Previous posts in this series: Parts 1 to 9
While I fell in love with Madinah, the truth is I eventually became too comfortable there. And because there seemed to be too few outings / tours, it actually felt a bit boring at times (to be totally honest). Nonetheless, Madinah was an awesome experience, and amazing preparation for what was to follow. Our sheikh had told us about Madinah being like a furnace – it either purifies the people that go there, or it kicks out those who are not pure.
I felt like it was the former for me: the time there helped disconnect me from the world, reconnect me to my Creator, and purify me (to some degree at least) from the spiritual diseases that resided in me. The final night in Madinah also brought tremendous inspiration for me. In previous years, intense emotional experiences used to manifest themselves in poetry that I wrote. I spent part of my last night in Madinah on the masjid’s rooftop, and it was there that the entire experience of being in this blessed city was encapsulated in the poem that came out (posted here that same night).
But now it felt like the right time to move on to Makkah – where the Kabah and the days of Hajj awaited.
That Thursday morning – in preparation for our journey to Makkah (and umrah) – we put on our ihrams at the hotel. Note that ‘ihram’ is not just the clothing you wear for Hajj or Umrah – it’s actually a state of being that you enter by pronouncing your niyyah at the relevant place. So at the hotel, we merely put the ihram clothing on – but would only enter the state of ihram later.
Admittedly, I hadn’t practiced wearing my ihram much, and so my first few hours wearing it was really frustrating. The bottom piece was fine – largely because I could wear a belt to hold it up (in addition to the money belt). But the top – I couldn’t get right. Different people will tell you different ways to tie it, and it can be frustrating trying to get it to work their way. But alhamdullilah – I eventually figured out a way that worked for me. That’s the key, I think: you need to find a way that you’re comfortable with, and a way that you can tie without anyone else’s help. (This applies to males, obviously – as the women’s ihram isn’t so complicated.)
We then headed to Bir Ali – which is the meeqat (the place you enter a state of ihram) for those leaving from Madinah. After making our salaah for ihram, on the bus we collectively pronounced our niyah for umrah – thereby entering the state of ihram.
The state itself includes the prohibition of cutting your hair and nails, covering your head (for males), using perfume or scented soap, and engaging in anything – whether by word or action – that could stir romantic or sexual desires. You’re also to avoid any vain / nonsense talk – instead reciting the talbiyyah (“Labbayk…”) and focusing completely on Allah. So special is that state that – according to hadith: “When any Muslim utters talbiyah, everything – every stone or every tree or every pebble – on his right side and on his left side responds with a (similar) talbiyah, until the whole earth resounds with it.” (Reported by Ibn Majah, Al-Baihaqi, Tirmizhi, Al-Hakim, who considers it a sound hadith.)
When we entered the state of ihram, the mental shift kicked in for me. I realised the state I was in, and how I needed to try to have clean thoughts, say only what was good / beneficial (or say nothing at all), and just generally conduct myself as a guest of Allah – i.e. be on my best behaviour.
The wheels on the bus
On the bus to Makkah, what struck me most about the environment was the mountains. It was absolutely incredible: mountain after mountain after mountain – as far as the eye could see – with the silhouettes creating a beautiful sight.
With the ride being long, it was filled with recitation of the talbiyyah, reading our books / Quran, listening to audio lectures, and of course, sleep. If you’re not a fan of long road trips, make sure that you’ve planned stuff to do on the way – to take your mind off the travel.
We had one of the quieter group leaders – so we didn’t hear much about the places we were passing, such as the history and other inspirational advice. That was somewhat disappointing – because I know our other group leader (who was our teacher back home) would’ve been much more informative. But again, it highlighted the attitude that we had to take: this journey was not about other people or group activities; it was about our personal relationships with Allah – so that’s what we needed to focus on. Another lesson here – which surfaced later – was to be grateful that it wasn’t worse. We had to be grateful for even having the quiet guy as leader, because another bus didn’t have any group leader at all.
Alhamdullilah – our bus had no problems or breakdowns (as many other people have experienced), so the only real discomfort was the fact that we were in this confined space for so long. That, and the toilets at the rest stop.
If you’ve heard Hajj stories, you know that the toilets are always mentioned 😉 As noted before in this series, the toilets on that side of the world are of the Eastern kind – which means squatting over a tiny hole and hoping you don’t miss the target. If you do miss, you either clean up your mess – or just leave it for the next person. (It happens!).
After you’re done, you wash yourself using the small rubber pipe in the stall – similar to a little hosepipe. Another point of fear for those worried about these toilets is that people sometimes leave the pipe lying not on the side of the toilet, but in the actual area where the mess would be – so if you want to wash yourself, you’ll need to touch some gross stuff to get the pipe.
We were advised to put together our own little ‘toilet kit’ – which included rubber gloves, elastic (to tie your clothing and hold it up while you’re squatting), separate slippers for the toilet, and unscented soap (since there’s a good chance you won’t find any in these places).
I managed to hold my bladder for most of the journey, and went to the toilet on our second stop at a rest stop. I checked a few stalls to try to find the cleanest one, but soon realised that there would be nothing ‘clean’ (by my standards) – given the fact that so many people pass through there and use the facilities – so I had to go for the stall that was the least dirty of all. Let’s just say that my worst fears were not realised – but it was still pretty disgusting in there.
