The final rituals: Confronting Islam’s demons

By WND Staff

The Grand Mosque at Mecca, which is kept strictly off limits to "infidels" by the Saudi government.
The Grand Mosque at Mecca, which is kept strictly off limits to “infidels” by the Saudi government.

Hajji Mustafa is the pseudonym of a British Arabist, or one who studies Arab language and civilization. He posed as a Muslim to experience first-hand the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. WND agreed to run this article without his real name, as doing so would put his life in danger. PART 1 can be read here. Part 2 is here.

“No more than fifteen Christian-born Europeans have thus far succeeded in seeing the two holy cities and escaping with their lives. ”
Philip Hitti, “The History of the Arabs”

By “Hajji Mustafa”

Everyone leaves Arafat at almost the same moment after sunset, so the short journey to Muzdalifa was, not surprisingly, the slowest trip so far, taking over two hours. Our journey came to an abrupt end when the bus in front stopped and its engine switched off. We had arrived.

We celebrated our arrival in Muzdalifa with the usual spate of prayers: obligatory, extra, personal, special – I quite lost track of them all, and bobbed up and down mechanically, waiting only for them to end. After prayers, each pilgrim picks up about 50 pebbles to use against the devils. There were so many pebbles on the ground that it made me wonder, isn’t Muzdalifa running out after 14 centuries of the Islamic pilgrimage? Or do the authorities dutifully cart pebbles back from Mina?

Warned emphatically about getting lost, Hasan and I set off to find some food, picking our way through the pilgrims asleep by the side of the road. Here a soft drink costs six times the normal price. We bought a box of yogurt (which turned out to be rancid) and greasy fried pastries, forced them down, and slept on top of the bus, cushioned by the bags and covered by the ihram. Muzdalifa is not a town, just one large mosque, many roads clogged with stopped traffic, and two million drowsy pilgrims.

10 Dhu’l-Hijja. Beseeching Allah in the middle of the night, the Turks woke me. Lying awake by their side under the dark Arabian skies, I had a sense of their faith and their passion. After dawn prayers, the bus resumed its slow crawl back to Mina, some three kilometers away.

The slaughter at Mina

On arrival in Mina, we dashed over to the Great Devil, the largest column of the three and the only one to be stoned today. Each pilgrim casts seven pebbles at it. (Tomorrow and the next day we throw seven stones at the two other devils as well, making a total of 7 + 21 + 21, or 49 stones in all.) Surrounded now by pilgrims shouting and cursing against Satan, the devil looks even more innocuous than a couple of days ago. In their fury, pilgrims curse better than they aim; perhaps every fifth pebble went astray and many hit pilgrims instead of the devil.

Two other rituals scheduled for this morning made me apprehensive. First, in memory of Abraham’s sacrifice of an animal instead of his son, each pilgrim slaughters a sheep or a goat, sometimes a cow or a camel. To avoid this whole procedure, I stayed in the hostel where, to my surprise and delight, I was left alone. Neither the Turks nor the mutawwif so much as inquired whether I had killed an animal.

In the second ritual, barbers shave the hair from the heads of male hajjis; freshly scalped pates attested to their new status as pilgrims. When I finally left the hostel, I found hundreds of barbers lining the streets, clicking their scissors to attract customers. Most sat the hajjis down on the ground among the tufts of hair already cut; only the more elegant barbers provided wooden chairs. They chopped off all the head hair and then shaved the stubble. With apprehension, I watched as these once-a-year amateur barbers nicked and cut their customers.

I dreaded losing all my hair, partly for aesthetic reasons, partly out of concern that it would alert everyone on my return home where I had been for two weeks. But how to avoid it? I could not be the only male in Mina with hair left. Fortunately, I procrastinated. After the mid-day prayers a man by my side turned to me and – completely unsolicited – asked whether I had yet had my ritual haircut. I admitted that I had not. He told me that one of the four Islamic legal rites requires only a token clipping, not a complete shave. Thanks to him, I saved my hair.

Pilgrims receive ritual haircut in Mina.
Pilgrims receive ritual haircut in Mina.

Fawzi reappeared towards 9 a.m. He had spent hours looking for our tent yesterday at Arafat but only got further and further lost. As I had expected, he took refuge in a compound of Turks. No doubt, he repaid their hospitality with a dose of his special brand of hellfire preaching.

