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John Herlihy

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A Rare Visit to Makkah in Saudi Arabia
By John Herlihy
Posted: Saturday, December 13, 2003
Last edited: Saturday, December 13, 2003


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Recent stories by John Herlihy
· The Spirituality of the Desert
· Sketches of Life in a Pathan Village
· Breakfast in Madinah, the City of Light
· Scenes from a Tribal Barbershop
· Demystifying Acupuncture
· The Mystery and Miracle of Ayurveda
· Inside Pathan Country
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A unique visit to Makkah in Saudi Arabia in order to make the Umrah or "lesser pilgrimage" during the holy month of Ramadhan.
 And when We made the House a pilgrimage for men and a (place of) security, and appoint for yourselves a place of prayer on the station of Ibrahim. And We enjoined Ibrahim and Ismael saying: Purify My House for those who visit (it) and those who abide (in it) for devotion and those who bow down (and) those who prostrate themselves. (Quran 2:125)


 Prologue to Part II

On a mid-November morning during the holy month of Ramadhan in the year of the Hegira[1] 1424 (2003), I made the final leg of my Umrah (lesser pilgrimage) journey overland through the black hills of Northern Saudi Arabia. By the time I arrival in Makkah that afternoon, a terrorist bomb had blasted its way through a residential area of Riyadh, destroying an apartment block housing expatriate Arab nationals and killing scores of people including many women and children. Under normal circumstances, if such a concept as normality can be invoked within this context of random terrorism, it is difficult to take in and fully appreciate the enormity of such an atrocity. Under the circumstances of that afternoon as I entered what the Quran refers to as the city of peace and security (3: 96) in addition to being the “mother of all cities,” it was difficult to reconcile the tragic slaughter and random violence in Riyadh and the prayers and aspirations of those circumambulating the Kaaba, the central focus of the Grand Mosque in Makkah.

             In Islam, there are powerful indications concerning what are called in the Islamic Traditions (Hadith) the "signs of the hour" (alamat as-sa'a), meaning signs of the end of the world as we know it. Surely the image of suicide killers invoking scriptural justifications of a religion for their own diabolic purposes and acting in the name of God by boldly murdering innocent victims for some kind of political or social agenda has got to be a sign of the hour and a warning that the end of a world order as we know it is near, if not already at hand. Interestingly, one of the signs of the very end will be a cessation of the circumambulation around the sacred house in the sanctuary known in Arabic as the Haram. One of the Hadith forewarns, “Know that the world has come to an end when no one will circumambulate the holy Kaaba.” 

When my companions and I climbed onto the bus early that Saturday morning to make our way from Madinah to Makkah, a journey that the Prophet himself made with his companions, upon them blessings and peace, when they made their own first pilgrimage toward the end of his life, we had no idea of the devastation that took place many miles away in the capital of Saudi Arabia. Most of us had already had a foretaste of trouble, however, in a recent news item in which a shootout had taken place in Makkah where a number of terrorists were killed by the Saudi militia and a large cache of weapons had been discovered. In Makkah no less, the beloved "mother of all cities" of the Muslims and the city referred to as al-Mukarramah, “the Generous”, security was very tight and 5,000 military personnel had been sent to further protect the pilgrims from any further outrage. It is a far different world now than the world I knew many years ago when I visited the holy places of Islam and first laid virgin eyes on the Grand Mosque and the central issue of the Kaaba. According to a verse of the Quran, “Allah hath appointed the Kaaba, the Sacred House, as a standard for mankind (5: 97).

 --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Just as one greets the Prophet and sends forth one’s Salaams as the first gesture of respect on a visit to al-Masjid al-Nabawi in Madinah, so also I return to the tomb of the Prophet on the morning of my departure for Makkah, to send forth once again my holy Salaams together with the final prayers and intercessions on behalf of my close friends and loved ones. It is a melancholy leave taking indeed. Once again, I make my way through the densely packed mosque after the early morning Fajr prayer, deep into the inner sanctum of the original mosque that was once the actual living quarters of the Prophet. The visit here in this mosque and at the tomb of the beloved Messenger of Allah has become such a personal encounter that it is difficult to bid farewell without feeling some deep inner melancholy, as if leaving behind a valued treasure or taking leave of someone you know you will never see again, even though Muslims try to carry an awareness of the Prophet in their hearts by actively following his example in their own lives. I feel close to him here as never before and have experienced on this visit a deep inner connection that somehow transcends the normal course of life. It is a nearness and proximity to the Messenger who is the “friend” of God that I hope to take with me and preserve as a treasured remembrance after I leave.

            Typically, the start of any journey always involves some kind of separation and loss intermingled with the sweet anticipation of departure and journeying, and this leave taking is no exception. Back in the hotel, my companions and I don the traditional garment (ihram) worm by the pilgrims to Makkah either in the Hajj season or at any other time of year when the “lesser Umrah pilgrimage” is made. The distance between Madinah and Makkah is roughly 430 kilometers, a mere 260 miles by Western standards, but it is an overland journey through rough and harsh terrain. The makeshift plan of our guides organizing the bus trip calls for an early morning departure in order to arrive in Makkah in due time to fulfill the pilgrimage duties before the breaking of the fast and the sunset prayer.

            The sense of timing, the pace and the rhythm in the Arab world, however, does not abide by the fixed and firm rigidity of time, place, and movement that one finds in the Western world. Flexibility is the name of the day among Arabs and one learns to flow with the contingencies of the moment and place. As for myself, I had donned the ihram garment, a seamless two piece cloth that was towel-like in texture, a kind of makeshift shawl for the upper torso that is thrown over the shoulders, and a kind of wrap-around sarong for the lower torso. Nothing else can or may be worn as one enters the sacred precinct in the pure condition of birth, having of course made the ritual ablution and announced his or her intentions beforehand. For reasons of safety and practicality, a special belt may be worn with secret pockets for money and identity cards that firmly secures the lower portion of the garment against untoward accidents. They say that clothes make the man, but as I sat in the front lobby of the Sheraton Hotel in Madinah early that morning awaiting the other pilgrims to meet the appointed hour of departure, bundled together in my shaggy cloth towels, I felt altogether a man of serenity and repose filling these traditional garments. In some strange sense, it seemed as if the garments themselves, steeped in tradition and symbolic of the neutrality of any kind of fashion, were wearing the man.

