Hajj

Hajj Recap Part 3 - Mina

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This is the final installment in the #Hajj2015 Recap series. You can check out the previous installments here:

What It's Really Like

Here's the funny thing about hajj. Everyone who has been there before talks nonstop about Madinah and Makkah. No one really tells you about your days in Mina, even though these are the actual days of hajj.

While I was there I took copious notes about my experiences. Things like getting stuck on the bus for 8 hours and having to make tayammum and pray 'Asr. Things like waking up bleary eyed and making a 15 minute walk down a tunnel with fans blaring and people speeding through dangerously on motorcycles while texting. After getting back though I realized why no one emphasizes those things. Everyone has a hundred stories just like it or even crazier.

And that's the thing - going through stuff and having your patience tested is the name of the game at hajj. If it's not one thing, it will be another. To focus on that almost seems to serve as a discouragement or even complaining about what you went through.

A different way of looking at it is this. Imagine the stories you'll tell when you get back. It is inevitable. Everyone will ask how it was and what you experienced. When you encounter difficulty, frame yourself as a character in the narrative. What does this character do when things get crazy and how does he/she react?

This is not to discount the difficulty. Hajj is definitely tough. But here's the thing. Once you're done, the reward insha'Allah is forgiveness for all your sins and entrance into Paradise. From that perspective, it almost seems too good to be true. Put up with whatever comes your way patiently for a couple of days, and your entire lifetime's worth of bad deeds gets wiped away?

2:197

The pilgrimage takes place during the prescribed months. There should be no indecent speech, misbehaviour, or quarrelling for anyone undertaking the pilgrimage—whatever good you do, God is well aware of it. Provide well for yourselves: the best provision is to be mindful of God—always be mindful of Me, you who have understanding— [M.A.S. Haleem Translation].

It's that simple. Just don't fight with anyone or misbehave. Unfortunately, you will see people lose their hajj over the craziest things. I didn't think you would see people lose it over hajj amenities, but then I witnessed someone flip their lid about not having accommodations at Arafat that were VIP enough. It happens. Go in with a mindset of bearing whatever comes your way for a few days. The reward for doing so is immense.

One of our group leaders gave us salient advice. Do what you need to do, and it get it done without harming anyone.

Arafat

Arafat is one of those things that no one really tells you about how it will actually be. In my mind I envisioned everyone being out on a mountain from Dhuhr until Maghrib in their Ihrams. People would be standing and making dua all day fighting the heat. Snacks and water would be whatever you kept on yourself, and your goal was to avoid having to use the bathroom - which I imagined was just a line of Port-a-Potties like at a fair (alhamdulillah, we had real bathrooms). I was expecting this otherworldly spiritual experience where everyone would be teary-eyed crying in dua all day.

Here's how Arafat actually went (at least for us). Get there after fajr and settle into a huge air conditioned tent with rugs spread everywhere. Every couple of feet was a small cushion to denote that this was a place for someone to sit or lie down. We came in,grabbed our spots, and went to sleep. We woke up for Dhuhr, listened to a khutbah in our tent, and then we were on our own.

The most shocking thing for me was that the vast majority of people went back to sleep. Some people were socializing. There was a catered lunch. But for the most part everyone sat quietly in their spot either sleeping or in their personal worship. As it got closer to Maghrib people began going outside and standing to make dua, and that was it.

Expectation:

https://flic.kr/p/7itvPh

Reality:

Our Arafat tent. Blurred for privacy.

Everyone's experience, logistics, and so on will be different. I'm pointing this out because there are many times in hajj where you expect things to be a certain way, and they are totally not that way. It's not inherently good or bad either way - it is just understanding that every experience is different. The important thing is to adapt to your circumstances and make the most out of all situations.

One reason you find people in the tents instead of outside is because of this:

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Before coming on Hajj, one of the best pieces of advice I received was to invest tons of time into a dua list. Most people want to focus on learning the rites of hajj and the fiqh rulings and so on. It is great to learn that. The reality is, once you are there you follow the lead of your hajj group. You may have a certain fiqh opinion on something that you learned in a seminar, but when "stuff happens" you'll need to trust the scholars there.

Invest your time in the dua list. This is advice I got from Farhan Abdul-Azeez in his class Sweetness of Hajj. If you're going on hajj and you have no idea what to do to prepare, just take that class (it is free and online). It will cover everything you need to know. Another friend of mine gave me some more hard-hitting advice. Hajj, as we know from the hadith, is Arafat. This stretch of time that you are there making dua is the core essence of hajj. He said take the amount of money you're spending - let's assume its $10k. Split that up over the few hours you have from Dhuhr to Maghrib (about 5-6). Now divide the cost by those hours. He said to think of it as if your entire hajj journey boils down to paying $2,000/hour for Arafat. This is time you do not want to waste.

