September 13, 2015
I started this day with a reminder of death. After Fajr prayer there was a janaza (funeral) prayer. I then made my way to Baq’i, the graveyard near the Prophet’s mosque. It’s so big; you could probably fit West Edmonton Mall in it. The graves are marked by gravel mounds, with a bare rock at the head of the grave. Some graves have 2 stones, one at the head and another at the foot. I went to where the grave was dug. There’s a section of empty plots pre-dug with boards over the top. I joined the group who gathered silently to pray for the deceased. I’d never met them, and didn’t know if the person was a man or woman, adult or child… After saying my prayer, I stepped off the first mound surrounding the grave and onto a board. A man in front of me said to stop. I looked down. The board was sagging where my foot was. I literally had one foot in the grave. I stepped off and the red dust covered my feet. I looked out at the barren field of graves, at the stones marking each one.
Somewhere out there, my stone is waiting for me.
“…and no one knows in what land he will die.” (Surah 31: 34)
Prior to leaving for Hajj, it’s recommended that you have your last will and testament written. In fact, it’s almost a prerequisite. Death is something we’re not comfortable talking about, but is a reality we can’t escape. Of course, while I was preparing for Hajj I had the cocky attitude of thinking, “If I’m going to die, what better way to die than while on Hajj?”. In a way, it was almost like wishing for death, not out of some kind of suicidal tendency, but out of the immense honour of dying in a holy city. But that attitude was tested when I was faced, on a daily basis, with the very real possibility that I wouldn’t make it home.
This Hajj was particularly dangerous as well. Only a day after we arrived, a windstorm came out of no where and knocked down a crane in Masjid Al-Haram in Mecca. It killed over 100 people and was one of the deadliest crane collapses in modern history. I was in Medina when it happened. Even more eerily, I suspect that the sudden burst of rain I experienced on the roof of the Prophet’s mosque was the exact same rainstorm that had knocked down the crane. At the time, we were still in a hotel so after I heard about the accident I went onto Facebook to let everyone know that I wasn’t dead.
Then later there was the Mina stampede, which killed over 2,200 people and is considered the deadliest Hajj incident in modern history. I was near the area only a few hours before it happened, and didn’t learn about it until the next day when I called home and my Dad told me about it.
The crane collapse, the stampede—and who knows what else? God knows how many other smaller accidents I was diverted from (especially when it comes to traffic and pedestrian safety there). Before leaving, I had prepared myself mentally for the possibility that I wouldn’t be coming back. But when I was actually faced with it, faced with death in a foreign country so far away from home, it was a struggle to keep myself from worrying about it.
I was on the outskirts of death the whole time I was there. After almost every one of the five daily prayers there was a janazah (funeral) prayer. Thousands of people praying for the soul of a stranger they had never met, never seen, and didn’t even know if it was a man, woman or child. There was a verse in the Qur’an that kept replaying in my mind: “…no one knows what he will reap tomorrow, and no one knows in what land he will die. Verily, God [alone] is all-knowing, all-aware.” (31:34).
It`s easy to say you`re not afraid to die. But it`s quite another to constantly be so close to it that you can almost touch it, that it almost becomes your companion. You constantly recognize you have one foot in your grave.
And so one supplication I made, one which helped to alleviate my fear, was this:
“O Allah, so long as life is good for me let me live, and when death becomes better for me let me die.”
Ultimately, it became a matter of trust in God. A trust that, so as long as I was still walking and breathing, I was meant to be alive. And when it was my time to go, then that`s what would be best for me.