I am so happy to be here with you today for two reasons. The last time I spoke at a mosque, I stood upstairs in the women’s section. Here I stand at the front of the mosque facing all of you – men and women. I was born in Claremont so this will forever remain a sweet memory that I will hold dear to me. Thank you Imam Rashied Omar for this special moment.
The second reason: it is exactly a year to this day that I entered Makkah in ihram. Around this time, I was sitting in a bus zipping along the strong sturdy roads from Madinah. Next to me was my eldest brother, Yusuf also in ihram. Imagine, it was exactly on this day last year.
Shortly after I received this invitation to speak I realized that the dates coincided with our entry into Makkah. I remember being very quiet on the bus that day as I attempted to let go of my old self and to make sense of who I was. It was also the birthday of the love of my life, father to my beautiful daughter. It felt like the different elements of my life had come together. I had come full circle and hoped that I could end life as I had known it and search for a way forward if that was to be.
This journey started four years earlier when I had applied for my visa to go on Hajj. I was always ambivalent about performing the pilgrimage because of the pitiful politics that the host country has been submerged in. But there came one day when suddenly it was all so clear and I made the decision to go because I was ready.
As the third year came to an end I was relatively certain that my turn would come the following year in 2017. So I started preparing with greater intensity. I started sorting through my home and giving away anything that I thought was in excess. I wanted to free myself from the fetters of material possessions. It is something that my daughter and I have done for many years before Ramadaan – clearing our physical space of excess in order to be ready to focus on our bodies and our souls.
Going on hajj however was different. I made the assumption that there was the possibility that I would not come back. This I did not share with anyone because it would obviously have scared my family. It was not that I wished to die in Makkah. It was that I knew there was a possibility because of the kinds of dramas that unfold there from time to time.
Nevertheless, I did not prepare to physically die but I did prepare to let go of my old self while on this journey. So when a Voice of the Cape reporter stopped me at the airport for an interview, I refused. I could see the confusion in her eyes so I hesitated. My daughter asserted herself and moved me along because she knew I was trying to leave behind my public persona. Similarly in Makkah I did not respond to requests for interviews with ITV because I felt for once I had to shake off all the roles I played and stand in front of my maker as just me in my essence.
Who am I in essence? Am I a child of God with a physical body and a soul? Am a ball of energy that blends into the greater energy of the Universe that we call Allah? Who am I in essence and why am I making this journey? My name is Zubeida but that is just a name. My profession is journalism but that is just the work I do. Who am I? What does my maker expect from me? Those were some of the questions teeming through my mind.
Imagine. Just last year I was part of those millions of people moving and praying. Always moving. I struggled to make sense of it. What did all this movement for five days mean?
It was actually a great blessing to have my brother with me because I could then decide to withdraw, in a way. He could see to all practicalities and for once I could just focus on myself. Over the years, I have always travelled abroad by myself so this was quite a luxury. (He even had to cut my hair over a basin when it grew too thick because we could not find a female hairdresser – luckily I had cut my long hair short before the trip because I did not want the bother.)
Then came the moment when the Ka’bah loomed large in front of me as we finally reached the haram. I felt no major emotion and this was a bit unsettling.
As we started our anti-clockwise movement around it, efforts to keep close to my brother were thwarted within the first five minutes. We were separated from one another and could not find each other again until we got back to the hotel.
There were moments when it felt as if the crowd would crush me and I would hear each of my ribs crack under the pressure. I felt a little anxious but never scared. I gave over completely to blending with the great sea of humanity moving like a gentle wave slowly through the confined space. I realized if I just relaxed into everybody, I was moved along effortlessly.
The Ka’bah, an empty cube draped in black and gold. Majestic is the appropriate word. Centuries ago, Nabee Ibrahim (Abraham) had constructed it with branches of palm trees and rocks as a symbol of the belief in one God. Then later Nabee Muhammad chose this as the focal point for prayer for all Muslims across the world. Through five short meditations daily we direct our energy towards this point. What is the effect of this? How does this help our world? These are questions for another time.
Instead, I want us to consider what it means that a substantial part of the Hajj takes place around the Ka’bah and close to it. All pilgrims play out the
the experience of Nabee Ibrahim, his slave wife Hajjar and their son Ismail. We do not play it out once or twice, we are expected to play it out several times.
The story we know is that Allah instructed Nabee Ibrahim to leave his slave wife Hajjar and their baby son, Ismail in the desert. She then runs between two hills, Safa and Marwa, looking for water. She does this seven times until a spring of water appears at the foot of the baby.
Why is an Ethiopian slave, her son and her husband such as important part of the ritual? Their story is told in all three monotheistic religions.
