It is the journey of a lifetime, a period of rebirth and the spiritual pinnacle for every Muslim.
Mecca, the holy city of Islam, will be the ultimate destination this month for Sayed Daoud and Mariam Mohieldin, a Pullman couple who will join more than 2 million people for hajj – the pilgrimage required of all able-bodied Muslims at least once in their life.
“This is the highest level of spirituality for Muslims,” said Daoud, a member of Masjed al-Farooq, one of two mosques in the Palouse. “Nothing else comes close to the experience.”
This voyage to Mecca will be the first for Daoud and Mohieldin, who have never had the chance to go on hajj until now. To their knowledge, they are the only Muslims from Eastern Washington who will take part in this year’s sacred pilgrimage.
Every year, roughly 10,000 American Muslims go on hajj, according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Because the religious observance falls during the winter holidays this year, the number is expected to increase significantly.
Daoud and Mohieldin, who are both in their 50s and have lived in Pullman for the last 15 years, have waited all their lives to make this long, costly journey to Saudi Arabia. In the past, the couple couldn’t go because they were busy with work and children, explained Daoud, an associate professor of pharmaceutical sciences at Washington State University. Now that their three kids are in college and because of the conveniently-timed winter break, they finally got their chance.
One of the five pillars of Islam, hajj is a time of joy, hope and renewal, said Mohieldin. “Hajj is worshipping God and asking him for forgiveness,” she said.
Thursday, the Daouds were expected to join about 100 Muslims from the Seattle area, Oregon and California on a 15-hour flight to Jeddah, a city in Saudi Arabia near the Red Sea. From there, they will travel about 45 miles inland to Mecca’s Masjed al-Haram or the Grand Mosque, where men and women worship separately and spend five days in prayer. During this time, they will circle the Ka’aba, a large, ancient granite cube that is considered the center of the Islamic world. Regardless of where they are, Muslims all over the globe turn in the direction of the Ka’aba whenever they pray.
During a ritual known as “tawaf,” Muslims circle the Ka’aba seven times. They are not worshipping the stone structure, Mohieldin emphasized; rather, they are depicting the actions of Hagar, Ibraham’s wife, as she tried to find water for her son, Ishmael.
“When you see the Ka’aba in Mecca, it’s an amazing feeling – a feeling of serenity and peace and the greatness of God,” said Mamdouh El-Aarag of Spokane, recalling the pilgrimage he made six years ago. “When you leave it, you feel sad.”
Although it isn’t an official part of the hajj, the Pullman couple and many others also will travel to Medina, where the Prophet Muhammad is buried. The pilgrimage officially ends on Dec. 30 after a ritual “stoning of the devil” in the desert of Mina. The conclusion of hajj is marked by Eid Al-Adha, the most significant holiday in the Muslim calendar and a commemoration of Ibrahim’s obedience to God.
Getting ready for hajj requires far more than just making simple travel plans, according to several local Muslims who have made the journey to Mecca. U.S. citizens must acquire hajj visas and make arrangements through a Saudi-government-approved travel agency, which then finds accommodations and transportation for the pilgrims.
Muslims also have to prepare themselves both spiritually and emotionally for the arduous journey, said El-Aarag, president of the Spokane Islamic Center.
“You leave everything behind – family, kids, work – to go across the world and seek God,” he said. “You don’t think about anything else except worshipping and being close to God. It is an amazing experience.”
Some Muslims take classes or read extensively about the hajj. Others memorize prayers. “Leave the matters of the world behind and consider yourself a guest of the Lord,” wrote Imam Tahir Anwar of the South Bay Islamic Association, which provides detailed information about preparing for the pilgrimage. “This is not a vacation, but a spiritual journey of cleansing ourselves.”
As they made the final preparations for their trip, Daoud and Mohieldin were filled with both excitement and trepidation. They packed only a few belongings including cameras, an old Quran and simple white garments. Known as ihram, the white clothing is a symbol for both purity and equality, said Mohieldin.
The couple is also bringing walkie-talkies so they can find each other at the conclusion of the pilgrimage.
While they look forward to worshipping together with millions of other Muslims, they’re certainly aware of the dangers posed by large crowds, especially when emotions run high. During last season’s hajj, which took place in January of this year, 345 were trampled to death during the stoning ritual. “It’s an emotional time and some people are weak,” acknowledged Daoud. “You have to be cautious and not put yourself in harm’s way.”
Since they made plans earlier this year to do the pilgrimage, the couple has focused on opening their hearts, they said, and completing their obligation as Muslims. “Islam is a lifestyle – from the time you wake up until you go to bed, you are doing your daily prayer,” said Daoud. “Hajj is part of the continuum of the lifestyle of Islam.”
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