You can see it in his face. His gaze lowered modest and contemplative. The dark
brown skin seems lighter, they say your face becomes white when you are
purified. He has been purified. His words are different, adding Inshallah's and
Alhamdullillahs when before there was whatever's and cursing. His look is
softer, some of the hardness goes away, some of the anger dissipates. He wasn't
always this way. The years he spent sitting deafly in halaqas, deceiving those
he loved seemed etched into his character. Yet he was chosen to go. His decision
was made in a millisecond against all odds it seemed. Allah had a plan for him
though he didn't know it yet.
What had lead to this change and who among us could have anticipated it? It all
started August 21, 2008. The excitement and anticipation beamed from the nervous
smiles of ten restless girls. Six hours waiting in Vancouver Airport seems like
seconds and the ten hour flight to London is a lifetime. A few of us had never
set foot outside Canada, many others were well travelled, but for all of us it
was our first visit to Allah's house. We sat in cramped seats, reading Quran
into the late hours of the night. We keep our minds busy until our legs cramp
and our eyes blur. I shut off my overhead seat light long after the others have
fallen asleep in the uncomfortable Air Canada chairs. I try to rest my eyes but
I have never slept in a chair before and I am wide awake. Several rows ahead of
me a brother is reading Quran, a single light amongst immense darkness.
London had a six hour layover we spent rushing to the London Islamic Information
Centre and back. We caught a glimpse of the brothers praying area, the vast
green carpet is magnificent; the sisters section smells. A shorter flight to
Bahrain sits with me better as the Gulf Air lines hand us menus of their halal
dishes whereas Air Canada had only provided us "Muslim meals" with chicken
flavored paste and rubbery potatoes that squirted water when poked. I enjoy my
airplane tea noting the Arabic writing on the sugar packet. SOOKRA I proudly
read to myself as I searched the plane for more Arabic words. I pray fajr on the
plane. I feel the surprising warm floor as I make sujood in the flight
attendant's sitting area. This is what it means to be a Muslim I tell myself.
We stopped at Bahrain for the first sleep I get in two days. We ate halal bacon
and changed into our abayas. It felt good to step into the clothes we would wear
for the next two weeks. We sat up for a few hours after our arrival, discussing
our families and praying that our umra would be successful. We shared a rare
moment of truth with one another, wept and never spoke of it again. It draws a
smile to our lips months later when we see each other and embrace. We realize
the true character of a person we had previously thought we knew, we are humbled
at our prejudices and pleasantly surprised by the beauty of those around us.
We arrived to Jeddah after a four hour sleep that felt like one and a two hour
flight that was surprisingly pleasure after the horrific sixteen hours flying.
We arrived late in the night. The darkness does nothing to melt the heat and the
brothers climb atop a flimsy bus to secure our luggage. We sit squeezing five
girls into a row that should only sit four and avoid falling asleep on the
brothers sitting two inches in front of us. I lean back and listened to Quran as
we speed through the midnight hours of the Arabian Desert.
When we entered Medina in the middle of the night the world seemed upside down.
Thoughts of school, work and my favorite TV show didn't exist, these things
didn't exist. The city, the masjid, the prophet salallahu aleyhi wasalam, these
things were alive and my past life seemed foggy and unclear. Cramped in the back
of a rusty bus we listen to Islamic trivia. Brothers and sisters together we
were no longer afraid of how we looked or who wore what. We were a family, a
community, an unspoken bond. We would later visit the mountain where the battle
of Uhud took place, the sacred masjid al Qubba, the first mosque ever built, the
still thriving palm trees which Mohammed salallhu aleyhi wasalam planted to free
a slave. We visited the places he salallahu aleyhi wasalam prayed, meditated and
fought. This is real, this is what our religion was shaped by. It is more real
to me than my bed I sleep in and the constant busyness of my life. The stillness
and calm of Medina is profound.
The hotel was not as nice as the one in Bahrain, the food was plain, the
bathroom dirty and the bed sheets never changed. There were no luxuries, but we
hadn't come here for comfort. We awoke at 2:30 in the morning. The mosque was a
few streets away, it seemed unreal that it could be so close. How could one of
the holiest places in the world be two minutes walk away. How could something so
special be attainable for me? And who was I to deserve it?
We scamped through backstreets, sleep had no hold on the ceaseless crowds that
walked with us. Invisible the masjid drew us near, following the crowd we needed
no directions. Soon the minaret came into view. The pure white light towered
against the blackness. Something so beautiful against a background of sandy dust
and concrete is compelling. As I see the mosque in full view, I slow. The masjid
is huge, with a large marble floor surrounding it, it fits millions. My first
step onto the pure marble envelops me with a cool breeze, as if heaven itself it
is visiting this place. The heat falls off me like too many burdens and too
little sleep. I could stay here forever I tell myself.
