Student reflects on his trip to Mecca

by Omer Ismail | 10/18/00 5:00am

I felt a nervous twitch as the Saudi Arabian Airlines pilot announced that our flight had landed safely at King Abdul Aziz International Airport. I was in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, only 100 kilometers from the holiest city of Islam, Mecca, and the noblest of sanctuaries, the Ka'ba -- endearingly referred to by Muslims as the House of God. It is in the direction of the Ka'ba that Muslims all over the world offer prayers five times day.

I had come here with the intention of performing the Umrah pilgrimage -- the one in which a Muslim visits Mecca at any time of the year. I was all alone, with no one to receive me, no hotel reservations and a total of 400 dollars in my pocket. I was excited and yet extremely tense to be in God's presence, to step inside His House, to beg Him for forgiveness of my sins and to ask Him for His blessings. This was not something mundane, this was not something usual.

The hour-long cab ride to Mecca and the Holy Ka'ba seemed to last forever. I hardly exchanged any words with the driver, and with my eyes half-shut was absorbed in silent meditation, busy reciting prayers and Qur'anic (also spelled "Koranic") verses. I wore an "Ehram," the prescribed dress for performing a pilgrimage.

For males, the "Ehram" consists of two white unstitched pieces of cloth, one tied around the waist and the other serving as an upper garment. While performing the "Umrah" or "Hajj" (the major pilgrimage performed once a year), every pilgrim, king or beggar dons the "Ehram" in preparation for appearing in front of his (women have a different type of "Ehram") Lord -- a testament to Islam's emphasis on equality and simplicity. As I drew nearer and nearer to the Holy Ka'ba, my heart responded, beating faster and faster. The wait was finally over. I would soon be in my Lord's presence.

As I entered the holy mosque, I felt adrenaline coarse through my body. At the first sight of the black edifice, the Holy Ka'ba, a multitude of feelings engulfed me -- feelings of helplessness, of humility, of fear, of pride. I recalled the story of Prophet Abraham, who had built the Ka'ba for the worship of God. I thought of Prophet Muhammad, and his inspiring words at his farewell pilgrimage to Mecca. I saw pilgrims dressed in "Ehrams" performing the "Tawaf" (walking around the Ka'ba seven times), totally engrossed in prayer and devotion. I saw people desperately latching onto to the Black Stone, crying and imploring God's forgiveness. I saw worshipers offering sincere supplication to the Lord of the Universes. I saw people admiring the black structure and reciting the poetic verses of the Qur'an. I was surrounded by a mass completely devoted to God. All my feelings of loneliness had evaporated.

The entire pilgrimage experience is essentially centered around two basic tenets of Islam -- belief in one God and in the Day of Judgment. There are few prescribed rituals. People pray in any language they want, in whatever form they want -- their Lord has promised that He will listen. Submerged in this experience, I lost track of time, and underwent a strange catharsis. I prayed for peace of mind, for a place in heaven. I prayed for my family and friends, and for good life in this world. And as I bowed down and placed my head at the foot of the black edifice, I begged the Most Merciful for His mercy and for forgiveness for my sins.

During the course of my four-day visit to Mecca, I spent considerable time in the mosque praying, reciting the Qur'an, or simply relaxing. The constant flow of people continued to amaze me. Whatever time of day or night, the Ka'ba was constantly surrounded by pious Muslims paying tribute to their Creator. It was an environment conducive only to good deeds and good thoughts.

After Mecca, I visited the City of the Prophet, also in Saudi Arabia, for two days. It had been the people of Medina who invited Prophet Muhammad to spread the teachings of Islam, and provided him a safe haven from the persecution of Meccan pagans. Indeed, Medina was a lively community of Muslims, extremely friendly and welcoming. As soon as the call to prayer was sounded, all activity in the city would come to a stand still; people would leave their work immediately and rush towards Medina's main mosque to pray in congregation. It was an ideal society, filled with God-fearing people remembering Him five times a day and praying for their eternal salvation. I would take long walks in the city, reflecting over how fortunate I was to be a part of this great tradition. I was proud to be there; I felt I was a part of God's greatness.

Now, two weeks later, back into the rigors of academic life, my visit to Saudi Arabia seems like it happened so long ago. I feel I have been jerked back into a reality world and find myself surrounded by evil. I hear of the ongoing brutal violence in the Middle East. I hear of innocent children dying, of murders and robberies. I hear of a Saudi Arabian Airlines flight being hijacked. The God-fearing atmosphere of Mecca and the peaceful ambience of Medina seems like a part of a dream world. I just wish I could be there again.

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