Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 14 October 2019

Hajj memories through the eyes of my father

Reporter Shafi Musaddique looks at the Hajj through the eyes of his father, who completed it in 1993 and returned to Makkah in 2018

Image of Abdul Musabbir, my father, in the late 1990's a few years after he returned from his Hajj. Shafi Musaddique / The National
Image of Abdul Musabbir, my father, in the late 1990's a few years after he returned from his Hajj. Shafi Musaddique / The National

My father Abdul Musabbir is an unassuming man with a clipped, grey beard.

He often wishes, with a heavy, weighty sigh sent up to the heavens, that he achieved more in life having had a modest education and a career as a chef in London's Bangladeshi curryhouse scene. But to me, he already has.

For when I was barely of walking age in the early 1990s, my father decided to embark on a once-in-a-lifetime journey and fulfill his final religious obligation: to go and perform the Hajj.

While the likes of American civil rights activists Malcolm X and the famous West African King Mansa Musa, dubbed the richest man that ever lived, are inspiring Hajjis (a title bestowed to those who have completed the Hajj), my father’s journey strikes my heart just as equally.

“I think it was 1993,” he says, after some deliberation with my mother (who is surer than he is despite not accompanying him on that particular trip).

Today, Muslims across the world will have the opportunity to have their own air-conditioned accommodation. It wasn’t always that way.

“I slept on the floor in a room, with five, six people sharing that one room. We rented from the local people of Makkah,” he said.

“There was always a queue for the bathroom back then. It was very, very hot”.

My father had gone to perform Hajj with a group including his brother-in-law and two friends just a year after his mother (my grandmother) went to perform Hajj herself.

“When we entered Makkah, we put our baggage into our room and then went to perform tawaaf (walking seven times around the Kaaba, the silk-clad cube shaped building used as a reference point for Islamic prayer). After tawaaf, we came back to find others cooking for us, sharing food together.”

My father went for Hajj when I was barely walking age. This is an image of me during that time, in London. Shafi Musaddique / The National
My father went for Hajj when I was barely walking age. This is an image of me during that time, in London. Shafi Musaddique / The National

Each year around 2.3 million people perform the Hajj, with demand increasing every year to meet the needs of Muslims around the world.

Squinting his eyes, my father recalls trying to reach al-Ḥajaru al-Aswad, the Black Stone said to have fallen from the heavens, located to the east of the ancient Kaaba.

“A lot of people try and kiss the stone, but it wasn’t possible. Yes, we have to follow the ways (our prophet), but we cannot push people to go there. If it’s not possible, it’s better to look at it from afar with your hands and say ‘In the name of God, the Greatest’,” he says. “Don’t give pain to people.”

The rites of the present-day Hajj go back to the Prophet Mohammad’s farewell Hajj. While there are many rites and rituals to learn beforehand, all pilgrims must enter a sacred state, or ihram, when entering the outer boundaries of Makkah. This consists of wearing an unstitched cloth for men, or loose-fitting clothing for women.

“Once put the simple cloth on, you're forbidden from doing things like scratching yourself hard. That was very difficult. Not even one hair could fall out from you – if it did, you’d have to pay a penalty. That means one sheep!”

While the umrah, or the lesser pilgrimage, can be performed anytime of the year, the Hajj is performed at a designated time. There are three varying types of Hajj depending on difficulty and rites.

“I couldn’t even use soap or perfumed goods on my body,” he remembers.

Almost 26 years later and now in his seventies, my father’s memory of the 1993 Hajj remains crystal clear, if indeed it takes a few pauses to remember.

Arafat, a flat, dusty land punctuated by the outer hills and mountains of Makkah, remains powerful to him.

It’s where the prophet preached equality for all in his last sermon and where humanity is believed the gather as one on the final day of judgement according to Islamic tradition. Today, pilgrims head to Arafat by foot and by bus to hold their hands out, pray and remember God, often under the scorching sun.

An aerial view of the Mount Arafat, where thousands Muslim worshippers gather during the Hajj pilgrimage. EPA
An aerial view of the Mount Arafat, where thousands Muslim worshippers gather during the Hajj pilgrimage. EPA

“At that time there was no tent, just a big cloth. And we had nothing but a thin sleeping mat. But nobody will be sleeping, it’s too hot!”

The yellow mat with a blow-up cushion he mentions is one that I played with as a child pretending to sleep in the desert.

At Arafat, my father managed to lose an elderly man in the group.

“He said he was going to the toilet… but all the camps must have looked the same to him. Suddenly people called to leave Arafat. We tried to look for the man. Twenty minutes went… my friend and I could not find him,” he says with a laugh.

“Suddenly he appeared. His body was shaking! It is really lucky that we found him or he would have been completely lost. He had said to us ‘don’t worry, I’ll come back’”.

As a child, I had grown up on stories of the prophet’s first revelation of the Qu’ran on a Mountain overlooking Makkah.

My father went a step further and climbed Jabal el Noor, or Mount of Mercy, where the prophet once retreated in Hira Cave.

As he made his way up, camels and wagons loaded with ice cold water dotted path to the top.

After a two-hour climb in sandals, he had reached the cave front sprawling with people but once a scene of revelation.

“I had found ‘Iqra…’ (‘read’ in Arabic), the first message from the Archangel to our prophet, had been written on the cave. I felt so excited,” he says.

A man enjoys the view of the sun setting on Mecca near the Hira grotto where Prophet Mohammed is believed to have received the first verses of Quran from the Angel Jibril (Gabriel). EPA
A man enjoys the view of the sun setting on Mecca near the Hira grotto where Prophet Mohammed is believed to have received the first verses of Quran from the Angel Jibril (Gabriel). EPA

The spiritual pull of the Hajj remains to this day. My father completed his Hajj once in 1993 and returned to Makkah for the lesser Umrah in 2018. Has Makkah evolved since?

“Yes, everything has changed with much more accommodation. Everything is nicer now, for sure. But we’re not going there to sleep… but to pray constantly”.

To be a part of the millions circling the silk-clad Kaaba, build by the prophet Abraham and his son Ishmael, is a pull that never wavers.

“In the tawaf, people cry because it could be their last”.

On his way home, he had decided to visit the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina.

The “complete silence” of pilgrims moved to tears by Medina, in contrast to the loud exhortations heard at the Hajj, eerily remains with him.

“When you’re near the prophet’s tomb, the ocean from your eyes automatically comes out… it just floods out”.

Back in the early nineties, my dad could put his head inside a hole putting him inches from the prophet’s final resting place flanked by two of the first Caliphs of Islam Umar and Abu Bakr. An empty place for the Prophet Isa (Jesus) is also there awaiting his “return”.

To him, the sacred sites of Islam are places where "your soul changes… where you hear the call to prayer five times a day. Millions of people, even sometimes children and babies on the backs of mothers, are walking for God. You realise what the soul of Islam is”.

On returning to the UK, my father says he suddenly had a sign that he believed meant his Hajj was successful. One night, he saw the prophet in a dream.

“He said 'I will show you into heaven'… I didn’t know what it fully meant but I knew that’s when, perhaps, it might be a sign that my Hajj had been granted. I only told one person close to me and they said 'prophet is happy with you'.”

Would he consider returning one day?

“Yes, God willing. But with you, my son. You must go when you have energy. You really must.”

Updated: August 4, 2019 10:36 PM

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