Belief Islam

On my first looking at the Ka’baah.

Words expressed fail in the description of the Ka’baah; then what I ask is the capacity of the heart to learn its worth? It is the soul that yearns to be in its presence again and again and again to the heart’s satisfaction. – Abdullah Sujee

I left the shores of South Africa to teach in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. This is a story of its own. My focus is on the greater gift of that decision. The decision to make Hajj. In life, there will always be trade offs and when the trade off is extraordinary, the heart is overwhelmed and the soul is enriched. What are you willing to trade to achieve your life goals? Then again, what are your life goals? I write with the hope that you will be inspired to make the journey and that you and I will be companions on the great experience. InshAllah (If Allah Wills)

Following 9/11, the bombing of the Twin Towers in USA, there were just too many issues regarding stereotyping Muslims and Muslim lands that it gnawed at the soul more than a hungry dog on a bone. Therefore, the yearning to perform Umrah (minor pilgrimage to Makkah) and eventually to perform Hajj grew intense as it was a life goal plan. Nothing should get in the way.  When I penned this paragraph in my journal, I came across a news clip I cut out from the ARAB NEWS, 14/03/2002 and wondered in the midst of all that happened after 9/11 and; what we heard on the ground in KSA at time, what would happen if the Makkah was bombed? My heart was consoled by the fact that Ka’baah is the House of Allah and He will protect it. My life goal was to perform Hajj before the age of 30 and not later than 40 because, I figured that poor health or senile old age will most definitely impact the physical and spiritual rigour required. A decision made is an action in motion.

Reality then. Reality now – COVID-19.

The trade off that came with this momentous milestone in my life was to give up the Deputy Principal’s post and the good job I had for a greater cause and this is why the first looking on the Ka’baah so special and unique. The thing that must be kept in mind is how 9/11 affected the psyche of people because a journey like this with the background I came with, I could well be classified as fundamentalist. Really, the human mind never faces phobia fatigue. We ‘love’ the intoxication. How crazy things become because of created phobias and the engineering of  fear by the media in all its forms? This can well be understood in light of the COVID-19 pandemic where we have become full of ‘caution fatigue. COVID-19 is real and lethal but, our phobias have become overwhelming too.

On 16 October 2001 my wife and I booked to go for first ever Umrah. We planned this over the weekend in KSA (the week starts on a Saturday. Thursday and Friday is the weekend) which was the 17 – 19 October 2001. On 17 October 2001, 4 pm, we left for Umrah from the bus terminals. One must give credit to the KSA government because they are really improving transport arrangements for pilgrims on a regular basis including all logistics that are related with it. It was an exciting time, fulfilling a life goal and knowing that it will be the harbinger to perform Hajj. I recall the adrenaline, the excitement and the feeling of accomplishment on the rise — the hunt is better than the kill goes the saying but, little did I know that the kill would mean the desire for any other destination would be killed. The journey was very different because we were the only English speaking people on the bus and we were given a guest status. This is the unmatched quality of hospitality of the people in the Middle East. Every person in their setting is their guest and the guest is appreciated and given attention. It is very unique and unparalleled.  

At the age of 30 I saw in reality what I dreamt about and felt the enticing atmosphere of grace such that it appeared like an answered prayer presented on a golden platter with the words, ‘Please live the experience because you are MY guest.’ The sight of the Ka’bah is for the individual to behold because it is extra-ordinary and divine in its physical position, spiritual in its realm, holy in its precinct, majestic in its presence, inspiring it its appearance, glowing it is magnificence, attractive in its appeal, realistic in its touch, overwhelming in its awe of presence, inviting as a magnanimous host, embracing its in touch, powerful in its appeal, grandiose from a distance, loving in closeness and an unrelenting calmness to the soul. In essence this is how I recall my first looking on the Holy Ka’bah. 

The first Umrah was unique experience because for the first time I wore the Ihraam (Two pieces of white cloth wrapped as garments. One for the lower body and one for the upper body) and walked on the arena of the Holy Ka’bah. As I write this, I still feel those footsteps and can picture the walk from the outside until the Holy Ka’abah came into view. The majesty of the moment took my breath away and when I was led step by step on how to do the ritual circumbulation of the Holy Ka’bah it filled my heart with immense self satisfaction because a goal was accomplished which was leading to the greater goal – the performance of Hajj. 

