I write my column this week from the holiest of cities for Muslims, the city of Mecca, located in the present day Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It is an ancient city that has a history stretching back thousands of years and is mentioned in the Bible and the Quran.
In the Bible, it is in an area called “Paran”. “Paran”, some Bible scholars point out, refer to the area encompassing that entire region of the Arabian desert.
Mecca is that ancient place where the Prophet Abraham took his wife Hagar and their son Ishmael and settled them there, peace be upon them all. Accounts of that journey and settlement in that location include Hagar in a frantic search for water running between the two hills of Safa and Marwah while Ishmael played in the sand. At the spot Ishmael was playing, water started to appear. Its source, the well of ‘zam zam’, which continues to flow until this day.
The Arab peoples trace their lineage to Ishmael perhaps as a result of his settling and growing up in that region. Mecca grew into a city as a result of water availability from the well of zam zam and the nomadic tribes passing through.
Mecca also became the location that Abraham and his son Ishmael built the House of God called the Kaaba – a place dedicated to the worship of one God and a place that God instructed Abraham to call people for pilgrimage. In the Holy Quran it says that Abraham was commanded: “And proclaim the pilgrimage among humankind. They will come to you on foot and (mounted) on every camel, lean on account of journeys through deep and distant mountain highways.”
Mecca became a focal point for pilgrimage and the city’s importance grew. Over succeeding centuries, the worship of one God was replaced by idol worship and the Kaaba became the house of many idols controlled by the powerful and wealthy tribes of Mecca.
With the coming of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, some 600 years after Jesus, peace be upon him, in the city of Mecca and the establishment of the Islamic faith, the Kaaba was returned to the worship of one God and the idols removed.
The Kaaba (the cube shaped, black cloth covered structure) is the focal point of prayer for Muslims the world over. From any point on this earth a Muslim will calculate the direction of the Kaaba and set his or her prayer mat down to perform their five daily prayers. Muslims pray to the Creator in a unifying direction. From Barbados that direction is generally east. With current technology and smartphones one can find that exact direction with an App and the touch of a finger. This replaces years of dependence on the sun, stars and moon to inform one of that direction. Perhaps the early Muslims’ important contributions to the science of astronomy and their invention of the astrolabe was as a direct result of the need to fulfil that important pillar of the faith, prayer.
As I sat in the precincts of that most holy of places I reflected on the thousands of people that journeyed to there from all parts of the world. An estimated 3.2 million persons were in Mecca this year for the holy month of Ramadan. I saw men, women and children of all races, nationalities, social classes, the physically challenged, the young and the old. I saw the dark skin African stand in unity next to the fair skin European who in turn stood next to brown skin man confined to his wheelchair. All in prayer to their Creator.
The command of God to Abraham to call the people to the Kaaba echoed through the centuries and that call increasingly is taken up by Muslims from every single part of the world. Saudi Arabian authorities say this year saw the largest numbers for the month of Ramadan to the holy cities of Mecca and Madinah.
As I circumambulated the Kaaba seven times as prescribed I did so with thousands of others including one who was dragging himself on the marble floors around the Kaaba because he was physically challenged and opted out of the wheelchair option. The swirling in cosmic-like similarity never stops except for brief moments for the compulsory prayers five times a day.
And as I ran the seven circuits between the hills of Safa and Marwah in re-enactment of Hajar’s frantic search for water I understood, as I am sure the thousands of others who were doing the same with me, that we do this in response to our Creator’s call and to appreciate our fore-parents’ sacrifices in establishing communities and nations.
Malcolm X was profoundly impacted by his pilgrimage to that holy city. And so is the case with millions over the years. And while human nature makes us excited when we see famous people in such places I could not help but reflect on the many faces and what this journey meant to them. For me, they are the real heroes sacrificing much to journey to this place in the middle of a scorching desert especially hotter as summer gets closer, just to worship their Creator in the precincts of this holy place. For many, it is a once in a lifetime opportunity.
With the $100 billion expansion of the ‘Haram Shareef’, Arabic for the Holy Mosque, the Saudi authorities estimate that approximately four million people can be accommodated for prayer in the mosque. The area of the Grand Mosque indoor and outdoor is 400,800 square meters or 99 acres.
On one night, as I attempted to perform my prayers in the Grand Mosque, I could not find a single space to pray; every square foot of prayer space was taken up. I barely managed to find a spot close to the road on the pavement.
Every year, the number of Muslims journeying to Mecca for the holy month of Ramadan is growing significantly. Dealing with such a massive influx of people of all backgrounds and languages is a phenomenal challenge but one which the Saudi authorities have mostly successfully managed to their credit.
The journey there, the rituals involved and the heat can all take their toll on an individual, especially the not so young. But I saw people of all ages with the strength, vigour and determination to fulfil their obligations and with a happiness in their spirit that they have accomplished something great. It was an achievement of a lifetime to be there in the holiest of holy places.
Every prayer for me in that place was an awesome experience, as each time I stood, bowed and prostrated, there were different people on my right, left, front and back. It was, truly, a global village in its physical manifestation.
As Ramadan ends and Muslims celebrate Eid-ul-Fitr such experiences allow us to better ourselves and to appreciate the creation and the Creator much more. Eid Mubarak / Blessed Eid to all.
(Suleiman Bulbulia is a Justice of the Peace, Secretary of the Barbados Muslim Association and Muslim Chaplain at the Cave Hill Campus, UWI and a Childhood Obesity Prevention Champion. Email: email@example.com)