This post is the fifth and final part in the series Notes from a Pilgrim.
It is common for those welcoming home returning pilgrims to comment on their ‘noor’ – the radiance that supposedly emanates from the face of a pilgrim whose journey has been accepted by Allah. I remember when my parents returned from Hajj in 2004 that family members and friends all remarked about the glow they had, of ones that had been heard by God. I have always heard of Umrah and Hajj being described as ‘spiritual journeys’. Tales of pilgrims who have heard God’s voice directly on the road to Makkah and who have returned to their normal lives enlightened and endowed with divine wisdom are as old as Islam itself, existing in the folklores of every nation. It makes it hard not to associate ‘pilgrimage’ with images of dazzling beams of light and otherworldly voices from the Heavens. The purpose is to grow closer to the Divine and to seek the Truth.
But there is also a decidedly worldly aspect to pilgrimage. It involves, even today for many people, the undertaking of a long and arduous journey across great distances with little comfort. Pilgrims travel in groups for companionship, protection, and knowledge – after all, for many this is their first visit beyond the borders of their own countries. The very fact that pilgrimage is mandated in Islam indicates the importance placed on this worldly experience of travel – to visit new lands, converse with people from different places, and to truly recognise the diversity of the global community. The pilgrimage is as much about connecting with the people you meet along the way as it is hearing the voice of God. Or maybe it’s hearing the voice of God through the people you meet.
One such person we met was an elderly woman from Lahore in Pakistan. She was visibly poor; her entire top row of teeth were missing. She came to kneel beside my mother and me as we were outside the Masjid al-Haram in Makkah. She spoke a dialect of Urdu that neither of us understood but she gestured to her bag and insisted on giving us some of her bread rolls. These rolls are distributed by volunteers to those who can’t afford to buy food, so that they can spend what little money they have on meat or vegetables rather than bread. And yet, she still wanted to share what little she had with us. Another occasion, this time in Medina, I saw a woman crouched by a pillar in the mosque simply holding a copy of the Qur’an and touching it to her face with such reverence. I realised that she was illiterate and had probably never read the Qur’an either in its original form or in translation. Yet her faith was so strong, based on what she knew or had been taught, that she was happy to simply sit and hold this book. It saddened me, thinking how vulnerable she and others like her are, potentially susceptible to the misleading by others because she has not had the privilege to learn to read.
My experience of umrah has been marked by the tensions and interplay of these two things: the divine and the worldly. On the one hand, I wanted to prioritise my own spiritual experience, throwing myself into worship and contemplation; on the other, it has been impossible to turn away from the very real, earthly issues that I have been confronted with along the way. There were times during my pilgrimage where I felt as though the injustices I was witnessing and the behaviours that I knew were wrong but could not stop were distracting me from my pursuit of spiritual enlightenment. I spent most of my pilgrimage feeling anger and frustration towards a status quo that seemed impossible to overturn. Still I stood in prayer, performing each of the five daily prayers begging for some kind of revelation. But aside from the tears I shed on my first day in Makkah when I was able to touch the Ka’bah I felt untouched.
It was in Medina when something changed. We had spent a morning waiting and eventually being able to visit the tomb where the Prophet Muhammad and two of his companions, Abu Bakr and Umar are buried. The waiting was long and frustrating – as with everything in Saudi Arabia, access to the Rawdah (or tomb) is segregated with separate visiting times for women and men. The segregation extends further, with groups being divided into three vague geographic (or racial) segments: Indians & Pakistanis; Malaysians & Indonesians; Arabs & Turks. The pilgrims from Africa and other Black worshippers were left to choose their own group, deemed so insignificant by the authorities that they were not even afforded a particular segment. These groups were then allowed into the Rawdah for a certain period of time to greet the Prophet and offer a short prayer. After three hours of waiting, we were finally allowed in.
What I witnessed was the least spiritual experience I could imagine. Women were pushing past each other to reach the gold filigree fence that separated the pilgrims from the tomb, desperate to touch it. Others were rubbing their hands on the pillars, trying to absorb some kind of holiness from the stone, exacting blessings. Others were reciting prayers over bottled of water, thinking it would somehow render it holy. When my sister and I tried to find a quiet place to offer a short prayer, a stampede of women practically trampled over our heads as we were bowed down. It was chaos. In my prayer I was furious: how had I come to the most holy place on Earth to experience this? What was the point? I was all but ready to give up. I’m here, I prayed. I’m here if You want to talk to me, but You aren’t talking to me.
Having been traumatised by the crowds that morning, my family and I opted to offer our afternoon prayers in the small stone mosque near our hotel. We learnt that the Ghamama Mosque was so called because it was the place where the Prophet had prayed for rain in the middle of a drought and his plea was answered. The mosque was built to commemorate this. It was tiny compared to the Masjid al-Haram and remarkably simple. It was made of grey stone, the original – or near to original – stones visible at the bottom of its walls. Inside, the coving was in stone and whitewash with a few small simple windows and had none of the finery of the other mosque, no stained glass or marble or gold edging. It was also far less crowded.
As we waited for prayer to begin I wrote down some thoughts I had been having: that simply praying felt inadequate when there was so much injustice in this place. That for all the hours spent in prayer, we as Muslims needed to offer equal if not more time in the service of others. I was unsatisfied by the idea that prayer alone could change anything; the onus had to be on us, especially as I wasn’t receiving any guidance from prayer anyway. I listed several ways I could do this, ways in which I could commit to doing my part. Just before prayer started, I opened my small copy of the Qur’an at a random place. It fell open on my favourite verse – Surah Ad-Duha. I felt a small twinge of affirmation. This was more like it. The muezzin offered the call to prayer and we stood. The imam began to recite and the first surah he offered was the very same one that my Qur’an had opened at, and the one I have always turned to in times of distress or sadness. I heard the opening line and wept.
By the morning hours
And by the night when it is stillest,
Your Lord has not forsaken you, nor has He become displeased.
And surely what comes after is better for you than that which has gone before
And soon will your Lord give you so that you shall be well pleased.
Did He not find you an orphan and give you shelter?
And find you wandering and direct you?
And find you in want and make you to be free from want?
Therefore, do not oppress the orphan,
Nor drive the beggar away.
And as for the favor of your Lord, do announce it.
After that it became easier. Rather than chasing episodes of lofty enlightenment, I committed to thinking about the things I could do practically – engaging with that struggle and trying to gain some perspective led to a renewed sense of purpose, and then – by extension - a sense of spiritual fulfilment. I have come to think of pilgrimage not as just a one-off journey, but as one that we are all constantly on. The purpose is not to seek absolution by touching holy relics, but to serve others through working to end oppression, to help those in need, to overturn injustice at every corner. And moments of affirmation continued to come. Two days later, the imam recited the same surah – in the whole time I have been here, I have never heard the same surah recited more than once. It felt as though I was receiving signals that I was on the right track – my frustrations were validated; my proposed actions were encouraged. I began to feel that there had been a purpose to this after all. Pilgrimage – whether a dedicated journey like umrah or hajj, or the journey through life - is as much about this world and serving its people as it is about prayer and serving God. I may not have encountered any flashes of heavenly light in my journey, but this is the truth I have come to.