Experiences like these build character. Back home, you’d point blank refuse to go to a toilet that was in that state. You’d wait till you got home, or search far and wide for something a bit more decent. Here, you have no choice, and you see everyone else going – so you just have to be brave, recognise that you’re human like everyone else, and do your thing as quickly as possible – hoping that you make it out of there without getting anything nasty on you (either your own stuff – or worse, someone else’s).
Using these kinds of facilities, you get used to it after a while. And when you get back home again, chances are you won’t have much issue using dirty public toilets – because you’ve used much worse on Hajj.
If you’re a clean freak or have OCD about things like this, the toilets are going to be a major point of anxiety for you. But by no means should the issue discourage you from going for Hajj. Rather, you should consider this a means of helping you overcome a point of weakness in your life.
Of course, the Saudis could probably do a lot to improve the situation, but perhaps it’s part of Allah’s wisdom that they don’t – because having to debase yourself like this helps bring you down from any illusion you had that you were somehow better than others.
Sabr, and a warning
As mentioned before, one of the consistent qualities needed for this journey is sabr (patience). Once we got close to Makkah, it would’ve been easy to assume we’d get to our hotel quite quickly and be able to freshen up, eat, then prepare for our umrah (which we did the same night).
But because this is a trip that involves a lot of administration (both from our group’s side and from the Saudi government), there were several hold-ups where we were just waiting on the bus while those in authority went through the standard procedures (checking documentation, counting the number on the bus, etc).
We did get some snacks though: a package containing zam zam water and some kind of roll / bread thing to eat. The notice on the packaging of one item read: “Dear Pilgrim. For your safety, avoid the crowd and beware of stampede.”
This was amusing at the time, but I never thought it’d come back to me later – when I needed the reminder most. (More on that later, insha-Allah.)
Next up, insha-Allah: Umrah
- As beautiful as a place and experience may be, remaining in it too long can sometimes lead to negative consequences. If you’re going to be in Madinah for a relatively long time, recognise that this may happen to you, so be on guard against it, and mentally prepare yourself for the psychological or emotional dips that may arise in your later days there.
- From the outset, consider Madinah as a critical part of your preparation for Hajj. Make an intention that your time there will be spent in activities that help purify you and bring you closer to Allah, so that when you get to Makkah (and beyond that, Mina and Hajj), you’re in a far better state than you were when you left home.
- Recognise that ihram is more than just outward clothing and a set of strict physical rules. It’s an immense psychological state – so take it very seriously, and strive to be on your best behaviour both internally (within your thoughts, actions, and reactions to circumstances) and externally (with the way you interact with others).
- For men, you’ll probably already have a money belt to keep important things, but aside from that, you may also wear a normal belt to help hold up your bottom piece of ihram. It certainly helps give you peace of mind – because the worry of that part coming off is a very real and scary fear.
- Again for men, in tying the top part, find a way that works for you – something you can do without anyone else’s help. Be open to other people’s advice, but if their ways don’t work, don’t be afraid to try your own thing. The most important factors are that you’re comfortable with it and you can do it yourself.
- The state of ihram is intensely sacred, and the mental purity it inspires should in fact be something we strive for in everyday life. Because we might only experience the state of ihram a few times in our lives, we should use it as a means of practicing the inner taqwa and purity that will serve us so well in all other realms of life.
- If you’re fortunate enough to do the Madinah-Makkah road trip in the day time, take a few moments to savour the incredible mountain scenery on the way. Also let these visuals remind you of the temporary nature of life – that nothing in this world is permanent: these mountains appear to be so firm and strong, yet when this Earth expires, they’ll be destroyed and floating around like cotton wool. So we should never become so attached to the dunya that we give it priority over our akhira.
- Plan spiritually-uplifting activities to keep you busy on the bus. This will not only take your mind off the discomfort, but it’ll also keep you occupied in good – thereby reducing your chances of complaining about the difficulties. And when you do feel like complaining, remember that the Prophet s.a.w. made this same journey (Madinah to Makkah) for his Hajj by camel (i.e. in the open heat, without any air-conditioned bus) – so be grateful for what you have, rather than complaining about what you don’t like.
- If you’re prone to getting sick on long road trips, take a few plastic / paper bags in case you need to vomit. (It’s a good idea to collect them from your plane flights then keep them in your hand luggage for times like this.) Even if you’re NOT likely to get car sick, take some anyway. You never know what can happen, and even if you yourself don’t get sick, someone else on your bus might – in which case you can assist with your sick bag.
- On this part of your journey, you’re probably going to experience some rather undesirable toilet facilities. Try not to let the anxiety scare you beforehand, and remember that you’re human – just like everyone else – so embrace the experience as a means of humbling yourself. Take it as a sign that Allah is putting you through a difficulty in order to build your character and teach you valuable lessons for your upcoming Hajj and life to follow.
- If it makes you feel better, put together some items that will make the toilet experience a little cleaner. Unscented soap is a must, but other items could include rubber gloves, elastic (to tie your clothing and hold it up while you’re squatting), and separate slippers.
- Remember to exercise sabr – especially when you get close to Makkah and feel like you’re almost at your hotel. You may experience a lot of waiting time on the bus while admin is carried out, and at the end of a long journey, the last thing you want to do is be sitting helplessly while paperwork is being done. But remember that the best tests of character come in times of difficulty, so dig deep and try to endure the wait without complaining (either in your words or in your body language). Rather, stretch your body (similar to exercises you’d do on a long flight) and do something beneficial to pass the time.