“As pilgrims we effectively slip into the role of our spiritual ancestors and run back and forth between the hills seven times. This symbolises our own quest in this world for whatever we are seeking and God’s Mercy which fulfils our quest even beyond our expectations.” 
― Kristiane Backer, From MTV to Mecca: How Islam Inspired My Life

In the same year my beloved wife and I performed Hajj with our friends, Muath Jacobs, Shameela Jacobs, Ferhana, Bassam Abu Zein, his wife and mother who are Syrian. It was Hajj that will forever be ingrained in the recesses and overlays of my heart because it was accomplished on the plate of giving up a decorative lifestyle to achieve it. 

The journey began with making bookings with a local agency and managing logistics in what was all very new to us. Fortunately our school colleague, Bassam Abu Zein, helped us also and we got to go with a huge group of people from various parts of the Middle East. The excitement was intense and we got ready to go. I recall our group having about 7 white buses that were alike. Due to the time constraints we performed Hajj Ifrad.  (It is the simplest form of Hajj. A pilgrim enters into the state of Ihram with the intention of performing Hajj only before passing through the Meeqat (place for assuming ihram). The pilgrim does not combine Hajj with Umrah and makes sure not to perform umrah in the months of Hajj. The person performing Hajj-ul-Ifrad is called Mufrid.

The journey was just inspiring because it levelled the playing fields in that in Ihram all racial classifications diminished and no one knew who was South African or Middle Eastern. The one hilarious moment on the journey to Makkah from Riyaadh was where Muath Jacobs hopped on the wrong bus after a stop for refreshments. The whole crew got to know and it was just amazing how the news spread and at the next stop people were having a jolly laugh and made sure Muath came back to right bus. The reality of circumstance showed how all humans by nature are peaceful, loving and genuine at heart. It is our own prejudice and poor life goals or a lack of it that gives shape to our world view hence, we behave in a  certain way.

The rites of Hajj began after wearing the Ihram and the feeling only brought tears because here was a life goal achieved in action. It felt like a gift of best candy to a little boy by a gracious father who had a gleaming face and a radiant smile. The stay in Mina was tough because we  were such a big group and there was a glitch in the arrangements so the women for two nights slept outside and were awaken by the harsh morning rays of the desert sun. The men were cramped in one part of the tent but, we made do with the situation. The days of Hajj were really an infinite source of inspiration and spiritual elevation that cannot be described in words. People were like waves of the ocean in a never ending cycle of completing the ritual and all of us concerned about the meeting with Allah, the Eternal the Absolute made each moment a grace of sadness and happiness. Sadness because you feel the transient nature of this world that you must leave and happiness, because you fathom the reality of a greater meeting beyond the realm of this world. Indescribable!

Reality still hits hards like a cold slap on winter’s morning. For the days we stayed, we just had no real food. We were surviving on crisp and water. Hunger drove us to find the South African camp in Mina. We left after the sunset prayer and walked to find the camp. You must visualise finding something amongst a multitude of people numbering in the millions – literally!

We walked and in the distance we saw the new South African flag and we smiled and laughed. We met friends and family and hugged each other until tears wet our faces and melted our speech in gasps of breath and spoke to the heart. How this feeling of happiness is symbolic of meeting again beyond the realm of this world is best described as true. The belief that you will pass through this world and will meet with family and friends in front of Allah, the Gatherer comes to light in such moments. You virtually live the essence of Allah’s revealed word in a sense.

Now were were hungry and just in time for the night prayer, Esha Salaah. We performed the salaah and our family who we met took us as guests for supper. The spread of food was too much to absorb and we so sat and made ourselves ready to eat. For some reason our group could not eat despite been offered the best over and over again. The little we ate sufficed and my family packed a parcel for us to take back. The walk back to our camp was more than a thirty minute walk and was made more difficult by walking through hundreds of people. We left and walked without much talk and when we reached a certain point, we all just teared. We teared and spoke about how much food we saw and the great many people we were with had nothing and really felt we could not eat alone. We reached our place and we shared what we had with whoever was with us. The sense of brotherhood becomes so real and then you realise Islam is a great leveller but, is misunderstood by the world. 

