My pilgrimage to the holy land in Saudi Arabia was indeed a journey of a life time.
It was an exhilarating experience to be a guest of Allah and be among his faithful. Is it not said that Hajj mabrur (a faultless hajj that is devoid of sin and graced with divine acceptance and pleasure) is one of the best, most virtuous deeds in Islam?
Two of the greatest narrators of Hadith, Bukhari and Muslim quoted the messenger of Allah as saying, "He who performs Hajj for God's good pleasure and avoids all lewdness and sin will return after Hajj as free from all sins as he was on the day his mother gave birth to him."
Armed with this conviction, one resolved to escape from worldly worries, ambitions, craze for material pursuits, disappointments and betrayals of life, vanities and take a flight to something more ennobling and spiritually fulfilling.
Hardly had the aircraft taxied to a halt at the Jeddah International Airport after a grueling four-and-half hours flight from Abuja than you long to be set free for the eventual pilgrimage experience.
As soon as the immigration formalities were completed, you, along with other good-natured pilgrims decided to head for Medina for the rewarding visit to the prophet's mosque and tomb.
In the preposterous and pathetic quest for immortality in which most humanity is engaged, founders of ideologies, like prophet Mohammed (PBUT), Jesus, Buddhae.t.c are said to be at a great advantage. This is due to their callings, sheer nobility of character and the guidance they gave to humanity.
Going to Medina and visiting the Prophet's mosque, tomb and other historic places is sunnah and is highly recommended. God's messenger gave a glad tiding that visiting him after his death is like visiting him while he was alive.
He also said: "The space between my house (where he died and was buried) and my pulpit is one of the gardens of paradise (Rawda) and my pulpit is at my fountain in paradise". Muslims are exhorted to visit and pray in the prophet's mosque because of the virtues inherent in doing so.
Abu Hurairah quotes the prophet as saying: "Do not set out on a (religious) journey except to three mosques: The Holy mosque (in Makah) which ismine, and the Al-Aqsa mosque (In Jerusalem)". The prophet (PBUH) also said, "One prayer in my mosque is better than one thousand prayers in any other mosque, except the Holy mosque (In Makkah).
The three-and-half hour journey by road from Jeddah to Medina under the scorching Arabian heat was one of Great Expectations. Medina is a thoroughly modern city in every sense of the word - the buildings, roads, the services and aesthetic designs are comparable to any in the western world.
As soon as I checked into a hotel room, I could not wait to visit the prophet's mosque. And so, after performing ablution, I walked serenely to the most magnificent building in Medina. The mosque itself is a sight to behold! Aside from its architectural beauty and grandeur, it immediately evokes a feeling of millennia. What strikes you as you approach the grand mosque is the sea of humanities hovering with serene dignity outside it.
In the prophet's mosque, worship comes alive pulsating with the devotion and piety of various worshippers from different nationalities. It is something approximating a subtle clash of civilizations with different nationalities attired in their different national clothes rendering eulogy to the Prophet.
I calmly moved to the prophet's mosque, offered the traditional two rak'ahs prayers as a greeting to the mosque. Thereafter, I moved to the grave of the prophet and offered salutation to him.
I was also lucky, after waiting patiently, to gain an entrance to the prophet's Rawdah which many pilgrims laid siege to for the slightest opportunity for it to be opened by the soldiers standing guard at the gate. Al-Rawdhah is the space between the prophet's chamber (Aisha's room) and the prophet's minbar (pulpit).
It derives its name from the prophet's statement: "What is between my chamber and my pulpit is a garden (rawdhah) from the garden of paradise". The Rawdah is ahonored place and most pilgrims want to behold it and offer prayers at its vicinity.
There are many other historic monuments to be visited in Madina: these include the Quba mosque, the Baque Cementry, Uhud Martyrs Cementry, Al-Qiblatain mosque etc. Quba is the first mosque built in Islam. The prophet said "Anyone who purifies himself in his house, then comes to Quba Masjid and performs a prayer therein will have the reward of an Umrah". It is therefore a wonderful experience visiting the Quba mosque and praying there.
