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Haj Reflections Day 2:

Jabal Al-Rahmah seemed to have been draped in white

By Siraj Wahab

 Arab News , 10 Dhul Hijja, 1429, December 8, 2008


By 7:30 yesterday morning we were ready to mount our mopeds. For journalists, every year the most important day of Haj begins with a terrifying ride from Mina to Arafat. Enormous coaches, mini-buses and SUVs all cram onto the same roadway. Two on a bike, we weave in and out between them. Cameras, long lenses and laptops are hung around our necks, on our shoulders and draped across our bodies and we hang on to the mopeds for dear life. One slip, one zig when we should have zagged, and the remainder of our Haj assignment would be spent in the hospital.

There are two ways to report on the pilgrimage. One strategy is to find a good spot and hope that the mass of humanity will come your way. The second strategy is to go out into the crowd and be taken along with the flowing rush. I believe that the second way is the only way to find the truth in the event. Our goal was to reach Arafat in time to cover the action and so we joined the millions in white. It took our team of 12 almost an hour to travel the 15 km to Arafat. Slow to be sure, but better than walking. Hopping off the bikes at the edge of the crowds, we sprinted for Jabal Al-Rahmah. This is the highest point on the plain at Arafat and every cameraman needs to be on it in order to get the best photos of the activity below.

In the 10th Hijrah year, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) spoke to the congregation of Muslims gathered around him at Jabal Al-Rahmah. In what was his last sermon, the Prophet exhorted all Muslims to accept that every Muslim is a brother to every other Muslim and that all Muslims are part of a single brotherhood. This has made Jabal Al-Rahmah, the Mount of Mercy, a sought-after destination for pilgrims trying to follow exactly in the Prophet’s footsteps. This quest continues even though numerous scholars have advised that being at any point in Arafat is acceptable for pilgrims on 9th Dul Hijjah.

About four months ago, I brought a famous Indian journalist who was performing Umrah to tour the area around Makkah. It was then that I discovered what a tourist attraction Jabal Al-Rahmah had become. People come to picnic at the site and on weekends throughout the year, camels with decorative harness are available for rides, complete with a souvenir Polaroid photograph. Back in September, the mount itself was a lively area, but the surrounding plains stretched off silently toward the desolate hills. Yesterday’s landscape was completely different. Even from early in the day, Jabal Al-Rahmah seemed to have been draped in white. It is essential to understand that there are stairs on only one side of the mount. At any other time, Muslims would climb to the top using the staircase. During Haj, pilgrims will do absolutely anything to find a place on Jabal Al-Rahmah so those who are able forgo the stairs and attain the top through sheer force of will and considerable physical effort. These pilgrims climb over boulders and scramble over crevasses. The younger pilgrims lift and pull the older ones up the mount in a slow, painful journey that always ends in tears.

Why tears? Because once the pilgrims get high enough and look out on the humanity gathered below, they begin to pray and beseech Allah. The tears stream down their cheeks as they beg forgiveness for their sins. Then they supplicate the Almighty to be merciful to them, their families, relatives, friends, countrymen and all Muslims. As one elderly pilgrim from Kenya approached Jabal Al-Rahmah, the pilgrims nearby urged her to turn back. It was too crowded and too dangerous for her, they advised. But she would not retreat. “Something inside me is pulling me to this place. I must not stop. I must not stop,” she repeated again and again.

The authorities are doing a heroic job in trying to maintain some semblance of order. Scores of officers were on duty in the Jabal Al-Rahmah area trying to restrain pilgrims from pushing and unintentionally injuring the weak among them. The day was surprisingly hot and the sprinklers came on at 9:30 to cool the pilgrims. Umbrellas were up long before the sun was at its height. As pilgrims struggled up the stairs on Jabal Al-Rahmah, sweat ran down their faces and the heat in the crowd was unbearable. The surprise of the day came when we decided to make our way down from the other side since the stairway was impassable. The back side of the mount was quite cool and pleasant. We sat perched on a large outcropping and listened to the sermon being broadcast from Masjid Al-Namirah in greater comfort than we would have had in the lobby of a five-star hotel.

And then like those around us, we prayed for our dear ones. Hearing the prayers of nearby pilgrims showed that all these Muslims are performing Haj for the single purpose of renewing their faith. While it is true that they all beseech God in their own languages, it is clear to see that all their thoughts are only on the immediate event unfolding before them. I asked Amanullah Khan Pendakhel what he was praying for at Arafat, “I am from Peshawar. I am begging Allah to help stop the terror hurting all of us. First we were trying to cope with all the economic hardships. Now we have to cope with bombings too. It is too much. We need mercy from Allah.”

During this Haj I was interviewed by the satellite news channel Al-Arabiya. They asked me how the pilgrims handled their political differences during the Haj. There is a general perception to those away from the scene of the pilgrimage that politics will be a primary focus. Nothing could be further from the truth. In the decade that I have been covering Haj, I have never found any pilgrim who wants to talk about politics. The pilgrims are totally immersed in the Haj rituals. Through the pilgrimage people hope that they will become better Muslims. They are thinking of the Hereafter, not of the here and now.

When pilgrims return home they are greeted with the title Haji. For many Muslims, especially for those from developing nations, this is a great honor and a big responsibility. Some communities call upon these Hajis to mediate disputes, teach young Muslims or offer counsel in difficult times. Pilgrims face the future with the goal of living in a better way than they did before they performed the Haj. They have a strong commitment to offering their wisdom to the world.

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