For the rest of my life, this time of year in the Islamic calendar will always be dear to me. This is the Hajj season, and Muslim pilgrims from all over the world are descending upon the holy cities of Mecca and Medina to perform the annual Hajj ritual. Many, if not most, of them are going for the first time, and I can feel their energy and excitement right here from my computer in Chicago. As I see satellite channels beam live images of the daily prayers in Mecca, I smile, and my heart aches and yearns to go back to Mecca. These words do not do justice to how much I truly miss the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.
The Hajj was the most powerful and emotional spiritual experience I have ever had. The city of Mecca exuded with the Power of God, humbling me to the core of my soul. The prayers I performed in front of the Ka’aba, the holy shrine in Mecca, were unlike any others I have ever performed. After getting my fill of worship at the Holy Shrine in Mecca, the trip to Medina was like the most delicious dessert following a most satisfying meal. To go and finally visit the Prophet’s grave, worship in his mosque, feel his cool, soothing presence all around you, was completely intoxicating. Tears still come to my eyes when I think back of the first time I met and greeted the Prophet in his grave.
Looking back a year later, however, I am sad to report that many of the effects of the Hajj have since worn off. Once I came back, the harsh and difficult world of everyday life came at me with full force. It was as if life was itching to hit back, angry that I left it for three weeks to fulfill the fifth pillar of my faith. I once again get angry in rush hour traffic; I once again miss some of the extra rituals of worship; I once again do not get to reading the Quran every single day. It makes me sad to admit this fact, but I hope that writing it down will help encourage me to work and rekindle the spirit and special feeling of the Hajj that so touched my heart and soul one year ago.
I often wonder why God chose such a desolate place to put His Holy Shrine. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, around the holy city of Mecca except for rocky, barren desert. Why couldn’t Mecca have been established on a tranquil ocean side, for instance? It would be very nice, after a long hard day of worship, to soak up some sun and catch some waves on the Red Sea.
That is exactly why Mecca is where Mecca is. People would then miss the whole point of why they are going to Mecca. During the Hajj, God plucks you out of your daily routine and puts you in a desolate place where there is nothing to do but worship Him. Therefore, you are constantly reminded of why you were put here on earth: for the sole worship and service of God.
These lessons are fresh in one’s mind immediately after the Hajj. But, as they were in my case, they wear off with time. Nevertheless, with every subsequent Hajj season, former pilgrims are reminded of the difficult–and same time wonderful–experience they had in the Holy Precinct, and they are then reminded of their obligation to be God’s servants. In addition, those of us who went on the Hajj continually encourage friends and family who have not gone to finally go and experience the magic themselves.
Furthermore, acts of devotion related to the Hajj are easier to perform. For example, for the overwhelming majority of Muslims who cannot perform the Hajj, they are encouraged to fast on the day that pilgrims are standing on the plain of Arafat. As a reward, their sins of the past year are forgiven by God. I had always fasted on the day of Arafat in the many years before I went on the Hajj, but it would always be very difficult psychologically. Any fast outside of Ramadan, in fact, is much more difficult for me. Not now, since I have done my Hajj. Now on, I will always look forward to and enjoy fasting the day of Arafat. It will always bring back wonderful memories of the most emotional and beautiful spiritual experience of my life.
I had heard writer Michael Wolfe (author of ‘the Hadj’) say that once you leave Mecca, it always calls you back. I never really believed this until I myself went on the Hajj. To this day, it continues to beckon and call me home, and God willing, I intend to go back one day to perform a lesser Hajj, or Umra. I pray that day comes soon.
Hesham A. Hassaballa is a Chicago physician and columnist for the Independent Writers Syndicate. He is author of "Why I Love the Ten Commandments," published in the Book Taking Back Islam: American Muslims Reclaim Their Faith (Rodale).