As you made to depart Medina for the decisive journey to Makah, you cannot but be overwhelmed with emotion and grief at bidding farewell to the Prophet. To me, the visit to the Prophet's mosque was one of my cherished spiritual experiences with profound beneficial effect. My faith is revived and I experienced something nearing a nirvana. The fond memory of the visit will forever remain etched in my mind for a very long time to come.
THE ROAD TO MECCA
The 450-kilometre trip from Medina to Mecca for the commencement of Hajj rites had to be temporarily broken at a place calledAbyaar Ali so as to assume the state of ihram from Meeqat[a point some distance from Mecca beyond which a pilgrim may not pass without Ihram]. Ihram is the intention to perform Hajj or Umra.
Male pilgrims wear a special attire of two white, unstitched cloths. No special Hajj attire for women. The cladding of the haram, signifies the state of holiness as well as evokes a sense of equality and unity among Muslims. Furthermore, visual indicators of class, wealth and culture are removed, at least temporarily.
From this moment, the pilgrims begin to recite the words of Talbiyah: "Labbayk Allahuma Labbayk. Labbayka La Shureeka Laka Labbayk Inna-hamda wannimata laka-mulk. La shareekalak", meaning "I respond in obedience to you, oh Allah. I respond. No partner is there to you, I respond. All praise and favour is yours, and sovereignty. There is no partner to you.'
On arrival in the holy city of Mecca, Muslims all head straight to the Kaaba to perform the Tawaf al - qudum(circumbulatung round the Kaaba 7 times) and sai. The sacred Kaaba rebuilt as a temple by Abraham in the 14th century BC stands in the middle of the Great mosque in Mecca.Kaaba is also called the House, Allah's House, the Sacred Mosque, the Ancient House and the Qiblah [prayer direction].
Allah has endowed it with a kind of sacredness and sanctification that has never been given to any other place on this earth. While some historical sources assert that the angels are the first to build the Kaaba, others affirmed Adam was the first person to do that. Yet others believe that Allah created it two thousand years before the creation of the the earth after which the earth was spread out from underneath it.
On sighting the Kaaba, one cannot but be mesmerized at the awe-inspiring sight of pilgrims running round it counter -clock wise while mouthing various prayers and thereby symbolically aligning themselves with the planetary motions around the earth.
I observed that some pilgrims, especially of the Asian stock readily burst into tears on sighting the Kaaba. Kaaba, it is said symbolizes the constancy and eternity of Allah. You soon lose individuality as you begin the circumbulation. In the midst of the thronging crowd, you feel like a small stream merging with a big river.
In the words of Ali Shariati; "the pressure of the crowd squeezes you so hard that you are given a new life. You are now part of the people; you are now a man, alive and eternal...". In the Kaaba, you observe freedom of worship in its true form as the distinction between the most erudite cleric and the most unlearned worshipper is obliterated.
One observes a black woman, in ecstasy chanting something like an incantation while supplicating. The Arab guides and soldiers silently keep watch but are quick to correct any untoward excesses.As soon as you are done with the Tawaf, you offer two rakkah of salat (prayer), drink the zamzam water to assuage your thirst and proceed to do the sai.
The sai is the seven trips between As-safa and Al-marwah. The hastening between mounts As-safa and Al-mawrah, is part of the ceremonies and rites of Hajj and Umrah. Running between safa and marwah, the pilgrim is lost in the sea of people running, hastening in pure faith. There is no distinction here between the learned and unlearned, just movement of devoted people in practical demonstration of faith.
Your faith is further reinforced at the end of this remarkable exercise in sacrifice, obedience, faith and striving in the cause of Allah. In the midst of all these, there came a welcome distraction. A certain Egyptian youngster, Daudu, walked up to me and ask if I was a Nigerian." Yes, I am one'. I replied.