Nabee Ibrahim or Abraham is often referred to as the father of all three religions. First came Judaism, then Christianity, then Islam. Abraham, Hajjar and Ismail symbolize the break with believing in many gods and the commitment to one God. And yet, many of us shy away from other people of the book. We do not search for what could hold us together. We dwell on difference. Recently we are even choosing to dwell on difference between Shia and Sunni Muslims. What a great travesty.
Hajaar and Ismail are buried at the side of the Ka’bah. A wall that looks like a half circle shades their graves and some pilgrims rush to pray in that little space. In his book, Hajj: Reflections on its rituals, the great Iranian sociologist Ali Shariati calls this half circle, a skirt. This feminine image affirms pride of place for a woman who is African and a mother.
We are forced to consider why we are asked to relive her drama over and over again? Why is it such an important part of the five days?
It was only on my visit at the end of the 5 days of Hajj, that I made a special connection to the Ka’bah. As I walked around the wide expanse of the first tier of the haram, I turned my head to the left towards the Khaba. A thick layer of pilgrims emerged from the far-side and their heads were all white. When I looked more closely I saw they were white because there were white doves perched on every head. I blinked, looked away and convinced myself it was an illusion.. After a while I looked again and I saw the same thing… doves sitting on the heads of the pilgrims. I blinked and looked away further again convinced that it was my mind playing some trick on me. Maybe it was the angle from which I was viewing it, maybe it was the sun….I was determined not to look again. But finally I did peep and what did I see. I saw a few of the doves rising up and flapping their wings and then settling down again. As if to show me that they were doves.
As you all know, hadj is a journey of multiple experiences. The constant movement, the heat, the history, the deaths and funerals at every waqt…it seems almost impossible to make sense of the experience. I must admit I was often quite muddled and unsure of what was going on.
Then I am at Mina in a tent with 200 women. I am back in my Ihram, a white dress and a white scarf. We are lying virtually like sardines on small pieces of foam where we eat, pray, sleep and live for the next three days. Who am I? I am lying as if I am in my grave stripped of all my material possessions. All I have with me are my deeds, good and bad. Even though I am an insignificant dot, I cannot escape accountability to the Almighty.
When we arrived at Arafat the next day, it was hot and cloudless. Only in the late afternoon was there movement in the sky with a breeze fluttering through the low trees. And then I watched as dark clouds gathered as if a storm was soon to break loose. Flashes of lightening crossed the sky and then came rolls of thunder. Those gathered around me all said that we should expect rain but the rain did not come. The dark clouds moved on and instead streaks of pink light appeared as the sun set.
I stood under one of the trees with my eyes fixed to the sky watching the day come to an end and prayed asking for forgiveness and asking for what I hoped would still be granted in my second life. Dotted around the tents were couples praying together, pouring out their hearts.
I became aware that Prophet Muhammad had delivered his last sermon close-by here on Jabal Ragmah. He had asked his followers to listen carefully to what he was saying and share it with those who could not be present. It is a short but powerful text that touches on all the issues of the day, then and now: racism, sexism and usury (the practice of making excessive profit through lending money at unreasonably high interest rates.)
Usury. We are living at a time when usury is the way of the world and likely its undoing. How must his followers have felt when he waived their duty to pay back money lent but not any of the excessive interest charged? What relief there would be for millions across the world, if leaders were to take such a far-reaching decision to bring greater equity today.
Sexism. O People, it is true that you have certain rights with regard to your women, but they also have rights over you… Do treat your women well and be kind to them for they are your partners and committed helpers.
What can be clearer than this?
Racism. An Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab, nor does a non-Arab have any superiority over an Arab; white has no superiority over black, nor does a black have any superiority over white; [none have superiority over another] except by piety and good action.
These are clear statements that are not ambiguous in any way and yet are not studied closely in this country. There will be many here who would have to learn to bite their tongues and change their behavior if they took to heart this sermon.
If it is studied closely in Saudi Arabia where the Quran was revealed, I can only conclude that it has not been entrenched in practice.
I observed a great deal of rough behavior as well as discrimination against women and darker or poorer people in that country.
Interestingly the sermon looks to the future in the last paragraph when he says: All those who listen to me shall pass on my words to others and those to others again; and it may be that the last ones understand my words better than those who listen to me directly. Be my witness, O God, that I have conveyed your message to your people.”
Are we the last ones?
Or are the last ones yet to come?
My hajj experience has left me with more questions than answers. It has been a learning opportunity of a lifetime. I know that I must continue to write and search to understand the experience because a year later, I must admit, I am often still baffled. I thank you.