Alone in the Middle of a Crowd of Millions

By: Dr. Abdulrehman Yusuf Abdulrehman

Upon the journey home from Hajj, my brothers and I had discussed the dilemma of how to accurately capture our experience into words. What would we say when people asked us how Hajj was? The words available to us, regardless of language, seemed an understatement of such a grand experience and journey. Would we say it was amazing? Humbling? Awe-inspiring? Overpowering? Peaceful? In truth, I feel I have not enough words to describe the experience, and I find that any who have attended Hajj feel the same way. It seems you develop a well of words akin to the well of Zam Zam. One could go on talking about the experience forever. But finally, after the initial attempt to successfully describe your experience in words has failed (as words will never be enough), most Hajji’s, I find, resort to one phrase: Allhamdu Lillah! But when I was asked to write this article about my brothers and my experience, I feel almost compelled to exhaust one last opportunity to purge myself of words.

This year, it was estimated that about 4 and a half million people attended Hajj. Four and a half million worshippers, eager for the mercy of God each brought with them their hundreds of prayers, millions of tears, and immeasurable need to please Allah in the last pillar of their faith. If one is to ever doubt the impact Muslims would have on earth, simply by the sheer number of us, one need only to attend Hajj or even Umrah to have their minds changed. But at Hajj we are unified, and there for one purpose. We circle the Kabah together, we perform Sae’e together, we march toward Jamarat together, we symbolically stone together, and most importantly we live together for the duration of this time. And for the most part, we are all helpful and considerate at this time. From the top level of Masjidal-Haram in Makkah, looking into the centre of the mosque after maghrib prayer, I thought to myself, “This is what it feels like to part of an empire.”

This segment of the empire attending Hajj, grew more and more emotional by the day. And I think mostly because the proof of God and the belief of these individuals was consolidated by their worship and cemented by many unexplainable coincidences. Even pragmatists I’ve spoken to submit to the word “miracle” when they describe their experiences. It is not one particular giant miracle everyone witness simultaneously. Rather, it is the small, immeasurable and yet very personal experiences of people that create undeniable proof that Allah is listening, and ever present. We met a brother who pointed out to us that it was only by the rahma of Allah that nearly 3 million (or more) will attend Hajj, and nearly all of them will return home. Without Allah’s Rahma, he said exaggerating but yet making a very clear point, that 3 million would attend and only 2 million would return home. And each one returning home, bringing with them their story of their personal witness of the presence of Allah. So the question is: how many miracles does humanity need to consolidate belief?

Although, Allhamdu Lillah, there appears to be a greater number of young adults attending Hajj (there are a growing number of youth packages available these days), about 70 to 80 percent of Hajji’s were still over the age of 40. The one unanimous piece of information people in our Hajj group wanted to pass on to those at home was that they should not put off Hajj, but rather make every concerted effort to attend as soon as possible. Despite our youth and what we believed to be good health, my brothers and I, along with many of the other young brothers and sisters that were in our group, were very tired at the end. No matter how easy the travel became, and no matter how comfortable hotels could be, Hajj was and always will be a struggle. It is something that consumes your energy, and you find you give your energy (all of it) readily. Those persons who were older, despite their zeal, were not always as able to perform as much of or complete the rites as those that were younger. Yet, at times, amidst the crowds that flowed like forceful seas, I found opposites to my age and health all around me; most of whom seemed more determined than those younger.

Prior to the 19th Century people journeyed for Hajj via caravans. Some journeys would last as long as ten months, as people would stop to earn provisions along the way. Today, as global travel becomes both easier and more affordable, gone are the days of arduous journeys to our holy cities. With each passing year, the physical difficulties of Hajj are winnowed away, as the Ministry of Hajj streamlines it’s process of accommodating millions of guests. The pedestrian highways at Jamarat, the size of which resembles a sleeping giant in the dessert, is but one example. The government also has plans to build a train that runs from Mecca to Mina, and to replace the tents in Mina with high rise structures. The country and its citizens are largely accommodating in this season. We were sincerely impressed with the Ministry’s organization and care in dealing with us.

Despite the significant removal or reduction in the physical burden we carry during Hajj, the weight of the burden appears to feel the same in the end. The burden, however, is invisible, and one we carry in our hearts and minds. The process of carrying it seems an opportunity provided by Hajj to reign in one’s emotions, and understand the greater struggle in life. Our travels, as those of so many others, seem too coincidentally wrought with dissatisfaction of the travel packages. It is rare, I believe, that someone gets exactly what they are promised. Our patience was also tested in the large crowds, and the ramifications of a large population in a small place. But these invisible burdens, I believe, replace the arduous month long journeys of the Muslims before us. It is only upon our return that we realize the petty nature of our complaints, in the face of what we’ve just completed. We realize then how the lack of patience amplifies discord and discontentment.

In places so full of people, it is remarkable at times during Hajj, how one feels so alone. A sea of people pushing, praying, prostrating, and yet you feel you stand singularly accountable in front of God. The thought of the Day of Judgement comes into your mind. Then the athan is called and millions upon millions of people are silenced. The only thing you feel is the mosque floor quiver with the reverberations of the Quran being read by the imam.

When they leave those holy sites, you see on the pilgrim’s faces a sense of somberness. They hoard jugs of Zam Zam to bring the holy back home. Disappointed that they have to leave not only a place, but a lifestyle they led for a short few weeks. It is this somberness that seems to stick most with me, and I’m certain with most Hajji’s. It is the sadness that hits when you return “home”, that makes you realize that Hajj was home. It is now that you feel truly alone.

Reading over what I’ve just written I feel like I’ve but only scratched the surface of my experience. I wonder what the appropriate length of this article should be. Even though I have so much more to say, I feel almost confused as to how to go about saying it. Do I talk more about the people? Should write more about Mina? And what can I do to encourage others to go as soon as possible? But as I stated at the beginning of this article; words don’t seem to be enough. Eventually, like many before me, I can only but settle for the phrase, Allhamdu Lillah!

Dr. Abdulrehman has been a member of the Winnipeg Muslim community for many years. He was born in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, and moved to Winnipeg with his family in his childhood years. He works as a clinical psychologist in the city.

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