A milestone on the road to Mecca

Spurred by both spiritual and secular curiosity, a Muslim convert jumped at the chance to go to Mecca on hajj and exercise his dormant acquired religion. Here, Andrew Scott* recounts his leap of faith performing the most unique of Islam's five pillars.

For me, going to Mecca would be a speedy achievement, a consummation of the Muslim experience upon which I'd embarked a decade ago – from secular Christianity in Scotland, to secular Islam in , to the heart of monotheistic belief in the Holy Land.

When I visited the holy places of Jerusalem, it did not imply any spiritual rebirth or awakening or even realisation. My visit to Mecca did not have to imply that either, but, when one dons the clothes of pilgrimage and goes to Mecca, most Muslims will look differently upon him, at the least he will have earned the title of Hajj. No doubt I feared this, because of the obligations it implied in terms of post-Mecca practice.

Belief was one thing, but in Islam it's also about practice. And ritual was something I needed to perfect to do this pilgrimage in the first place. I did not even know how to pray. I think there are many “secular” Muslims who would be in a similar position, but even most of the non-pious would know the basic movements and prayers. Here was I moving from a state of almost unbelief to ritual purity, an overnight transformation into a conscient, cognisant Muslim.

The pink link

The main reason for this fear, though, was the colour of my skin. No matter what trickery of language, there is no escaping the pasty pink-blue reality of my inauspicious north European origins. There are others in this living purgatory – Bosnians, for example, many pale-faced Levantines, some Turks.

One also carries the burden of a . Andrew has its origins in pagan Greece, but it has Christianity stamped all over it. It entered the Hellenised form of the ancient Egyptian language and from there came into as Andrawis. It is popular among the Copts in Egypt to this day, though some even go for the English Andrew as a further statement of identity. Conversely, I had resisted re-establishing myself as Hassan (my chosen Muslim name), though a few people would occasionally call me by that name.

“Hassan” – good, upright, righteous, excellent, in very formal Arabic. “Andrew” – noble, manly in old Greek. Although “Hassan” was a word current in the language today, while Andreas is no more than a name in Greek, both names resonate for their historical predecessors – Hassan was a grandson of the Prophet and the third Shi'ite imam, while Andrew was one of the 12 disciples of Jesus. I have tried to imagine if it was possible to be me without any name.

Now, at the behest of the Saudi government, who had arranged a special pilgrimage expedition for the press, I was standing outside a hotel in Jeddah, readying myself to become Reuters man in Mecca. The crowd of journalists from Uzbekistan, Bosnia, Turkey, Sri Lanka and Lebanon asked me where I was from. I avoided offering a name – can you imagine – and blustered in Arabic that I was from “Egypt and Scotland, but based in Dubai”. How confused. Few were fooled. He was a khawaga (colloquial Egyptian nickname for foreigners, usually European).

Natural born monotheists

The other fear was entirely internal and people could only see it because I could not help radiating it from inside – my own sense that I was not a ‘real' Muslim, merely a ‘convert' who natural-born Muslims would not view as genuine and who had done next to nothing to change the way he lived his life when he passed through the invisible line of non-membership to membership. And yet I was willing to put myself to this test, I think, because a change had occurred inside me in recent years, a change which saw this Islam come to mean more and more to me.

I had come to identify with it much more closely and willingly offered the designation ‘Muslim' when asked. I had developed my own view on these issues, one which objected to the term ‘convert' and did not in fact view Islam as something alien at all. It seemed to me a whole ideological and linguistic assault course of prejudices and images had been thrown up by decades, if not centuries of Western thought on our Islamic “other” that served to make something at the very heart of Semitic monotheism seem errant and wrong. One could say, but why Islam, and one could equally well answer, but why not?

Islam, as it describes itself, encompasses and Christianity through emphasising certain aspects of both traditions: prophethood and scripture. If Jesus was to the Jews a false prophet claiming to be the Messiah, in Islam he was a true prophet, but the second last of a line of Semitic warners and callers to God and morality which ended with Muhammad. But instead of viewing Muhammad as a saviour figure in his own right, or as possessing divinity in some form, in Islam he is the bearer of God's word as revealed to him verbally. This revelation became scripture known as the Quran. So Islam accepts the body of law known as the Torah and accepts the virgin birth of Christ. What the religion also presents is a harsh critique of Judaism and Christianity and calls towards a unity of belief in the one God.

