Referred to as “the greatest journey of a lifetime” by the 14th century traveller Ibn Battuta, pilgrimage to the Kaaba has been a source of blessings for Muslims around the world for 1,400 years. Here's how my journey to the holy sanctuary unfolded.
"Labbayk, Allahumah labbayk! Labbayk, la shareeka laka, labbayk! Innal-hamda, wan-n’imata, laka wal-mulk. La shareeka lak.”
Literally meaning, “Here I am, O God, here I am. You indeed have no partner, here I am. No doubt, all praise and bounties are yours, and so is the absolute Domain. You indeed have no partners, here I am.” These were the powerful words we, pilgrims, began to continuously recite aloud and in unison, as nearly 300 of us boarded a flight to take part in the “Rajab Umrah” to visit the holy Kaaba — Islam's holiest site.
As is the case with all Islamic practices, pilgrimage requires the verbal declaration of one’s intention or "niyyah". Having proclaimed our intention at the airport, we boarded the plane in a state of "ihram" — the physical and inner purity required in order to perform this religious practice of a lifetime.
The men were required to change into a seamless white garment resembling a thin towel that covered their body from their waist to below their knees, along with another garment draped around their upper body. Their heads remained bare. The women were allowed to keep their regular clothes on, ensuring they met the modesty standards of our faith. Once entering the enclosure of the Kaaba, they were also required to keep their faces bare. Ihram also made impermissible the cutting or shaving of our hair or nails, wearing perfume, hunting animals or engaging in any form of sexual intimacy.
In addition to observing the formal requirements drawn from the example set by the Prophet, we were encouraged to refrain from engaging in any worldly affairs, to avoid any “loose” or obscene speech, to be gentle and kind in all our interactions and to share in our food.All these practices were intended to aid us in discovering the inner, transformative dimension present in these outer restrictions.
While they seemed quite simple, we would come to see that, once consciously adopted by hundreds of thousands of people at a time, the impact the state of ihram had on one’s self awareness and on the collective spirit of those present was tremendous.
As our plane prepared for landing at the Jeddah airport, the cinnamon-coloured dunes of the desert were visible through its windows.As we continued reciting “Labbayk” together, a sense of stillness came over us. It was as though time had stopped, as though we were all making our very last trips, as though we were all about to set out on the encounter of a lifetime.
Little did I know that this insight was in many ways prophetic, as the experience that awaited us would be unlike anything we had ever experienced.
The journey begins
Once in Jeddah, we embarked on an hour-and-a-half-long drive towards the Kaaba, the “House of God” itself, the very monument we believe to be the first place of worship on Earth, as indicated in the Quranic verse, “Truly the first house established for mankind was that at Bakkah (the ancient name of Mecca, home to the Kaaba), full of blessing and a guidance for the worlds” (The House of Imran, 3: 97).
This “house,” the sanctuary that has been circled by pilgrims for thousands of years, is one of the two holiest places in Islam, the other being Masjid al-Nabawi, home to the tomb and mosque of Prophet Muhammad. Our plan was to visit Mecca first and then proceed to Medina.
As we drove, the scenes that flashed through the car windows were reminiscent of a bygone Arabia, of a bygone way of life, even though the curves of the hills and the boundless quality of the desert were ever present.
The sky above — cloudy and pale, given the season — tinted the rocky dunes behind and beyond shades of misty brown and grey that would flicker with purple tones whenever the sun cut through. Amidst the curves of sand, recently covered in mint-green grass following the atypical rainfall the region had received and undulating in the wind, I occasionally spotted a herd of dark-coloured goats led by a shepherd, slowly yet steadily making their way along the desert hills.
On some other plateaus, I noticed solitary SUVs parked in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere. Men reclined on carpets nearby, one leg drawn towards their bodies, their right hands resting on their right knees, the edges of their keffiyehs (traditional chequered Arab head dress) fluttering in the wind as their children dashed around in play.
Despite the intimidating endlessness of the surrounding desert, resembling the waves of an ocean frozen in time, these families looked unfazed, in their element and very much at ease.
