September 18, 2015
The sun is blazing above me and I’m drenched in sweat as I sit in the outside courtyard of the Haram. It’s Friday, so the shops are closed and the people gather for Jummah prayer. I’m wearing my prayer rug on my had to protect my nearly-bald scalp from getting any more burned than it is—a tactic I learned from seeing people doing the same…
It’s no coincidence that God chose this place to be the site of holy revelation. From Abraham to Moses to Jesus to Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon them all. They were all situated in the harsh desert climate. Life here is difficult, and requires a hardiness of mind, body and soul to survive. Water is scarce, the landscape unforgiving. Out here, you’re thankful for even the lightest breeze to pass over your skin, or a cloud to shade you for a moment from the sun’s heat. One could complain, “Why didn’t God choose a place more comfortable to be the center of His religion?” Out here, the answer is pretty evident. Religion isn’t about being comfortable or cozy. People don’t grow or develop by being comfortable and cozy; they grow lazy. So while, yes, it would be easier to do Tawaf on a beach in Hawaii, it would completely undermine the point. God, in His wisdom, made this a challenge for us so we could come closer to Him through our patience and perseverance. It doesn’t mean that God is sadistic—the Qur’an says otherwise, that God is Merciful, and that He has imposed no hardships in your religion, among many other verses.
But God knows us better than we know ourselves, and “Perhaps you dislike something which is good for you and like something which is bad for you. God knows and you do not know.” (2:216)
Out here, life is more precious, our needs more simple, and human kindness more appreciated. You sweat your way down to the basics of the human condition, and you’re left with a heart more receptive and appreciative to God.
Every Friday, Muslims gather at mosques and prayer rooms for congregational prayer, known as Jummah. Depending on the location, things can get pretty tight. But mosques in Canada got nothing on Jummah in Mecca during Hajj season.
The grounds of the Haram cover 356,800 square meters. That’s about 64 football fields. Now imagine filling those with people, packed side-by-side, and that’s not counting people praying in the streets and sidewalks outside the Haram’s main courtyard.
I sat patiently in the crowd for an hour in 45C heat. I couldn’t leave, as more people were coming in, and all the shaded spots were taken. I had seen people walking around with their prayer rugs on their heads. At first I thought it was strange, but then quickly realized that it was an effective way to block the heat.
The prayer rug I had with me was the first prayer rug I was ever given. It was given to me by my friend and one-time boss, Hicham, just after I had accepted Islam. Now I was wearing it on my head, creating a green canopy of shade that protected me. I was wearing a grey kurta and pants that I bought in Medina, and I remember every minute going by feeling sweat rolling down my skin, soaking into the fabric of my clothes, or building up on my forehead and around my eyes.
Eventually, I switched to using my small handheld umbrella. I opened it up and within a few minutes, two other brothers shuffled closer to me. We formed a small triangle underneath the shade of the dinky umbrella. One of them spoke a bit of English and we chatted for a bit. I can’t remember where he was from, but I know all of us were grateful for the shade.
I went to Jummah knowing that I wouldn’t really understand the khutbah (the sermon before the prayer). However, I did understand the silent human kindness around me. People were distributing water in the crowd; a quarter cup here, quarter bottle there. One guy had full bottles that he would toss out to whoever needed it. One cup would pass from one person to another, each one only taking a small sip—or giving up their drink entirely for the person next to them.