I would recommend you get a dua book, or print out duas from the Quran and Sunnah to keep with you. Aside from that, take out time (at least 2 weeks before hajj) and start jotting down duas that are important to you. Everything you can think of for yourself, your family, your friends, the ummah in general, and so on. And try to use the formula given in the ayah, "Our Lord, give us in this world [that which is] good and in the Hereafter [that which is] good and protect us from the punishment of the Fire (2:201)," - one-third for dunya, two-thirds for akhirah.

Make dua for everything, even things like asking Allah to let you fall asleep on long bus rides

The more time you give to making your dua list, the more things you will think of, and the more that requests will flow in. As people find out you are going, they will automatically start making dua requests. Treat these as an amanah (trust). Do your best to make each requested dua as heartfelt as you can with full confidence that insha'Allah it will be answered - and the angels will supplicate the same for you as well.

It cannot be emphasized how serious dua is on this journey. It really hit me as we were leaving Madinah for Makkah and performing 'Umrah. I was waiting for the elevator in ihram when a random brother came up to me and asked me to make dua for him. He specified since I was in ihram and about to go perform umrah to please make dua for him because he was having health issues and wanted to be well enough to perform his own umrah in a couple of days.

The Real Problem With Hajj

One of my friends who has been helping out with hajj groups for the past few years told me that if you boil it down to it's core essence, this is the problem most people have when it comes to performing hajj:

We are simply not accustomed to long and sustained periods of being in ibaadah (worship).

Think about making dua for 5 hours without stopping. Most of us have never done that. Even on the 27th night in Ramadan, if the imam stretches out the witr dua for 15-20 minutes, we start getting antsy and fidgety.

This is one of the consequences of the fast-paced lives we lead. I wrote about this previously in two articles that are relevant to this and go into further detail:

  1. Engineering Patience in an Age of Instant Gratification
  2. Dua: The Greatest Casualty in a Socially Networked Life

The ultimate test of hajj is patience. How long and how far out of your comfort zone can you go? How much are you willing to actually surrender control over your situation and have pure tawakkul?

Sights and Sounds of Mina

Tent city.

Mina

Tents and the Jamarat.

Mina and Jamarat

Street vendors

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It is hot. Alhamdulillah for air conditioning in the tents - especially when it is a luxury many people do not get.

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Mist sprayers are incredible in the heat.

https://youtu.be/owzse_t4AdM

The inside of our mina tent.

Inside Mina Tent

This wouldn't be the Fiqh of Social Media website without a good shot of the charging station inside the tent. Stacks on stacks.

Do extra USB ports count as sadaqah?

Mina A/V system

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And the outside of the tent

mina tent

For the Moslims

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Mina night life is next-level. You'll see all kinds of things. Like a doorknob tied to a lamppost with a hanger - and tied up high on the post. Someone went out of their way to do this.

https://instagram.com/p/8EHUu6JVJ4/?taken-by=ibnabeeomar

 

The key to Mina is to strictly control your diet and stay hydrated. Don't eat any junk. Eat a little. Drink tons of water. Make sure you come packings lots of EmergenC and powdered Gatorade.

Once the main parts are done and you are nearing the end of your stay in Mina, you can relax a little.

We had some street food (egg paratha) - see it being made:

https://youtu.be/TlH3Dwc6pdg

Having fun

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Dessert at Baskin-Robbins after finishing Jamarat.

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Didn't even attempt to try this in Mina. Crazy.

AlBaik in Mina Hajj

Mina nightlife pano.

Mina at night

This is how it sounds.

https://vine.co/v/eQ113rwgrlQ

Ihram Observations

You never really get used to it.

Use your hand to clasp the back and front of the towel between your legs before sitting.

Practice tying the ihram before you have to do it for real.

The bathroom stalls are really, really small. Your ihram is white. Proceed accordingly.

Don't trust that the soap dispensers in the bathroom have unscented soap.

Don't put your foot in the sink to make wudu if you aren't an experienced ihram-wearer.

When I was a kid we used to make jokes about the futility of a solar-powered flashlight or a helicopter ejection seat. There is something far more futile than those. It is called unscented deodorant. Once you are out of ihram, putting on scented deodorant feels like the equivalent of showering.

Muzdalifah

Imagine after a long day at Arafat, you proceed on to rest for the night and maybe collect some stones for the jamarat. Imagine that after the most important day of hajj you get to go out to enjoy a beautiful desert night. Imagine lying down on the ground, looking up at a starlit sky and having the most peaceful night of sleep you have ever enjoyed in your life.