            The modern overland coach departed around 9:00 am, several hours after the early morning appointment scheduled for 6:00 am, but who could possibly care about establishing a fixity in the fluid nature of time. We were together and on our way, sacred wanderers on an ancient pilgrimage taking us back in time to the house that Allah built, not 14 centuries ago during the time of the Prophet, but several millennia back during the time of Abraham. According to the Qur’an (2: 125), the Kaaba is the house that Ibrahim himself built, although apocryphal traditions suggest that Adam was the original architect of this “first sanctuary” (3: 96) of worship. Here in the heart of a craggy desert wasteland lies the symbolic nucleus of the Islamic religion and the very direction and focal point of all prayer. The sense of direction and place plays an important role in the liturgy of Islam as well as in the human dynamic of its spirituality. (2: 144) The Messenger is the prototype exile as well as the model Muslim and this gives added intensity to the concept that man himself is an exile from his true abode and a transient in search of a final destination. The mihrab or sacred niche of every mosque worldwide points in the direction of the Kaaba in the Grand Mosque in Makkah. All prayer makes a symbolic horizontal journal across the globe to the very center of the earth whence the universal aspiration and worship of the Muslims makes an abrupt vertical ascent heavenward, reaching beyond the stars and galaxies toward the celestial horizon of the known universe.

            We had hardly left the ragged edges of the city behind and not yet entered the famous hills surrounding Madinah when we made our first stop at the mosque that is traditionally considered the traditional changing ground into the pilgrim’s ihram cloth. These traditions go back to the time of the prophet who put on his ihram at this stage of the journey. The group I was with dispersed and people made their own way to the mosque to make the ritual two prostrations in anticipation of the journey ahead. Once this was accomplished, the bus began to make its way into the black hills of Northern Arabia in earnest. It is a stark landscape indeed, uninviting, harsh, and blindingly bright. There is something hypnotic and mesmerizing about the austere setting of the desert. Its arid, uncompromising starkness is set in sharp contrast to the pristine purity and clarity of vision that the bleak landscape affords in compensation. One cannot ignore the sublime signposts and symbols of nature along the way: the infernal bright sun halfway up the heavens already—even the winter sun in the desert makes no compromises and sends its relentless rays of light down onto the open dusty plain without mercy; a dying full moon that was loosing its pale early morning edge; the meta-symbolic image of the horizon itself, encircling everything within the envelope of a bi-polar universe of Heaven and earth and containing the message of an inscrutable mystery in what lies “beyond”. Across the distinctive and seemingly endless desert landscape, the horizon traces a thin line between Heaven and Earth and marks the defining edge of the known world; beyond lies the mystique of a deep, dark secret.

            We have made our intentions to perform the lesser pilgrimage, flown to Saudi Arabia, visited the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah and journeyed across the heartland of Arabia in remembrance of the journey of the Prophet 1400 years ago, but nothing truly prepares the mind and heart for the overwhelming sight of the Grand Mosque in Makkah on physical, emotional and spiritual levels of experience. Makkah itself is an ancient, craggy quagmire of jagged, rocky and uncompromising hills. The road leading into the city feels like a roller coaster ride and the view of cascading hills, houses and shops precariously lodged along the cliffs is unexpected and disorienting. Then suddenly, the bus crests the top of a craggy knoll and the vision of the gray, white and pink marbled edifice comes into view like a mirage from some heavenly realm. It is difficult to take in the colossal edifice all at once:  its multiple minarets soaring toward the heavens, the massive three storied structure that has been renovated and enlarged over recent decades in a monumental effort by the Saudi government to accommodate hundreds of millions if not billions of pilgrims every year, its incredible bulk wedged uncomfortably within the crowded central valley of Makkah. Surely there is no other physical edifice now existing on earth that can measure up to and complete with this sublime feat of architecture and the symbolic meaning it intends to serve.

            A higher reality predominates over the physical reality of the Grand Mosque. Herein lies the very center and heart of the Islamic cosmos. This simple cube of masonry,[2] a form of proto-art that traces its roots through Abraham back to the primordial era of Adam, is the central axis where Heaven meets earth and where the Divine meets the human. Across the globe, the Islamic rites and spiritual practices, in every mosque and in the hearts of every devout Muslim, form a directional pattern that leads directly to the Kaaba in Makkah, which is the earthly reflection of a celestial shrine, which is also reflected within the heart of man. The inherent symbolism of the Kaaba as center of the human being and vertical axis beyond the earthly dimension creates a feeling of sacred space and sacred time, a coming into the Presence through the sacralization of space. The circumambulation of the Sacred House as a physical reality raises the consciousness of a person to a rarefied spiritual universe as the Kaaba of the human heart meets the central Kaaba of the Divine Reality.

            The many-sided circular structure of the main outer building gives way to an open-air concourse that is touched by heaven and encircled by the angels. The symbolism of the building bespeaks of centrality and primordial point. At the very center of this sublime nexus rests the Kaaba, while ecstatic pilgrims circumambulate the ancient house like stars circumambulating around the nexus of a galaxy in magisterial procession.[3] Indeed, on a spiritual level, here lies the epitome of sacred earth that is ancient and primordial. It is the sacred place below on the earth that mirrors the empyrean cosmos above, with devout pilgrims forever swirling in a steady stream of praise to the one God. To enter this swirling vortex of humanity is like no other earthly experience imaginable.

