Perhaps, without even knowing it, you have been waiting your entire life for this journey, the journey to the Ka'ba, the original and oldest house of monotheism, built thousands of years ago by the Prophet Abraham and his son, Ishmael. Before you were awake to it, your soul was yearning to walk where the Prophets walked, to retrace the footsteps of Hagar, left alone in the desert with her young boy, Ishmael-left alone and looking for water. Through the grace of God, you secure your funds for the journey, yet you do not know with whom you will go or even exactly the specific rites of Hajj. Still you make your intention, and the time draws closer. You take a class on Hajj, you read a couple of books, you shop for essentials, but the nearer the time comes, the more your world seems to spin out of control. Your bank account is depleted, your workload increases beyond your capacity, two weeks from the departure date you break out in hives, and you find out you need to have a tooth pulled. You get a cold. A few days before you are set to leave, your childcare arrangements fall apart, even your husband leaves for another trip, and there is not a soul to see you off on the morning of your journey.
Still you go. You turn off your computer, you step out the front door, and you-your mind, your heart, your soul-leave it all behind and go somewhere else. Before starting the Hajj ritual, your group first travels to Medina and visits Al-Masjid al-Nabawi, the Mosque of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him. You forget everything from home in that place of tranquility. Your mind and heart are united in their focus on the journey. And it will begin in a few days. Along the way, you will stop at a miqat, a geographical boundary which before passing you must enter into a state of ihram by making your formal intention and donning your pilgrim garb. Your first visit is to the holy Ka'ba where you perform Umrah (Please see the table). Then, you travel on to the largest temporary city in the world, a place called Mina, a rocky, dusty outland where the Hajj rituals commence in earnest.
With much anticipation, you arrive at the camps of Mina, and as you realize your living situation for the next several days, you wonder how you will cope. The wall of one tent is the wall of the next, and so it continues, tent after tent, row after row, mile after mile. In one tent, forty-four sisters from various continents, lying head-to-head toe-to-toe, crowded restrooms, food prepared and packaged just like airline food, only not as good, but more plentiful, water from plastic canteens. But then you remind yourself that Mina is a camp, and you are camping, and for camping this is pretty good.
And so you settle in. You realize that the opportunities of the camp are greater than they might first appear. You and your tent mates soon find the few containers in camp with fresh, cool, Zamzam water and work to keep each other's water bottles full of it. You get lost in the camp looking for a better shower, before admitting that this is it. You learn when the bathrooms are least crowded, and you discover an identical row of bathrooms in the back, a mirror image of the front.
You rest one day in Mina. You awake from your sleep at 2 am; the tent is alive with activity; all the lights are turned on. You think that everyone must be excited, for today is the day of Arafat, and Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, in a well-known hadith, stated that "Arafat is Hajj" (al-Tirmidhi, Tafsiru'l Qur'an, 2). Arafat is the day when all prayers are accepted, all sins are forgiven, and at the end you become as sinless as a newborn; here you become "Hajji." Still you are not ready to get out of bed. You lie there resting and reflecting on this blessed day. For several days now, you have been reciting Labbayk, chanting "Here I am Allah at your service, here I am." You have answered His Call; you have come to perform your duty and nothing else. He welcomes you as His guest and during your stay here, you will be treated in an extra special way, and just as a guest receives the best china, the best morsels of food, you will be offered a taste of the spiritual delights of the Hajj. And so you stay in your bed with your eye mask protecting you from the bright lights, and you let the spiritual atmosphere wash over and through you. Somehow the back of your mattress sandwiched between two others and wedged up against the back of the tent becomes a space for you to fall back into, a cave to another dimension where the sounds of the tent diminish and the sounds of the unseen world increase. And in this very early morning of the day of Arafat, you somehow sense that the whole universe, seen and unseen, is united in glorifying the oneness of God.
The day of Arafat causes you to reflect on the Day of Judgment when all humanity will stand before their Creator. The sea of white garments and bareheaded pilgrims standing in the hot sun where the rich is indistinguishable from the poor reminds you that we will all be judged by our deeds in this life according to divine principles. In this heat – which you sense will seem like a cool breeze compared to the heat of the Day of Judgment – you realize how badly you want to be included among those who will be shaded from the near sun of that day. As sunset nears, you wait and wait as your ear searches for the adhan, the call to prayer. But there is no adhan, there is only an increase in the refinement of the air. No adhan is recited in Arafat for your next duty as a hajji is to leave immediately at sunset and travel to Muzdalifah where you will combine your sunset and evening prayers in accordance with the sunnah or practices of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him.