This is what everyone told me to imagine.

I'll tell you to imagine millions of people camped out in one area. Imagine laying out prayer rugs for salah and sleep and then having to protect them from other people trying to take them. Instead of a starlit sky, imagine sleeping between a public restroom and charter buses - enjoying all the smells and noise and light pollution.

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Muzdalifa was the night I was probably most pushed out of my comfort zone. One of our group members had an astute observation. He mentioned that we should really reflect on what life is like for the alarmingly increasing number of refugees around the world. What is a refugee camp really like? This might be the closest some of us get to even a small insight into that experience. Maybe we have one really crazy and uncomfortable night - but it carries with it the promise of a comfortable night of sleep in less than 24 hours. What about those stuck in limbo not knowing if there is ever a return to "normal"?

Muzdalifa

Actual text message I received from a friend:

Made it through Arafat and Muzdalifa without needing the bathroom. Karamat al-Awliyaa. ✊

Jamarat

Given the tragedy that occurred, the jamarat was more a source of anxiety for me than anything else. I just wanted to get it done without any problems.

A sea of people

The best part was walking in. The guards all had water bottles with holes poked in them to spray people as they were walking by. It may seem like a trivial detail if you are just reading this, but it was actually one of the most enjoyable things I experienced.

jamarat

Before going on jamarat, I was envisioning having to duck and weave to avoid getting hit by slippers or a water bottle full of rocks. It was not like that at all. It is definitely hectic, but manageable. The good thing about doing it 3 times is you're able to focus more and more on the spirituality of it. It goes from being simply a ritual to a moment of reflection about battling your inner demons.

Hajji Level 1000

 

Jeddah

Once we finished the days of hajj and our farewell tawaf, we were off to Jeddah for a night.

 

The opposite of tent life

It's like Jeddah has been engineered to make you feel like you're at home after being out of your comfort zone.

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Imagine a state of mind where even IHOP looks gourmet

Can't leave out the halal PF Chang's.

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The single most interesting moment of Jeddah (aside from seeing that crazy fountain thing)  was this.

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Everyone tells you about it, no one prepares you for it. When you land and get off the plane, you hand over your passport to some random dude in a thobe. Then you never see it again. That is, until they get delivered to you in a Ziploc bag. Literally.

Final Advice

There's a lot that can be said here and the usual advices are readily available. I wanted to focus instead on one specific part of the hajj preparation process - picking a hajj group.

Simply put -

Choose your hajj package based on who is leading it, not on the amenities provided.

This is not to say you should ignore the amenities all together, but give it proper priority. The best advice I heard in this regard was to take a package that is in accordance with your standard of living. If you're a college student who lives in a dorm and eats Ramen noodles - then a backpack/walking hajj would be great for you. If you are a hotshot consultant who flies first class and sleeps in upgraded hotel suites 4 nights a week, you probably want a more executive style package.

Once you've done that, I would ignore the amenities promised. It is not possible to perform hajj without some kind of test. Something you were promised will inevitably not be there. It's ok.

It is far easier to deal with that when you have strong group leaders. The company you are in at hajj can make or break the experience. Remember, it usually takes only one guy to ruin it for everyone.

Don't forget istikharah in the process either. Yes, I know you don't need to make istikharah about whether or not you should go on hajj (that's like making istikharah about whether you should pay zakat or not), but you can make istikharah about going with a specific group.

Alhamdulillah I went with the IOK (Institute of Knowledge) Hajj Group. They actually had 2 groups that were together through the days in Mina and the groups were led by Shaykhs: Nomaan Baig, Furhan Zubairi, Omar Husain, and Wisam Sharieff.

Keep an eye on the IOK Hajj and Umrah packages by clicking here.

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P.S. Take all the patience of hajj, and multiply it by 5. That's what you need to get through Jeddah airport :)

 

 

Hajj Recap Part 2 - Makkah

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This is the Part 2 of #Hajj2015 Recap series. You can check out the other installments here:

Seeing the Kabah for the First Time

https://www.facebook.com/AbuAbdissalamOfficial/videos/vb.153848297996307/929762937071502/?type=2&theater

Sitting and looking at the Kabah is mesmerizing. There is no other way of describing it. Then you turn around and you see that everyone else is mesmerized as well.

One of the most spiritually uplifting things was seeing people's reactions when they saw the Kabah. They would drop everything and stand there in emotional dua. It moves you to a point where you start making dua that Allah answers whatever dua that person is making. Even those who see the Kabah daily are taken in by it. One image that has stuck with me was  seeing one of the guards or workers taking a moment to turn to the Kabah and make a tearful dua while on duty.

