slip-sliding away…..

Hajj Chronicles: Part2: Beginnings

Posted by Yacoob on December 12, 2011

Previous parts: Introduction | Part 1

How it started
I’d wanted to go for Hajj for a long time – but had only planned to go two years ago, in 2009. Generally, that’s the wrong approach to take. You’re supposed to go as soon as you’re capable (physically, financially, etc.) – because it’s an obligation, and you may not live long enough to go when you think it’s your time. But I was immature and selfish, thinking that I knew best. I didn’t want to go until I was married – believing that I wasn’t ready until that time.

Once marriage came, that self-imposed barrier dissolved. But another one came up soon after. The year my wife and I had intended to go was the year that our daughter arrived – meaning we had to wait at least a few more years. In terms of timing, this taught me that Allah controls the schedules – not me. And that I need to submit to what Allah wants, and not what I think is best.

As new parents, life obviously became very hectic, and Hajj seemed something on the distant horizon – a hazy, faraway dream that would maybe come true… someday.

But the end of Ramadan 2010 brought it back into focus for me. The months of Hajj start immediately after Ramadan – and it was then that this immensely strong pull came over me; this deep desire to go – for all of the reasons mentioned in the previous post. And this feeling only intensified as the Hajj of 2010 got underway.

We took the first necessary step that November – SAHUC registration – and actually ended up registering just a few days after SAHUC opened up applications for the year 2011.That was my first sign that Hajj may become a reality for us – because the earlier you register, the better your chances of getting accreditation.

 

Being prepared
With most things in life, it’s important to be prepared. Hajj is no different. In fact, it’s even more important – because this is the most important journey of a Muslim’s life. We study so hard for exams, and prepare so much for job interviews and other things – yet when we compare those worldly events to Hajj, there’s almost no comparison in terms of what deserves our best preparations.

After registering, we faced at least a four month wait until accreditation would be announced. So we busied ourselves trying to learn about Hajj. There are plenty of books, articles, lectures, and videos you can use to prepare – but one of the most effective learning methods, for me at least, is attending classes. And that’s where the first test came for us.

The new year (2011) soon arrived, and things got extremely busy at home. The feelings for Hajj, which were once so strong, soon got buried under the burdens of day to day life. But still, I tried to keep up – eventually failing, and resigning myself to the fact that Hajj class would probably be the biggest motivator to keep going.

It was quite a struggle trying to find a Hajj class that suited us (both in terms of schedule and our being comfortable with the scholar who taught it) – one that I realise was one of our early tests on this journey. But – alhamdullilah – that part of the process fell into place eventually, and we got an awesome teacher; one who was a real character – animated, passionate, and very unique in his style of delivery.

In Cape Town, it seems we go overboard when it comes to Hajj preparation. I’m not a native Capetonian (though I’ve been here 12 years) – so I can’t speak from much experience, other than my own. But I use that term – ‘overboard’ (and not in a negative way here) – because we have Hajj classes for months before people actually leave for Hajj. In other parts of the country – like Durban and Joburg – all they get is a one day seminar, or a few classes on Hajj not long before it’s time to leave.

Part of the reason for this is that Hajj classes of this type teach you your religion again – the important aspects – so that you can assess your current state of Islam, make your changes on Hajj, and when you come back, be in a position to improve as well as make up for the things that you neglected in the past – such as salaahs or fasts you’d missed, lack of concentration in salaah, etc.

So we had six months of classes – which comprehensively covered more than just Hajj alone.

On the individual level, I’d made a plan of all the things I’d wanted to do personally to prepare. That preparation included an analysis of my current state of religious practice, life, and character; the ideal states I’d want those aspects to be in; and how I would improve myself to those levels.

It also included writing down a detailed dua list; that being the most important aspect, because as the hadith goes, dua is the essence of worship. It’s the heart of your connection to Allah – because it’s your speaking to Him, in your own words, asking for what you want and need…the most intimate of matters that involves no one other than you and your Maker. By communicating with Allah – through dua and otherwise – you strengthen that bond. And, as the hadith goes, when you take one step towards Allah, Allah takes ten steps towards you. The importance of dua cannot be overstated. And it’s not confined to Laylatul Qadr, or Ramadan, or Hajj only. That communication line is always there. And you don’t need to pay high cellphone costs either, because it’s absolutely free ;)

As it turned out, procrastination and time wasted on other things meant I ended up not doing most of the things I’d planned to do. And as time ran out, I feared I’d be boarding that plane unprepared. But Allah had mercy on me, and gave me a bout of sickness a few weeks before we left. The time off work was just what I needed. I did get some rest (as per doctor’s orders), but I didn’t have time to waste resting half the day. So I took the time I had alone to write and write and write – my duas for myself and my life, for other people, and just about everything I could think of.