We try to enter the masjid but forget we brought our camera. The security guard
at the entrance checks us as we go in. I fruitlessly attempt to hide my camera
in my shirt. "Sister why you lie?" She asks in accented English with a faceless
gesture that shames me. Even in this holy place there is much room for error. I
pray outside, the sea of white surrounds me as I pray for the first time in
masjid Nubway. I weep that I have achieved one of my goals, that I have seen the
second holiest city in the world and I have been permitted to pray here. I think
of all the sisters who sobbed, who prayed for this trip. I think of my mother
and how she had been happy to send her daughters to umra before herself. I
recall her regularly praying up until the late hours of the night as I slept.
Again I asked myself "Who am I to deserve this?
It is almost easier to speak about medina than Mecca. Nocturnal, the city lights
up at night and hides behind curtains during the intense heat of the day. I
realize later that Fajr is the most popular prayer at the masjid. The mosque is
emptier for Zhor and Asr. The salat times are close together, two hours in the
hotel, back to the mosque until Isha. We go shopping after our prayer, finding
the best deals for gold and jade rings. We eat from fast food stands, marveling
at the options of buying the umra meal or going all out for the hajj one. The
food is good, the shopping is better and we arrive at seven in the morning to
find people have been sitting in their rooms all night reading quran. We sit
outside their rooms and listen to beautiful voices reciting quran from brothers
we knew. Two rooms down we hear the laughter and wrestling of brothers we prayed
We sat in lectures, listening for days about the basics of islam, I write notes,
lapping up the knowledge in a notebook I have stowed away somewhere unused. I
ask questions that I trust no other scholar with. I consider the applications of
Islam to extreme situations. I am shocked to hear how versatile the rules are,
and how important the prayer is. I modify my wudu, my salat, things I thought I
knew. I envied the muslim who lived among such scholars, prayed behind world
famous imams and visited the holiest of cities annually. I understood now why
people spent thousands of dollars each year to catch one salat in this masjid.
It's called the umra bug and I had caught it bad.
Umra is an invitation by Allah and it purifies a person of sins and gives them
prosperity. Some brothers after umra shun music and smoking. Other brother's
proudly introduce me to their girlfriends days after we arrive back in Canada.
The Quran says Allah does that change a person until he changes that which is in
himself. It is not the action of going to umra that changed us it was the our
actions during umra that changed us, or for some of us not at all.
As we approached masjid al haram at two in the morning we carried our shoes with
us. The one thing we had been adequately prepared for was lost shoes. We prayed
there, women behind men, no dividers, no need.
We stepped through the main entrance just within king farhad gate. I remember
approaching the kabba, lowering my gaze to feel the full force when I finally
looked up. I looked up. Looming ahead of us, black as the night before dawn,
Massive and simple it stood. Powerful yet simple enough for any soul to fathom.
My sister wept beside me, shaking she hides her face behind her hands, yet I am
the one ashamed at my lack of tears.
I cannot stop looking at it, it is simply magnificent. We moved towards it,
every step slow and measured. We link arms with our partner, praying not to lose
one another as we approach the hajrat aswat. A pleasant scent emanates from the
black house and mingles with the intense body odor of thousands around me. We
say our intentions for umra, panicked I forget the arabic and say it in english.
All the preparation I had made, all the duas were insignificant all that
mattered was that I was really here.
The crowd is pushing us, women jab elbows into my back and sweaty men press
against me. We approach the black stone completing our first tawaf, when far
ahead of us a young man screams inhumanly. I am struck at the wild animal look
in his eyes as he pushes desperately to reach the black stone. To rid himself of
his sins. He is beaten with a stick by the guard standing cooly at the edge of
the kabba, calmly shooing away the crazies.
After the second tawaf auntie pulls me towards the black stone, No I beg as her
seventy year old hands pull with me with surprising strength. My brother pulls
me away from the crushing crowd, but I do not let go of auntie's hand, I had
promised to take care of her. Moving towards the frantic triangle that forms
around hajrat aswat I am helpless. This crowd is different, desperate it beats
with a unified frantic humm that pushes and pulls those around them into a
million different places, ready to rip them apart. Auntie screams as an elbow is
thrust into her face and I gape helplessly as her arms are pulled in two
different directions so much so that I am surprised they stay in their sockets.
She finally gets close enough that she is satisfied and we move on.