            Upon arrival in Makkah, we exit the comfort of the bus and are brusquely thrust into a horde of pilgrims milling outside the mosque. Unexpectedly, we hear the call of the adhan pierce through the dull murmur of the crowd like a cosmic cry from heaven signifying the mid-afternoon prayer as we make our way into the mosque through the Bab al-Salaam, the portal through which the Prophet traditionally entered the sacred sanctuary. I write “we”, not as a literary convention or reference to the group I was with, but as a concession to my faithful companion, Amr, an Egyptian Lab Technician and colleague who had adopted me as his trusted friend on the pilgrimage. Many years living in the Arab world has taught me the wisdom of never doing anything alone, unlike the tendency in the Western world where people maintain a fierce sense of individuality and tend to follow an independent line of action on their own if at all possible. I have learned from Arabs the joys of companionship. They make an emotional commitment once they accept you as one of their own, and I have learned to give of myself in return, something which does not come naturally to me, possibly as a result of my upbringing in the West with its emphasis on independence and self-reliance. While I was the senior in age and rank—and according to the hyperbolic Amr a person who would gain immediate access to the Paradise on the Day of Judgment due to my status as “Muslim convert” – I still deferred to his judgment and common sense, not to mention the kind generosity of self and protective brotherliness that he freely extended to me. I don’t think he realized just how reliant a person I really was in this situation, a stranger in a strange land, and dependent on his good will and friendship to help me through the challenging rituals before us.

            As we entered the mosque and made our way toward the magnetic draw of the rhythmic mass of people circumambulating the Kaaba, I was becoming increasingly alarmed. The crowds were overwhelming and I was beginning to wonder, as I wrestled with my unfamiliar and ill-fitting garments, whether we would be able to find a place, indeed some special place in the shadow of the Kaaba, where we could say the afternoon prayer with serenity before performing the Umrah. Various aisles were still open to people moving in and around the sanctuary and Amr suggested that we position ourselves right there in the aisle in view of the Kaaba when in a matter of minutes all motion would stop and the prayer would commence. In fact, the mosque was jam packed with not a free space to be found. The heat even in November can be oppressive and I thought of those in the open courtyard under the intensity of the late afternoon desert sun. There in the shade, as I made my prostrations during the prayer (salat al-asr), I was sweating profusely and my heart began to beat erratically. I had been fasting since predawn with no food or water and felt a little dehydrated, dizzy and concerned about my ability to fulfill the requirements of the rites; but the motions of the ritual prayer and the intensity of the situation, together with the presence of my friend nearby, guided me through the difficulties of the moment.

            Amr’s broad, respectful, village-boy smile greeted me upon the completion of the prayer. We were now to perform the sacred rituals of the “lesser pilgrimage” that date back to the time of the prophet 14 hundred years ago. It is interesting to note that the rituals themselves transcend the time of the Islamic Messenger and refer in their essence and symbolism to the Abrahamic era, shifting the focus of the rites beyond the inception of the religion of Islam proper to a more universal setting and significance with the patriarch Abraham as the symbolic father of the prophets.[4] Essentially there are three main duties to be performed according to the dictates of the lesser pilgrimage and these included the circumambulation seven times around the Kaaba in an anti-clockwise direction with the Kaaba on the left, followed by prayer at the Station (maqam) of Ibrahim,[5] and finally Saiy which consists in running seven times between the hills of Safa and Marwa. We hoped to negotiate our way through these rituals together with the vast congregation of Umrah pilgrims and complete the Umrah before the sunset prayer and breaking of the fast.

            With affection and open eagerness, Amr took my arm and led me through the confusion of the crowd toward the swirling orbit of people moving about the Kaaba in a steady stream of worship and spiritual rapture. “We need to get as close to the Kaaba as possible,” he whispered urgently in my ear. No sacramental dictate required us to get as close as possible to the Kaaba, yet custom and tradition suggested proximity to the structure if possible. I also knew that Amr harbored a secret desire to kiss the black stone, and I confess so did I, said to be a meteorite fallen from Heaven that is lodged in a silver encasement in the east corner of the cubic structure and marks the place of commencement of the tawaf or circumambulation.

No Muslim who has made Hajj or Umrah will deny that the circumambulation is a physical experience that takes stamina and will power. When you view the scene from the roof of the Grand Mosque or witness the event through TV cameras hoisted on high, it gives every appearance of being a rhythmic stream of humanity flowing in sublime unison around the central axis of the world. However, the reality of being amid this throbbing, densely packed mob is tumultuous and unpredictable and yet all the while nobody seems to care about the tumult around them or complain about the crush of people. Upon entering the throng, you loose your sense of personal identity and personal space and become one with a vast, teeming horde moving about the symbolic vision on the ancient edifice and focusing all their hopes and aspirations on the reality of the Divine Being in a state of ecstatic rapture.

            Entering the ritual practice of circumambulation is like entering into the “one upon a time” of myths and folktales, in illo tempore. The pilgrim enters into sacred time that is actually the “real” time of the “vertical” or eternal dimension, as opposed to the horizontal, linear and progressive time that we experience here on earth as a relentless, forward-moving machine. I fell immediate victim to this sublime transcendent state of mind as if by some remote control of heaven and felt at one with the rotating vortex of the crowd. I no longer seemed to matter as an individual entity for I had been swept away in this ”first sanctuary” to a primordial time of perfection and heightened consciousness when the truth is there to behold, there to witness, and there to be known as nothing else can be known. As I circumambulate the sacred Kaaba, I make my entreaties, I send my greetings, I pray to Allah and worship the Divinity. Soon enough, beyond all reckoning of time, I am truly swept away by a flood of emotion and higher sentiment as I become one with the wave of worshippers. Indeed, I feel myself giving up and surrendering to this moment of eternity in time and this central place that makes possible the ascent of man beyond the horizon of the rational mind and beyond the dictates of the lower self.

            Amr has managed to seize a seven beaded cord resting on the wall by the Station of Ismael along one side of the Kaaba with which to keep track of the seven circumambulations that are required of the tawaf ritual, although how he has managed this feat is anyone’s guess as he grins sheepishly at me with the beaded cord. Our arms are locked together for security as we make our way round after round within the circumference of the sacred precinct. I am happy to have this fellow with me as we make the circumambulation in communion with the Spirit of God that overshadows the environment. It feels as though I have known him for a thousand years.