The solitude of the desert was soon eclipsed by a starkly contrasting line-up of tall buildings — many either newly built, yet unused; others abandoned and poorly maintained.
A short while after, as one came in closer proximity to the sanctuary of the Grand Mosque, the barren-looking buildings were replaced by the bright lights and grandeur of a string of hotels towering over the holy site — construction that was previously prohibited and considered to be a sacrilege, given the modest proportions of the Kaaba itself.
The presence of modern capitalism surrounding the Kaaba did pose a challenge as we tried to remain focused on the internal dimension of the journey. Yet, reflecting upon Prophet Muhammad’s destruction of the 360 man-made idols that surrounded the Kaaba when he entered Mecca, each ironically falling either on its face or back in poses resembling prostration towards the Kaaba, I reminded myself that it was upon oneself to see this as an opportunity to cleanse one’s heart and mind from the defiling impressions of the modern world. After all, you couldn’t expect a physical space to generate all the transformation. Instead, the more you invest and delve deeper within yourself, the more transformative the pilgrimage may become.
After settling into our hotel, my husband and I walked to the entrance of the Grand Mosque, its walls covered in its characteristic grey-and-white mosaic-like marble, its nine minarets piercing through the sky above. Approaching the gates of the expansive space of worship that could accommodate 2.5 million pilgrims at once, we moved along amidst the thousands of pilgrims as if we were moving through waves, each of the clusters reflecting a different colour and temperament of the 1.8 billion Muslims worldwide.
Some had surely saved up for their entire lives to make this journey a reality; others had simply come for a weekend trip, as though visiting a spiritual getaway. Yet we had all come to do the same thing: to stand before the Kaaba and then to circumambulate it just as the Prophet had done — all part of fulfilling our pilgrimage.
As we entered the Gate of King Fahd and walked beneath the pillars of the Grand Mosque, I caught a glimpse of the black cloth of the Kaaba ahead and braced myself for the encounter of a lifetime, the very experience I had been patiently anticipating for several years.
My husband asked, “Are you ready?” referring to the prayer one makes upon seeing the Kaaba for the very first time — a prayer that Muslims believe will never be denied. “Yes,” I responded quietly, my heart beating fast with anticipation.
In contrast to what my affirmative response might have suggested, I was, deep down, actually quite intimidated by the prospect of what I was about to encounter, worried that I was perhaps unworthy. Yet somewhere within, I also felt reassured, comforted by God's boundless mercy and acceptance.
And then, there it was, standing right before me: a simple cube, covered in a black cloth embroidered, in gold, with verses from the Quran. Though of modest proportions, the Kaaba was simply striking and awe-inspiring.
Muhammad Asad, an Austro-Hungarian Jew who later converted to Islam and performed the pilgrimage in 1927, had written in his autobiographical work, “The Road to Mecca,” that it was only the simplest form of expressions man could conceive of that could, perhaps, truly express the glory of God. With its simple, cubic form, symbolic of the four primary elements of life, the Kaaba perfectly embodied this sentiment.
The very thing I had turned to my entire adult life while praying stood right before us.
Built in the earthly image of the heavenly prototype mentioned in the Quran, and called the “Frequented of Visited House”, where angels constantly circle, the Kaaba bore the palpable memory of having been a holy epicentre for thousands of years. It had a profound presence, a magnetic pull that is hard to put into words.
Akin to being at the very core of a beehive, the source of life and living energy itself, a pulse seemed to guide the movement surrounding it, matching one’s heartbeat within.
Standing before it, despite being surrounded by a diverse crowd, I become aware of my ultimate aloneness before God. Indeed, the hundreds of thousands there were all on this journey together. Yet each had a separate account with the Divine, a separate set of shortcomings to ask for forgiveness for, a separate set of dreams to pray for.
There was no way to escape one's innermost truth, making it impossible to be distracted, especially from oneself. Perhaps this was why time seemed powerless — because everyone was, for once, focused only on what truly mattered.
