It feels like only yesterday. The masses of people shrouded in white with their hands extended to the skies. The crying of pilgrims making their last requests to God as the sun sets. The warm breeze on my skin as the call to prayer rang out. The joyous, collective praises of millions proclaimed as the festival of Eid began.
It’s been one year since I made the Hajj, the pilgrimage that Muslims are obligated to make once in their lifetime. Since then the world has moved so fast and wildly that occasionally I find it hard to keep pace.
The tragedy that struck the pilgrims this year was like nothing that has been seen in years. The sandstorms, collapsing cranes, and stampedes a grim reminder at the risks associated with such large masses of people making the journey.
In seeing the rising death toll of those who sought to make the Hajj this year, I find myself conflicted with somberness and mourning on one hand and outrage and anger on the other.
Before I left Seattle for Hajj last year, one lesson that was emphasized to us is that for the ultimate forgiveness and salvation that comes with the trek, one has to endure and have patience with all the challenges that come with the journey. Everything from “additional screenings” and visa problems at the airports, to your hotel being double-booked (or triple-booked), to having to walk for miles because your bus didn’t show up.
Hajj isn’t a time to complain and upset oneself with logistics or luxuries, it’s a time to humble oneself in the journey of personal growth. A successful pilgrim spends the time in the remembrance of God in hopes of purifying himself not only for his past but for his future.
Our group’s Imam emphasized to us repeatedly that in order to have a fruitful experience, we needed to be willing to keep calm no matter what struck us. What happened in those few days could very well define the rest of our lives and fundamentally change us as people.
Hajj isn’t just about forgiveness, it’s about shifting your mentality and recognizing that there’s more to the world than at first glance. It’s acknowledging that there is a higher power above and implementing that mentality in your everyday actions.
I’ve found myself holding that mentality with this year’s tragedies. Perhaps the death of the pilgrims is part of some divine plan that will end up better than we could imagine. Perhaps that this is a test of patience for some of God’s servants that they may be purified of the sins of their earlier lives. Perhaps God accepted the fallen’s prayers and wanted them to return to Him in the holy city.
I’m snapped back to reality by the talking heads, the finger pointing, and the polarized Facebook threads. Some attacking the Saudi government for letting things get out of hand, others criticizing Islam as the cause, and still others marking it as some kind of doomsday prediction reigning in the end of the world.
The most upsetting part of it all is the lack of recognition of the common humanity we share.
One of the most beautiful experiences I’ve encountered in the Hajj was using my broken knowledge of basic formal Arabic to greet every person I saw. “Assalamu Alaikum,” peace be with you. “Min ayna anta?,” where are you from. The simple question drew smiles, laughter, and embraces from the people I greeted who I’d never met before (and will probably never meet again), from Pakistan, Indonesia, Russia, Turkey, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, England, and (yes) the U.S.
All of them so happy (and surprised) that I was American, excitedly asking about how many Muslims were in America and asking to see pictures of our mosques.
One of the most beautiful interactions of these was a Shia Iranian man I met who, upon hearing I was both Muslim and American, gave me a big hug and asked in broken English “Sunni or Shia?” I replied with “Just Muslim.” He beamed and embraced me again. “Taqaballah,” may God accept from us, and we parted ways.
Growing up as a minority in the U.S., I’ve never experienced that feeling of belonging even amongst my own social circles. The feeling that we’re all here for the same purpose, speaking different languages, coming from different places, and all saying the same thing, standing in the same lines, yearning for the same salvation.
When you’re there, everyone feels as close as your own blood brother in a family of faith.
I kept this story in mind as I saw article after editorial after video clip of people talking about the tragedy as if it were some minor issue fit only for internet slacktivists that would pass on in the next media cycle.
Yes, what happened shouldn’t have happened. Yes, the government should take full responsibility for what happened. Yes, Saudi Arabia may not be the gleaming bastion of human rights every country claims to be.
But in the midst of all the shouting, I remain quietly wishing we could just acknowledge the humanity share with the people who were killed. Recognize that they put forth the ultimate sacrifice for a noble cause whether you believe in the means or not. Give them a moment of silence, let them have their final rites before we debate the cause.
The hidden emotion behind the whole tragedy is fear. Not a fear like those seen in horror movies, but an awesome fear. Had that happened last year or had I been in this year’s Hajj, I could’ve easily been among the masses killed.
It’s a reminder and re-recognition of my own mortality, a strum by God on the heartstrings of man to let us know that one day we will return to him. The note that string plays amplifies, buzzes, and rings with such vigor leaving me with a final question: Am I ready when that happens to me?