The Journey Within
It was in August 1989 and the date was either 10 or 11. I had a strange dream, a dream that I will never forget. I dreamt that I was sitting outside my house on the road in the wee hours of the morning and eating something. I see someone coming towards me and my instinct tells me that the person approaching is none other than the Holy Prophet PBUH himself! He comes and takes me along saying he wants to show me his house. In the next scene I am standing outside a small and a modest house and he shows me in. The only striking feature in the house that I remember was an array of lights outside and inside without any apparent source. Lights outside were multicolored while the inside was all white.
21 years later in the month of November, I was in Makkah, standing outside a building constructed on the site where once the Holy Prophet PBUH lived! I never knew life could be so unpredictable. A world changed in these 21 years and I too went through many phases. Religion kept moving in and out of my life. Perhaps mostly out. I was never a deeply religious person anyways. But the last few years were spent as a skeptic. Always questioning and never really finding answers. Convincing answers I mean. But I asserted that religion was not just about rituals. One need to be a good human being and that is the foremost requirement. I still believe that rituals minus character, compassion, service, forgiveness, love, tolerance and empathy does not make one a good Muslim. Notwithstanding my point of view, I knew that I had many conflicts within that needed to be settled. I just did not know how to. I knew something was missing but I could not pinpoint it.
It was in the month of August 2010 when my wife casually informed me one day about the Hajj plan her father was making. He wanted to take along all his children to the holy lands. I only expressed my displeasure and shrugged it off. As per the plan her entire family intended to embark on the holy journey and she obviously did not want to miss this life time opportunity. I was just not prepared and this was perhaps the last thing on my list. Or maybe it had no place on my list! I just didn’t know what to do. She was adamant and we turned our focus on our kid. Can she leave him behind and go? No I just ruled it out as I knew he is too attached to his mother to endure such a long absence. Alternatively she suggested taking him along. What will I do then except getting worried about you two all the time? For few days this thought kept worrying me and although the only plausible option in the back of my mind was to accompany them, I could not bring myself to take this decision. After much debate and deliberations when it became clear that there was no way out, I relinquished albeit grudgingly. She was happy. I was skeptical. Once the decision was made, I remained aloof while she remained in the forefront. By avoiding the subject, I was behaving like an ostrich.
As time passed and the days neared, I felt that I was slowly getting reconciled to the fact that I was going for Hajj. Gradually I started talking about it. Also, and much to my own surprise, I even broke the news in my office. What brought this change I don’t know. But this feeling of reconciliation soon turned into anticipation combined with a strange excitement. The change was a surprise for me as well. And it brought some contentment. One conflict that had cropped up with the initiation of this plan finally ended. I was relieved.
On the first of November we finally departed for the journey. Clad in ehram, we were to do Umra immediately after reaching Makkah as per our niyyat. More than anything else, I realized I was excited about seeing the Ka’aba. They say the moment you set your eyes on the Ka’aba for the very first time, whatever dua you make is essentially answered. I kept on thinking what to ask for. I cannot disclose what eventually I decided upon but I kept waiting for the moment and prayed for this hours long journey to Makkah to end soon. I was getting impatient. I didn’t know what there was in store for me. I cannot recall what triggered this feeling of excitement that kept on increasing as we approached Makkah. It took us roughly three hours at Karachi airport followed by a four-hour flight to Jeddah, five never-ending hours at Jeddah airport and finally a six-hour bus ride to Makkah. Shortly after Fajr on the second of November we reached our hotel in Makkah.
I was told to keep my eyes down as a mark of respect when I go to the Haram and raise them only when I stand before the Ka’aba. I followed the instructions when we entered the grand mosque. I could hear my heartbeat. I think I was shivering also. I tried to recall the dua that I had to make at the first sight but a strange feeling was overpowering me and although I was walking straight I felt that I would fall any moment. After crossing the halls, when I stepped into the holy area where the majestic Ka’aba stands with all its glory, I had my eyes down but I knew I was there. I could sense the presence. That was one moment I will never forget in my life. I was standing before the Ka’aba and my eyes were down. For few seconds I could not lift up my eyes. I tried but I just couldn’t. I wanted to cry but there were no tears in my eyes. I was overpowered by something. I felt humbled beyond words. How could Allah call me, a sinner, to His house? Why did He give me such an honor? I don’t deserve this. Oh God I just don’t deserve this. I felt that I am absolutely nothing. And at that moment, something crushed forcefully inside me. Believe me, I could feel it. After few attempts, I finally managed to raise my eyes and there it was right before my sinful eyes. I wanted to sit there and cry. I knew that if I break down now, it would be hard to stop. He chose me to be there. Among billions of people, he picked me. Me, the skeptic, the sinner! I was all these years shying away and running away from Him and He instead of getting angry or upset, actually called me over. Just like a mother. When the baby is upset and crying, mother doesn’t leave him. She takes him in her arms, blows kisses on his face and cuddles him. She showers her love on him because she knows that the baby needs her all the more. And God did the same with me. Just like a mother. At that moment, I knew I had not come to Makkah. I was called there. It was pure calling. I swear if God Himself was standing before me I would have hugged Him and made peace with Him there and then.