Western thinking about Islam has often emphasised its idea of “the true religion” and “the infidels”, whom Islam appears to set itself strongly against. But what strikes one about the Quran is that, in fact, this terminology is always context bound and that it explicitly says that the good, moral person does not necessarily have to follow the religious tradition which it expounds, the tradition called Islam. It's not as if Christianity and Judaism do not believe that those without their system have wandered off God's chosen path.

Pilgrim spotting

Jeddah is outside the sacred zone that surrounds Mecca, where only Muslims can tread, so in those first days of my journey these issues were fears in my mind which still had to reach their resolution. We did make a trip to the special hajj terminal of Jeddah airport in the search for Iraqi pilgrims who were able to come in droves for the first time in years because of the fall of Saddam's regime.

It took us about two hours waiting at the security posts before we were allowed in because of the great fear that al-Qaeda was going to strike at the pilgrimage itself, in the ultimate blow at Saudi legitimacy. The pilgrims were all in the white robes signifying a state of ritual purity that takes away all differences of race, class, colour and language.

We came in our normal gear with our cameras, microphones and notebooks. At this stage 1.2 million pilgrims had already passed through the huge tented air terminal, built in the early 1980s to ensure the speediest processing of air travellers at any airport in the world. Among the Iraqis, there was less anger at occupation than joy at the freedom to do the hajj.

“I hope God will give Iraq strength and make it strong and united after all these years of pain, sickness and war,” was the most anyone would say concerning whether the state of Iraq would be in their prayers.

Uncle Sam and the pilgrims

Anti-American sentiment is one of the standards that media look for during a mass gathering of Muslims like the Meccan pilgrimage. Thousands of the Iraqis had in fact been stranded on the Kuwait-Iraq border, some for up to a week as Kuwait refused to let them in until they had assurances that was granting them hajj visas. It seemed a brutal moment to follow bureaucratic procedure to the letter.

“We remained nine days at the border, it was a very miserable time for thousands. But I am really happy that we are free and God helped us to visit Mecca,” said Bakkar Rasoul, a Kurdish eye doctor from Sulaimaniya. He went on: “I and many people are thankful towards the United States because they were able to release us and we will definitely never forget. I don't think any Muslim can forget this.” He may have been Kurdish, but to be honest it seemed to be the sentiment of everyone else.

Would Islamists dare to attack Muslims pilgrims in Mecca?

The invasion of Iraq had turned Saudi Arabia's northern neighbour into a magnet for the same people who were targeting Saudi rule. At the very least, they could exploit the pilgrimage to get into Saudi Arabia and cause havoc elsewhere in the country.

On the same day we met the Iraqis, the Defence Minister Prince Sultan talked on al-Arabiya about “those who think of harming Muslims” when pilgrims were the “guests of God”.

Spiritual redress

The next day, I finally travelled to Mecca, and as a pilgrim. All the other journalists being taken for the day by the ministry intended to do ‘umra, the one-day pilgrimage that can be done at any time of year. I would join them, but I had decided to stay on for the real deal. For ‘umra,you need to don the white robes of ihram. I had come downstairs in normal clothes and since there wasn't time to change we had to stop on the way to buy the two large white towels, belt, pins and sandals that traders were selling in the pilgrim season.

I ran to a bathroom to change, and then into a mosque to pray, after which I uttered the lines signifying that my state of ritual purity had begun, a prayer to God to accept this, my pilgrimage to the holy mosque in Mecca that houses the Kaaba. I sat in the car nervously as we drove up the highway and passed the signs warning that beyond this point only Muslims could enter.

We passed through checkpoints where they didn't bother checking out identities since we were ministry of information guests, but I had my passport with its Saudi visa stating Islam as my religion, as well as a document from a mosque confirming my status in my little black rucksack, just in case. I wore a white shirt, left loose over my trousers, and wore a white skullcap, in an effort to reduce the attention that my pink presence might attract from the multitude in Mecca. I had also grown a short face-hugging beard.

A Mecca for pilgrims

Mecca was a shock. I had expected the pristine, marble modernity you find elsewhere in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. What I got was al-Azhar Street in the older (or Islamic, as it is known by Westerners) quarter of Cairo. Crowded, polluted, with randomly-built housing vying for space around the centre of the town where the Grand Mosque is and which brings to mind Prince Charles famous comment about St Paul's Cathedral and the financial district that had grown up around it in London, that it resembled the juxtaposition of the Mona Lisa with a team of basketball players.

Hundreds of thousands of people squeezed into the town and into the mosque, but I suspected it was like this for much of the year. The setting in the mountains was quite stunning but the position of the town was a heat and dust trap. For sure, before the modern age this was a place of great tranquility and of rough beauty. Now it was New Delhi meets Cairo in the hills.