Perhaps it is the writer and natural-born observer in my nature, but I unconsciously take the time to notice the behavior and movement of the people around me. Everyone seems solicitous of the other’s safety and comfort, although admittedly the movement around the Kaaba is far from harmonious at ground zero. It takes effort just to keep standing and one is literally carried forward on tiptoes by the mob pressing in on every side. Still, no one exaggerates the hectic quality of the procession and everyone seems to be trying to defer to the person nearby. Of course, there is every size, shape, and color of person to be imagined in this vast horde of humanity. I see the elderly and the young, husbands and wives, fathers, sons and daughters. There are groups of women clinging together for safely and surprisingly strong as they race past me. There are groups of men, from Iran, from Ethiopia, from Malaysia, from China, arms linked together in a chain for support. People of all races and nationalities are praying aloud, uttering in Arabic the Quranic epithets and litanies that are appropriately noted for the occasion, entreaties to Allah for health, for blessing, for provision, for the hasanat or good things of this and the next world. The elderly and the crippled are being carried in litters overhead on the hands of husky black Africans; others are being moved along in wheelchairs by family members or friends. In one shocking instance, I felt a rustle at my feet and upon looking down toward the marble floor of the enclosure, I see to my horror amid the disorder of moving legs a crippled woman crawling along in circumambulation on all fours with a look of determination and joy on her face.

            I cling to my Egyptian friend Amr for stamina and support, approaching an age when I can call myself elderly and fearful of falling down and being overrun by this juggernaut of moving humanity. On the sixth round, a way close to the wall of the house suddenly opens, seemingly miraculously, for both Amr and I noticed that the agitated waters of humanity we were among have unexpectedly opened a path to give free passage to the vicinity of the Hajar al-Aswad or the beloved black stone, world renown as a sacred meteorite fallen down from Heaven during the primordial era. I think to myself that Amr and I are of one accord.

Under normal circumstances, it is well nigh impossible to get anywhere near this sacred artifact for the crowds that are clambering to touch and kiss the holy object. Amr suddenly saw the opportunity and made his move, veering toward the black stone and dragging me alongside with him. We were immediately engulfed once again by the teeming throng of people surrounding the stone and only footsteps away from touching the sacred object. I looked up and saw Amr standing by the silver frame of the black stone grinning broadly with satisfaction. I knew that he had achieved his goal and had touched the stone. I tried to lean forward and had my arm extended as far as possible in the direction of the blessed object, but I simply could not move another inch forward. I was about to give up the effort and blend back into the wave when I felt a hand seize my wrist and move it down into the framed enclosure wherein resides the Hajar al-Aswad. It is the swift movement of Amr’s powerful grip that has made this possible. For a second, I feel cool, electric presence of the stone run up through my arm and down into my soul and I smell the unearthly fragrance of the Paradise evoking a memory of some primal purity and perfection amid the chaos of the moment. Then, we were both summarily thrown beyond the area of the building containing the black stone by the crowd surging forward around the corner, whence we raise our right hands to greet the Divinity one last time before commencing the final tawaf around the Kaaba.

            Once this sacred ritual is completed, we eased our way out from the surging mass and made our way over to the Station of Abraham where we found a small area to make the traditional two prostrations. After that, the traditions allude to the ritual of drinking and refreshing oneself with the Zamzam water, spring water that dates back to the time of Abraham. According to the Islamic traditions, Hajar, one of the wives of Abraham, was searching within the area of the Kaaba for water for her son Ismael. In her desperation, she ran seven times between the two hills of Safa and Marwa[6] adjacent to the precinct of the Kaaba. She eventually discovered the waters of Zamzam flowing from under a rock and began to drink. In commemoration of this hardship, the pilgrims run seven times between the hills of Safa and Marwa[7] and refresh themselves with the Zamzam waters. Indeed, after the ordeal of the tawaf, which we undertook in the afternoon under the blazing glare of the relentless desert sun,[8] the waters of Zamzam were unbelievably refreshing, not to drink of course because we were still fasting, but to pour over our heads and faces

        The final ritual calls for the pilgrims to run seven times between the Makkah hills of Safa and Marwa in remembrance of the ordeal of Hajar and the infant Ismael. To that end, the Saudi government has constructed an enclosure between the two hills in the form of a two-storied hallway adjacent to the Grand Mosque proper. It is a magnificent setting of a two-way hallway enclosure with two tracks running down the middle to accommodate wheelchairs and litters. As Amr and I undertake this final ritual of the lesser pilgrimage, we enter once again the vast crowd of pilgrims similarly re-commemorating the ordeal of Hajar and her son. It is difficult to recreate within this magisterial setting adjacent to the Kaaba the dry, dusty terrain amid two now famous hills in which the wife of the patriarch experienced her desperation, although anyone who has lived in Saudi Arabia knows just how hot it can get in that country. Even now, several millennia later, it is not an easy task even in this sublime setting. After running a number of times through the concourse of these two hills, both Amr and I are feeling hot and tired and thirsty. Perhaps it was appropriate that we were still fasting and had been fasting from food and drink since before dawn because it added to the rigor and poignancy of the moment. We finally completed the tiring trek back and forth seven times in keeping with the tradition which considers seven a sacred number in the science of numerology associated with the Islamic traditions.

            The final act of the pilgrimage upon completion of the Saiy is the cutting of the hair. The Prophet advised either shaving the head or cutting a part of the hair and to that end there are multiple barbershops ready with straight-edged razors to service the pilgrim community. Both Amr and I decide to trim each other’s hair, however, for the sake of convenience. We have both had our heads shaved on the former occasion of the greater Hajj a number of years ago. Hot, tired and feeling emotionally drained after the effort of the sacred rites, which all told has taken us nearly two hours, we obligingly snip off various locks of hair from each side of the head including the crown. We then departed the mosque enclosure in silence and climbed the stairs leading up the side of the mountain encroaching upon the back side of the Grand Mosque to make our way to a nearby hotel.

