Lessons from Makkah

Having been in Makkah for over a week now, I’d like to use this post to extract a few lessons from my time here so far. From this, I’m hoping to gain reminders that will benefit both myself and the readers.

1. Change demands change
The difference in physical environment – between Makkah and Madinah – is immediately noticeable. Unlike the calm, peaceful serenity of Madinah – even when it was full of people – Makkah is the opposite. It’s very urban – very much a big city; fast-paced, always busy, and usually noisy. Yet this city, like Madinah, is one of the holiest on Earth. And if you want to feel the spirituality here, you need to adapt to the situation and put in the effort to make it happen for yourself.

The lesson here is that change is to be expected, and every external change requires individual, internal change – to adapt to the situation. If you fail to do that, you can end up frustrated and having a negative perception of what could otherwise be a wonderful experience.

2. Understanding differences
The people here, too, are different. Most of us are pilgrims (i.e. locals are only a minority right now), and many have also been to Madinah before getting here. But the attitudes are different here. Some people seem more aggressive and stressed out. It’s not uncommon to see people becoming angry – even inside the masjid. And the cultural differences come through, too.

In South Africa, and other parts of the world, we value fairness – waiting in line for your turn. But here, people from some places don’t seem to understand that concept. For example, when in a shop, they’d impatiently push their way forward and hold their item over your shoulder – presenting it to the teller, who they expect to instantly ring it up on the till. We’d find that behaviour very rude – but maybe that’s just the way they operate back home – due to poverty or circumstances they face. Maybe they have to be that way to survive – and they bring that mentality with them here. But it’s easy for us to be quick to judge them – without understanding the situations they’re coming from. We just expect that our standards of etiquette are universal, and everyone that doesn’t follow is just rude or uncultured. Yet that’s not the case for those whose everyday lives follow different norms and rules.

Similarly, we regard English as the most universal language in the world. But being here, you see that that’s not the case. Most people do not speak English – or if they do, not very comfortably at all.

The lesson here is to never impose your own ways – be it social etiquettes, language, or other – on other people, even if they look similar to you, or share common attributes such as religion. The Earth is a vast, extremely varied place, and it’s rather self-centred to hold an attitude that your way is the “right” way – whether you consciously adopt that attitude, or it just comes in because you’ve always been surrounded by people like yourself.

3. Complaints come too easily
I’ve made many complaints about things that have happened so far, and also heard complaints from others. And what strikes me is how quick we are to complain when things aren’t to our liking.

Instead of looking at people who are worse off than us, we tend to expect that we’ll keep getting our pampered, easy standards of living – like we’re entitled to comfort and ease.

One complaint is the physical hardship of the rituals here in Makkah. For example, during umrah the other night, the pain finally kicked in for me. It was probably past midnight, and we were halfway through the Sa’ee – which is a walking of 7 circuits between the hills of Saffa and Marwa, representing the actions of Hajar (may Allah be pleased with her), the wife Prophet Ibrahim (may peace be upon him).

It was late at night, and with the tawwaf finished – which was already a physical exertion – we were halfway through sa’ee, and my feet started aching. But then I thought of who I was emulating in this act. How she did this – this distance 7 times. She didn’t have the comfortable building we had – no roof. And she did it in the daytime, with no fans or airconditioning, in the incredible heat of this Arabian desert. She had nothing around at all – and was driven by the desperation of her son’s imminent death, if she found no food or water.

These two hills that we walk between are Allah’s symbols – “…Al-Safa and Al-Marwa are among the signs of Allah…” (Surah Baqarah verse 158). These symbols are meant to help us remember the hardship of our pious predecessors. How close they were to Allah, and what they struggled through. And we re-enact that today, but in relative ease. And still it’s too physically intense for us. Still we complain or comment about its difficulty.

Another example is the heat. We complain about how hot it is here (and it is very, very hot – as compared to South African standards). But the companion Bilal (may Allah be pleased with him) was persecuted in this heat. He was tied down – out in the open, in the hot, burning, mid-day sun, and whipped – with his master trying to get him to renounce the faith of Islam. Yet his faith was so strong that it didn’t break him. He withstood that heat and punishment for Allah’s sake – even though he could have lied and said words to appease his master (which is allowed – as a show, to save your life when you’re being persecuted). Yet he withstood the pain and torment. And maybe that’s why the Prophet s.a.w. heard his footsteps in Jannah. It was that sacrifice of his – which we need to learn from.