Around the holy mosque, the sacred mixes with the profane. Traders cram the streets with shops selling trinkets and American fast – Burger King and KFC – on streets lined with five-star hotels. Shops also sold Islamic alternatives to this Americana, drinks like Mecca Cola developed after the Intifada and September 11, Afghanistan, and the build up to the invasion of Iraq inspired the desire to boycott all things American.

Islam's innermost sanctuary

Our driver let us out in an underground underpass with stairs that led up into the mosque complex. The mosque was huge and because of the stop-start nature of mosque expansions, it lacked a specific form or shape. We walked around it through the crowds, interminably, it seemed, until we found a fence where we could leave our sandals. When we walked in, we still had someway to go before we reached the central space where the famed black stone, or Kaaba – to which Muslims throughout the world turn in prayer, five times a day if you go by the book – lay.

What we passed through was one mega-mosque or a series of mosques around the saha, or square. We passed the special section known as Safa wa Marwa, a 3-km long walkway along which pilgrims walk seven times after having circled the Kaaba seven times. This sounds straightforward, but as I was to find out it was gruelling.

Eventually, we came to the saha. Crowds of people sat on the ground on the outside, making it difficult to get into the mass of people walking round the large cube-shaped edifice. The closer you get to the Kaaba itself, the less distance you will be walking in all. However, many people, including the disabled, choose to walk around the roof of the mosque. But, despite the comfort of no crowds and plenty of space, this means walking some seven kilometres in all.

Struggling for faith

Down in the square, it was a mix of violence and faith, as the pilgrims jostle for space amid their prayers, a process that works because the rule is simply to keep walking. Entering and leaving the ring of circumambulators is the only action that can threaten the safety of the occasion.

“Oh Lord, bring us the good in this life and good in the hereafter and save us from hell,” was the refrain of the pilgrims as we circled the Kaaba.

The river of people includes Turks, Afghans and Indonesians, and many of them are going round in groups, tightly holding onto each other, so they don't get lost. Their leader will chant verses from the Quran while they repeat after him. Others go around individually reciting private prayers.

For some, this seemed to be the chance to pray for all the things they wanted in life, from the grand and political to the mundane, as if God was some big Santa Claus in the sky. Friends will ask people to say a prayer for them at the Kaaba and some people were walking round sending and receiving messages on their mobile phones, which according to the rules of ihram – a state of ritual purity during the hajj – they should not have with them inside the mosque.

Rock the faithful

The ring of worshippers squeezes ever harder against one another as we try to near the Kaaba and the frenzy reaches its peak at the inner circle closest to the black stone. Some kiss it, but for most the crush is too much to get near it, so they simply hold out their right hand and call out “in the name of God, God is greater” each time they pass. 

It's at this point, on one corner of the Kaaba, that the crush is the worst on each circumambulation. It was the strangest experience. Some of the groups of pilgrims were rough, rude and violent, crushing through the crowd to get to the centre. It seemed the ultimate act of selfishness, the idea that their salvation was so important and so much more likely if they could get closer to the stone. It seemed singularly un-Muslim. In this, some nationalities stood out more than others.

The movement of people pulled you round in nervous small steps amid the crush, with one hand on my upper towel which would slip off my shoulders, or the lower one which was loose because I had lost weight. Apart from that, one uttered over and over again whatever prayers in Arabic one could think of. The prayers, the walking round and round, the crowds, the people all around – I think all this together induced a state of delirium of some level or another for all of the pilgrims there.

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Salvation of the sole

Counting the seven rotations is not so easy, but once it was done we headed to Safa wa Marwa. By this stage, I had lost my colleagues. I wasn't clear on the next stage of the ritual, but it was fear of being lost that gripped me now. It was mid-afternoon prayer time. Once that was over, I walked around the outside of the mosque looking for them. The marble was cold on my bare feet and the distance was huge, the crowds endless.

I couldn't find the area where we left our shoes, the only point where I could be sure of eventually finding them. After about an hour, in late afternoon, I found the fence and my colleagues. Now we needed to find the hotel where the other journalists were congregating and our driver. When we did, there was a congratulatory feeling in the air, that everyone had managed to do ‘umra.

At this point, we were able to end our ihram, meaning we could don our normal clothes. Sitting having a coffee with one of my colleagues, he asked me if I'd done Safa wa Marwa.

“What?!” I asked in rising panic. “No, I didn't know I had to. When I was lost, I just wanted to find you guys. Will it still count?”