*     *    *

Upon completion of the lesser pilgrimage, the rest of the visit seemed to flow in the wake of its afterglow. Exhausted but exhilarated though we were, Amr and I still had a busy schedule ahead of us. We had only a few minutes until the call of the adhan for the sunset prayer (salat al-maghreb) and the breaking of the fast and we needed to check into the hotel, change out of the pilgrim cloth (ihram), wash and present ourselves at the Grand Mosque once again. Later that evening, after the fifth and final prayer—which occurs at the absolute point of darkness after the sunset—there occurs the traditional Ramadhan prayers called al-tarawiyah. At best, many non-Muslims think that the holy month of Ramadhan calls for the Muslims to fast from dawn to dusk. What they may not realize is that in addition to the fast, the month involves added austerities including special prayers and night vigils that have been enjoined by the Prophet. The al-tarawiyah prayers call for 20 rakaa’ or prostrations during which a full juz or part of the Quran is recited.[9] During the last ten days of Ramadhan, additional night vigils take place in the early morning hours before dawn that is witnessed by the angels.[10]

            After a hurried breaking of the fast and a few moments to refresh in the hotel, we made our way back into the Grand Mosque for the night prayers. Lest the reader need reminding, movement in and out of the mosque at any time requires negotiation through vast crowds of people. At the prayer times, it is advised to be well ensconced somewhere within the inside enclosure and inner concourse of the mosque in front of the Kaaba, otherwise it is just about impossible to get inside the mosque itself. Amr and I decide to attend the evening prayers on the roof of the mosque. I have been told that at any one time, the mosque itself can old over a million people by rough estimates. The mosque enclosure includes the ground floor area of building and open courtyard within, a second floor, and a roof with a capacity for hundreds of thousands of worshippers.

            I make our way along the roof of the hallways that connect the hills of Safa and Marwa where we earlier had performed one of the rites of the pilgrimage. As we move forward along the roof through a narrow passageway together with a steady stream of pilgrims with the same intentions that we have, I notice row upon row of people already positioned on carpets laid down on the roof for purposes of the prayer. Amr and I hope to reach a point on the roof close to the open concourse containing the vision of the Kaaba as we recite our prayers. Alas, we found a place close to the edge of the roof where we could say these special prayers—which take nearly two hours—in comfort, but we did not have a direct view of the Kaaba. Instead, from this vantage point on the roof, we had a panoramic view if the entire grand mosque, including the rest of the roof, the second and ground floor and the open plaza in the middle of this ensemble containing the Kaaba and the orbiting mass of humanity that continues day and night with its circumambulation. There must have been a million plus worshippers gathered together at that moment to offer their tarawiyah prayers.

            The imam of the Grand Mosque leads the prayer and recites the appropriate Quranic verses. At the Quranic injunctions that occur during the movement of bowing and prostration, there is the voice of the imam followed by the voice of a human echo, in keeping with an early tradition before the era of microphones that had a second voice mid-way in the mosque echo the calls of the imam in distant areas of the mosque where the imam could not be heard. 

            We took our places, heard the call to prayer and began the ceremony of prayer as the evening passed into night. As time goes on during this night vigil, time itself fades away together with the individual, just as day eventually fades away into night. You stand, you bow, you prostrate yourself with forehead touching the ground—considered in Islam the most human position of profound humility and the moment when a person is closest to Allah—and you no longer understand yourself as you know to be in normal times. As time goes on, there is a stripping away of all the cares of the world, the mind becomes free of the psychological complexes and knots that unceasingly worry it during the course of the day, and the soul takes on the wings of the dove as its soars above the cares of the self and the world. A feeling of attachment develops that spring from the deep well of desire in which everything matters because it reminds you of God, followed by a profound feeling of detachment that enters the higher consciousness of mind like a wind moving through fields of wheat, a detachment in which nothing matters except God.

            I look out onto the world momentarily during this spiritual reverie to witness the scene around me. The rugged Makkan hills are clearly visible all around the mosque enclosure. Various hotels and palaces loom from the distance over the sanctuary. I see the bowed heads of a million strong people in front of, in back, indeed all around me, who have come together as one community with one aspiration and one goal. The voice of the imam cuts through the layers of the night like the sound of a reverberating bell, cold and clear and full of latent power. It rocks the surrounding area in a wave of amplification that reverberates outward into the night sky aglitter with distant stars. The imam intones the sacred words of the Quran, what the Muslims believe to be the actual Words of Allah, throughout the mosque enclosure, and their amplification moves through the congregation standing in rows with hands folded and heads bowed, through the rooftops of the city and out into the surrounding hills of this “mother” of cities. An intense, electrifying light floods the mosque and open concourse of the interior. As I look toward this primordial point which houses the Kaaba from my vantage point on the roof, a place that is the metacosmic center of every human heart and the absolute heart of the religion, it seems as though an unearthly illumination moves vertically heavenward from this center of the earth, a monumental beacon of light reaching to touch the heavens as a symbolic visual representation of the aspirations of the worshippers.

            Through sound and light, there seems to be a visionary outpouring toward the heavens that is matched perhaps only by the psychic and spiritual outpouring of the minds and hearts of the worshippers. This sound and light experience electrifies the worshippers—perhaps I should speak for myself alone—with a feel of devotional rapture, heightened by the onslaught of the words of revelation that not only echo through the night sky but that reverberate their tonal vibrations down into the very texture and fabric of the human body. Many people may not realize the importance that Quranic recitation has during the prayer ritual. The essence of the prayer is praise and worship of the Divinity and the essence of the worship is the recitation of the sacred sound of the Quran because of its ability to transport the listener through the psalmody of the chanter into another dimension of reality altogether.

            The chanted Quran is the prototype of all sacred sound. It is a kind of divine music that overlays a person’s soul with a knowledge of origins and provides the guidance that will lead him in the right direction on his way of return to God. "The first words of the Sacred Text revealed by Gabriel surrounded the Prophet like an ocean of sound as the archangel himself filled the whole of the sky. The sound of the Quran penetrates the Muslim's body and soul even before it appeals to his mind. The sacred quality of the psalmody of the Quran can cause spiritual rapture even in a person who knows no Arabic."[11] The Quran contains a majesty, a harmony, and a rhythm that pours out from the sound of the sacred text and cannot be translated without seriously altering the nature of the profound sacredness that emanates from the letters and sounds. There is a sonorally majestic projection of sound that is primordial, central and eternal; primordial in that the sound and meaning resorts back to its original source in the Divine Mind; central because it brings man immediately back from the periphery of his earthly existence to the very center of his being; eternal because it lifts a person out of the lateral and horizontal earthly time to the vertical dimension of the eternal now, the sacred present, that neutralizes and ultimately transcends the temporal march of time with its window to eternity.