Mecca II

Pilgrims return to Mecca on either the 10th or 11th of Dhu’l-Hijja to fulfill several rituals. Hasan and I went there together today, leaving Muna about noon. In Mecca, we first went to our bags and changed into normal clothing. This was a welcome change after three days and nights of wearing exclusively the ihram. Hasan put on his customary long brown robe, I got into shirt and pants. Pilgrims celebrate the end of this part of the hajj by putting on festive clothing; for Hasan, this meant a red skull-cap, for me a bright checkered shirt.

Then to the Grand Mosque; against my advice, we left our sandals at the entrance, When I suggested that they might get lost or stolen, Hasan hushed me and reminded me of the sacredness of this spot. We circled the Kaaba seven times, just as on the first evening in Mecca, though this was a very different experience. The crowds being much thinner, the circumambulations were easy, even pleasant to perform. At the end of the fifth turn we approached the eastern corner of the Kaaba, reached out, and actually touched the Black Stone. Hasan spread its blessedness over his face with his hand, but I wiped the sweaty film onto my pants. Hasan then led me to a number of special locations in the mosque and we offered prayers at each one. The mellow atmosphere of the mosque made me feel mildly pious during these prayers. For once, I did not feel like an imposter.

This feeling did not last long, however. Leaving the mosque, I found my sandals missing at the doorway – punishment, perhaps, for doubts about the hajj spirit? Then, outside the mosque, Hasan told me he thought we had done only six turns around the Kaaba, rather than the prescribed seven. I could not convince otherwise; to be absolutely sure, he went back in the mosque and to do the whole seven turns again. I went in the other direction to explore the Meccan market for footwear and other consumer items, my lagging piety showing through once again.

In contrast to the Christian holy places, religious souvenirs are uncommon in Mecca, being limited to pictures of the Kaaba on posters, prayer rugs, tin plates, and the like. Instead of trinkets, Mecca’s shops display a wide array of high quality international merchandise. Pilgrims traditionally buy gifts in the holy cities to distribute at home, making Mecca during hajj season a vast consumer emporium. Some buy items from shops, others trade with each other. Indeed, until the 18th century, the hajj was one of the greatest trade fairs on earth, with goods from Europe, Africa, Arabia and the Indies.

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Today, Saudi Arabia’s huge oil income makes the country a cherished customer for exporters around the world; and because the government imposes almost no duties on imports, it serves foreigners as a virtually tax-free market. The stores burst with goods, especially electronics, from the whole industrial world. In addition, some pilgrims still maintain the ancient custom of paying their way to Mecca by bringing local wares to sell, such as Afghan rugs, Indian spices, and Indonesian silks. I bought sandals for myself and religious books for the Turks, a token of gratitude for their many acts of generosity.

Mina III

We will spend two more nights in Mina (stoning the devils early each morning), so I returned there late in the afternoon. Corpses of the sheep and other animals sacrificed this morning lined the streets of Mina. Sometimes just a red patch of sand indicated the scene of the slaughter, sometimes the inedible parts, but most often the whole animal lay there rotting; many more sheep and goats had been killed than could be eaten.

After returning from Mecca, I went to the hostel and fell right to sleep. Staying up late and rising early has left me perpetually tired. This does have advantages; I find it easy to fall asleep on floors and other hard surfaces. Also, I resume sleep easily after interruptions, which is especially important because Muslims lack the Westerners’ common respect for sleep. Britons treat sleep as almost sacrosanct and go out of their way not to wake a person but Muslims do otherwise. Pilgrims think nothing of noisily barging into a hostel room at three in the morning, tripping over the bodies lying underfoot, turning on lights, and talking at full volume. I am irritated when awakened in this manner but Muslims accept it as normal.

This evening, going to sleep was an adventure. The hostel rooms were completely filled, so I dozed off on a cement bench in the passageway of the hostel, lying on Hasan’s blanket, uncomfortable but tired enough to sleep. When Hasan woke me an hour later to take his blanket from me, I should have stayed where I was on the bench, even without insulation from my cement mattress. Hasan thought there was room to spread out the blanket for us both at the Mina mosque, and I followed him. He usually knows what he is doing, but not tonight. The mosque was packed full; there was not even space for one of us to stretch out, certainly not for two. We did, however, find room in the street outside the mosque, where we joined the many who spread their blankets on the dirty tarmac of the roadway. What misery: Feet were sticking into my face, the ground was hard and lumpy, and the very idea of bedding down on a paved road put me off. Things got worse: about midnight the police chased us out to clear the way for traffic. How humiliating, and without any place just to lie down. We could return to the hostel, though, and I convinced Hasan to try that. I went back to the same bench I started on. By this time, even the hard cement felt good.

