September 14, 2015
I performed Umrah last night. Our whole group did right after we got into our hotel.
So the inevitable question: what was it like seeing the Ka’ba for the first time?
If you’re expecting some rapturous spiritual event, then you’re going to be disappointed.
The Ka’ba is, by all means, impressive. It’s a lot bigger than the pictures make it appear to be. But I was too busy trying to survive that I didn’t have time to appreciate it.
The first act of Umrah is Tawaf, where we circle the Ka’ba 7 times. Even at 2 AM, the Ka’ba was surrounded and packed. Our group formed a small cluster with the ladies in the middle to protect them from getting swept away. One doesn’t need to touch the Ka’ba, kiss the black stone, but these are all meritorious acts. However, when a crowd the size of a small town wants to perform the same act in an open space, its inevitable that, to put it lightly, difficulties will arise.
Our cluster moved inward so we could touch the Yemeni Corner, which the Prophet (p) said was blessed and would remove our sins. It was a crush of people, all clamouring for the same goal. Some of us managed to touch it, but others couldn’t. We were starting to break up. We went around again and this time, I got separated from the group. I would have to complete my Tawaf on my own.
The crowd was frightening. At one point I was crushed to where I couldn’t breathe. I kept making dua, but my survival instincts overpowered most of my capacity for spiritual reflection. And in the crowd of pushing, shoving, crying, smiling, praying, silent, loud, solitary, grouped people, I began to have a small internal crisis. Here I was at the Ka’ba –The House of God, the cornerstone of Islam, the holiest place in the world—why wasn’t I having a rapturous spiritual event? … The crowd of pushing, shoving people clamouring to touch the Yemeni Corner—it pains me to write this, but it felt fanatical. I couldn’t understand it… In my 8 years as a Muslim, Islam was always rational, tranquil, sensical—and I still think that. But I think my problem is that I expected all Muslims to behave the same way, especially in front of the Ka’ba.
I remember Sheikh Tamir explaining the Rawdah, saying that God has blessed certain places more than others. People want to access this blessing, and so it’s not out of bad character that they push and shove to get to it, but rather out of their passion for God. More than anything, though, I wanted to understand he deeper meaning of the Ka’ba’s significance.
In the year leading up to Hajj, I imagined what it would be like to see the Ka’ba. I replayed the moment over and over again in my mind. I built up the expectation that it would be a pivotal, spiritual breakthrough. But the first time I saw it, I was soon confronted with a barrage of people, a massive, mobile crowd the likes of which I had never seen before.
Our group consisted of about 15 people, most of them over the age of 50. Sheikh Tamir led the group during Umrah. Umrah (“visitation”, aka “minor Hajj”) consists of 4 acts:
- donning the ihram
- circling the Ka’ba 7 times (tawaf), followed by prayer
- walking between the hills of Safa and Marwa 7 times (sa’i, which I will cover later)
- and at the end of it, shaving the head.
It can be done any time of the year, and takes about 2 hours to do.
Umrah is not obligatory, like Hajj, but there is a lot of reward in it. Prior to Hajj, I couldn’t grasp why people would bother doing Umrah before Hajj. It was expensive and was optional—why not save up the time and effort and do Hajj first?
However, after my experience, I can understand the wisdom in doing Umrah before doing Hajj. There’s fewer people, the pace is much slower, and there’s more time for reflection.
During Hajj season the Ka’ba is so packed and busy that there’s hardly time for peace and tranquility in the crowd—you’re mostly focusing on keeping your footing so you don’t trip, or trying to breathe when you’re being squished between people, or being pushed and pressed by strangers.
For me, it was another case of expectations versus reality; another case of experiencing what I had previously only learned.
I came out of the tawaf lost and relieved and confused and afraid all at the same time. I went to find the rest of my group, and one of the younger men, a young 30-something Ethiopian man named Saleh, found me just as I was about to do sa’i on my own (I had a small booklet that outlined what to do, as well as my own notes). The hills are connected to Masjid Al-Haram, covered by a long, marble hallway, and the entrance is only a few feet from the courtyard where the Ka’ba is. I’ll cover that more in detail in a later entry, but the long walk between the two hills gave me time to relax and de-stress. But still my mind was troubled.
My first experience at the Ka’ba was frightening. It was not how I imagined it would be, and left me feeling afraid and, even worse, guilty. Guilty because I was not experiencing the intense emotions and spiritual high that so many other people around me were feeling. Did this mean I was weak? Was my faith at risk? And why was the Ka’ba so significant in the first place? Through the turmoil and doubts and fears, this was the first step in my spiritual maturation. I knew that the only way to fight my fears was to confront them and learn. I had seem pictures and images of the Ka’ba and of Hajj, but now that I was here what did it mean to me? I wanted to see it as more than just an ancient building. I wanted to understand what made it so significant, beyond simply being told that it was significant. And it was through this that I began to fully understand that Hajj is more than a physical journey: it’s a spiritual one, and one that everyone experiences differently.