Finally, you reach Muzdalifah, a valley of dust situated near mountains of barren rock. Here you will spend the night out in the open. With the dust swirling all around, your group leader pulls out a tarp, and the mother of the group smiles while looking up to the sky and says "Five-star hotel." We find comfort in the reminder that the reward for a successful Hajj is paradise, and that it is only obligatory to do it once. Later, we will all share how we cannot wait to come back again, but for now this knowledge fortifies us. With giant, glaring flood lights masking our true canopy-the hidden night sky, we settle in for the night having shared our face masks, our dates, and our last wipes.
The next day, we return to Mina with renewed appreciation, now recognizing its rightful glory, we are thankful for the showers we once disdained, blissful in our beds, now we truly settle into Mina. But we have also come prepared for the battle of the next four days. With our seventy stones collected at Muzdalifah, we will endeavor to remove the crusts from our hearts by stoning the jamarat.
The sunnah is to spend Eid (holiday) at Mina plus three more days. Eid at Hajj is not like Eid at home. Eid at Hajj is hard work; our duties that day are to offer our sacrificial animal to the poor, stone the jamarat, come out of ihram by cutting our hair (women) or shaving our heads (men), and if possible, travel to Mecca to perform tawaf ifadah-seven times circumambulation of the Ka'ba followed by walking seven times between the hills of Marwa and Safa.
The first task is taken care of for us by the Hajj authorities. We paid for our animal previously, and turned the task over to the slaughterhouse. We are not even required to visit, but it is possible if you wish. None of us wished to do so. We rest in the morning weary from the previous night. We wait until after the late afternoon prayer (Asr) when it is cooler and the crowds have thinned ("thinned" being a relative term when there are five million or more people performing rites at pretty much the same time), and set out for the long walk to the jamarat. Before leaving for Hajj, we were told to prepare ourselves for an hour-long walk from our camp to the jamarat. "No big deal" you naively thought as you pictured your often-enjoyed cool walks surrounded by trees around the lake in your neighborhood, time spent in reflection and enjoying the solace of nature. But this walk turns out to be something else all together, crowded streets filled with people, a makeshift bazaar lining the edges of the camp roads, piles of trash, and once you hit the main road, you are competing for road space with buses, as you try to find a gasp of fresh air in the dusty, diesel-fumed air with the hot sun relentless in its brightness.
What is this ritual of stoning the jamarat? We are told in our hajj training that the jamarat does not represent idols, it is not the devil as many believe; we are not stoning the devil. We are told that for each stone, we are forgiven a major sin, and reminded that in Islam lying and gossiping are major sins. So, what is this ritual then? Perhaps the jamarat represents our own hard hearts and with each rock thrown, we are chipping away at its crust endeavoring to restore it to its newborn softness. Perhaps, the enemy is within ourselves – our carnal self, the nafs. With each rock thrown, you hope to gain a bit more mastery over your nafs and you recall the prayer of Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him; "O God, cleanse me of sin as a white garment is cleansed from filth. O God, wash away my sins with snow and water and hail." Indeed, the many rocks hitting the jamarat make the same sound as a hailstorm. In this context, the long difficult walk to and from becomes part of the cleansing, part of the blessings of this ritual. You learn the importance of striving in reaching nearer to God, the All-Glorified.
It is your last day to stone the jamarat. You no longer have the energy to compete with the buses, so you decide to take your chances with the pedestrian route – which means you must pass through tunnels. Tens of thousands throng through the streets, from all over the world, and all on the same mission. We reach the tunnel; we fill the tunnel; we walk; and then suddenly we stop. You do not know the reason for this stopping, you cannot see past the masses of people in front of you. You pray for sakina (peaceful calmness) for all your fellow travelers. We wait, we start to move again, we stop, we move again. It happens three times; all of the thousands remain calm. With the Grace of God, we make it through the tunnel and continue on to our mission.