11 Dhu’l-Hijja. It is the getting up that is difficult, especially when I have the morning’s prostrations to look forward to. We intended to pray inside Mina’s only mosque but it was again full, and again we resorted to the street. Islamic prayers require much kneeling and sitting on one’s feet, and these are painful on tarmac.

Today and tomorrow we have just one remaining obligation, stoning the devils each morning. I pitched pebbles at them after dawn this morning and then relaxed most of the day, staying close by the hostel. I went out only to eat, to wonder through Mina’s main street, and to buy a broad sheet announcing the hajj statistics. Two million foreigners came to Mecca, the greatest hajj attendance ever: Yemen and Nigeria sent especially large numbers; a handful came from the United Kingdom.

I had two noteworthy conversations this morning in the hostel. A Meccan boy who assists the mutawwif made vivid for me the nature of life in Saudi Arabia. He explained how an obsession with the separation of men and women dominates social life, how oil riches create unparalleled economic opportunities, and how the government rules by mixing repression with paternalism.

I later heard another dissenting voice, that of a Turk living in Saudi Arabia and working in the oil fields. He speaks good English, so I asked him to translate what Niyazi was at that moment saying to a group of pilgrims. He refused – on the grounds that the sermon was demagogic and morbid. A true hajji rejected the extreme piety of my Turkish companions: perhaps this would encourage me to stand up for my own beliefs and stop slavishly imitating them?

A small incident today gave me an opportunity to do so. Hasan stopped me on my way to the lavatory carrying a roll of tissue; he explained with lively gestures – words not sufficing – that I should cleanse myself with water after defecation. Islamic toilet etiquette calls for pouring water with the right hand and wiping oneself with the left. I nodded to him in agreement and continued on my way, with the paper. It felt like a small victory for Western civilization.

On a related subject, Mina has the most appallingly inadequate sanitation facilities. They are plentiful but so filthy that most pilgrims prefer the outdoors. Mecca and Muna both being located on hills and in valleys, streams of urine and waste water flow across great distances at considerable speeds. The Grand Mosque, where some 75,000 pilgrims sleep each night of the hajj, has no public water facilities except the Zamzam well. While no one excretes in the mosque itself, many do so just outside it, even against its walls. I myself did this once; though feeling terribly conspicuous and expecting a reprimand, in fact no one paid me any attention. I found it strange that the Grand Mosque and the Hill of Mercy, Islam’s two holiest spots, also serve as lavatories for the faithful.

12 Dhu’l-Hijja. The pilgrimage ends today and the day’s spirit reminds me of the conclusion of a skiing holiday or boat trip, with everyone packing, saying goodbye, exchanging contact information, reminiscing, and preparing to resume normal life.

My final night in the Mina hostel was disrupted only once; pious roommates tripped over me on their way to a vigil some hours before dawn. As if to compensate, no one woke me until after 6 o’clock, when a boisterous call to prayer a few meters from my head reminded me of my first duties of the day. (The morning call to prayer includes a special phrase not included at other times of the day, one I find effective: “Prayer is better than sleep, Prayer is better than sleep.”) I rose quickly to join in the devotions and then accompanied Hasan and Fawzi to stone the devils for the third and final day.

Fewer pilgrims were present today, so we had a chance to approach the devils more closely. I’d never seen any of the Turks laugh before, but they were much amused by the antics of a man who clambered up the pile of pebbles surrounding one of the devils and beat this symbolic column of bricks over and over again with a stick, all the while screaming at it furiously, incited by the barrage of pebbles intended for the devil but also hitting him.

Mecca III

We left Mina for good at 8 in the morning and drove to Mecca. Today, all the lanes of all roads are filled with traffic heading in that direction. Mutawwifs stagger the returns from Mina at different times of the day, so the traffic was light and the trip rapid. After washing at the hostel in Mecca, I walked to the Grand Mosque for the prayer services, hoping this time to pray within sight of the Kaaba in the courtyard. As usual, I arrived too late; half an hour before prayers, the enormous courtyard had already filled up. Instead, I went to the market for souvenirs. I found little to recall Mecca by among the vast array of electronic gadgets; eventually, I found a recording of the call to prayer in the Grand Mosque, the haunting chant that woke me the first morning.

Returning to the hostel, I took a short cut through the Grand Mosque; sunset prayers were called just as I walked near the Kaaba and this time, by a fluke, I found a place. Having seen pictures of this circle of believers around the Kaaba since childhood, I was gratified once to stand, kneel, and bow in unison with the pilgrims at the very heart of Islam.