            By the end of the special al-tarawiyah prayers several hours later and after this visionary outpouring of sound and light, the inner heart, that inner sanctuary that is the spiritual symbolic counterpart to the physical cardiac heart, feels big, open and full to bursting.  All of the sacred symbolic images that the traditional literature uses in speaking about the capacity of the heart to contain the Divinity come to mind to describe the feeling upon completion of the tarawiyah prayers. If it is a cup, it is now filled to brimming; if it is a hidden cave, it is now filled with light; if it is a sacred crypt, its secret is now revealed; if it is the seal of the intelligence, it now sees with a clear certainty; if it is holy niche, it is now cast in the glow of some higher emotion impossible to describe.

            As Amr and I gathered up our individual prayer carpets and as the bulk of the dense crowd were beginning to thin out and leave, I suggested that we make our way now to the edge of the roof so that we could look down upon the inner plaza of the Grand Mosque. There is a tradition in Islam that says that the sight of the Kaaba is a form of worship. As we leaned over the railing and gazed down reflectively upon the scene below, I felt a great filling of soul and spirit. You remember the tradition that the sight of the Kaaba is worship; you remind yourself by saying the words; I hear Amr telling me the same and the mind registers the fact and concedes its truth. Yet the reality of the experience cannot be contained by words, cannot be fully comprehended by the mind, cannot be actively taken into by the soul. The two of us stand there as if hypnotized. We take in the sight; we behold the vision of the Kaaba in situ; we meet it face to face and in person. And a small miracle happens. We do not enter the house, not literally and not figuratively, instead the Kaaba enters us to become the Kaaba of the mind and heart, a spontaneously outpouring of pure emotion from the human to the Divine, the final emotion if you will from the human soul to the Spirit of God.

*    *    *

It may seem odd to report that I was counting the hours to my departure in the style of those who do not want something to end, this being perhaps a kind of pre-figurement of the desire to experience eternity. In fact, there was very little time left in the holy places. My group had arrived in Makkah on Saturday afternoon after having spent two blessed days in Madinah. The Umrah rituals on Saturday now complete, I had the full day of Sunday to spend in the Grand Mosque and I was scheduled to leave on Monday after the noon prayer to return to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates and take up my duties once again as a professor of academic writing. After the early morning prayer on Monday, I took advantage of a lull in the crowd and the protracted dawn, before the onslaught of the harsh desert sun, to make my “farewell” circumambulation (tawaf) around the Kaaba, this time alone among the vast multitude without the aid and support of my Egyptian friend Amr. To facilitate freer movement and because I had the leisure of time, I kept to the outer fringes of the circle this time, creating a longer circuit for myself, but far less tumult than the mayhem in the center closer in proximity to the house.

            I will not repeat my experience of the tawaf a second time; only to say that it was as intense and personal as before, perhaps moreso, now that I was on my own. This time, however, I kept to the periphery of the circular orbit rather than experience once again the tumult at the center of the populous storm of people. I experienced the same heightened awareness and the elevated ‘God consciousness’. I witnessed once again the fervid devotion of the worshippers and the intense configuration of multi-national and multi-racial peoples. Two things are worthy of note in passing. I did notice a heightened “military” and security presence inside the Grand Mosque and most notably in and around the Kaaba itself. Standing on the wall of Ismael[12] were three unarmed officers surveying the crowd. In the city of peace and security, so identified in the Quran itself, I would have felt this presence incongruous if it weren’t for the shattered reality of a very real threat of terrorism in the world today from which no place seems immune, not even the city of peace.

            Because of commitments back in Abu Dhabi, about 14 members of our group had scheduled to return “early”. Our Saudia flight was to leave on Monday evening at 6:00 pm. The rest of the 60 odd members of the group were to return the following Wednesday. One would not expect to make a commentary about the weather in Makkah, except perhaps to mention the intense heat experienced there for much of the year. On this mild mid-November Monday, however, the weather was notably “strange”. According to Arabs in this part of the world, cloudy weather is “good” weather, while rain is considered a blessing. The sky was notably overcast with an eerie saffron glow and while there were bundles of angry-looking clouds moving quickly across the heavens, they looked as dry as ashes. The air was blustery and full of dust. As I sat in the mosque most of that morning reading the Quran, feeling transfixed by the presence of the Kaaba in my line of sight and melancholy at the thought of leaving the physical presence of the beloved Kaaba behind in a few hours, I could hear the force of the wind blowing through the vestibules and hallways of the Grand Mosque, shattering the serenity of the place with echoes of slamming doorways and rattling windows. I could see eddies of dust swirling like ghosts through the worshippers; but I did not care. Nothing mattered but the heightened feelings of spirituality I was experiencing at the moment. I would have time enough after the noontime prayer to come back down to earth and negotiate my way back into the ways of the world.

            Indeed, the prayer came and went in a flash; its memory lingered and continues to linger in the mind as a sacred remembrance of the timeless and the eternal. I returned at once to the hotel, making my way out the back and up the stairs carved into the hill to the hotel overlooking the sacred enclosure. I needed to get my things and return immediately to the lobby to board the bus arranged for me and my companions scheduled to make our way on the hour’s journey to the Jeddah airport in time enough to escape the worst of the weather and meet the heightened security and airport formalities in time enough for our 6:00 pm flight. I quickly gathered up my belongings and gifts: a few bottles of musk oil, a fragrance mentioned specifically in the Quran as a scent of the paradise and beloved by the Muslims especially at prayer time; a few prayer carpets, possibly made in China, but bought here in the holy city of Makkah and thus highly valued my Muslim friends and colleagues, and some white skull caps, again highly treasured for their “Makkan” quality, for want of a better term.

            When I returned to the lobby around 1:30 that afternoon, there was a great hubbub at the entrance of the hotel. Upon closer inspection, I discovered an unbelievable sight:  The day had suddenly and paradoxically turned into night. I looked up at the sky disbelievingly, up and down the street, at the well-lit shops across the street, and the same sight greeted me. People were looking up at the sky wondering where the day had gone. It had the feeling of a total eclipse I remembering saying to someone nearby, for suddenly everyone behaved as if the person next to them were a long lost friend. Portentous events such as this have a mysterious way of making brothers out of perfect strangers. When people are suddenly and unexpectedly faced with an unknown quality in life, the human connection that people share makes immediate friends of perfect strangers. Within minutes, all speculation about the peculiar darkness was resolved when the heavens open their floodgates. It began to rain sheets of streaming water, the lightning shattered the pitch-blackness of the daytime night, and the thunder rolled across the heavens in competition to the resounding roar of the falling rain on the metal rooftops of nearby shops. This was a storm to behold anywhere, not to mention in Makkah, where it nearly never rains and certainly never quite like this.

