Traveling onwards to Mecca, we perform tawaf – the circling of Islam’s most sacred monument
Leaving Medina to travel to Mecca to complete the first step of my hajj – performing umrah – requires preparation. Having bathed and put on my cream-coloured abaya I tuck my hair away under my headscarf and try to get into the right frame of mind. This outfit will be worn until my umrah is complete, which is a daunting thought, given how difficult it is to get into the city of Mecca with the many checkpoints and bureaucratic steps to go through.
It could take hours, and it does: nine, to be precise. The ladies change into their clothes at the hotel before leaving, while the men get changed at an ihram station, a mosque en route to Mecca where hundreds are stopping to get into their clothes. For ladies there is no obligatory colour to wear, though most choose to wear white or cream. Men, however, are obliged to wear two white pieces of unstitched cloth. They change and then both men and women do a prayer and declare their intention to perform umrah. We are now in a state of ihram: there is no worldly talk, no talk of business, no arguing with anyone.
A single recitation in Arabic can be heard echoing around the walls of the mosque and on all coaches now heading towards Mecca. It says:
Here I am O Allah, in response to your call, here I am. Here I am, you have no partner, hear I am. Indeed all praise, grace and sovereignty belong to you. You have no partner.
The recitation continues throughout the journey until we set foot inside the Grand Mosque itself in Mecca. Our journey is only interrupted for short rest stops and to receive food and tea.
At one particular stop we enter a camp site where large Arab-style tents have been erected with a wood fire burning in the centre. Unsure of protocol, initially the men disembark to indulge in some free tea but the ladies are soon beckoned off the coach. In a country where women are not allowed to drive, you do not quite know what to expect but we are very warmly greeted.
We are offered books, leaflets, and audio cassettes on the Hajj and what to expect, as well as copies of the Qur’an. The fact that non-Arabic speaking Muslims such as myself request leaflets and books in English and then take copies of the Qur’an in Arabic continues to baffle the Saudis. “English? English?” they ask as they offer us books but then look confused as we accept copies of the Quran: “But this is Arabic!”.
We say that we are taught to read the Qur’an in Arabic yet do not actually speak nor understand the language, but this doesn’t satisfy them. Nevertheless, the tea, dates and hospitality shown go down extremely well with us weary travellers.
Upon arrival in Mecca, we offload luggage at the hotel and go to the Grand Mosque (Masjid al-Haram), the holiest place for Muslims. Entering with the right foot first we move through it with gaze lowered until we reach a spot with a clear view of the Ka’bah, the black cube that all Muslims turn to when praying, even whilst at home in whichever part of the world they live. With a clear view we place our hands together and make supplications for all that we wish for.
Then begins the tawaf: the ritual of circumnavigating the Ka’bah a total of seven times. I have done this once before – when I came to Mecca to perform umrah – and though it was busy then it was nothing like this experience. The open space around the Ka’bah is filled with people and whether you want to move or not, once you are in, the tide of people pushes you along. Some people are more pushy than others mostly because they are trying to stick with a loved one or other members of their group, easily lost in the swell of people.
It’s a slow, difficult process with so many people and certain parts of the ground seem to get particularly clogged up and everything comes to a halt. Upon completion of the tawaf we move to any tiny free space we can find and pray again before moving on to peform sa’i, which involves walking between two points called as-Safa to the second al-Marwah whilst uttering particular prayers. This must also be done seven times and the total length of seven rounds is over two miles. Following this, men must trim or shave their hair and women trim a small length of hair to complete the umrah. Then the state of ihram ends.
All this is very difficult on my British-born feet and shins, accustomed to praying on carpeted floors. Praying five times a day on hard marble, beautiful as it is, is very painful. Performing tawaf and sa’i was toughest on my feet. The pain became unbearable at the later stages of tawaf and I really struggled through sa’i.
The difficulties lie in the sheer number of people performing the very same rituals in the very same places. The rites of prayer themselves are not hard, the problem lies in the volume of people. I suspect I am about to embark on what will be the most difficult part of the hajj, which begins on Saturday morning after the fajr prayer at sunrise. We leave for Mina to commence what we have travelled all this way for – what some people have waited their whole lives for.
This piece was published on The Guardian