He laughed. “Don't worry about it. It counts. Yataqabbal. God will accept your ‘umra. It bothered me intensely that it might not count, though. I called my wife. ‘No,' she said, ‘you have to do all of it. Try to do all of it in the coming days.'”

Well, the hajj itself was due to begin four days later on Friday. Hajj, of course, supersedes ‘umra, although the details of your hajj rituals differ according to whether you have done ‘umra some days before or not. If you have done it, then your pilgrimage can end on the third or fourth day. But these were details, as long as I did hajj, right?

Rites of passage

The Muslim Hajj is one of the most striking manifestations of religious faith and unity in the world today and the origins and meaning of its many rituals have been the subject of debate by Muslim and Western secular scholars. Doing the Hajj is a duty for every able-bodied Muslim at least once in their lifetime and, although some two million have been performing it each year since the early 1980s (the result of modern transport and Saudi infrastructure), they form a small minority of the world's billion Muslims.

The main rites of the Hajj last a five-day period starting from the eighth day of the Islamic lunar month of Dhul-Hijja, so the rite occurs some 11 days earlier each year. Currently, it's a winter phenomenon, but, within a few years, it will move into the hot summer months, stretching faith and human endurance to their furthest.

The Hajj begins and ends with the tawaf, the walking around the Kaaba – towards which Muslims around the world regularly face in prayer – at the centre of the Grand Mosque. In-between the tawaf of ‘umra and the “farewell tawaf” at the end of the Hajj – mimicking the Prophet's last, as he demonstrated to his followers the rites of pilgrimage shortly before his death – this river of pilgrims moves around a circuit over 10 kilometres in length in the mountainous terrain around Mecca.

The house that Abraham built

The pivotal element upon which the rite rests is the Kaaba. Simple and unpretentious against the grandiosity of the mosque, this large cube-shaped structure (its name probably derives from the ancient Greek for cube, kubo – ed.) houses a black stone which centuries of veneration through kissing and touching has worn hollow.

The Kaaba and the black stone are a magical site which was seen as the centre of the world in pre-Islamic Arabia and where God's presence is most felt on Earth, which is why this is the place to make your requests to God: here He might listen to you. “The Kaaba is the heart of Islam and to imagine that you are seeing this place where the Prophet was, one day, with all his followers touches your heart immediately,” one Egyptian pilgrim said to me.  

Islamic tradition says the Kaaba was built by Ibrahim (Abraham) and his son Ismail (Ishmael), who, in the Islamic version of Semitic monotheism, is regarded as the genealogical father of the Arabs (while Judaism emphasises Abraham's other son Isaac as the father of the Jews).

Muslims regard the house that Abraham built as the first temple to the one true God, and all the Hajj rituals are linked to this patriarch. Safa wa Marwa is the point where Abraham's servant-wife Hagar – the Egyptian mother of Ismail – was left on her own with her young child and, while searching desperately for food and shelter, she came upon the well of Zamzam. The walking between the two points inside the mosque symbolises her frantic search which God brought to a happy end.

Set in stone

But while secular and Muslim historians agree that the Kaaba in Mecca was the centre of pre-Islamic Arabian cults, Muslim tradition itself notes the obvious point that veneration of the stone is reminiscent of the idolatry Islam stridently opposes. In fact, on one infamous occasion, the Caliph Omar is said to have addressed the object saying: “I know you are only a stone and can do neither good nor ill, and if I had not seen the Prophet kiss you I would not do so.”

Gerald Hawting, a British historian of early Islam, says that, from an early period, Muslim theologians puzzling over the meaning of Hajj saw in the rite the ultimate test of faith. “In comparison with things like prayer and fasting which are susceptible to rational explanation, the rites of the Hajj seem devoid of obvious meaning,” he says. Key Muslim thinkers concluded that “the rites have to be done because they are part of God's law, that God tests our obedience by commanding us to do things which we cannot understand or see any aesthetic value in”. Which seemed fair enough to me.

Mystical cubism

A common theme among Muslim scholars has been to attribute mystical, symbolic meanings to the rituals according to which the circumambulation is seen as mirroring the universal order set by a divine mover, God. “The planets revolve around the sun, each in a separate orbit, with specific speed. In the same way, the Kaaba, which God made the first sanctuary for mankind ,is located at the centre of the Earth,” writes Egyptian scholar Abdel-Hakam al-Sa'idi on popular Islamic website Islamonline.