That was the high point of my journey. I felt closeness to God. I felt Him. I was in His care. His special care. I had no fears and no regrets. Khaati hoon mein kitna bhool gaya, aasi hoon mein kitna bhool gaya. He remained with me throughout the journey. If I ever faltered during any step, it was because I didn’t look up to Him. And I know I faltered. I am not perfect. But I know He is much more forgiving than us mortals. To me what mattered the most was the fact that He had called me there. He could see that I was running amok and I needed attention. And perhaps He wanted to tell me that He is still there and I should not worry. And I must say that I was most relaxed over there. I had no worries, I had no problems. I did not fall ill. I enjoyed each moment. I loved His presence. And for the first time, I enjoyed praying so much.
I am forever indebted to the poet Jamil Naqvi. His famous poem that he wrote after seeing Ka’aba for the first time was my companion at Haram during the many evenings I spent there. Ka’abe pe pari jab pehli nazar. I don’t know how many times I recited this poem that echoed all the sentiments I had experienced while seeing the Ka’aba. There were many people from different countries that I saw reciting duas from Hajj books. I had not taken any book with me. I heard the specific duas that one should be saying while doing tawaf or while sitting in Haram. I said no. I am not going to spend my time reading from the books. It would be too mechanical as I won’t of course understand what I am reading. I will only read from my heart. And I will only communicate with Allah Mian in my own language. Dil se jo baat nikalti hai, asar rakhti hai. That’s what I did. Whether I did my own duas or recited any soorat that I felt like reciting, I did it from my heart and not from any book.
I had heard a lot about how strenuous and physically straining Hajj is and I was apprehensive to some extent. But as I completed each step, I kept wondering if the next one would qualify for hardship. He made sure we do our Hajj without any strain and pain. And we did. I am one of those persons, who neither do any physical exercises nor even walk regularly. I was even more apprehensive as almost everyone in my homeland had advised me to start walking prior to my journey. And I somehow couldn’t follow this advice. And I found that they were right. One has to walk a lot during Hajj. And I mean a lot. However, I realized that over there a person gets two levels of energy that keep him going; physical energy that he already has and that he brings with him and the other that he only gets over there for this journey is the spiritual energy. Once both are combined, then even a person like me can also walk miles and miles without much difficulty. I have never walked at a stretch in my life as much as I walked there. With my physical energy alone I could not have. It was the spiritual energy that I gained there that kept me going. Not that there were not any tough moments. The walk from Muzdalifa to Mina with my son on the stroller was not an easy one specially when we lost our way and took much longer to reach our camp. That was one moment when I faltered. I prayed that all three of us reach the camp alive. Such was the intensity of the crowd. But it was a momentary feeling and I soon got over it. As I said the few moments where I weakened were because I did not look up to Him. I am after all a human being and to err is human.
Journey to Hajj is incomplete without a trip to Madina, the city of Prophet Mohammad PBUH. After completing Hajj, we spent a day at Azizia and did tawaf-e-wida before departing for Madina. The bus ride was never-ending. For most part of the ride, specially when the holy city had arrived, I kept humming my favorite Salaam – Mustafa jaan e rehmat pe laakhon salaam. In fact I had started reciting it right from the time when after completing Hajj we had reached Azizia. It was strange. While in Haram, Jamil Naqvi’s poem kept coming to my mind and I would sing it unconsciously. My brain had no part in it. However, the moment Hajj was over and we reached Azizia, the excitement of Madina took over and Naqvi was replaced by the salaam again without any interference from me. It was as if someone was making me to recite and hum. And I went with the flow.
Masjid-e-Nabvi was another high point of my journey. I remember when I first stepped in, I found it hard to control my tears. The feeling that the beloved Prophet was right there and could hear my salam overpowered me. While heading towards the roza, I offered salam from everyone who had asked me to. With each step, my heartbeat increased and I felt weaker. And as we reached, I could not contain it anymore and broke down. How I wished that I could go on living that moment. I wanted time to freeze. I begged him to never leave me alone. It was a reunion of sorts.
I loved the serenity of Madina. The breeze was calm and the pace was relaxed. The masjid was the most beautiful structure I had seen. And praying there was so intensely enjoyable that I actually looked forward to the prayer times. I was totally a different person. I was disconnected from the world and did not want to go back. Except for home, I was not in touch with people outside generally (occasional texts notwithstanding). And I loved the period of disconnection. I loved the fact that all throughout the journey, I had no access to computers or newspapers. Even television that we had in our hotels in Makkah and Madina failed to attract us like it does back home. What we only and strangely enjoyed watching there was the channel that airs Haram live. We felt as if we were there in person.
Our stay in Madina was way too short. Just three days and four nights. It ended before we even realized. We were to leave the city for Jeddah on Wednesday the twenty fourth. An evening before, when I went for Maghrib prayers, I bid my farewell. I remember how difficult it was praying then. I didn’t know if I should focus on the prayer or attempt to stop my tears from flowing. I was afraid my cries may disturb people around me who were all busy praying. My journey was about to end. I was overwhelmed with emotions. I did not want to leave the holy shelter. For once I had the divine protection and I was actually feeling carefree. Like a child. But it had to end. The dream could not go on forever and I was to wake up to reality sooner than I expected.
The journey back home was not as exciting. I was going home. And though I was looking forward to meeting everyone specially my parents I knew I was leaving something behind. Something very precious. It was my heart.