13 Dhu’l-Hijja. No one woke me at the dawn prayer, so I slept late, until 8 o’clock. Religious duties are now over, and so is my stay in Mecca. Tomorrow I plan to leave for Jeddah and thence home; today I washed clothes, read, talked, and sampled the food in several restaurants, including an Indonesian one.

While sitting in the Grand Mosque today, I was approached by two boys begging for money, one leading the other by the arm as though he were blind. But the blind one moved unsurely and nervously, his eyes shut tightly; I suspected he was putting on an act to exploit the pilgrims’ goodwill and gullibility. Their deception was transparent but no one seemed to care; the boys reaped rich rewards, as all beggars do during hajj season.

The reason is not hard to find. Pilgrims are nearly indifferent about the recipients of their help because the first purpose of charity is to enhance their own status in the eyes of the Lord. As implied in the ubiquitous cry of the Muslim beggar (“Give money and proceed in the path of Allah.”). The donor does a greater service for himself than for the beggar by giving alms. The act of giving matters more than the good it does; beggars serve a useful function. No one but a misplaced Westerner like myself seems to care much whether they really need charitable help.

The result is beggars who demand money as though entitled to it. With maimed bodies and disfigured faces, they line the streets of Mecca and Mina and accost passers-by. They display no humility when soliciting and no appreciation when receiving. Never before have I seen beggars who give change, who smoke on the job, or who are completely hidden from view, such as the local women. Again, real pilgrims show no suspicion, but I wonder if needy females sit under those shrouds. Niyazi once tried to stop a beggar from reciting the Koran, arguing in his broken Arabic, “Koran no for money,” but the man had a profitable business to pursue and he continued the recitation as soon as we left him.

Begging is probably less lucrative than selling holy water. Water-carriers wear colorful and distinctive clothing, shout “Zamzam,” and haul water on their backs in tall ornamented cans ringed with drinking glasses. “Zamzam” announces that their water comes from the holy well by that name, but who’s to say? I imagine some water-carriers avoid the struggle for a tap at the Zamzam well by filling their cans with municipal water. Once more, true believers harbor no suspicions and the water sells briskly.

Thievery is an abiding problem on the hajj. Besides my sandals, Niyazi had money stolen, and Hasan was twice short-changed. Pilgrims worry constantly about theft. Nearly all the men wear money bags, some of them with locks, most of them with straps to attach to the waist.

Hajj UmrahBelt

Widespread stealing during the hajj cannot be blamed on the Saudi hosts, however. Koranic law, which still holds in Saudi Arabia, requires that the hand of a recurrent thief be cut off. As a consequence, shop-lifting and other minor crimes are rare among Saudi subjects. I first saw the effects of these laws in Tabuk, where goods are left unattended when the store owner goes off. It is the foreign pilgrims who steal; in Mecca, shopkeepers emphatically do not leave the premises unprotected.

The mundane atmosphere in this holiest of sanctuaries goes beyond dubious beggars, phony holy water, and stealing. The Grand Mosque houses a number of legitimate businesses, including some dozens of permanent shops and innumerable peddlers of soft drinks, turbans, fly-swatters, and the like. One woman runs an impromptu business in used sandals not far from the Kaaba, profiting from sandals lost or stolen at the mosque entrance.

The Saudi authorities have spent huge amounts on the hajj but the results did not impress me – the long lines, the crushed crowds, the inadequate facilities, and the unhygienic practices. Nor am I alone in this view; some Turkish politicians have called for an Vatican-like pan-Muslim structure to take control of the hajj.

I wrote letters today—announcing the event of my becoming a hajji to a select group of relatives and friends—and went to a post office to send them with a Mecca postmark. Having to contend with long and unorganized queues at the counters to purchase stamps was difficult enough, but getting the letters into a post box was worse. The two boxes that had once hung on an inside wall of the post office had long since been torn off by enthusiastic pilgrims. By the time I arrived, they lay on the ground, surrounded by a crowd attempting to get in just one more letter. I handed my letters directly to a postal clerk, but doubted if they would ever reach England. (They did.)

This evening, I sat in the lounge of one of the better hotels. For amusement, I pretended to be a conventional British tourist at a foreign resort and gave my order to the waiter in English. But my game went only so far; at prayer time, I knelt on the floor and offered my devotions.

The hotel is curiously inelegant, perhaps because its clientele is exclusively pilgrim. Most of the lifts do not work, there are no bellhops, and bills must be paid in cash. The lavatories lack toilet paper, of course, but must they have empty dispensers? The hotel stands opposite the Grand Mosque and its top floors give a superb view of the Kaaba. The price? Thousands of pounds a night during the hajj season, making it briefly one of the most expensive hotels in the world.