A certain Meccan sufi says Hajj is a symbolic example of the continuity and change that the Islamic view of the world sees in the order of things. “The constant – the Kaaba – gives you unity and continuity, the variable – walking around it – gives you change and diversity. The two create a balance, an equilibrium,” he told me during a meeting at his stunning self-designed home in Jeddah, built in a traditional Hejazi style.

“Change happens with reference to a fixed point, like the planets and atoms. We are part of this: so where is our part as human beings? This is the Kaaba, a central point and the closer we get the more we are pulled by its gravity. So we do tawaf. The Kaaba is a timeless point. All are one at this point, symbolising the house of God and Mecca and the Kaaba are the heart of the Muslim world.”

Sufis also see in Hajj an act of purification, like the blood of the body returning to its vital organs – the hajj circuit of Mecca – before heading back out into the body of the world. In fact, Islamic tradition has a hadith, or saying of the Prophet, which goes that “he who performs Hajj voluntarily and without moral blemish has gone back to the day his mother gave birth to him”. Hajj is spiritual rebirth.

Talking ‘bout a revolution

But Hajj is also ripe for other interpretations and many throughout the ages have seen in this gathering of Muslims in the universal Islamic city of Mecca a forum for revolutionary action. Of course, the Saudi authorities insist the Hajj should be solely a religious affair but, in modern times, there have been number of occasions when Muslims used it to vent political grievances against the United States and Israel.

The vast army of police involved in the Hajj's organisation includes a special “anti-protest” force to stop pilgrims staging political demonstrations – Iranians have tried this on numerous occasions since the 1979 revolution. That same year, the Grand Mosque was the scene of a dramatic takeover by an armed group opposed to the Saudi royal family. That did not happen during Hajj, but the Saudi royals must shudder at the thought that it ever does.

The booklets the Saudis hand out in various languages to arriving pilgrims stress that the event is simply about doing things as the Prophet said they should be done in order to win God's favour. Similarly, officials at the Lourdes pilgrimage try to downplay the miraculous curative potential of the site, although their main custom comes from pilgrims seeking healing of some sort or another.

The issue of what the Saudis projected and promoted as the meaning and intention of the pilgrimage struck me constantly for its contradiction with the point of the pilgrimage for most of the pilgrims. When the pilgrims threw the stones at the pillars of Jamarat, they were striking the Devil himself and the only symbolism in the act was that perhaps the pillar-Devil represented a bad husband or wife or perhaps politician.

Saudi austerity

The official theology of Saudi Arabia is a rational, no-frills Sunni orthodoxy that, of course, frowns on these superstitious beliefs and practices. As the Minister of Pilgrimage Affairs Iyad Madani put it, most logically, at a press conference: “It's a symbolic act to get rid of sins and confront weaknesses”. In vain would the Saudi religious police try to force the mass of world Muslims to conform to their view of proper behaviour. They stood beside the Kaaba to stop worshippers stroking it in veneration, but were having little success.

As I was walking round inside the mosque on my first tawaf (I did the first of the seven outside the saha), I found myself poked in the back by a stick. “Lower!” they snapped, I think, because my robe was pulled high, showing my legs. I came across an American Muslim in the Jeddah hotel where I was staying who seemed more preoccupied with the heresies of the masses than anything else.

“Yeah, it's something amazing to see people from different countries of the Earth come together for one purpose,” he said when I asked him what he thought about the spectacle in general. “It really touched me to see a long line of people in wheelchairs, the old and the pregnant. But,” he added, “you see inside the mosque people doing bida' (unorthodox innovative acts), like clinging on to the Place of Abraham (a point inside the saha just metres from the Kaaba).”

“Innovators, polytheists, Shi'ites, Sufis.” It sounded like a list of crimes hurled at political show trials against enemies of the regime, any regime.


Although the ideal of Islamic pilgrimage is that all differences are eroded in this temporary Utopian state which is out of time, in effect they are very much there. The Arab pilgrims stand out simply because they speak the chosen language of the Message but also the chosen language of the bureaucracy. They share culture and understanding with the Saudis.

Despite this, Asian pilgrims dominate numerically, specifically Indonesians, Malaysians and Filipinos, and Indians and Pakistanis. Their shared language with their Saudi hosts is more often English rather than Arabic which, as a born English speaker immersed in the world of Arabic came to me as a bit of a shock, though it is only logical of course. The disdain that might creep in through lack of linguistic harmony is confirmed by the cultural practices of the Asians. They don't do things like the Saudis. These were just suspicions I had, but they were confirmed by the events that followed when the pilgrimage later turned to tragedy for some.