As much as everyone talks about the overcrowding, there is another perspective here as well. Hajj accommodates roughly 2-3 million people. I heard that their goal is to somehow accommodate maybe double that amount. Regardless, that means in one person's lifetime (hypothetically 80 years), some 200-400 million people will pass through. This seems like a lot until you consider the global Muslim population is upwards of 1.5 billion. That means the majority of Muslims will never get to actually see the Kabah. It is an immense blessing - one that we can sometimes take for granted despite some of the relative difficulties in going.

Tawaf Adventures

Shot of tawaf taken during the days of Hajj from the roof.

Touching Maqam Ibrahim

Maqam Ibrahim Hajj 2015

I didn't even attempt to touch the Black Stone. Not after my experience in the Rawdah. Looking back on it, I probably could have touched the Kabah but I didn't try. I was still scarred from how rough the tawaf was when we did Umrah. Which in reality probably wasn't that bad, it was just my first time and it was of course jam packed.

I did, however, get to touch Maqam Ibrahim. Those of you reading this will probably say so what, big deal. And that was the reaction of pretty much anyone I told about doing this. They said that was easy, and more importantly - there is no specific virtue or blessing associated with touching Maqam Ibrahim.

My response to that is this: I know there is no specific blessing in touching it, but I feel blessed to have been able to touch it.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Otm4RusESNU

 

Other Random Observations

-Once you round the Yemeni corner, you will hear 50 variations of people saying Rabbana aatina fil-dunya... It's mind-blowing that hundreds of thousands of people are all following the exact same sunnah at the exact same time - and not just any sunnah, but a sunnah that can only be practiced in an act of worship that can only be performed in this place.

-My next fitness goal is to be as physically strong as one of those tiny and elderly Indonesian women. While in sa'ee, I got stuck in a crowd at the Mount of Safa. Unable to move, I felt someone punch me in the butt. I turned around, and it was a short elderly woman trying to get a wheelchair through and smiling at me, motioning me to move. I couldn't move so I turned back around. Then I got punched again. I turned back again. Then I got punched a third time. Thankfully, by this time space had cleared and I was able to move again.

-Part of the test of tawaf is tolerating everything. It might be pushing, shoving, or getting poked. For some (especially us Americans) just the concept of losing your personal space is enough of a test. When you reach the end of your tolerance - that is the moment patience begins. Tawaf is tough at first because it is something we're not accustomed to. The more you do it, the easier - and more spiritually uplifting - it gets.

-With that said, there is no such thing as difficulty in tawaf. Not after you've seen people carrying babies in those same crowds. And especially not after seeing people well over the age of 80, that can't even straighten out their back, inching along with a cane insisting they complete their own tawaf. That is a "Labbayk" moment. Everyone is here, everyone is in need, everyone wants the same thing. It is humbling to be in such a crowd.

-Some of the best laughs I got at the haram were when I would photobomb people taking pictures. I was hesitant at first because I do not know the acceptability of photobombing in other cultures, but soon got over it. I'm hoping to experience a small miracle and see myself pop up on the internet in some random stranger's tawaf selfie.

-I thought counting takbeerat to lead Eid prayer was difficult. Counting to 7 for tawaf can be difficult as well. Make sure you have a system ahead of time. Are you counting each circuit as you start, or as you finish? The little 1 Riyal tawaf bead counting thing is definitely worth getting to help keep track.

-Take advantage of your time in the haram by always trying to combine two actions. It might be to pray fajr and sit for ishraq. Maybe it is to pray Dhuhr and stay for 'Asr. It could be praying Isha and making tawaf. It might be praying Maghrib and then sitting with a view of the Kabah to make dua.

Sights and Signs Around The Haram

The doors. Wow.

Haram Expansion Hajj2015

Doors at Haram Expansion Hajj2015

This video gives a small glimpse into just how huge the doors are. Someone with me remarked - "Imagine how the doors of jannah must look."

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B3YYu6Ios8w

Pano view of the courtyard taken from "Floor G" of the Hilton Suites hotel

Haram Courtyard

Courtyard full at prayer time. There were a couple of times where even that was full and we had to pray in the street.

Haram Courtyard at Prayer Time

Who keeps the courtyard clean? It's not the Haram Captor. It's actually the Haram Captor II. I was mesmerized at how they used tape to section off areas to clean and immediately cleared out the crowd. Another "small miracle" that logistically makes no sense, but it works.

Haram Captor II

Pre-Execution

Haram Signs Quranic Ayat Under Execution

Post-Execution

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Grand is the only word that comes to mind.