            Porters ran through the rain toward the massive bus awaiting our passage to the Jeddah airport and unceremoniously threw the luggage stuffed with our precious Makkan gifts into the carriage hold. Grateful for once to be dressed simply and wearing plastic sandals, I gathered up my Pakistani pantaloons and ran for the security of the bus that promised to provide the perfect vantage point to view the spectacle of the storm. The other Emiratees of my group followed suit, including the harem (the women). Within minutes, the doors of the bus were sealed shut and we were on our way. The inside of the bus was aglow with excitement; rain in these places is a rarity and we were being blessed with a rare treat indeed.

            The querulous Saudi driver ground the massive touring bus into gear and with a lurch forward we began to make our way deeper into the thickening storm. The excitement inside the bus soon died down with the growing realization that we were heading into trouble. The women were sitting together in the back, the rest of us were interspersed randomly throughout the bus, while I was sitting alone with my thoughts. Undoubtedly, everyone was watching the incredible spectacle of the storm through the bay windows of the bus. Makka is no easy town to negotiate through even under normal conditions. It is hilly with narrow, difficult to navigate streets that link up to main arteries leading out of the city. We eventually made our way through the rain up and down the side streets abreast of the Grand Mosque, all the while noticing the flash flood conditions quickly developing along the side streets and alleyways building up on the craggy black hills adjacent to the vicinity of the mosque, itself situated in the central valley of the city. We were making our way around the mosque and heading west to Jeddah, the port city situated on the Red Sea. The gathering floodwaters also had the same idea presumably and were following the dictates of the topography of the land in which flowing waters find their natural course to the sea. In this instance, the gathering flood showed no mercy and made no concession to man, animal or object as it followed its own natural tendencies and the dictates of its own violence. Within its turgid forces, the flood gathered unto itself everything in its path. I watched spellbound through the window of the bus as the cascading floodwaters gathered strength and rushed through the narrow byways and alleyways along the crevices of the hilly terrain down into the center of town.

            As we advanced beyond the fringe of the mosque quarter, the cars along side were coming into increasing difficulty. The main road was unwittingly receiving the floodwaters and becoming itself a raging torrent. I soon realized that this was going to get worse before it got better. I had visions of watching stories of flash floods on CNN in places like Bangladesh or the flood plains of the Amazon; but this was happening to me, now, here in the desert, in the middle of an arid zone, in Makkah of all places. Was I to be swept away a second time in this beloved city, this time literally? I was beginning to wonder as I sat on the edge of my seat looking out and clouding the window with my hot breath as floodwaters crept higher up the side of the bus.

            I saw that the cars on the slip road and the side roads perpendicular to the main road were in trouble. Several on the hill above had been compromised and had washed aside into the gutter like abandoned toys. People were milling about on higher ground, standing in doorways with water up to their waists and looking out from second story windows at the cars below inundated with water and no longer what they had been. The bus itself made a brave attempt to forge its way through the amassing river, unnatural and diabolical as it all seemed. The cars adjacent to the bus, both on the road and off to the side, were becoming inundated by the floodwaters. The flow down from the Makkan hills was simply too much too soon, and the landscape simply could not accommodate the raging waters. This was quickly becoming a flash flood of monumental proportions.

            Through it all, the massive bus, like a great ship at sea, coursed its way through the wild current and cresting waves that came crashing down against the side of the bus from the sidelong rush of water running down the cliffs. First one car, then a second, surged perpendicular to the curb out of their normal direction, the one slamming into the other as the torrential current of the waters crashed into the side door and window of the cars. Another came crashing by and stacked itself up against the gathering build up. The people inside were terrorized; it had all happened so quickly, and with no experience with such matters, they had suddenly become trapped. They couldn’t very likely stay where they were and survive and they certainly couldn’t leave the car at that point, for they would be swept away in the blink of an eye. I have no notion what happened to them. The huge bus passed them by, and the instant became an immediate memory of how destiny and the forces of nature can invade the serenity of the day.

            One describes all this as if this flash flood happened in but a momentary flash. On the contrary, several hours had now passed by; we were still on the bus in the thick of the flood; we had only advanced perhaps a kilometer or two west of the Grand Mosque; torrential rains continued to inundate the area, and it seemed at that point that we could as well have been in no-man’s land awash in a sea of swelling tide and not still in the heartland of Makkah in the shadow of the Kaaba. Traffic was stalled everywhere and many cars were fully compromised, even the four-wheel drives. At one point, as we slowly made our way forward along a main artery heading out of town, I noticed several police vehicles by the side of the road where a mini avalanche had occurred. Gallons of water had poured into the gap inundating a number of cars to the extent that you could only see the roofs of the car surfacing above the waves. The subdued faces of those standing around the police car seemed to convey a sad message.

Only the scenic cruiser we were in continued without fail to advance through the encroaching deluge. The bus driver was having none of this trouble. He cursed heaven and earth, in addition to a multitude of drivers and cars that managed to get in the way of his forward movement. If he could not advance the bus, he turned left or right down a side street to find a way through the morass. When that did not work, he simply revved up the engine and careened across the central strip, almost loosing an exhaust in the process. When all else failed, he simply drove down the wrong side of the road waving aside whatever vehicles were still left mobile along the way. The water at this point had reached well over the luggage area and was alarmingly approaching mid-way point, not far from the windows. Still, the driver cursed the weather and swore at the drivers in his way. His crude manner bordered on the humorous, while his insolence toward the weather and the road conditions gave the rest of us courage that we would get through this in one piece. Meanwhile, the engines continue to purr like a kitten; the indomitable bus and its spirited driver still continued to make way through the abandoned cars, the sludge and the debris, not to mention the still raging waters of the flood.