By royal command

The next day was the traditional tour of the holy sites made by the Interior Minister Nayef before a news conference in the evening at Arafat, the huge plain in the mountains outside Mecca where the pilgrims spend the first two days of the Hajj. First, we saw a parade of some 5,000 troops, including anti-terrorist forces in black balaclavas, elite special forces and crowd control personnel as they marched past Nayef at Arafat.

Nayef was on his best form – later on we were kept waiting in a large hall for about two hours before he eventually arrived. But he sat alone, at a long distance on a large podium, so that with his headdress and robes on, we could hardly see him at all. It was intended to intimidate, a suspicion born out by the fact that when it came to questions he was gruff and curt. He was in a bad mood. So there were no stunning soundbites, just scraps here and there about security forces being on their guard like any year. “We are ready for anything that could happen”; “We always say there is no guarantee that nothing could happen, but we trust the security forces to be able to do their job”.

Earlier the month a captured “militant”, to use news agency parlance, who was shown on state television said he had been taken to a training camp outside Mecca. But Nayef flatly denied any such camps existed. “We have no camps for training or terrorism today or yesterday,” he said. So that was that. We were then fed on a large buffet dinner in the open air before being taken back to Jeddah.

Danger in numbers

Amid all this concern about al-Qaeda and terrorists, the real danger was perhaps being forgotten, the danger inherent in any gathering of some 2 million people. Safety. In 2003, 14 people were trampled to death on the third day of the Hajj, and there were similar incidents in 1998 and 2001 that killed at least 158 people. The worst of all was in 1990, when 1,426 pilgrims were crushed to death in a tunnel stampede.

On every occasion, the trouble was at the Jamarat, where pilgrims flock above and below a bridge where there are the three pillars representing where the Devil appeared to Abrahim. The pilgrimage affairs minister Madani was asked about this at the dinner on the grass at Arafat after Nayef's priggish performance. “Any gathering of people of this size in a limited geographical area could lead to problems but we have plans to prevent this,” he said.

According to the Meccan sufi, the best-laid crowd control plans had been obstructed by the reluctance of the authorities to stop pilgrims coming in cars to the Jamarat area, as well as the insistence of the Wahhabi religious establishment on everyone performing rites at certain specific times. Following Wahhabi religious teaching, Saudi clerics say the stone-throwing should take place in the afternoon of the third day, as booklets handed out to pilgrims advise.

The sufi said the problem was that there could be an estimated 50,000 cars at the same time in one location. “75% of the pilgrims throw stones in 25% of the available time and that's because of the particular insistence of one school,” he said. “Now they (government) want to increase the capacity of Jamarat, but then you create problems at the next stage. They always work on the space side, expanding roads and tunnels, but there are two factors: time and space,” he said.

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Newspapers were backing his views. The daily al-Watan wrote that week about the dangers of “hotel pilgrimage” and fancy cars, as the rich and influential from many countries rent luxury tents with comforts such as caviar and imported grass near Mount Arafat.

Arafat calling

On the first day, pilgrims stream out from Mecca to the plain of Arafat for the following day's event known as waqfet Arafat (the standing at Arafat). This is where pilgrims commemorate the Prophet Mohammad's farewell sermon 14 centuries ago. Though hundreds of thousands would come on 20,000 buses in a massive logistical operation, many come on foot tracing the Prophet's path through the mountain passes. Many Egyptians and Algerians had got there early to avoid the crowds and get settled in.

Arafat consists of a massive tented village that the Saudi authorities throw up every year to lodge the pilgrims according to nationality – something that seems to run against the spirit of the occasion. Before heading there, we again donned the white robes of ihram which we would be wearing for the next four days, since our Hajj would be ending on Monday.

The day at Arafat is the main event of the Hajj, and it is the day that precedes the Eid al-Adha, a holiday throughout the Islamic world when sacrificial meat is eaten in commemoration of Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son (Ismail to Muslims, Isaac to the Jews). For the Hajjis though in Mecca, the first stoning of the Jamarat must take place before Eid prayers on the afternoon of the third day.

Preying outside the mosque

On the first night at Arafat, we headed down to the main mosque to speak to some pilgrims. As a journalist, the act of springing someone for a quote is rarely anything but deeply unsatisfying. Laying in wait for pilgrims was worse. The questions are cliched and the answers even more so. “What will you be praying for this year?” which we sometimes followed with, as an encouragement or prod in the right direction, “what with the war in Iraq and…”

Rarely would you get anything that veered away from standard responses and feelings that Muslims in the usually offer. For example, Ribhy Yaseen, a Palestinian: “I feel like any Muslim who comes to the house of God – we want God to give the Islamic nation success, to liberate our land from the Jews and to return the al-Aqsa mosque (in Jerusalem) to Muslims.”