New Haram Expansion

Some more shots of some of the construction around the Kabah and the new expansion. All I could think of was wanting to come back and visit again when the construction is complete.

Haram Expansion

Haram Expansion Ceiling

After Fajr

More expansion behind the expansion.

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More construction around the Kabah

Hajj 2015

Hajj 2015

The roof is really peaceful, and I got to see those 3 minarets that are in every aerial shot of the Kabah up close.

Roof of the Haram Hajj 2015

Added bonus of going up to the roof was seeing these signs. Watch out your abaya.

Haram Escalator Signs

No really, watch out your abaya.

haram escalator

haram escalator abaya sign

Bindawood across from the Haram (one of many). For the record, Bindawood > Target and WalMart. You can get everything at Bindawood including Ihrams, prayer rugs, toys, exotic imported chocolates, flavors of Lays chips you have never before seen in your life, and a wall full of ice cold flavored sodas you want to taste but know you might regret later.

aka Corn Flakes

Hajj Selfies and Social Media

This was not as big of a deal as I was expecting. There are obvious things that should be avoided. For example handing someone a camera and then making a dua pose in front of the Kabah for the sake of a photo. Aside from that, I would say it is very difficult to not take your photo there. We document and photograph almost everything else, so what about the holy sites for which we have such intense love?

It is easy to be critical of hajj selfies, and there is definitely a conversation that needs to be had about what constitutes riyaa (showing off in worship). But it always comes back to intention - why are you taking the photo, and where do you plan on posting it. That bit of self-reflection goes a long way. One pro-tip - don't take a selfie if it will make you stop in the middle of a moving crowd.

What was actually more interesting than the hajj selfie discussion was the impact of technology on the experience in general. While in our hotel, we had the live feed of the haram on constantly. It was amazing watching people make it to the black stone, trying to get into the hateem area and so on. They also had a live shot of the mas'aa area. People were stopping at Safa and Marwa and looking into the camera and waving while talking to people on the phone. It was kind of like a jumbotron of sorts at a sporting event.

I had intended to stay off social media as much as possible during the trip. But I found there are definitely some huge benefits to being on there. For example, you learn quickly about news (such as the tragedy with the stampede in Mina). It is also an easy way to keep friends posted on what is going on and that you are doing okay.

Perspectives

Al-Baik

A journey of self discovery no longer requires backpacking through Europe. All you need to do is stand in line at AlBaik, order food, pay for it, and get it. It is the type of life experience and self development that cannot be taught.

Strong or Weak?

The best conversation I had was when I was making tawaf on the Donut (or Holy Halo, depending on who you ask). We paused to pray 'Asr and I said salam to the brother next to me. We then carried out an entire conversation without being able to speak the other person's language. It was a combination of broken English and broken Arabic. It was amazing though, because I could still understand everything this brother was saying. He had a huge smile on his face and all he could talk about was how magnificent this was and then kept mentioning different names of Allah. Finally, at the end he asked me with a lot of concern if the Muslims in America are qawee (strong).

It's funny. When we look at the rest of the world from an American lens, we don't realize the depths of our own ethnocentrism. We think other countries are so much behind us in all aspects such as education, wealth, and pretty much everything else. In this case, when this brother (who from my best guess was from a 3rd world country) found out I was American, he was worried that our Islam wasn't strong and that Muslims here are suffering and weak.

Poverty

This is something that smacks you in the face. It is front and center in Madinah, but even more so in Makkah. The common reflection on hajj is how everyone is equal. Everyone is wearing 2 white garments of Ihram. Everyone is blended in making tawaf. But things aren't always equal.

When we need to use the bathroom, we can walk across the street to the hotel and use a clean one. When it's time to eat dinner after Isha, we have a 5 star buffet with 30 dishes to choose from. If we feel like a cold Pepsi (and yes, in Saudi it is Pepsi, not Coke), we can give the waiter 15 Riyals and order one. And at night, we can cross the street from the courtyard and go up to our room and get into a comfortable bed.

Catching sleep in the courtyard

Then you walk around and see people sleeping on pieces of cardboard. You see people who cannot afford hotels nearby camping out all day in the heat. It becomes difficult to reconcile sometimes why exactly we enjoy so much luxury. Alhamdulillah, we are thankful for all the blessings we have. But that's exactly the thing, we need to really take out time and show as much gratitude to Allah (swt) as possible.

I mentioned in the beginning of the Madinah portion of the recap that one of the most common requests for dua oriented around career, finances, and debt. We need to be firmer on our goals that as we are, insha'Allah, able to achieve those goals, our sadaqah increases in proportion. In fact, it should be a goal to be able to increase our sadaqah way beyond that.