A significant moment of truth surfaced when I met two brothers from Iraq and spoke to them about the impending war. They told me that they were not afraid to die and whatever will happen will happen by the will of Allah. I recall how they said that Saddam Husein took care of his people and that the USA and their allies are lying about Iraq having crazy weapons to kill the world. They were such lovely, friendly people who would put everything aside for your comfort. I took the time to really observe the various shades and colours of my people, Muslim from the Middle East and I found them to be a beautiful crafted people of olive tanned skin, fleshy fingers, dark black hair, eyes from black to blue to green and the shades of brown; their physic is strong and their demeanour is awe inspiring and they look the type who can bear hardship with grace, fortitude, patience and perseverance. Then the glance across brought to vision the South Asian Muslims in unison. What a discipline people that look alike but the subtle differences tells you of a magnificent Fashioner above all of us. In the array of people the Muslims of Africa fill the space too and their stature of strength and majestic presence tells you that amongst them are more and more the likes of Hajar (a.s) the loyal wife of Ebrahim (a.s), Bilal ibn Ra’baah (ra) the only Mu’azein (the one that calls to prayer) of all three Holy Precincts: The Holy Ka’bah, the Holy Mosque of Prophet Muhammad (s) and the Al-Aqsa. The Turks’ impressive gait and beauty is mesmerising. The mix of the various Indians from the Indian Sub-continent is bewildering and charming too. The Chinese in their disciplined splendour is eye-catching and white races from Europe to Russia captivates the eye for the heart’s attention. Allahuakbr! The heart literally feels like bursting when you begin the fathom the oneness of this ummah (Collective Muslim brotherhood) and cannot fathom why we in this disarray. One day we will unite. However, the inspiration of hope is best encapsulated when the millions gather at the Holy Ka’bah and when the call to begin the prayer is made, literally in minutes the millions form the lines and prayer gets on. Surely, unity is at hand and when it dawns, it will be quick like the formation for actual prayer. The demand however, is that we need to live our lives outside prayer like in prayer. 

The pelting of Jamaraat (symbolic pillars that illustrate the points where Satan tried to stop Ebrahim a.s. from moving to the place where he had to sacrifice his son) was a tremendous challenge because the Jamaraats were not expanded in design like today. It was pillar extending from the ground up and roughly five meters squared, I think. It was our strong Syrian brother Bassam who would lead us through the thickness of the crowd and stand as pillar for each of us to pelt and move on. Yes, the shoving and pushing is immense but, one must credit the soldiers on duty to do their best to ensure safety. 

Mua’ath Jacobs and I in Mina at our camp. Way out and three flights of steps to the accommodation.

The guards or soldiers are really hardworking and their level of patience and tolerance is beyond belief because they are not there to stop crime but to control waves of people who are spiritually high and emotionally charged therefore; I give great credit to the Hajj Ministry for a superb job under most challenging conditions. 

We returned from Hajj with such a jubilant feeling and our group were just amazing in getting it all together. On arrival in Riyaadh we were welcomed by our fellow South African colleagues who hosted us for a sumptuous meal and it was such a tremendous occasion to share the experience because it illustrated the grandeur of a gift coming true.

After the Hajj period, schools were on the last leg towards closure and we ended our term and returned to South Africa. On return to South Africa, I sought employment. Mr Ronald Bartie of General Smuts High School called me asking if I was interested in teaching English at the school to the grade 11 and 12s. I was delighted and accepted the post on the spot.

Not long into teaching on an SGB (School Governing Body) post with a salary of just R6K net, my mother’s acquaintance purchased her a Hajj flight ticket and my wife and I were in the position to take her. The sacrifice this time was different because money was not readily available but somehow we managed to get it all together. My dear mum at the time suffered a severe cut to her finger and rendered her dependent on my wife and I for everything. The journey was different and we  performed Hajj Tamatuu (In this type of Hajj, a pilgrim assumes Ihram for only Umrah during the months of Hajj. After reaching Makkah, he performs Tawaf and Saa’ee for Umrah. He then performs Qasr i.e. shaves or clips his hair. On the day of eighth of Dhul-Hijjah, he puts on his Ihram for Hajj and performs the rites and duties of Hajj. The person who performs this kind of Hajj is called a Mutamatti.