Or Iraqi Qadir Khidr: “We hope God will give success to the Muslim people around the world and especially in our region” (though he did add: “We hope God will get us out of our crisis now like he got us out of the last one,” which I rather liked). That was among the Arabs though.

Some Africans prayed for peace but didn't want to think about Palestine and Israel. “We are praying for peace. We don't want all this confrontation between Israel and Palestine and all of that,” Sufyan from Ghana told us.

Brazen images

I wandered right into the huge mosque with our cameraman, since I was holding his wires and microphone and doing the questioning, where we were cursed by a Saudi. “May God curse all cameramen!” he hissed with Wahhabi disdain for ‘brazen images' as he walked brusquely by.

Our cameraman, was irritated. “You're meant to have a pure heart and intent for the days of the hajj, so he shouldn't say things like that.” Which was true. Amongst ourselves, in the media group, we would joke everytime someone said something with a hint of immorality to it in one way or another “higg ya hagg!”—“Just do your hajj, O Hajji!” We all tried to be as helpful and decent to each other as we could, even though we were working for rival news media.

Mercy on the mountain

The morning of Arafat begins with pilgrims heading to a small rocky outcrop in the area called Jebal al-Rahma (Mount Mercy). It was at this spot, specifically, that the Prophet was meant to have given his farewell sermon. The morning at Jebel al-Rahma was, for me, the most pleasant moment of the Hajj and the occasion for which I will hold the fondest memory.

We must have risen at five in the morning in our pilgrim towels, then made our way the kilometre or so to the Mount. As the sun rose in the mountains surrounding the plains, it gradually became a blanket of white as pilgrims trekked to the top.

Since we had got there early, we climbed to the top without much trouble, though getting back down looked like it would be tricky. There was one main path up between the huge boulders and hundreds were now streaming up the outcrop. Many had slept here the night before.

People sat around and prayed in groups or alone, or chanted the Hajj refrain in Arabic: “O God, I am in Thy presence again, there is no presence like thine presence, to you is the praise, the power and domain, there is no equal to you,” a hypnotic chant which Western scholars say possibly has its origins in Bedouins whiling the time as they crossed the deserts in caravans in pre-Islamic days.

A view of Jerusalem

It reminded me of once when at dawn I had climbed up the mountain at Masada in the West Bank, where the Jews had died fighting off the Romans. In fact, much of the religious topography here was familiar: from the coastal metropolis of Jeddah to Mecca's sacred Jerusalem in the mountain hinterland. Orientalist historians love these sorts of connections.

The beauty of the scene demanded a prayer, which five of us did, with the cameraman leading our group and us repeating after him, in the Muslim . The essential vocal element of prayer is the Fatiha, the opening words of the Quran, which bears a resemblance to the Lord's Prayer of Christianity.

With other microphones and notebooks, we asked a few people for some comments. God knows, some of them must have wondered what pilgrims were doing going around asking other pilgrims what they thought for the media. We must have come across as undercover agents. But the media wanted the coverage and the Saudi authorities wanted to oblige.

A downhill struggle

Negotiating our way down the mountain as the crowds swarmed upwards, we had the first sense of the kind of chaos that was to come. Down at the bottom, I noticed huge multilingual signposts from the Saudi authorities warning that the Prophet did not sanction prayer there, but once again the world's Muslims didn't seem to care what the Saudis thought.

A carnival atmosphere was filling this huge pilgrim city at Arafat which by mid-morning had come alive. Hawkers by the roadside sold everything from umbrellas, to keep off the sun, to prayer mats and prayer beads. Men were offering to take pictures of pilgrim groups for up to $12 a shot and enterprising teenagers were offering camel rides for around $3.

“It's God that gives me my daily sustenance, but I get about 500 pilgrims taking a ride every day during the season,” one camel boy said shyly at being questioned about the time-honoured tradition of making money out of the pilgrims. But why should he, I thought.

Drawing back the curtains

By night time, pilgrims began moving on to the next stage – heading back down towards Mecca to an area known as Muzdalifa and the Jamarat at Mina. I was winging it, in the sense that, as a first-time pilgrim, I really didn't know what was coming next at any stage, something that gave the whole experience a magical aspect. I imagine it was like this for everyone there for the first time.