The Crane and Death

Picture I was able to get of the crane.

A couple of months before hajj, Sh. Nomaan Baig (whose group I signed up to go on hajj with) was visiting Dallas. I invited him to my place briefly along with my parents so they could meet who I was going with and so on. My mom made the usual motherly requests to make sure that they watched out for me and took good care of me. He said that they would, but then added that he was going to say what he tells everyone - "When it comes down to it, there's no better place to die." My dad started laughing and said, "That's exactly what I've been saying."

The tragedy with the crane happened just before I departed. I'm not sure people realize how much of an effect this one incident had on people who were leaving for hajj. Many people were asking if I was still planning on going, or if the trip had somehow gotten canceled because of what happened. It definitely gave me pause and made me question if perhaps it was wiser to delay a year or something like that, but in the end you have to have tawakkul and go.

Death though, is something front and center on any hajj journey. In the US, we might attend a funeral prayer once every few months. There, you have a funeral prayer literally 5 times a day. It is impossible to stand there with over a million people praying over someone that passed away and not wish in the back of your mind that you have the same.

However, this also creates some unforeseen problems. One hajj group we knew of had some elderly and sick members in their group. We were wondering how they were able to come without anyone to accompany them, and that is when the truth came out. Some people simply refuse to disclose any kind of health or medical issues beforehand because they're truly hoping they can come here and just die.

Going on hajj forces you to confront a lot of things about death. Are all your affairs in order? Do you have a will? How prepared are you? I mentioned the desire of people to pass away in the holy cities - but I think at its core the desire is more for a husnal khatimahFor some, dying in Makkah or Madinah is a shortcut to that. The greater lesson for me is to make sure I am doing the things that would insha'Allah lead to a husnal khatimah. Taking care of the obligation of hajj is a large part of it. Changing your life for the better after hajj is the most difficult part of it.

Final Take-Aways from Makkah

All I can think about is trying go back again as soon as possible.

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Continue on to Part 3 - Mina.

Hajj Recap Part 1 - Madinah

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This is the Part 1 of #Hajj2015 Recap series. You can check out the other installments here:

Getting to Madinah, Dua Lists, and No iPhone

My journey started early in the morning before fajr, with a friend dropping me off at the airport and giving me last minute advice about making Hajj. This was it. The ultimate journey. There are five pillars, this was to fulfill one of them in its entirety.

This trip was significant not just because it was my first time to make Hajj, but it was my first time to visit the holy sites period. No prior umrah, no prior visit of any kind. The moments, days, and weeks leading up to this trip were full of reflection. Was I really deserving of (as almost everyone phrased it) an "invitation from Allah"? What changes did I want to make after? What if I don't make it back?

Then there are the dua lists. What major things did I need to make dua for myself the most? And then my family, friends, and other requests. One thing I struggled with was whether or not to make a formal request if anyone wanted to send a dua list. Friends of mine have done this, and I have submitted dua requests myself. Plus, Arafat is a long day (more on that later) and you need 6 hours of dua to fill it up. One thing that struck me is many people had essentially the same dua requests - finances/debt, and marriage/family. In fact, before leaving, my grandmother specifically told me to make sure I prayed that all the Muslims in the world trying to get married are able to get married (ameen). When someone requests you to make dua for something, it is really a window into the difficulties that are front and center with their lives.

But before getting to the spiritual reawakening, there were some technical difficulties to sort out. I was traveling without my iPhone.

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The journey started with a direct flight from LAX -> Madinah.

Saudi Arabian Airlines

I was hoping the flight would be a sign of things to come.

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The in-flight internet was definitely a rip off. Especially because it stopped working completely just a few hours into the flight.

Saudi Arabian Airlines WiFi

After the long flight (albeit with a full row to myself to lie down in and sleep), we finally landed in the blessed city of our beloved Rasool (saw).

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Small Miracles

Once we landed, I was anxious to just get to the masjid and pray. But first, there was the mini-journey of getting from the airport to the hotel. It was at this time that I learned everything on this trip happens purely by the qadr of Allah (swt). If I was to explain how our bags didn't go to the baggage claim, but instead ended up outside, and then were loaded onto a 1970's model bus, transported to a storage area in our hotel, and then into our rooms - there would be no logical explanation for how it worked without any problems. It just worked. And that is one of the miracles of hajj.

The miracles of hajj are really in the little things. It is when something should go wrong, and something shouldn't work out - but it does. As one of our group leaders reminded us constantly - "Everything that's supposed to happen, will happen, when it is supposed to happen." You just can't plan for it, or explain how it happens once it happens.