            After three more hours of persistent anxiety, the bus finally escaped from the inner confines of the city and made its way toward the outskirts of the town. The foreboding among the group of us inside the bus had died down, together with the floodwaters, and I noticed a developing party atmosphere along the sides of the road, where people were milling about splashing each other with water and dunking themselves. We were approaching the time of the sunset. We had been fasting throughout the entire ordeal and were still attempting to reach the airport in Jeddah, even though the plane was scheduled to leave in another 15 minutes time. 

At the call to prayer, we were still marooned on the bus with nothing to eat. People on the roadside however realized our predicament and sprung into action. The door of the bus and several windows were opened and people threw small cartons of juice, bottles of mineral water and little cartons stuffed with Makkan dates with which to break the fast. This spontaneous display of fast thinking and perception conveyed to me an intense feeling of camaraderie and brotherhood, to think that people by the side of the road had understood our predicament and came to the aid of a passing bus to feed its passengers, an experience comparable to the breaking of the fast in the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah in terms of power and impact.

            At 7:30 that night, an hour and a half after the flight departure time, as we slowed down for security checks on the outskirts of the airport, a message came through on one of the cell phones of an Emiratee who I noticed had been making frantic calls to unknown places that the plane was being held for us, yet another example of the fluid nature that events can often take in the Arab world. An airline representative met us with a walkie-talkie in contact with the plane. Porters were on hand to receive the luggage, which was pulled from the hold of the bus along with the water and sludge that had been deposited by the floodwaters. We were rushed through the airport, our passports were unceremoniously stamped, and we were sent on our way without further delay. As I passed through security, a Saudi guard stopped me and asked where I was from. In the rush of it all, I was a little surprised. “America,” I hesitatingly replied, unwilling to come out of my incognito status even for a friendly inquiry, for this is an era when the politics of a person’s country can get them into trouble. The man surveyed my Pakistani cloth and roped-tired pantaloons and laughed aloud. “If you’re American,” he replied in Arabic, “then I’m from the other side of China.” On that note, he waved me on with an expression of good-humored disbelief spreading generously across his face and the words salam alaykum (peace be with you), I was gone. 

      I wish I could report that from the plane I saw the great beacon of light emanating from the hallowed precinct of the Grand Mosque, rising heavenward as a visionary seal of my Makkan experience as I did when I first arrived in Madinah; but that was not meant to be. In compensation, I felt within my mind a translucent clarity after five days in the two cities of light and peace, while within my heart the smoldering embers continued to burn of this intense, spiritual sojourn that hopefully will linger a while to illuminate the shadows of my life within the latticework of passing time. This account has been written in remembrance of a unique and memorable visit to the two holy places of Islam, when the body, soul and spirit of a man made a sacred journey to the very center of the earth, were swept away, and came back again to tell the tale.








[1] The Muslims begin their lunar calendar from the year of the Hegira, when the Prophet Mohamed fled Makkah for Madinah seeking refuge from members of the Quraish Tribe who were his avowed persecutor and enemy.



[2] A small square building made of stones, about 60 feet long, 60 feet wide and 60 feet high. The four corners roughly face the four directions of the compass. The building, made from gray-blue stones from the nearby hills of Makkah, is covered with the Kiswa, a black brocade cloth that has the Islamic testament of faith (shahadah) woven into the fabric and embossed gold-lettered calligraphy as adornment.



[3] A point of interest:  the circumambulation is in an anti-clockwise direction. This is in keeping with a similar pattern found in nature, including the electrons around the nucleus, the movement of the earth around the sun, and the movement of the stars around the central core of the galaxy.



[4] Indeed, it is a sad legacy that the Jews and the Muslims, who trace their Semitic line back to the great patriarch Abraham, through Ismael and Isaac his two sons and who are essentially symbolic brothers, are such bitter enemies in today’s world.



[5] Inside the Station of Ibrahim is kept a stone bearing the prints of two human feet. The Prophet Ibrahim is said to have stood on this stone when building the Kaaba and marks of his feet are miraculously preserved.



[6] The distance between the two hills is about 500 yards.



[7] “Behold! Safa and Marwa are among the symbols of Allah. So if those who visit the House in the season or at other times should compass them round, it is no sin in them. And if any one obeyeth his own impulse to good, be sure that Allah is He Who recogniseth and knoweth.” (2: 158)



[8] Most notably, the marble floor of the precinct contains special cooling metals to prevent the soles of the feet from being scorched by the intense heat of the sun.



[9] There are 30 juz in the Quran. Each of them is of equal length comprising 20 pages of text in a standard publication. Reciting a juz each night during the al-tarawiyah ensures that the entire Quran will be recited by the faithful during Ramadhan. In addition, many Muslims read a part of the Quran per day on their own as part of their spiritual efforts and to earn the blessings that are associated with Quran recitation during the holy month of Ramadhan.



[10] The Night of Power (al-Laylat al-Qadr) takes place on one of the night during the last ten days of Ramadhan. It is a night, according to the Quran, that is “better than a thousand months” when the angels and the Spirit of God descend to earth with Allah’s permission. The Prophet was not specific about when precisely the blessed night occurs, alluding in his sayings (hadith) to an odd numbered day and hinting at possibly the 27th night of Ramadhan. Consequently, the last ten days of Ramadhan are traditionally held in reserve for supererogatory prayers and spiritual disciplines



[11] S. H. Nasr, Islamic Spirituality, New York:  Crossroad, p. 4.



[12] The graves of Ismael and his mother Hajar are purportedly within this semi-circular wall.


 

Reader Reviews for "A Rare Visit to Makkah in Saudi Arabia"


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Reviewed by Safi Abdi 2/10/2006
Salamu alaikum!
Wonderful insight! Jaza Akkalhu khyran!

Safi
Reviewed by Karen Lynn Vidra, The Texas Tornado 12/13/2003
Wonderful story; thanks for sharing! (((HUGS))) and love, your Tx. friend, Karen Lynn. :D
Reviewed by Susan Phillips 12/13/2003
This article is very enlightening for one who has an interest in religion and faith. The description of touching the Hajar al-Aswad was particularly moving. Thank you for sharing.


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