And so, at the end of the Umrah Gate (Bab al-'Umrah), one of 20 surrounding the Grand Mosque, we mustered as much vulnerability, truth and sincerity we could from the depths of our spirits, extended our palms and made the very prayers each one of us believed would be accepted.
Shortly afterwards, we all began to circle the Kaaba in a counterclockwise direction, starting each round by raising our hands as a way of greeting and showing respect to the Black Stone, the very stone given to Adam following his fall from Heaven. Originally white, it is believed to have blackened from the sins of all those who had touched it. Those who were within its grasp would touch or kiss it as a way of connecting with the Prophet and with all the other Muslims after him who had done so for the past 1,400 years. Of course, as is the case with the Kaaba, the Black Stone itself stood as an object of reverence, but not one of worship.
Looking around, observing the pilgrims circumambulating, the broad spectrum of human experience on display was undeniable. Some were youthful and robust; others were crippled, perhaps even suffering from the absence of limbs. Some were there for their very first time; others for their very last. Some of the women were pregnant, having come to express gratitude for the gift they bore within them. Others cradled their newborns, some as young as a few days old. There were toddlers — some seated on the shoulders of their parents, others paddling along on their small feet, each transfixed by their surroundings.
Some had come bearing the burden of their sorrows, their disappointments and their failures, while others seemed to have brought their hopes, dreams and aspirations. Looking at the Kaaba, with eyes marked by firm faith, it seemed some asked for patience, forgiveness and mercy for the struggles they were going through, while others expressed gratitude, grace and thankfulness for all the gifts they found themselves blessed with. Circling the Kaaba, some wept and some proclaimed their prayers out loud, while others seemed to have nothing to say, bowing their heads in silent acceptance of their utter paucity, as though they had nothing to offer other than this humble veneration.
Yet wherever they might be coming from and whatever life it is that they may have lived, the men — dressed in the same simple white garb, reminiscent of that which all Muslims are buried in; their right shoulders, heads and feet bare, following the example of the Prophet — and the women, clad in their ordinary clothes, were all equal and walking the same path before God.
No wonder Malcolm X, the African American civil rights activist and convert to Islam, had so poignantly proclaimed, following his pilgrimage in 1964, that this experience marked “the first time in [his] life [where he] felt like a complete human being.”
Whenever one caught the eyes of a fellow pilgrim amidst the sea of humanity, one experienced a sense of unusual familiarity, despite the fact that they were a complete stranger. After all, each one of us had been willing to share in the vulnerability of the experience, to remain bare alongside one another as we all tried to seek our own form of connection with the Divine. Our reasons were different, yet there was a sense of unity as we all engaged in the very same movement with the same intention and aim.
As I continued to circle the Kaaba, I found myself before a small copper enclosure, the Station of Abraham (Maqam Ibrahim), where a boulder bearing the mark of a footprint stood on a pedestal, the very footprint formed when Ismael brought a stone for his father to stand on so that he could reach higher. Standing before it, I closely inspected it. Indeed, the mark was that of Prophet Abraham, yet it was very much that of a person, a human being. It was not the mark of something superhuman or of massive proportions. Rather, it looked quite “normal.”
There was a sense of comfort in discovering and acknowledging that — although a prophet with direct access to the Divine, Abraham was also a human being, just like the millions of pilgrims who had come to pay their respects before this enclosure bearing his footprints.
Upon completing the seven circumambulations, we all drank Zamzam water, the very water that had miraculously gushed from beneath the heels of an infant Ismael, as Prophet Abraham’s wife, Hajar, ran between the hills of Safa and Marwa, in an agonising search for a source of sustenance for her child. Though amazed by the sight of the water, after some time, when she worried it might never stop, she exclaimed, “Zome, zome” (meaning “stop flowing, stop flowing”) and hence, the name of the spring was born.
We then performed a short prayer ritual for the completion of the seven circumambulations before making our way to perform the “sa‘y,” literally meaning “effort,” the act of travelling back and forth between the very same two hills — briskly walking a portion of it — in symbolic veneration of Hajar’s search.