We finish our seven tawaf and do an extra one because we are unsure. We do our
two rakahs sunnah and try and find anyone else from our group. We stand
uncertain where to go and suddenly water is being thrown at us. Even as people
continue to pray behind mikat Ibrahim the cleaners move in mercilessly,
scrubbing the pure white marble and dousing pilgrims in the midst of salat. We
move up the steps and continue towards safa and marwa.
We walk slowly between what was once two mountains but is now a marble shallow
ramp. The crowd is smaller and relaxed here. Beside me a two year old boy is
clinging fruitlessly to his Ihram as it slips off him. I am waddling painfully.
Every step for me is anguish and I tell myself this is a mercy from my lord. I
try to make dhikr, reciting surahs but am distracted by the people pushing their
way around us. It takes longer than we expected, when we finish we stumble to
the woman's prayer area. I do not realize how exhausted I am until I sit. My
feet ache and I need the bathroom but have no idea where it is so I sit and wait
for fajr. We get back to the hotel and clip our hair, waiting patiently to see
our brothers with shaved heads.
We complement each one by one as he proudly makes his way back to the hotel. We
sit in our hotel room and congratulate ourselves, our goal was achieved it
spelled relief. This umra cleared us of our sins but we questioned "Had we
really bettered ourselves?". What did we do now that we to prevent us from
falling back into our old temptations.
Still I struggle with this, the greatest jihad is the one within ourselves.
Ramadan began in mecca and we awoke daily to eat sahor in the mezanine. Never
had I felt this alert at three in the morning. As in Medina, we spent most of
the night awake and most of the day sleeping, the only difference was that here
our nights were spent in the masjid, praying, reading quran or simply staring at
the kabba. I never wept the first time I saw the kabba but after, as I watched
it from a distance on the second floor of the Haram, I wept long and hard. The
best thing about the trip was weeping and not being asked what was wrong,
nothing was wrong everything was so right.
We made tawaf as we greeted the masjid and pleaded our way up to the third floor
of the Haram past the several guards. Women were not permitted up here but that
did not stop us. Watching the swirling white crowd move around the kabba from
above we did not speak. Words cannot describe the feeling of watching thousands
of people swirling around a black cube like white robed insects gliding
ceaselessly in a swirl of cloud. From this high up we are miniscule.
Praying taraway at the Haram was an experience I will inshallah never forget. We
arrive an hour early for Isha and are lucky to find a place wide enough for the
three of us. Forget sitting on carpet we squeeze in between two neatly spaced
rows of carpet to sit on the cool white marble. We move a small distance to get
a Quran and find that our space has been taken, pointlessly argueing with people
who did not speak english we move on to another spot.
We pray taraway behind Sheik Shuraim and Mahir. Their voices are more beautiful
than you hear on youtube and they weep each night in their duas as we weep
behind them. We pray in the underground air conditioned area, the main floor is
too busy and too hot. I would gladly bear the heat for but a glimpse of the
kabba from the main floor but by the fourth day I am running out of clean
We made a second umra, easier than the first we were now more confident. We knew
how to get back to the hotel, where to go, what to say and that fear of making a
mistake was gone. On nearly completing my sa'ee I experience a moment of
uncontrollable rage. For hours getting pushed and jabbed does nothing to
irritate me but as I am turning upon my seventh walk between the two mountains,
I am overcome with anger and push a women in front of me for no other reason
than that she was simply there. I am shocked at my actions, I had believed one
of my virtues to be patience and I repent to my lord. In this place, these
crowds, and in this heat patience is hard to come by and more than necessary.
We took a bus and visited all the places where pilgrims visit during Hajj. We
see the mountain at Arafat, the tents at Mina as far as the eye can see and the
bathrooms at Muzadalifa. One sister rides a camel. During hajj the ten minute
trip to a city will take all day and walking is just as fast as driving. The
tents only have curtains for privacy and the lack of washrooms is frightening.
We realize that our umra had been luxurious, and the real hajj would be much
more difficult. The thought of walking for days in 45 degree heat, being pushed
and crushed by millions of people. No restaurants, no stores, no private
bathrooms, no comfortable beds and worst of all no air conditioning.
We do not realize how weak we are until the luxuries we take for granted are
removed. Being just one of millions you start to grasp your insignificance. You
are not in the least bit capable without Allah's mercy and when you stand before
him on yomal qiyamat you will not say Oh allah I have this for you, you will say
Oh Allah you have permitted me to worship you, so please accept my deeds as
without your mercy I would not be able to do any of it.
I pray allah invites you all for umra and hajj and accepts it from us.