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CHAPTER 3: FROM SCOTLAND TO SAUDI

When we landed in Cairo, we were welcomed by the Cairo night at the death of the sandstorm. I took a deep breath taking in this foreign culture and language. The air was tainted with the taste of sand, which made its presence felt throughout our short stay in Cairo. This short stay involved changing into the Ihram, which is basically two pieces of white unstitched cloth. This ihram would be our only clothing, indeed our uniform, until we reach Makkah and complete the rights of the Umrah (the lesser Hajj).

Wearing the Ihram is no easy task, even for a Scotsman like me. The Ihram is similar to wearing two plain white beach towels. They have no decoration or designs, nor do they have any other adornments. We wrap one around our waist like a skirt or kilt and one around the top part of the body. There are no zips or button, which help to hold it together. You cant wear any other clothes, including boxers, or any jewellery. You must wear something simple like flip-flops on the feet without any socks. The footwear must be open and not cover the top part of the foot.

This is the thing that really troubled me. I am use to wearing normal clothes like all the rest of us. I had a re-occurring thought of someone tripping and on the way down, grabbing me by the ihram. I imagined myself being starkers at front of millions of other Muslims. It was very daunting. Many people are use to wearing similar clothes, I am sure, but for us in the UK this is really quite a challenge.

After you get the Ihram on, things are different. For example, many things that were halal for you are now forbidden. When you wear the Ihram you cannot wear any perfumes or deodorants, even when you shower you cant use any perfumed soaps or shampoos. You can't cut or remove any hair or nails from any part of the body. You can't kill anything, whether it is an insect or even a blade of grass - unless it's for food.

The ihram becomes our clothing until we complete the Umrah. We sleep in it, we eat in it, we travel in it… its worn 24 hours a day. Everyone is wearing the same so at least you don't stick out like a sore thumb. The millionaire and the beggar; the king and the servant are all the same. Islam teaches us that all mankind are the same and it's only our good actions that make one person different from the other. The worldly measurements of wealth, fame, status, nationality and titles cease to exist when you wear the ihram.

On landing we were ready and eager to get changed into the Ihram. When we saw the WC sign on the wall, we swiftly headed towards it, carrying our rucksacks and change of clothing. We walked down the stairs; the ablution and changing area confronted us.

In the changing rooms, it was quite scary; people were darting about moving to and fro. There were small cubicles on one side for getting changed in and showering cubicles on another side. There was a washing area that you would see in most mosques but without the seats to sit on. The floor was all tiled with water splashed all over it. The air was filled with the sound of foreign tongues and I watched the people moving about as if in a state of panic, quickly trying to change into the Ihram. I was standing there with my jaw dropped thinking what am suppose to do here.

All my training, planning and studying decided to leave me at this point, as I stood there perplexed by the sight before me. I needed to change into the Ihram quickly but there were no cubicles available. I still needed to take a shower or do my wudhu before I could perform the salah. There were a queue of Hajjis already at the showering cubicles and how was I going to do wudhu in such an unusual washing area? The floor was soaking with water and I had my rucksack and my ihram to carry around and keep clean and dry. Some of my companions had gone to get ready and increasingly familiar faces around me were getting scarcer. My plane was going to be leaving in an hour I needed to get moving, I was in a state of panic and I was on my todd!

We rely on Allah for guidance and help and I needed it. I dumped my bag near the small prayer area and walked upto the washing area. It was as if I was on autopilot as I started washing up as the prophet had taught us to. I said bismillah and starting washing my hands. I could taste and feel the warm water but it was only when I splashed it on my face that I really woke up and everything started to click into place. I knew what I had to do and I quickly completed the wudhu. After wudhu, I turned around, thanked Allah and said the shahadah. As I turned and faced the cubicles, someone walked out and I easily walked into the vacant cubicle.

I quickly got changed into the Ihram, collected my bag that was still in its place and went into the prayer area. I prayed two Nafl and soon I had joined the rest of the group. They had already changed and were waiting for me. One brother asked me if I had made my niyat (intention) correctly but I had rushed about so much I was a little unsure. I quickly dived back down and repeated the Nafl before returning to the group.

Hajj is once in a lifetime opportunity, who knows if they are going to get a second chance? I may never be blessed with another opportunity to do the Hajj again so I was trying my best to do things correctly. I was very careful, trying to avoid all mistakes. When I got back with the rest of the group I felt a lot better. It seemed very strange to watch all the brothers dressed in white in these Ihram clothes. Deep down I felt really happy and had a deep sense of satisfaction.

I remembered the hadith that Allah sent 124,000 prophets to guide mankind. I jokes to myself that Buddha might have been one if he had got the colours right!

The plane was ready, the gate had been called and soon we were moving. We got on the bus which took us directly to the plane and Cairo was quickly relegated to just a memory. The air was filled with a constant background hum of 'Lubaik…." as we completed the short journey to Jeddah.

We landed in Jeddah and the Lubaikh was getting louder and louder. It was like being in a crowd at a football match but with no opposition. Everyone was chanting the same call which was coming from all directions, drowning out everything else. It had been a long journey for most of the travellers at the airport. Some were tired, some hungry and some sore and weary… but here it no longer mattered because we were powered by the sheer excitement and eager anticipation of the Hajj

We were greeted by Saudi authorities who were handing out small Hajj guides in many different languages. These books were like pocketsize books on how to performing Hajj. These books basically told us what to do and what things to avoid.

The Muslims at Makkah were from all parts of the world. In some cases, people had accepted Islam many generations back and their descendants had been living their lives according to Islam. However, Allah made all Humans different and some of their cultural thoughts and practices tended to drift into their understanding of Islam. They tend to do things which are not necessarily wrong but are foreign to the teachings of the last prophet Muhammad (PBUH). This book was designed to rid the people of some of these foreign elements which in their worst state are Biddah (innovations).

On arrival we got our priorities correct and headed to make Wudhu to perform the Fajr Salah. We went to the toilets that doubled as a wudhu area, where we washed up. When we came back around to the seating area we assembled in the middle and performed the Salah. It felt good and natural to perform the Salah, our first prayer in Saudi Arabia. Muslims from all nationalities praying together in the same fashion, with the same words, with the same intention and dedicated to the one Almighty creator of all life… Alhamdulillah.

We rested for a few moments and had a chance to enjoy the Saudi hospitality. I thought to myself, here I am a sinner, a person who has disobeyed Allah during his life; a sinner, who is burdened down with many bad deeds; a sinner, who has neglected many responsibilities to his fellow human beings; a sinner, who has seen so much evil but has never done anything to stop it; that sinner has come to perform Hajj. Here he is being offered refreshments from someone, who out of love for his fellow Muslim brother, thought that that this Hajji might need refreshed after his long and arduous journey!

As an after thought, I think these refreshments were just to break us gently into the next stage which would test the most patient of saints. If someone was going to design a test of patience and endurance, go and perform the Hajj and see for yourself. It was an eye opening experience and you could see people cracking before your eyes….next week