Upon exiting the airport, there were a group of porters waiting to help load our luggage and trying to make tips. This was my first time leaving North America in over 15 years, and I forgot about how much cultures and customs may differ.

Old school buses, bags that were magically waiting for us outside, and the porters hustling for tips.

As I was waiting to get the bags loaded onto the bus, two of the porters started fighting with one another. They got up in each other's faces and I was afraid it was about to get physical. There was a tall brother standing off to the side who started filming them with his cell phone camera. He then started giving them naseehah to stop, but they kept at it. Then he just started yelling "WhatsApp! WhatsApp!" i.e. that he was going to post this video to WhatsApp for everyone to see.

Cultural Realization #1: WhatsApp is the WorldStar Hip Hop of the Arab world.

As we loaded into the bus, I was overcome with a severe sense of disappointment. I had been expecting to see cars driving on the left side of the road and the drivers seat on the right side of the car, but no such luck.

While I had obsessed about what it would be like to see the Kabah for the first time, I hadn't put that much thought into seeing Masjid Nabawi. I was excited to pray there and all those things, but I didn't have a striking visual in my head. So it took me off guard during our bus ride when someone said to look up because you could see the minarets of the masjid. The whole time during this trip, I had been expecting something to go wrong. I kept thinking something would happen at the last minute and I wouldn't be able to go (in fact, I got seriously sick less than a week before the trip and had to go to the ER). I thought I might end up being one of those people who gets all the way there and then gets turned back at the airport and sent home. Seeing the minarets for the first time was confirmation that alhamdulillah I had actually made it, and it is a feeling I will never forget.

Shot of the minarets from the roof of the masjid. One of the "small miracles" was finding some quiet moments on the roof in relative solitude.

The first thing I noticed in my time in Madinah is that time stops. You truly do not know what it is like to plan your day around salah until you are here. There is no schedule to anything except as it pertains to salah timings. Everything orients around coming for fajr and staying for ishraq, or blocking out time to sit in the masjid from maghrib to isha, and so on. Everything else like socializing, eating, and shopping fits in around the prayers. We tend to pat ourselves on the back because we delay going to the mall so we can quickly pray dhuhr right when it comes in and head out - this is a whole different level of organizing life around salah.

Since coming back, it has really hit me how much of a true blessing (alhamdulillah) it has been to be able to visit the holy sites while still relatively young. Many times I would find myself sitting in the masjid after prayer and just observing everything around me. It was easy to spot the elderly who made their first trip. You could see it in their eyes. For example, I remember one man simply lying down after fajr, staring into the sky with his prayer beads and just smiling and not moving. It was the definition of contentment.

Hanging out after prayer.

Hajj Uniform

Everyone comments on the amazing diversity you see on this trip. People from every country are represented. I saw hajj groups from Korea, Turkmenistan, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, China, and more. Each country had their own look, flag, or some kind of unique dress indicating where they were from. Americans? We have no hajj uniform. In fact, we stick out like a sore thumb. In the US, I am commonly taken for desi (which I am), Arab, Hispanic, and so on. But in Saudi, it seems everyone had me pegged as an American from the get go.

Cultural Realization #2: Americans need a hajj uniform.

We look like a hodgepodge of people thrown together. It's my proposition that we use the best of America to represent future hajj groups. We can do this by creating a uniform that has the Texas LoneStar with تكساس written across it.

Getting Duas in Paradise

Praying in the Rawdah was one of the things I was looking forward to most. The Rawdah refers to the area between the Prophet's home and his (saw) pulpit - it is a garden from the gardens of Paradise. Naturally, the rush was huge. We waiting in line after fajr, and the crowd was so large that they began using tape to section off the crowd into chunks (darjan, darjan). As we got to the final section, they opened the entrance and everyone rushed in. The force of the crowd trying to get in through one small opening was so strong that at one point I found myself pinned between a mass of people and one of the marble pillars.

Once we made it in, everyone claimed a spot and began praying. I was standing in a place where there was no room. One brother right in front of me was praying. As soon as he finished he started making dua, but I tapped him on the shoulder and motioned if I could pray. I wasn't expecting him to get up, this is Paradise after all and for many of us it may be our only chance to ever visit. He immediately got up and gave me his spot. It was one of those actions that stuck with me and made me remember him in my duas throughout the hajj journey - including in the Rawdah itself.

[pullquote type="right"]One of the amazing characteristics of the Prophet (s) is that he was able to take people who were rough, and make them soft. [/pullquote]His one act of kindness overshadowed all the difficulty associated with the pushing and shoving to get in. I struggled a lot during this trip with why so many people acted with seemingly bad adab. They simply saw themselves and the Rawdah - anyone in between was an obstacle on their path to Jannah.