So the lesson here is that whenever anything is not to our liking, it’s better to favour silence rather than speech. Stop and think of whether that complaint is really necessary. Think of those who went through it before, and how their patience earned them tremendous reward. And if those stories of the past are too far for us to imagine, think of those people who – in present times – face hardships and conditions worse than yours. When it comes to worldly conditions and things, always look at those below you, or who have it worse off than you, and you won’t complain – rather, you’ll be grateful for what you have.

4. Using precious time
Though we haven’t taken enough advantage of it, the time in the masjid is awesome. As one person said, you go there to charge your spirituality. And I’ve definitely felt that, particularly for some of the long stretches I’ve spent inside. For example, for Jumuah on Friday, you need to go very early to get a decent spot. Those couple of hours waiting provide immense opportunity to focus on the acts of worship that nourish your spirituality and help you focus on the important things – which you would be too distracted to do outside the masjid, given the distractions outside.

Whether it’s reading Quran in Arabic, or the translation of the meaning in English, or reading other material, making thikr, making dua, listening to a lecture (on an MP3 player), writing, engaging in self-reflection, or making plans for life improvements – there’s a huge amount you can do when you have to wait – particularly in that type of environment.

This is a lesson I’d like to take forward into the future – something that can help me be productive in any situation where a wait is involved. This is a simple lesson that can be applied not just here, but in any masjid – wherever you are – because all the houses of Allah (i.e. mosques) are places of barakah.

This trip has taught me the value of always having beneficial things to do to – whether it’s any of the abovementioned stuff, or just relaxing and unplugging your brain from doing anything at all.

In public, on trains and busses etc, people are always on their cellphones or BlackBerrys – checking email, on the Internet, Facebook, or Twitter. It’s like a plague that’s swept the general population – myself included. And while those activities are important at times, I think it’s worth it for each of us to honestly analyse the time we spend on those things: what proportion of that time is actually necessary? And of that, what proportion is actually beneficial? And then compare that to the proportion of time where we’re just doing it to pass the time, or keep our hands and minds busy.

Time is precious, and instead of wasting it on things that are of no/little benefit – or even harmful – it’s better to always be prepared, and have something beneficial to do.

That’s it for now. I hope to share more lessons or other posts later on, insha-Allah; but in the meantime, I hope you’ve benefitted from these last few Hajj-related posts.


A most blessed rooftop

I like rooftops because they are freedom.

As I write this, I’m seated on one.
No ordinary one, mind you;
but one in a city of immense peace;
on top of a building so blessed that only one other is greater than it.

Generally, people aren’t aware of rooftops.
They live their lives down below,
never thinking of how serene and peaceful the world above is.

It’s the same in this place:
hundreds of thousands have come to this city,
to this building,
yet only a fraction have ventured up to this rooftop.

Down below, the crowds are swelling –
with new faces each and every day,
from places far and wide,
each with a culture,
a nationality,
a family,
a unique life story.

We meet each other –
all speaking different languages,
sometimes not able to communicate at all,
other than in sign language –
yet our greeting is the same;
a universal greeting of peace –
taught to us by the Messenger of peace,
who established this,
our community,
in this very place
some fourteen centuries ago.

He would be proud
to see his nation gathered here today –
such variety in colour, speech, and manner –
but all committed to the way of life he brought.

All here to visit him,
and honour his resting place –
the ground where he,
along with the giants of his generation,
strove to build a society
based on justice,
and universal principles of goodness –
recognised by every single soul –
whether they know it or not.

They walked this very earth –
by day and night,
in wartime and during peace,
hardship and times of ease;
knowing that their time here was only temporary –
a short period of tests –
the results of which would determine
their home in the eternal realm.

And some were assured of their success even before their earthly life ended;
yet still they struggled,
still they strove,
still they feared
that they weren’t living up to the life expected of them.

Yet that generation
was the best of people raised up for mankind.

They enjoined what was good,
and forbade what was evil;
and most importantly,
they believed in God.

And our generation today
doesn’t live up to that example –
instead succumbing
to the cultural pollution
of nations that do not truly believe in their Creator.
For if they did,
their lives would reflect more justice,
and eagerness to fulfil the responsibilities placed upon them
as stewards of this Earth.

Yet in this blessed place,
this generation –
those who have come to visit –
witnesses the way life should be.

We feel the tranquillity of the way of life we call our own.

We experience it first hand –
in ways we could never experience back home.

We feel spiritually rejuvenated
by this environment –
re-establishing our connection to our Creator,
the Owner of Peace,
the Master of all things –
both worldly and beyond human comprehension.

Grown men break down in tears –
begging their Lord for forgiveness,
and supplicating for all that they need in their lives,
and all that they desire in their existence.

