Staff from The National who have performed Haj recount their spiritual journeys.
The National staff who performed Haj recount their own spiritual searches for atonement and inspiration atop Mount Arafat
Millions of Muslim pilgrims concluded their annual Haj in Mecca this weekend and will be returning home reborn.
Regardless of which type of Haj they perform, the climax of this fifth pillar of Islam is at Mount Arafat, where millions met yesterday, like millions before them in past years, to stand where Prophet Mohammed once stood for his first and only Haj.
It is the closest any Muslim can ever be to where The Messenger bestowed his final sermon of peace, of equality, of respect for the rights of man and woman, and of justice and kindness.
At this mount, known as Jabal Al Rahma - the mount of mercy - Muslims perform Waqfat Arafat where they climb, stand and pray and hold vigils as they repent for their sins and ask the Almighty to forgive them and give them the chance to start over with a clean slate.
Each pilgrim climbs the mount with a different story in their heart, some bearing heavy burdens. They stand or sit on top or near the mount reciting numerous verses from the Quran, as well as dua, supplications such as this one:
"Oh Allah! Make the beginning of this day good, the middle prosperous, and the end successful. I ask You to grant me the good of this world, and of the Hereafter, O Most Merciful."
The pilgrims then come down with a new breath of hope and lightness within their hearts. It is a time to start anew, a time where they face their sins and their failings and atone; the pilgrimage is one of inspiration and introspection for all who make it.
Each pilgrim has a different experience at Haj. Five of The National's staff share what their Haj meant to them and how it has changed them.
Hassan Fattah, Editor-in-Chief
For some, it occurs on the first sight of the Kaaba, an image so definitive of Islam. For others, it is the sight of Muslims of all walks, colours and classes circling the Kaaba in the ritual tawaf. For others it is the moment one faces the Jamarat to pelt the devil back and conquer the fight against evil.
Every Haji has a defining moment when the spirit overtakes you, when all your troubles are put in perspective, and when you are overcome with a sense of atonement and higher calling. It strikes suddenly, in a rush of emotion and perhaps even grief.
That is the moment one comes to understand what the Haj really means.
My moment came during my Haj in 2004, as I climbed up a hill overlooking the sea of people gathered in Mina, where Muslims camp overnight on the first day of Haj. Several months earlier, I had suffered the death of a friend in Iraq and a series of other personal challenges. I was angry at the world, and felt alone, despite having been recently married and working at a dream job with The New York Times.
But as I stood watching the millions below, I was overcome by the spirit of so many, striving to be there, in singular purpose facing God and asking for his forgiveness. My challenges were nothing compared with what some below had faced. Indeed my problems were nothing compared with the very sacrifice we were all gathered to commemorate that day.
There, atop the hill, with the hum of worshippers reflecting off the hillside, I felt humbled by the power and the spirit around me.
I then heard myself asking for God's forgiveness, and thanking him for all I have been blessed with, as I was overcome with emotion.
Years of anger and frustration flowed out, as I was overcome by a feeling of atonement and peace. I was not alone, I realised, and I would never be the same again. Haj had liberated me.
Rym Ghazal, Features writer
Haj means different things to different people, and it leaves a different mark on you depending on when you went and what you had in your heart then.
I have gone for Haj twice in my life, when I was a teenager and then almost 15 years later as a more mature adult when I covered it for the media.
If I had to pick, I favour the first over the second Haj. In the first one, I went with a group of friends on a journey of self-discovery and became - hopefully - a much better and positive person. We were full of life and hope for the future. We performed Ifrad Haj, where there is no animal sacrifice, as we had declared ourselves as "green Muslims" back then - a group of vegetarians who went around planting date seeds wherever we saw a patch of soil in Mecca. It was our poetic way of leaving our mark there. Mecca was different then. It was like stepping back in time, with old, traditional homes. Families welcomed us - this group of hyperactive teenage girls and their teacher - into their homes.
Haj was more dangerous then, compared with today's newly paved roads and metro. We got stepped on and injured during the stoning of devil pillars ritual, when pebbles went astray. But nothing dampened our spirits. If anything, it made us stronger. I will remember those lessons in perseverance and friendship forever.
We also learnt a lot more about our religion through its birth place.
It was truly the journey of a lifetime.
Nadia El Dasher, stylist
I went to Haj when I was in the eleventh grade - one of the few people in my class that was going to Saudi Arabia, let alone for pilgrimage.
Looking back I feel like I might have been too young to fully understand what Haj really was. That's not to say I didn't know what I was getting into. My mother and cousin sat me down, explained what it entailed and I agreed to join my parents and their friends on the trip.
Before I knew it I was on a plane full of men in swathes of white fabric and women in veils and long dresses. I was so excited and anxious it didn't occur to me that I wasn't quite sure what I was meant to do when I got there. It didn't take long for me to realise that none of us really did.
