Columbians journey to Mecca

Tuesday, December 11, 2007 | 6:40 p.m. CST; updated 10:53 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008
Aziza Rashid, left, and Syed Rashid, right, pack on Sunday in preparation for the hajj, which is the pilgrimage to Mecca. The Rashids, who fly out of St. Louis on Tuesday, will not return until Dec. 27.

COLUMBIA — This week, Syed and Aziza Rashid are doing something they have wanted to do their entire lives. They packed their young children off to the grandparents, and on Monday, set out for Mecca.

The hajj, as the pilgrimage to the Muslim holy site is known, dates back, many Muslims believe, more than 4,000 years to the time of the prophet Abraham. The pilgrimage is required of all Muslims who are physically and financially able. It occurs during Dhul Hijjah, the 12th month of the Islamic calendar. Later this week, it is expected that more than two million Muslims will descend on Mecca. The Rashids are one of two Muslim families from Columbia who will be among them.

Syed said that others who have performed the pilgrimage have told him it’s like being “born again.” Syed said returning pilgrims speak of being touched by the experience and committed to becoming better Muslims.

“This would be going to the place where it all happened,” Syed said, “where the ritual of hajj came into existence and became an integral part of Islam from the beginning.”

The journey to Mecca is done on foot and takes three to five days. It is not an easy walk, so most Muslims make the pilgrimage when they are younger and in good health.

Aziza, who is 37, said she hopes the hajj will help her overcome the distractions of her daily routine and revitalize her faith. “When I perform prayers here I don’t feel as focused,” Aziza said. “I’m thinking about house chores or something. At Mecca there is nothing to distract me. It’s just me and God.”

The hajj begins on the eighth day of Dhu al-Hijjah. Pilgrims — men are dressed in simple Ihran clothing and women wear the traditional hijab — leave Mecca for the nearby town of Mina, where they spend the day with other pilgrims in large white tents put up by the Saudi government. The next day they make seven passes, counter-clockwise, around the Ka’bah, the first house of God, inside the Grand Mosque in Mecca. The ritual is a re-enactment of the frantic search for water by Abraham’s wife, Hagar. Pilgrims then go to Mina where they spend the night praying.

The next day they listen to a sermon at the Plain of Arafat, where Muhammad is believed to have made his final sermon. After returning to Mina, pilgrims throw tiny pebbles at three square pillars that mark the place where Satan challenged Abraham three times to ignore God’s command that he kill his son, Ishmael. Pilgrims then sacrifice an animal to symbolize God’s command that Abraham substitute a ram for his son.

Khaled Mohamed performed a hajj for the first time when he was 22. The experience caused him to become more selfless, he said, and to remember that he, like all Muslims, has a special relationship with God.

“Before (performing a hajj) I was thinking maybe I have my own thing that no one else does,” Mohamed said. “But when you go there you realize everybody is there for the same purpose, to please Allah.”

Since his first pilgrimage, Mohamed, who lives in Columbia, has performed the hajj several more times. The ritual has become more spiritually important to him each time, he said.

“Before, I was just thinking of how many people were coming,” he said. “The last one, I realized the significance of the hajj. Just pray to God, and leave all the materials of the world behind you.”

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