When we entered the path, my imagination under the heavy influence of the vivid descriptions by Muhammad Asad and Martin Lings of the two hills and the path that lay between, I realised I was not fully prepared to see a long, entirely marbled enclosure, with broad lights and signs much like those of a busy highway.
Though I yearned to see a tangible relic of the past, to have an image I could hold onto, I reminded myself once again that this journey was not about demanding the space to meet the expectations of my imagination or deliver impressions I may have anticipated. Rather, it was for me to discover, within myself and within the experience and practise itself, the timeless lessons behind Hajar’s struggle.
The “mas‘a” (the distance between the hills of Safa and Marwa) was marked by an apocalyptic sense of urgency, as though the end of time had come and all were trying to make sure they had fulfilled their promise before it was too late. Some of the elderly who couldn’t physically perform the practise were in wheelchairs, being swiftly pushed by either younger family members, or by people who had been hired to help. The others, even including some mothers who were pushing twin strollers, continued to make their way on foot. Despite there being so many thousands of people in one place at once, there was an unusual sense of serenity, harmony and order.
The degree in which people were focused on meeting this ultimate end was intense to observe. One sight that caught my attention was that of a man in his 50s helping an older man who appeared to be in his late 80s and visibly in pain, clutching him by the hips, assisting him in completing this final step of his umrah.
Limping, the older man gripped one of the younger man’s shoulders and rested his head on the other. Despite the visible agony he was in, both performed the brisk walk as though striving with every step to reach the finish line of a race. Upon closer observation, I realised it was a father and a son who were sharing in this “journey of a lifetime.”
At the end of 2.5 hours, the seven rounds having been completed, we marked the completion of our umrah by shortening our hair as the Prophet had done and stood in prayer for it to be accepted.
The following night was “Laylat al-Raghaib,” or the Holy Night of Wishes, marking the beginning of the month of Rajab, the first of the three consecutive holy months of Islam. Muslims around the world believe it to be a sacred occasion and opportunity for one to seek forgiveness and mercy from the Divine.
In fact, as F. E. Peters, author of “The Hajj: The Muslim Pilgrimage to Mecca and the Holy Places” describes, relying on the firsthand accounts of the 12th-century traveller, geographer and poet Ibn Jubayr, this night had been celebrated as an elaborate and even festive affair up until the 19th century, with preparations being undertaken days in advance.
Upon the sighting of the new Moon, the streets of Mecca would have been filled with palanquins fastened atop camels, draped in different colours of silk and fine linen, torches carried before them and fires lit along both sides of the way leading to the Kaaba.
Though special festivities continue on such days in many other parts of the Muslim and non-Muslim world, they are part of the bygone days of these holy lands.
Nonetheless, for us, it still offered a sacred opportunity. And so, wanting to seize it, we decided to attend the evening prayer at the Grand Mosque and spend the entire night there before returning to our hotel after participating in the morning prayer.
Since the site had been so crowded the previous night, we also hoped that perhaps, in the wee hours of the night, we could get closer to the Kaaba. Little did we know that this blessed night did, indeed, have a gift in store for us.
As we circumambulated the blessed House, my husband and I unexpectedly found ourselves being drawn closer and closer to the inner rim of pilgrims. Then, the path before us suddenly cleared and, as my husband kept me before him, I found myself walking straight towards the Kaaba. Before we knew it, with thousands behind us and surrounding us, we were right next to it. There was only a single person standing between me and its outer wall. As I watched many of the other pilgrims scrambling to reach the spot, others trying with all their might to kiss the stone wall, I stood there puzzled and taken aback, thinking, “This must be my moment to seize.” It was then that I reached out and, before I knew it, my hand had touched the stone wall.
The stone was warm, almost soft in texture, dampened by the tear-soaked hands of tens of thousands of pilgrims who had touched it before me. It had a texture unfamiliar to me until that moment, and I kept my hand on it, absorbing everything my senses could and retaining as many sensorial memories as possible. Then, once again, a wave of pilgrims washed towards me and I found myself pulled further and further away from the Kaaba. Though an isolated and fleeting moment, I knew my experience would stay with me forever.