Also, preparing a will is one of the things that we traditionally do before Hajj. Actually, Islam teaches us that it’s something we need to do regardless of whether we’re going for Hajj. Seeing the tragedies of family disputes over the estate of the deceased, it should become very clear why a will is essential (and a proper Shariah-compliant will at that). Anyway, so in thinking about my own death, I realised there was a lot that I wanted to tell the people closest to me – yet now in life, I didn’t have the courage. And if I died, I would want them to know those things. So I wrote letters to them, which I kept with my will. I adopted the mindset that if I die on Hajj, these would be my last words to them – the messages I want to leave them with. It was liberating to write those letters, because from my side, it helped me express all that I’d otherwise left unsaid, and tie up loose ends that were otherwise not dealt with.

Madhouse
In Cape Town, Hajj is treated with all the fervour of a wedding, or Eid. For the week before the Hajji leaves, the house is pretty much open to visitors at most times of the day (and late into the night too – even if you have young kids at home!). Family, friends, neighbours, and others all come to ‘greet’ you, wishing you well for your Hajj, asking you to make dua for them and convey greetings to the Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. in Madinah. They also give you some money (called a slavat) to help with the trip, and those who have been before share their Hajj stories with you and give advice.

The ‘greeting’ thing is a cultural custom – it’s not a sunnah or religious injunction. Culture often pollutes religion, and many cultural practices actually violate the laws and purposes of the Shariah (just look at the way many Muslim wedding receptions are conducted). Cultural practices are fine, as long as they don’t contradict Islam. And this particular custom is one that does have a lot of good in it – for the sense of community it builds, and the way it reminds people of the Hajj and Islam (which, unfortunately, is sometimes forgotten in the secular lives we sometimes live). Some people think that this greeting business is for show – to put on this event to show off that such and such a person is going for Hajj. I disagree with that. I would like to believe that this is just a misperception – and that no Hajji (or their organisers / family) actually has this intention in mind. Sincerity of intention is not something for us to judge – Allah alone judges.

Anyway, so while I see the good in this custom, sometimes it’s just overboard (and this time I use that term in a negative way). Some people pitch marquees in their yards to cater for all the expected visitors; and the amount of food, preparation, and spending that goes into this event in some cases is just excessive. It’s possible to cater for people without going so overboard, but for some (or many?), no expense is spared – which I think is very wrong, especially if the Hajji (who already spent so much to pay for Hajj) is the one that has to pay for all of this.

You’re supposed to be preparing for the most spiritual journey of life – one where you’ll learn sabr, forge close ties to Allah, and learn restraint. One where your personal preparation requires time alone to reflect and build spirituality and get your heart ready for this immense event.

Yet the preparations that go into the departure back home are ones of lavish spending on all kinds of foods, chaos and stress about logistics and catering, and just generally a period of time that is not peaceful at all. And even though you need to pack and get your travel logistics sorted out, you can forget about leaving all that to the last few days before you leave. When the people come, you need to be there with them – regardless of how much travel-related stuff you still need to do. (Which is why it’s best to get your packing and arrangements done early, if possible.)

For me, I didn’t want any of that. I was content to just get a few visitors here and there, and handle things in a more relaxed way – without all the markings of a wedding. Being a very private person, I didn’t want a lot of people in my house at one time; and being conscious of financial responsibility, I didn’t want money wasted unnecessarily.

I hated the fact that we were expected to follow this big local custom, having to focus on these things which diverted attention from where our real focus should have been. But, when you live in a place, you can’t dictate the cultural practice of its inhabitants – when the people will come to visit you, and what they’ll expect.

My wife’s family took control of the situation, and although I was upset at times, my frustration was not at them as individuals – but at our having to go through this custom in the first place. I think my wife also didn’t want it to be a big thing, but like me, she didn’t have much say. Indian families – particularly Indian mothers – are big on traditions, and as the mere ‘children’ in this situation, we weren’t strong enough to fight for the simplicity we wanted. And causing a fight at that time would have just turned things ugly – which is not something you want on the eve of your Hajj.