Desperate pleas,
made with such sincerity –
both in private,
and where others can see them –
but without inhibition,
for in those moments,
nobody else matters:
it’s just them and their Lord –
without anyone or anything to break that bond.

And so
this City of Peace
serves as a purifier for the souls that visit it;
helping to wash away years,
and lifetimes of mistakes –
and giving hope that maybe,
just maybe,
when our journeys take us back home,
we’ll be able to recapture some of the magic we felt here,
and live lives of peace, justice, and submission
to the One we owe everything to.

*This piece was inspired by my time in Madinah, on the rooftop of the Prophet Muhammad’s (peace be upon him) mosque, a few weeks prior to Hajj 2011.

A little piece of heaven

I know I’d planned to not post anything while I’m away, but the opportunity came up, so I’d like to share some of the experience so far.

We’ve been in Madinah for about 24 hours now, and just this first day has made me feel like this is a piece of Jannah. Of course, quite literally, there is a piece of Jannah on the earth here – the rhodatul jannah – which is a piece of land, from this earth, that will be in Jannah.

But beyond that, there’s so much else that makes it feel like an other-worldly experience. People always talk about the calm, peace and tranquillity here, and I’ve definitely felt it – alhamdullilah. To be fair, we haven’t ventured far at all yet – just Masjid un-Nabawi (the Prophet Muhammad s.a.w.’s mosque), the hotel, and a few streets around the area. But in this limited time and geographical range so far, what strikes me most is that this place in such an environment of Islam. The atmosphere is unlike anywhere I’ve been.

The radio station we heard in the bus, and the shops so far, contain no music. Just Quran and narrations of hadiths. It’s a contrast to other Arab countries, like Egypt, where the cultural influence means that music is just a normal part of life – be it Arab / eastern music, or other. It’s refreshing for me, because living in South Africa, and having been to other Western countries, music is ubiquitous. You can never escape it.

It seems like almost everyone here is geared towards worship – the visiting pilgrims, I mean; as well as the locals in the masjid. As I write this, it’s after maghrib in the masjid, and there are Quran classes going on for kids. Teachers and students sitting together in some places, with kids taking notes as the teacher teaches. Others are reading Quran. There are study circles – halaqahs – of adult men. Other people are making tasbeeh. Some make dua. Others are sleeping. Some are just talking to each other.

This is the ultimate environment of deen. It’s so perfect, and something that I think the heart yearns for. Like it’s so natural. Like this is home.

Since I’m in the male section, I can’t speak for the ladies section – so I don’t know what the experience is like there. But here, there are old men, young men, boys, and just a mix of all different ages. And different nationalities. It’s like the Ummah is here – so many different people. A lot of Turks; some Indians; many Malaysians and Indonesians. On the flight in, we had a large group from Thailand. And in the coming days, apparently, many more will be arriving.

It’s interesting to see how different nationalities identify themselves. The Turks all wear khakis. The Malaysian women – or some other country (not sure) – were wearing bright pink hjabs. Some Indonesians had bright markings on their clothing. And not a group of them are walking past – wearing what seems to be their traditional cultural clothing, which is very colourful.

I imagine Jannah is something like this. All different types of people in one place – all united by Islam – and all worshipping Allah in the various ways available. Alhamdullilah.

And the zam-zam water! It’s here – so abundantly. Anytime you want, you just go and get. It’s not only a thirst quencher, but also – as one of the sheikhs here said – ‘magic water’, in that it’s a cure for every sickness, and something that every person – each and every unique person – can drink with the intention of Allah using it to cure them of whatever they need cure from. As the hadith goes, it is what you intend it to be. Which is why it’s good to make specific  intentions / duas each time you drink. If you can get it back home, do so.

The other great thing is that you have to be early for salaah, or else you may not get a spot in the masjid. And coming so early is filled with blessings. Every moment in the masjid, while waiting for athaan, is an act of worship – even if you do nothing at all. There’s time to make extra salaahs, read Quran, make thikr, or just anything you want. And at salaah times, the imam takes his time to read – no rushing. And after salaah, the imam doesn’t make a congregational dua. You’re free to read whatever you want to – it’s not like home (and other places, probably), where the imam makes his thikr and dua over the speaker system, which means that you either follow along, or you go and do your own thing while still hearing him (which isn’t so easy if you need to concentrate). Here, you’re totally free to do whatever thikrs, or make whatever duas, you want.

Alhamdullilah – this has been an amazing journey so far – even without siteseeing, and even despite some difficulties of travel. It’s a journey that I wish for each and every person; and one that is possible for everyone – no matter what their circumstance; since Allah can grant it to whoever He wants.

May Allah take each and every one of us on this journey, and to this blessed city of Madinah – over and over again.