This year, my wife and I have been blessed with the opportunity to perform the Hajj, or pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca. The Hajj is a series of rituals that both reenact and pay homage to the ancient story of Abraham, Hagar, and Ishmael in the land of Paran. It is one of the sacred duties incumbent upon every Muslim and is to be performed once in a Muslim's lifetime, if he or she is financially and physically able to do so.
Although the Hajj is very physically demanding--there are two million other Muslims doing the exact same thing at the exact same time--it is the trip of a lifetime for every Muslim. It is a "dress rehearsal" for Judgment Day, when all of humanity will be gathered together and judged by God. At the end of the Hajj, the sins of pilgrims are completely wiped clean, and it is as if they have been "born anew."
With each passing day, my excitement grows exponentially. I have seen the city of Mecca and the Kabah--the shrine built by Abraham and Ishmael as a House of God--dozens of times on satellite television and in still pictures, but to be there in person will be absolutely amazing. Five times each day, I face Mecca to perform my daily prayers, but to stand before the holy shrine will be a surreal experience. In fact, these words do not do justice to the excitement I feel about performing the Hajj this year.
Yet, there is one thing that causes me disquiet as I pack my bags: the looming prospect of war with Iraq. The rhetoric coming from President Bush and his entourage is becoming more and more belligerent, and it seems that war is a foregone conclusion. The Hajj is set to begin on February 9th this year, and I am nervous that this is around the time when bombs will begin to pound Baghdad.
Will my wife and I become stranded in Saudi Arabia as my president begins his program of regime change? Will a scud missile, on its way to Tel Aviv from Baghdad, fall mistakenly on the holy cities of Mecca or Medina? Will the harmony of the Hajj be hopelessly disrupted if pilgrims protest the military attack against Iraq? Will our plane be accidentally shot down as it flies back home to the United States? These questions plague my mind and cast a shadow on my bright thoughts about the upcoming Hajj experience.
Let me be clear: there are multiple arguments against going to war with Iraq that are much more cogent than waiting until after my wife and I finish the Hajj. The problem is, however, these arguments fall on deaf ears in the Bush Administration. President Bush and the hawks in his immediate circle seemingly do not care about the devastating human impact of war with Iraq; they pay no mind to the fact that war with Iraq is heretofore unjustified and will hurt an already feeble U.S. economy; they do not heed the warnings that an American occupation force in Baghdad will set aflame an already unstable Middle East. So, perhaps they will take the Hajj into consideration.
Perhaps the warmongers will take into account that performing the Hajj is every Muslim's dream, and each one of those two million Muslims (including my wife and me) have spent a lot of time, effort, and money preparing for this once-in-a-lifetime journey. A war that could either disrupt or (worse) cancel the Hajj would be devastating. Russian military sources, in fact, have reported that a U.S. war against Iraq may start as soon as mid-February. If that war ends up stranding two million Muslims in Saudi Arabia, America's image in the Islamic world, already battered, will deteriorate further. I hope and pray Washington's war planners will take this into account. Frankly, however, I'm not holding my breath.
I have a feeling that the U.S. will be unconvinced of Iraq's compliance with U.N. Resolution 1441, regardless of Dr. Blix's findings, and will push for war. I pray that the winds of war against Iraq die down; if for no other reason than to allow Muslims (including my wife and me) to fulfill their religious obligation and perform the Hajj this year. There is a special prayer that a Muslim should utter in case something prevents him or her from completing the Hajj duties: "Lord, if I am prevented from completing the Hajj by any obstacle, my place is wherever I am held up." I hope and pray I will not have to utter that prayer this year.
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).
The author wrote this article just before he left for Hajj, towards the end of January 2003.
With keen interest, I've been reading the author's posts on beliefnet.com where he has a Hajj diary. It's a wonderful idea to share your Hajj experience with people all over the world by posting your experiences on a website. Keep up the good job.