You're flung into crowds of so many people that even the most knowledgable would forget the proper protocols. We lost track of how many turns we did around the Kaaba. We had to refer to our booklet because we couldn't remember what to chant, and even lost each other in the massive throngs moving uniformly and without interruption in a circle.
All worries aside, it was the first time I'd ever felt such a strong sense of community. I still remember the hundreds of thousands of people overflowing out of the Kaaba for Friday prayer. To join them we had to stand just outside our hotel, which was at the top of a steep road around 500 metres away from the Kaaba, because of the sheer number of people standing for prayer.
I looked up as everyone was kneeling and watched as a wave of continuous movement flowed through the crowds; standing upright, kneeling over, crouching - all of us, together.
They say that after Haj, you are reborn. I remember going back to school and normal life, and all of it feeling like something new - a fresh start, if you like. My friend's faces were almost unfamiliar to me and everything seemed different. At just 15, I became a Hajiya.
Bushra Alkaff Al Hashemi, Features writer
"The day of Arafat is a day of Ma'refah; a word that originally translates to knowledge." I remember my mother telling me this during my first Haj, when I was 14. "It's the day you get the knowledge of knowing Allah," she said. "We are now under the rain of mercy. You have this great opportunity; don't waste it, ask for anything and pray.
"Only God will be with you all your life, when your family is not, in every moment you think you are alone. In the good and bad times, and all the thoughts that occur to you, he is closest to you than you to yourself."
I remember when I was looking at the hundreds of faces on my left and right, it was stunning. Each and every person is an ocean of many feelings and thoughts. Every face is a different tale. You can see the truthful tears of honesty in all the eyes and the extreme happiness for the gratitude of being there. It was astonishing, I remember, how all these very different people from all nations, ages and strata of society gathered in one place. Nowhere else in the world allowed me to see this before, and long after Haj I didn't see it anywhere else. You see a king or a prince, serving and helping the person who might not have a dirham back home. Becoming a servant in those holy places is an honour.
In Haj, you are asked to commit to the highest standards of tolerance, patience, and the greatest treatment to all you have ever indulged as a person. Serving those around you, choosing your words with them, loving and respecting them, accepting them. Even the very small details, from giving a thirsty old lady water, or helping to carry something for someone, or helping with transporting a person who can't walk. Allah loves seeing this in us. To perfect Haj is to perfect your treatment and interaction of others. You should bring the best of your thoughts and actions to the days in the holy lands.
To see the practice of Haj is to see a painting made up of millions of pilgrims moving in extreme harmony that only those who experience it themselves could ever understand.
The feeling of unity is huge. Those waves of humankind, walking together, doing the same things, asking for what they want of this life (Duniya), asking for the place to be in heaven (Ferdous, the highest level of heaven), but mainly all the raising hands are united in asking of "Allah".
I remember at that age, Mother was explaining the meanings of "talbeya" where every one says "labbayk allahuma labbayk" - "Here we come, O Allah, here we come! No partner have You. Praise indeed, and blessings, are Yours - the Kingdom too. No partner have You."
That it is the axiom of Haj and it means: Allah, I intend to reply in every breath of every year of the rest of my life. Listen to all these people praying, and "yulabboon". It is not only voices and tears but it is the hearts that reply.
Saeed Saeed, Arts & Life reporter
The thing about Haj is that you "don't go to Haj"; in reality you are invited to take part. As a culture reporter I am more than familiar with the term "guest list" and the Haj is the most prestigious list of all, as it affects both your worldly affairs and what happens after.
From a young age I was repeatedly told by teachers that it is God who chooses you to come to Haj, and the only thing we can do is make the intention of taking part. I learnt that years later, as well-laid Haj plans were scuttled through events that seemed random but in hindsight were perfect.
My chance arrived in 2010 and the Haj season perfectly coincided with a period of months where I was between jobs.
It remains the most gruelling and most satisfying achievement of my life.
The amazing thing about Haj is the total sense of disconnection one has with their worldly life. For those five days I didn't think about a job and the responsibilities upon my return. My heart and soul were purely focused on The One that gives meaning to it all.
This mixture of physical lightness and spiritual focus as a result was intoxicating.
It tapped into tanks of energy I never thought I possessed as I walked at least 10 kilometres from Mina to Mecca on less than three hours sleep over the previous shivering night.
It brought out the best in people as I witnessed local families standing in the middle of roads offering food and water to passing pilgrims.
It also resulted in deep friendships made with fellow pilgrims from across the globe.
Haj was a chance for me to spiritually reset and become focused on what truly matters.
Did I return a better person? That is only for God to judge, but it gave me the tools I need to achieve that goal. Words are inadequate to express the gratitude for that alone.