He now asked: 'How is Amokachi, Rasheed Yekini and JJ Okocha?' They are all fine excepting Rasheed Yekini (late) who died recently'. Dauduwas visibly touched and offered prayers for the repose of the departed.
Wherever and whenever a large crowd of people gather, commerce inevitably follows. The great mosque in Mecca is no exception. It is indeed not all about worship without end. As you step out of the mosque, you confront a bedlam of people mingling and shuffling all heading to the myriad shopping complexes surrounding the mosque.
Such brands as Gucci, Prado, Givenchy, Giorgio Armani, Ralph Lauren collections, Christian Dior, Louis Vuittonand even KFC restaurant are present and have their products visibly displayed in the various shops adorning the complexes. Yet, despite their penchant for western products, the Arabs will not deign to speak English. Try and start a conversation in English and you would be met with a gruff reply in Arabic. You are therefore nonplussed and alienated.
As you move farther away from the Grand Mosque towards the Marshfallah District, you are led into different alleys where all kinds of products - from smuggled Nigerian kola and bitter Kola to Indian spices and aphrodisiacs - are sold to lucky bidders. This is the underworld market of Mecca which caters to the needs of the poor. Here, all manners of junks including second-hand clothing are displayed for the poor pilgrims of all nationalities. Class contradiction cannot be any more striking.
On the eight day of Dhul-al-hijjah, the pilgrims proceeded to Mina where they spend the night praying and remembering Allah. Mina is one of the cultic shrines for the performance of Hajj.
It is in Mina that the pilgrims pass the nights prior to the eleventh and twelfth days of Dhul-Hijjah. On the tenth day, pilgrims leave Mina for the Arafat plane for vigil,contemplation, prayers and recitation of the Holy Quran near the hill, Jabal-Al-Rahman, (the hill of forgiveness) from which the prophet gave his lastsermon.
The pilgrims conduct the Dhur and Asr prayers and stay there till sunset. The day of Arafat is indeed a special day; for standing in Arafat, is one of the most obligatory rites of Hajj. According to the prophet, "Hajj is standing in Arafat." It is a meritorious day. In Arafat, you see Muslims from all nations clad in white. Above all, you see humanity without borders. You consider yourself lucky to be among this ocean of humanity.
At sunset the pilgrims lost in the crowd, all move to Muzdalifah where they spend the night sleeping on the ground in the open sky. Passing the night at Muzdalifah in the night preceding the tenth day of Dhul-hijjah is one of the obligatory aspects of Hajj.
Back to Minna, the pilgrims now perform Ramy al-Jamarat, the casting of 7 pebbles at the minor Jamrah, then the middle one and then the major one on three consecutive days. The lesson of the casting of the stone is to signify their defiance of the devil and also to show submission to Allah and whole-hearted devotion to him in emulation of Prophet Ibrahim.
Hajj re-enacts the stories of Abraham, Hagar and Ishmael and has been given different meanings from time immemorial. Hajj has served to bring together believers from all over the world to meet and worship together, thereby fostering unity and brotherhood.
It is said that he who does not realize the essence of Hajj only brings back from Mecca a suitcase full of souvenirs and an empty mind. The various symbolic rites associated with Hajj - tawaf, migration, sai, movement to Mina, Arafat and Muzdalifa, donning the Ihram - are full of purposes and meanings.
They are enacted to stress Tawheed (unity), Jihad (struggle against base self), Shahadat (martyrdom), fighting with Satan, sacrifice, unity, brotherhood and love of fellow man. Like Abraham who desired to sacrifice Ishmael and was dissuaded from doing so in Mina, pilgrims, nay Muslims are enjoined to sacrifice their base instincts, wealth, money, property in the cause of Allah.
As you participate in the last tawaf (tawaf-l-wada) and bid bye to the holy city of Mecca, you resolve to be a better Muslim ready to contribute to peace, ethnic and religious harmony and human progress, not just in your Country but the world over.
After the Hajj experience the pilgrim become a new person. You acquire a sense of humility, inner calm, brotherhood and strength to continue on the path of faith.