One day, you venture out of the camp into the streets of Mina sprawling with vendors who have come to sell their wares to the hajjis-jilbabs, scarves, dhikr beads, toys, fruit, and henna. Suddenly, a truck pulls up, opens its back and the driver starts distributing its contents. The shouts of free food go out and people seem to lose themselves a bit in the rush to get whatever is being given away. You realize that they are giving away yogurt, and after a few days on antibiotics, it is just what your body is craving, yet you do not want to push in for a gift. So you wait and you watch when suddenly, the driver reaches down and pulls out not one, but two containers of yogurt. He shouts your name, "Hajji," extends his arm over the crowd and hands you your body's desire.
An apple purchased from a street vendor is infused with the scent and flavor of roses. You realize that despite the multitudes of people, the heat, and the dust, the camp does not smell. In gratitude, you start to comprehend the sacredness of this place, this time, this space. Mina is a place you must see with your heart, and not let your eyes blind you to its true beauty.
We were warned to pack lightly for Mina and told that we would not be allowed to board the bus if our guide deemed our luggage too big. This was good and as it should be. Upon arriving at the tent, we all quickly realize there is no room for luggage, but having packed light, we are not quite prepared for the hardship of the camp and our changing personal needs as our cycles shift with the close proximity to so many sisters, and as we pass illness from sister-to-sister in the close sleeping quarters. The conditions force us to rely on each other. Here, as we share our last Advil, our last cough drop, our last wipe, as we share our shampoo, hangers, clothes, and soap, we are tested daily and sometimes hourly. Here in Mina, we find the true meaning of sisterhood where you can live the Prophet's saying, "None of you have faith until you love for your neighbor what you love for yourself."
We pass our days, sleeping, eating, and praying, spending our energy on the basic chores of living, punctuated each day with a late afternoon trip to stone the jamarat. One morning a sister approaches and asks to read the Qur'an together. A circle of us passes the book around each taking a passage, from a young girl to her mother, and sister-to-sister. We find our hearts soft, our eyes overflowing and the angels pressing in – here in Mina – a camp where first we were anxious about staying and now find ourselves not wanting to leave.
Margaret A. Johnson, PhD, is a sociologist, writer, and business owner residing in Germantown, MD.
Enter state of ihram and move to Arafat
Pray noon and afternoon prayers together
Stay in Arafat until sunset and move to Muzdalifah
Pray evening and night prayers together
Collect pebbles for jamarat, stoning of the pillars
1st day of Eid
Move to Mina after morning prayer
Throw seven pebbles to Aqaba pillar
Animals are sacrificed
Shave and now you can leave the state of ihram
Make your tawaf and sa'ee
2nd and 3rd Days
Following the noon prayer, go to Mina to the jamarat and throw seven pebbles to all the three pillars. This can be repeated voluntarily on the fourth day too.
Brief Overview of the Main Steps of the Hajj Journey1
Hajj starts on the 8th Day of the lunar month of Dhu al-Hijjah.
Before Hajj: Perform Umrah:
1. Ihram-Cleanse oneself, don the hajj garments, and make intention.
2. Umrah-Perform Tawaf: circumambulate around the Ka'ba seven times, perform two Ra'kah prayers of prostration behind the Station of Prophet Abraham, and make Sa'ee: go back and forth between the hills of Safa and Marwah seven times (legs not laps).
Day 1 - Mina: Get back into state of Ihram and arrive in Mina around noon time.
Day 2 – Arafat (Eid eve): Leave Mina after sunrise prayer for Arafat and stay there until Sunset. After sunset in Arafat leave immediately for Muzdalifah, spend the night there.
Day 3 (first day of Eid): After sunrise prayer, proceed to Mina. Go to the stoning pillars (3 rock columns, small, medium, and large) after the noon prayer and throw seven pebbles at the large pillar, slaughter your sacrifice, come out of Ihram by cutting or shaving the hair.
Day 3 or after: Go to Mecca and perform Tawaf. After Tawaf, make Sa'ee.
Day 3-Day 6: Return to Mina and spend the 11th and 12th nights of Dhu al-Hijjah in Mina. On days 4, 5, and 6, you will return to the stoning pillars after the noontime prayer, and throw seven pebbles at each of the three pillars.
You may leave Mina on the fifth day after the stoning ritual.
After day 5 and before you leave Mecca: Perform a farewell Tawaf, and two Ra'kah prayer. This should be the last thing you do in Mecca.
1These steps are for "Hajj-Tamattu" which is the type of Hajj which combines Umrah with Hajj. It is the most frequently performed Hajj today, and it was recommended by the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him. This is just a brief overview; it does not include all the details.