One of our group leaders mentioned that many people are simply rough and don't know better. Even during the time of the Prophet (saw) we would see the rough nature of the bedouins who would come and ask questions. One of the amazing characteristics of the Prophet (s) is that he was able to take people who were rough, and make them soft.

Why The Elevators Don't Work

The elevators in our hotel regularly had a long wait. Our room was on the 5th floor so we found it easier to take the stairs. Except that the 5th floor really meant the 7th floor when you factored in the random floors before "Floor 1".

At the haram in Makkah, we had a scary incident when a lady who had never seen an escalator tried to get on. She stepped on, but the movement scared her and she almost went tumbling down. I like to think most people in Madinah have never seen an elevator. They would simply get on the elevator and hit the button regardless of if it was going up or down. The added quirk was once the elevator reached the top or bottom floor, all the buttons would reset and you would have to select your floor again. Once someone got on the elevator and hit the ground floor even though it was going up with 5 more stops. We told him that this was going up and to wait for one going down, but he insisted on getting on. It's almost like - I don't really care where the elevator is going, I'm going to just get on and enjoy the journey for the next 8 minutes.

This kind of attitude was an underlying theme in a number of events that happened to me or people in my group. There was a brother who went to Baskin Robbins and ordered a milkshake. The worker there told him he simply didn't feel like making it and to order ice cream instead. There was the time I bought something for 20 or 30 Riyals and handed the guy a 100 Riyal note. He shook his head and told me to give him a 50 instead because he didn't want to break it.

And then there was the lady who bought me water. I walked into a convenience store and grabbed a cold bottle of water. The lady behind me was in a rush and quite upset that I beat her to the register. The water was something like 2 Riyals. Like a tourist, I carefully started unzipping the pouch in my neck wallet and trying to get out a small bill without taking out all my cash. This was apparently too much, so she put her groceries on the counter, grabbed my water and just started saying "Yallah! Yallah!" and had the cashier ring it up and let me go on my way.

Around Madinah

I tried a camel burger for the first time. Camel burgers seem to prompt 2 questions, and in this order:

  1. Does it break your wudu? Ask your local imam.
  2. How did it taste? Like a really gamey version of beef.

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Our hotel's take on Chicken 65

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Dear Saudi Government, if you have any job openings for a guy to proofread your English signage, I'd be more than happy to help.

It's like the sign is written in a desi accent.

It goes without saying but the Masjid itself is stunning.

The one picture I was most proud of taking on this trip.

Retractable domes inside the masjid.

Retractable dome. It was incredible watching this happen live.

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Tourist Vs. Hajji

Myself and another brother were walking through the masjid after fajr and saw a number of small Qur'an circles. These are classes set up for visitors to attend. The teacher recites an ayah, and then goes around listening to everyone recite it while correcting them. In the time we sat there, they went over Surah Fatihah and Surah Ikhlas. When we saw the circle our reaction was wow this is really cool, and wanted to take part. I noticed a number of other people walking by and trying to record the class on their phone, only to have the teacher motion them to stop.

Social media has made it difficult to determine the line between documenting something and experiencing it. There is definitely no easy answer - it is a lot like the Fiqh of Foodstagramming and ultimately boils down to intention. We go there for ibadah, but there is such a strong attachment to where you are that you feel compelled to take photos and document your experience. The struggle going forward will always lie in finding the proper balance.

There is one crazy thing I saw that I should mention though. While in line to pass by the grave of Rasoolullah (saw) and give salams, I saw a number of people taking photos, videos, selfies, etc. Then there was one guy who had his selfie camera on FaceTime with himself situated between the phone and the grave. As he neared the grave he started saying loudly into the phone, "Give salam! Give salam!" so the person on FaceTime could give their salam. I don't know the official fiqh ruling on it, but it just seemed quite distasteful and even dare I say disrespectful.

Final Reflections

The true beauty of the haramain requires reflection that cannot be captured. You can photograph the ceiling (as I did), but a photograph cannot provide the depth and reflection that comes from lying on the floor of the masjid staring off into that same ceiling. A video cannot reproduce the imprint left on the soul.

There is beauty in seeing people from all corners of the globe. It is even more beautiful when you realize every single one of these people is here with a need from their Lord. Everyone is there to fulfill some kind of need, to alleviate some kind of hardship, and to ultimately be showered with forgiveness and mercy. And then you realize, that Allah (swt) is the One who responds to all the prayers, fulfills all the needs, and it does not decrease His dominion by even an atom's weight.

Continue on to Part 2 - Madinah