Still, we appreciate all their efforts, even if we didn’t agree with certain aspects of how things happened. And to be fair, we actually didn’t have it so bad – alhamdullilah. We didn’t need a marquee or caterers, and it was really only the weekend we left that was busy – not the entire week.

That said, it was a whirlwind few days, with little sleep and little food (the latter being ironic, given the amount of food catered). We left on a Sunday morning, and the craziest time was the night before we left. After maghrib, I came home to a jam-packed house full of people, and felt overwhelmed by it all. There wasn’t much space to even walk, and I don’t even know what the neighbours thought about all the noise (one of the neighbours was pregnant, and also had a toddler at home). It was exactly the kind of thing I didn’t want – and here it was, being presented before me – almost mockingly.

But then came Allah’s mercy. Almost simultaneously, my parents, uncle and auntie, and granny all arrived – and I was able to escape the madness for a little while and go out to the car with my parents, granny (who stayed in the car), and my (now two-year old) daughter. Taking her was the most important part  for me, because in all this chaos, I hardly got any time alone with her. I felt like this whole time she was being kept away from me – by all these people and activity, and I just needed to escape it all and go to my comfort zone; which was away from the crowd.

In those precious moments, things became calm for me again, and perhaps the most touching moment was my grandmother’s request – a specific dua she wanted me to make for her.

To me, that was really an important part of the whole greeting thing – when people ask you to make specific duas for them. It’s not that they can’t make those duas themselves, but – like Ramadan – you’re going to be in a very special state, and it’s very likely that your duas will be accepted. So to find out what things are so dear to them, and then have the opportunity to pray for them in the most sacred places, in the most sacred times, is something that really is a blessing of the process of going for Hajj.

Also very helpful was the spiritual experiences shared by those who had been before; as well as their advice – advice which was immensely important, such as how to make wudu and salaah on a plane when necessary. (Yes – you do have to do that. You can’t just skip salaah using the flight as an excuse.)

Anyway, so I only got about 3 or 4 hours of sleep that night, and the next morning was again hectic – but hardly any people this time (thankfully!).

Leaving the house, and at the airport, the goodbyes were very emotional, and our daughter sensed it – because she was quite passive for a while (which is very rare indeed), and seemed a bit sad. I got a lot of hugs and kisses in – without her fighting me – which I appreciate a lot :).

And so off we set. The two of us alone – finally away from everyone and everything else. The journey truly began. As we walked, my wife commented on how she felt it (ie. the drama of the preceding days) fading away – which I felt too.

Next up, insha-Allah: The beginning of the travels, and the tests faced early on.

Lessons:

  • Don’t delay Hajj. When you’re capable, go – because you never know whether you’ll live to see the day when you’re “ready”, or whether some calamity will strike to prevent you from going when you feel it’s your time.
  • As soon as you think it’s possible – whether you’re financially set or not – register to go with your local Hajj authority (SAHUC in our case). The earlier you register, the better your chance of being accredited – if you’re a first timer.
  • Don’t underestimate the importance of writing down duas and things that are important to you. For Hajj especially, your dua list – which includes not only your own duas, but also those that others ask you to make for them, is extremely important. You probably can’t store everything in your head, and when the times come to make those duas, you don’t want to be so overwhelmed by emotion, tiredness, or other factors, that you forget all the duas you intended to make.
  • If you don’t already have a will (an Islamic one), get it done immediately. You never know when your time to die will come, so don’t assume there’s always next month, or next year to do it. Be responsible now, so that you can avoid or minimise the hardship and strife for your family members.
  • If it’s in your control, try to be moderate about the pre-departure customs or rituals in your locality. There’s a difference between legitimate celebration and being excessive, and Islam teaches us moderation over extremity.
  • If you are expecting visitors before you leave, try to get your packing and arrangements done early, if possible. You should honour your guests by spending time with them – and you don’t want a list of 100 things to do on your mind while you’re with them.
  • For Hajj, but also for travel in general, learn about salaah of the traveller; including how to make wudu and salaah on a plane. Where possible, combine salaahs while you’re on the ground (before or after the flight), but recognise that this won’t always be possible – especially for Fajr. Find out about timings (e.g. fajr is about an hour before sunrise – wherever you are) and qibla direction, and do your best. You can’t skip salaah, or make it late, just because of travel. You have to try to make salaah on the plane.

Later parts: Part 3

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