footsteps away from Islam’s holiest mosque—one of the world’s largest skyscrapers towering high above it—became a metaphor for both the ego that belittles tradition and the extreme materialism that pervades our community today. Yet the generosity of total strangers also reminded me that the hospitality that Muslims were once famed for remains strong within this community. On hajj 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 for having been invited to the House when I thought I was not ready. A year on, it was I who had that great yearning to return, the craving to see such days once more. As I walked amidst a sea of humanity one afternoon—two million men and women of every nation before and behind me for as far as the eye could see—there was no turning around to go the other way or to stop for rest. So it is with our lives: we are travelling towards an inevitable event. All we carry with us is our heart and our deeds.

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