By Duston Barto
Labbaika Allahumma, Labbaik, Labbaika laa shareeka laka labbaik. Innal-Hamda wanni’mata laka wal mulk La shareeka lak Labbaik.
(Translation: Here I am, O Allah, here I am! There is none comparable to You and to You I have come, Here I am! Verily all Praise and Grace are Yours and the Kingdom. Most Beloved are You, without a partner. In my Heart there is room for none, only You. Here I am, O Allah, here I am!)
In the 13 years since my Hajj I have heard these words echo in my mind many times. They remind me to make good on my promises of Hajj, to remember the lessons and to continue walking in the footsteps of the Prophets.
Allah chose the moment for me to go on Hajj because I needed examples and I needed a push toward being serious in my Islam. I say this because I completed my Hajj on complete accident. It was supposed to be my mother’s Hajj covered by the Ministry of Hajj out of respect for her writing in Muslim publications and the attention that those articles had gotten. However there were complications in getting both her and my father to go so she said, “Why not just send my son?” For whatever reason they thought that was a good idea and I rushed to get my passport and get it sent off in time to get the visa. Every single step was cut down to the very edge of the deadline but it all went through well.
I needed to brush up on basics because even though I had converted to Islam in 1999, I didn’t go to a Mosque anywhere and felt sort of distanced by the other Muslims around me.. so I was still struggling with the basics of prayer and other things. I had already fasted in Ramadan and I read the Qur’an in English multiple times but had no clue how most of the Arabic was even supposed to sound from the limited amount of transliterated material that I had. So I was carrying a fairly basic book about Islam, Maududi’s Towards Understanding Islam, along with some of the essential texts about the rituals of Hajj.
When I met my group in DC for our eventual flight to Saudi Arabia, I was greeted with Scholars, Imams and other brilliant minds. I considered myself fortunate to be a goofy hillbilly surrounded by these highly educated and incredibly intelligent people. The airplane ride to Saudi Arabia was an ongoing series of lessons as I tried to get bits of Arabic right and make sure I knew the right things to do at the right times.
We arrived at the hostels set up by the Ministry of Hajj very late at night and I started to get settled in to the room expecting that our adventure would continue tomorrow. However, a man rushed into my room saying, Let’s go! Let’s make our Ummrah!” By Allah’s mercy, I got a surge of energy at 2am to follow my sleep-deprived companions out to the House of Allah. I could feel the excitement growing in the air and my heart pounded hard in my chest as we ride close to the heart of Mecca. We got out and walked as quickly as we could all stay together to reach the Masjid AL-Haram in the center of the Islamic world.
And [mention] when We made the House a place of return for the people and [a place of] security. And take, [O believers], from the standing place of Abraham a place of prayer. And We charged Abraham and Ishmael, [saying], “Purify My House for those who perform tawaf and those who are staying [there] for worship and those who bow and prostrate [in prayer].” Qur’an 2:124
There is something mystical and other-worldly about seeing the Ka’aba illuminated against a black sky. Something that transports you into another stage of consciousness. I openly wept at the sheer majesty of what was in front of me. Here is the house of Allah, built by Adam (AS), knocked over in the flood of Noah (AS) and reconstructed by Abraham (AS). Here was the venerable house that Muhammad (SAWS) expelled the idols. It was in this moment, upon laying eyes on the Ka’aba itself that my faith was elevated to a stage of absolute belief and certainty.
The tears flooding down my face were punctuated with the ebb and flow of the tide of Hajjis encircling the Ka’aba. I know that I made my tawaf in a state of pure ecstasy as I could feel my spirit rejuvenated by the majesty of Allah in the presence of His house. There was no more doubt, no more question and no more suspicion. I had reached a point of no return. I truly felt in those moments like I was in the perfect state of submission.
I did my rituals, I made sure to say my dua’a in the right spots. I prayed the way the Prophet Muhammad (SAWS) guided his companions to pray and in the places he commanded us to pray. When we ran between as-Safa and al-Marwah, I thought intently about the reasons why I was there. I was there because Abraham (AS) had sent his wife Hajar (RA) and his son Ishmael (AS) out to forge a new nation. I was there honoring a woman. The mother of a prophet and wife of a prophet. A woman who begged Allah for mercy and who was desperate to save her son. A woman who met an angel and did not shrink in fear. I was there to honor my obligation to Allah, my love for Muhammad (SAWS); this is all true. However, I was also there to pay honor to this woman who had the presence of mind to make a basin for the Zam-Zam and contain its waters so that we could be refreshed by them as pilgrims today.
After we completed our Ummrah rituals, we took time to appreciate the majesty of the place where we stood before returning to collapse in exhaustion at the hostel.
The next day, we began attending the Hajj conference. For many days I was given the honor of learning from scholars and politicians alike. Allah had presented me with all the world’s knowledge and I spent the rest of my time there learning as much as I could from as many sources as I could. I was given crash courses in international politics, language roots, religion, culture and even told a few bad jokes along the way. Allah had blessed me with a wonderful set of companions for my Hajj journey.
When the rituals of Hajj began, I continued conversations in-between the rituals. I studied with the scholars that I could talk to and marveled in the complexity of the Qur’an which I was hearing recited for the first time. I stood on the mountain of Arafat as the sun rose and looked across the beauty of the plains. I imagined the way the crowd must have been when Muhammad (SAWS) gave his last sermon there.
The day of Arafat was beautiful for so many reasons. I learned dua’a to repeat and I read along with other brothers. I spent hours in prayer, pouring my heart out to Allah (SWT) and claiming his mercy. I understand now why Muhammad (SAWS) said that Hajj is Arafat, because there are no distractions from prescribed rituals, there is time for you to reflect and to get close to Allah.
The stoning ritual of the jamarat struck me more importantly than I expected. Each pillar is stoned 7 times and the Hajji will have 7 separate stoning sessions (as he or she will stone the large jamarat three times total). Coming from a Christian background, the significance of the number 7 in scripture was a part of our education. So in a way, this action was reaffirming some of the roots of my Biblical upbringing while solidifying my new path in Islam.
The sacrifice of an animal, the shaving of my head; these rituals were important but they did not have impact on me. They just made sense. Allah had granted me his mercy and it made sense to give a sacrifice to feed His people (the poor) in gratitude for that. Allah had given me the chance to be reborn spiritually, so it made sense to shave my head in symbolism of that fact. These aspects of the Hajj did not stand out to me. But I will never forget the beautiful sight of the Ka’aba and knowing in that moment that I was surrendering my whole self to Allah (SWT).
All the actions of Hajj are meant to bring us closer to Allah (SWT) as we emulate those who came before us. We walk the same paths of pilgrims for thousands of years. The Hajj was instituted in the time of Abraham, it was continued and altered, the sacred was made profane and for centuries the mercy of Allah was not sought in the land of Mecca. Until that moment when Allah called Muhammad (SAWS) to purify His house, deliver His word and be a Mercy to All the Worlds. In gratitude for that, in honor of that divine mercy, who wouldn’t want to walk in the footsteps of the prophets?