The Hajj was another experience of note. In comparison to the first Hajj, this was luxury and it was superlative in that aspect. However, in relation to spirituality the comparison cannot be drawn because the divine sanctity of the Fifth Pillar of Islam (Hajj) is blessed therefore, like raindrops that can never be counted, the spirituality of Hajj cannot be measured too. The Hajj was such a different experience in that we had to take care of my mother who was in intense pain and suffered a haunting cough. The most hilarious incident occurred on the the ‘Tawaf ul Widdah’. My mother was in such pain and could not walk. So we hired a wheel chair. The crowd was so big that I felt like jam in a tin. We had to make the ‘Tawaaf upstairs and this was really long and tiring. Anyway, after completion I went to the agreed spot and in the mix of it all I returned the wheelchair, paid the guy and happily went on. Just as we boarded the escalator here comes a guy saying in a loud voice, “Hajji yah Hajji..” Lo and Behold! he was was asking for his wheelchair as he was the rightful owner. Gosh! I was aghast and did not agree and looked at my mother and wife who just laughed at my mix up. It cost me another few hundred Riyaals and the matter was resolved but, the incident still alive in family discussion. It was the brotherhood and sisterhood of the Muslims of all shades that lent a helping hand at every moment that made very hardship easy. This made the experience unique and special beyond the understanding of the spoken word. 

The unique experience was the visit to Medina after Hajj. In the first Hajj we did not visit Medina after Hajj because of utter fatigue. This time we went to Medina after Hajj and it was a momentous time of peace and serenity such that you feel it as an embrace. Trust me, many people would articulate similar sentiments and it is only in experience that the bounty of thought is realised. The stay in Medina was such a rubicund experience in that it left you with a glow on your face and it felt as if your cheeks were smiling red. I feel it is the reality of the blessing in the place of Prophet Muhammad (s) whose life is unparalleled. I felt the quote of Alphonse de Lamartine regarding the Prophet Muhammad is best to captive you in understanding what I just wrote. 

“Never has a man proposed for himself, voluntarily or involuntarily, a goal more sublime, since this goal was beyond measure: undermine the superstitions placed between the creature and the Creator, give back God to man and man to God, reinstate the rational and saintly idea of divinity in the midst of this prevailing chaos of material and disfigured gods of idolatry.

Never has a man accomplished in such a short time such an immense and long lasting revolution in the world, since less than two centuries after his predication, Islam, preaching and armed, ruled over three Arabias, and conquered to God’s unity Persia, the Khorasan, Transoxania, Western India, Syria, Egypt, Ethiopia, and all the known continent of Southern Africa, many islands of the Mediterranean, Spain and part of Gaul.

If the grandeur of the aim, the smallness of the means, the immensity of the results are the three measures of a man’s genius, who would dare humanly compare a great man of modern history with Muhammad?

The most famous have only moved weapons, laws, empires; they founded, when they founded anything, only material powers, often crumbling before them. This man not only moved armies, legislation, empires, peoples, dynasties, millions of men over a third of the inhabited globe; but he also moved ideas, beliefs, souls. He founded upon a book, of which each letter has become a law, a spiritual nationality embracing people of all languages and races; and made an indelible imprint upon this Muslim nation, for the hatred of false gods and the passion for the God, One and Immaterial.

Philosopher, orator, apostle, legislator, warrior, conqueror of ideas, restorer of a rational dogma for a cult without imagery, founder of twenty earthly empires and of one spiritual empire, this is Muhammad. Of all the scales by which one measures human grandeur, which man has been greater…”

Our return to South Africa was an amazing reception of family that made us feel like saints away from Medina. Blessed! On looking at my beloved mother’s face I could not find words to express my deep satisfaction that Allah, the Compassionate made me feel. Taking your mother for Hajj and fulfilling the Hajj of your late father is a gift. I pray that all of you give that joy to your parents. Inshallah (If Allah Wills it).

Teaching began at General Smuts High the next week and it was overwhelming to explain the Hajj to a staff who have never known about it before and who had me as their only Muslim colleague. This itself tells you that Hajj generates an awe of presence that would delight any heart and uplift any soul. Make the journey!

When we look at the Hajj of 2020 under the COVID-19 situation I am drawn to the fact that all will perish but never the Glory and Majesty of Allah, the High the Great. This situation made me recall happier days and the Hajj then. Therefore, do not waste time. Begin the preparation because Allah, the Gatherer has affirmed that people will come to HIS House from the most distant of places. Do not make your heart distant. Begin yearning and leave the rest to Allah, the High the Great. Hajj beckons!

This is true! I have witnessed this. Oh! How the heart yearns to go back. Let’s make the prayer for each other.

Abdullah Sujee


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