And so, for the rest of the night, we prayed, read chapters from the Quran and made sure to say the prayers of all those who had shared theirs with us to be said in this holy place.
As the morning prayer approached, the soft "adhan," or, call to prayer began to beautifully echo through the 210 gates of the expansive 88-acre grounds of the Grand Mosque. The birds chirped their way around the Kaaba, landing on its black cloth time and time again to catch more wind under their wings before embarking on another flight. All three floors of the mosque were filled with hundreds of thousands of pilgrims; it took just one command by the person leading the prayer to bring every single person together in one motion: “Allahu Akbar!” — literally meaning “God is Great!” We all stood, prostrated and bowed towards the House of God from all directions and in complete harmony in an expression of our shared faith.
Enduring insights and blessings
Our journey to Mecca evidently did not take years to complete, nor did it entail the physical trials that accompanied those who performed it on foot or on the back of a camel or horse — nor did we have to fear being assaulted by bandits raiding our caravan, scenes vividly described in the famous accounts of hajj journeys completed by Nasir Khusraw in 1050, by Ibn Jubayr in 1184 and by Ibn Battuta in 1326. Furthermore, given the onslaught of modern conventions, our journey was not comparable to those of Muhammad Asad, Martin Lings or Malcolm X, who recounted experiences of their hajj journeys in 1927, 1948 and 1964, respectively, either.
As time elapses, all things change; this is an inevitability. The discovery of oil and the unavoidable connectivity brought on with modern modes of transportation have, over time, stripped these holy spaces of their unique simplicity and integrity in many ways. Overwhelmed by the demands of an ever-increasing influx of pilgrims, the surroundings of the Kaaba have undergone massive changes. All the quarters are covered in marble to ensure sanitary conditions. There are escalators moving hundreds of thousands of people between the three floors. There are signs between gates, much like in any modern city street or construction site the world over.
Yet, as each of these esteemed Muslim figures emphatically acknowledged, there is an ever enduring and unchanged vertical aspect to the pilgrimage that continues to be deeply palpable — trusting that one seeks to discover it.
Furthermore, our pilgrimage had its own set of challenges, as well as rewards. In joining the first cohort to Mecca following the Covid-19 pandemic and, thereby, gaining admittance without being subjected to any number restrictions, we ended up contracting a heavy variant of a virus that put us through fever spells, joint aches and severe throat pain. However, I found comfort in reminding myself that being tested was woven into the fabric of this experience. After all, leaving as sinless as the day one’s mother gave birth to us, deemed the blessing of the pilgrimage, as narrated by Prophet Muhammad, such purification had to come at a cost…
On this count, the words of Imam al-Ghazali offered me meaningful reassurance. In his chapter titled “The Mysteries of the Pilgrimage,” from his forty volume magnum opus “Revival of the Religious Sciences” he wrote, “One must be pleased by the expenditures and sacrifices one makes, and the losses one suffers, whether that be to one’s money or person, for such trials are a sign that one’s pilgrimage has been accepted,” adding, “For every pain one feels, for every loss one sustains, one has a reward, one that will not be lost to Allah.”
Certainly, in going to visit the holy Kaaba and circumambulating it as the Prophet had done, one is responding to the Divine Call. Yet there are no boundaries nor mediators between the believer and his Creator in the Islamic faith. Every day, during each of the five daily prayers, one is handed the challenge and gift of being able to connect with one’s source, to turn in the direction of the Holy House and to call upon God as He proclaims in the verse, “Call upon Me and I will answer your prayers.” (Ghafir, 60)
And so, with the beautiful adhan echoing in our ears, we bid farewell to the Kaaba, but the pulse that surrounded it and the sense of centredness it had gifted us with remained within us, welcoming us to tap into it every time we turned in the direction of the Kaaba to pray, no matter where in the world we found ourselves.