I said good-bye to my Turkish companions in the evening. They plan to stay in Mecca another fortnight, praying, studying and meditating. To the end, they remain alien to me, though we did manage slightly to bridge our very wide differences and share – to a degree – the experience of the hajj. Spending a week with the Turks gave me an opportunity to understand the meaning of the pilgrimage and many other aspects of Muslim life. For example, I became aware that although Islam formally accepts the continued existence of other monotheistic religions, Muslims typically dislike and even despise non-Muslims. These feelings come out most clearly in Mecca, where, alone in the exclusive company of believers, Muslims devote all their attention to religious concerns. The Turks’ special fervor and hostility toward non-Muslims gave me an unadorned insight into this mentality.

If not for the Turks, how would I, unattached and lacking faith, have participated in the hajj rituals? When I planned this trip, I expected to be a tourist, an outsider witnessing the pilgrimage drama. Had I been on my own, I might have prayed several times but no more. As it was, I really did observe the rituals. Being in the presence of at least one of the Turks through the past week obliged me to take part in every ceremony. I followed them mechanically in the prayers, changed position unthinkingly, and let my mind wander. Not knowing how many prayers were in store or how long the meditations afterwards would last, I just waited for sessions to end.

It was a chore to be sure, but even the motions of the five scheduled prayers each day (as well as the many more for special locations and occasions) had a psychological impact on me. In a week’s time I gained a sense of the role of prayer in Muslim life. Having to pray many times a day, I developed a sense of the rhythm of daily life and the bonds that Muslims share. I came to understand how their monotony, regularity, and repetition impress the faith on an individual and foster strong communal ties.

And prayer is but one of the duties demanded of believers. Islamic law is made up of extensive and detailed regulations covering many aspects of life. It governs clothing, eating, personal hygiene, and sexual relations. Islam has views on matters so small as whistling, which it prohibits, while it encourages the brushing of teeth with the twigs of an arak tree. From the time a believer rises before sunrise (for the first round of prayers) until he retires at night (lying on his side in a position permitted for sleep), he constantly encounters the precepts of his religion.

A Muslim who fulfills all these injunctions is imbued with a powerful sense of living properly; the result is an aura of supreme self-satisfaction. In the words of a French Orientalist, Louis Gardet, “Mundane excellence and the assurance of well-being in paradise: these two guarantees are combined in the heart of a believer. . . . He draws from this his dignity and his calm pride, so striking in every zealous Muslim, no matter what his class or social condition, whether beggar or caliph.” Living up to religious precepts allows the devout Muslim to feel that his every action has a divine significance. This awareness of Allah’s omnipotence has an effect on everyday actions, too, leading to a solemn slowness, a distinctly Muslim manner that is perhaps my most abiding memory of the Turks. However hard I tried, it was impossible for me to imitate their demeanor.

Traveling with the Turks made me an active participant in all the sacred rituals. As a result, I am a more authentic hajji than I ever expected. More authentic, yes, but still an impostor. Being taken seriously as a Muslim has been a strange experience. From the time a guard hit me at Muhammad’s tomb in Medina I wondered how anyone might really believe that I, a Westerner, take these ceremonies to heart. Could any Westerner sincerely carry out Islamic rituals? Some evidently do, but the possibility eluded me.

Islam can be a forward-minded faith. But not during the hajj: as practiced in Mecca, Islam is an archaic faith, buried in superstition and prejudice. My experiences here made vivid the gulf between Islam and modern ways of life. The toilet paper incident symbolized for me the difficulty of modernizing Islam: what would a pious British Muslim have done? Would he have accepted Hasan’s strictures and given up paper for water and the left hand? To an urban Briton, the ritual slaughter of animals is an alien and repulsive practice; surely I would feel no differently about this as a devout Muslim.

And yet, the hajj has a new face: Coca-Cola and its advertisements are ubiquitous. English is the second most widely spoken language after Arabic, and an Inter-Continental Hotel graces the city. Reuters correctly reports that “Pilgrims in seamless white robes queue outside counters of household names like McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) and Baskin Robbins to grab a bite or an ice cream during a break from worshiping.” Although the pilgrimage no longer encompasses a world entirely severed from ours, the hajj is a remarkable spiritual and social journey and a visit to Mecca remains illicitly absorbing. For a Muslim it offers a unique opportunity to devote oneself to Allah; for an outsider, it allows a glimpse at one-fifth of the human race when it is alone.

This marks the end of this series. PART 1 can be read here. Part 2 is here.

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