Among the millions, a solitary devotion

The Day of Arafat is very important to Muslims. It depicts the gathering of mankind in the similar kind of ground and standing in the scorching heat, waiting for the judgment.

The Day of Arafat is very important to Muslims. It depicts the gathering of mankind in the similar kind of ground and standing in the scorching heat, waiting for the judgment.
For local Muslims on the hajj, personal rituals observed with millions of others can be more stressful than peaceful.
By Ashraf Khalil, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
December 19, 2007
MT. ARAFAT, SAUDI ARABIA — – It’s a solitary journey conducted among the multitudes, a personal communication with God alongside millions loudly having the same conversation.

“I imagine it to be an ocean of people but still somehow a lonely place,” said Hasan Badday just hours before he and other Muslim pilgrims from Southern California boarded buses for a vigil Tuesday on Mt. Arafat in the Saudi desert.

 

There, after weeks of preparation, prayer and buildup, almost 3 million Muslims would officially begin the grand pilgrimage known as the hajj. Badday’s comments would prove accurate, capturing the experiences of pilgrims performing a series of rituals, many modeled on the life of the Prophet Abraham.

“Everything is building to this moment. I don’t know what to expect and I’m very nervous,” said Badday, 30, a recent medical school graduate from Claremont.

“I don’t think I’m even going to notice anyone around me.”

For many pilgrims, it’s hard to not be aware of the constant crush of worshipers. The group of Southern Californians, led by Imam Moustafa Al-Qazwini, first encountered huge crowds Dec. 10 shortly after arriving in Mecca before dawn. In accordance with tradition, they headed almost immediately for Mecca’s Grand Mosque.

“Labbaik. Allah humma labbaik,” they said upon entering the complex. “Here I am, Lord. I am here to serve you.”

Qazwini, head of the Islamic Educational Center of Orange County, says there are two emotional high points for first-time pilgrims. The first is when they put on the simple white ihram robes, which formally denote them as pilgrims. “The second moment,” he said, “is when they actually see the Kaaba for the first time.”

Muslim tradition holds that the Kaaba, a single-room structure with a marble floor, was built by Abraham and his son Ishmael as one of the first houses of monotheistic worship. Pagan tribes took over the Kaaba for a time, but the Prophet Muhammad wrested control of the structure from the tribes in 630. When Muslims pray — five times a day — they face the Kaaba.

All prospective pilgrims in Mecca must complete umrah — a several-hour series of rituals that start with seven revolutions, or tawaaf, around the Kaaba. Umrah can be performed at any time of the year, or in conjunction with the hajj. Even at 4 a.m., when Qazwini’s group arrived, a teeming white mass lurched counterclockwise around the four-story black cube that is the holiest site in Islam.

From a distance, the steady circular flow almost looks peaceful. It’s not.

Many of the Southern California pilgrims later described their first tawaaf experience as difficult, claustrophobic, sweaty and a little scary. For some, it was too distracting to squeeze in much of a spiritual experience.

“It was tough. It was really tough,” said Hakim Jennane, a Moroccan-born business analyst from Long Beach. “We were exhausted. It was a blur.”

It’s impossible to overstate the physical and emotional intensity inside the masses circling the Kaaba. Pilgrims emerge glassy-eyed and soaked in sweat. The moist heat is intense enough to steam up one’s glasses.

Grown men weep openly as they near the Kaaba. One man held his hands in front of his face and repeatedly chanted, “We’re your guests, O Lord.”

Some worshipers, overcome with emotion, launch themselves at the walls of the Kaaba, looking as though they’re trying to hug the building. Some try to kiss the Black Stone, which is mounted in gold and set in the building’s eastern corner. Muslims believe the stone was brought from Paradise by the Archangel Gabriel. Worshipers far from the stone point to it as they pass.

Pilgrim groups move together in line — desperately keeping their hands on the shoulders of the person in front for fear of being separated. Husbands walk behind their wives, arms around them in a protective, moving bear hug.

“Pushing and squeezing is part of the joy,” Qazwini said. “Yes, it is not comfortable — especially if you come from America, where there’s not a lot of crowds and pushing.”

Ellen and Raef Hajjali of Altadena performed their tawaaf as part of an 11-person chain, each tightly gripping the shoulders of the person in front.

“I thought Raef was going to have a heart attack,” she said. “He kept yelling, ‘Don’t let go! Don’t let go!’ “

The next day, having finished umrah and changed back into regular clothes, the Hajjalis seemed a little deflated. After traveling all this distance to perform what Ellen Hajjali believed was her ultimate religious duty, it simply didn’t feel like she thought it would.

“I was expecting this immediate and powerful spiritual experience,” she said.

Instead, all she felt was overwhelmed and anxious — desperately trying to stay upright and to keep track of which number rotation she was completing.

After an exhausting and slightly traumatic umrah experience, the group settled into a quiet rhythm for the days leading up to Tuesday’s vigil on Mt. Arafat.

Living dormitory-style in a three-story apartment building, they prayed together, did a little shopping and made daily trips back to the Grand Mosque for more tawaaf and quiet prayer.

Many, including Ellen Hajjali, found that the powerful religious experience they were expecting came with the second and successive visits.

“This time was more spiritual. I was able to take the time to think about it more,” said Hakim Jennane, another pilgrim. “The first time, we had a duty to carry out.”

The week in Mecca offered time to recharge, physically and spiritually. At this point, about half the group were in some stage of the multi-symptom head-and-chest cold known as the “hajj flu.”

Monday evening, the Southern Californians once again took ritual showers, donned their robes and prepared for a phase of worship that would last three days, involving two outdoor prayer vigils and a two-hour walk through the desert.

Buses delivered the pilgrims from Mecca to Mt. Arafat, a trip that on open roads could take 20 minutes. But these roads would never be more congested, and the drive required two hours. Among the multitude, some pilgrims piled onto the roofs of cars and buses or clung to the sides of vehicles where they could get a foothold.

About 3 a.m. Tuesday, the Southern Californians arrived at a tent city arranged loosely by region. American, European and Turkish pilgrims occupied one camp. The pilgrims unrolled their sleeping bags over mats laid on the soft desert sand and tried to get some sleep.

Hakim Jennane woke up at dawn, looking bleary-eyed and sore.

“I’m getting old, man. This is hard,” he muttered.

Just before noon, Qazwini gathered his flock for the final preparations. At dawn they had been shivering under their thin robes; now they were running with sweat.

Noon to sunset would be the hajj’s peak — a free-form vigil in which each pilgrim would open a direct line of communication with God. A sincere confession of past sins, made on Mt. Arafat, is supposed to wipe those sins clean.

“This is the essence of hajj. All the lessons we learn here start on this day,” Qazwini told his charges. “We come to this desert to confess to Allah. When you leave Arafat, you are a new person.”

And then the pilgrims — each alone among the millions — held their hands up in prayer and began the conversation.

ashraf.khalil@latimes.com

Second in a series of occasional articles about Southern California pilgrims on the hajj in Saudi Arabia.


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