Everyone was in a group and learning as they went along about what the Hajj entails and the numerous booklets the authorities gave out were, in general, pretty useful. But I didn't realise that that evening we would do midnight stoning of the pillars, then head into the mosque in Mecca for night tawaf and Safa wa Marwa, before heading back to the ministry's lodge on the mountainside overlooking the Jamarat bridge.

It was a nice evening, cool and pleasant. We sat around inside a ministry compound, with waiters serving us big pots of Arabic coffee and tea, as we lounged around on cushions and chatted. The compound was full of small stone chips and people took the chance to gather stones for their trips to the pillars at Jamarat.

Apparently, we would need 49 in all: later that evening, we would throw seven at the central pillar; sometime in the 24 hours after that, we would throw seven at each of the three pillars; and, in the following 24 hours, we would do the same again. The conversation flowed here and there. We got on to who the best ministers in Egypt were. Ahmed Rushdie, I suggested, an interior minister sacked after the conscript soldier riots of 1986 over poor pay, but which may have been encouraged by Rushdie's enemies because of his clear moves on ending police brutality and corruption.

The devil is in the stoning

Later in the evening, we drove down to the ministry's lodgings at Mina on the mountainside overlooking the Jamarat bridge over the three pillars, which lay in a narrow bottleneck at the end of a deep valley overlooking Mecca. Most of the pilgrims were housed in camps on a wide part of the valley floor before the bridge area.

As we drove down, we witnessed the astounding site of hundreds of thousands of pilgrims walking down the huge nightlit highway the Saudis had built for them. It must have been around midnight by now. We dumped our stuff in the rooms allocated for us and where we'd spend the next three days and nights, then got on a bus which took us down to the Jamarat bridge.

The pillars are located some 50 metres apart on the road under the bridge but rise up through special holes so that those on the bridge can throw stones at them from on top too. We were underneath at the central one and there was a modest crowd of maybe 500 people. It was an odd atmosphere, sort of celebratory and a bit dangerous with stones flying everywhere.

Since people were circling the pillar from every side, anyone could easily overthrow and hit those standing opposite. But mostly you wouldn't want to risk getting too close inside the group of people throwing and many timidly move up to the outer ring of the circle to throw their seven stones. “In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful” is the standard utterance when throwing each one, or perhaps “I seek God's help from the devil.” Someone who got close to the pillar noticed that it had “USA” daubed on it near the base in blue writing.

Spiritual underpass

The occasion was oddly inauspicious. Perhaps it was the location. It felt like standing at an ugly underpass in central Cairo. Grey concrete, huge pillars supporting a road above, stones, even the grey-brown of the mountainside. Earlier that evening, the state Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Abdullah al-Sheikh, the descendent of Abdel-Wahhab (the father of Wahhabism), defended the teachings named after him. “This country was founded on this faith and, God willing, will stick to it,” he said in a sermon.

After that, at around 1 or 1.30 in the morning, we were taken into the heart of Mecca to the mosque for midnight tawaf and the Safa wil Marwa run that I hadn't done before. It was quieter going round the Kaaba, but still there was a huge crowd and one was constantly trying to avoid being jabbed by an arm or rammed by a determined pilgrim heading on a new trajectory or having one's foot trodden on.

In a spirit of martyrdom, perhaps, one utters non-stop praise and prayer to God and does not stop moving until the seventh wave is done. At that point, you quickly try to eject yourself from the swirling circle without more violence being done to you. The entering and the leaving are delicate processes involving moving forward, with the crowd but gradually moving outwards too.

Holy water

Once I was out, I drank holy Zamzam water at the numerous taps around. Pilgrims would come by and fill whole bottles with the stuff which they would then take home with them to friend and family, believing in its curative powers. Then I went over to the Safa wa Marwa circuit.

I was with a colleague, my Sheikh for the occasion, who was much more informed about these affairs than I was. There is a special passageway that runs up the middle of the hall which allows those in wheelchairs to move unhindered by the crowds. My sheikh and many others decided this was a good way to complete each circuit quickly without having to negotiate the crowds all around.

I followed, protesting that this wasn't an appropriate thing to do. I did two of the seven this way, then decided to suffer with the other pilgrims. At the completion of each circuit, the pilgrims look up towards a rocky outcrop inside the mosque, hold up their hands and say a prayer for Hajar. Such is the reverence with which her person is treated. It seemed touching to me, a former agnostic infatuation junkie, feeling the power to believe that this religious dispensation held for so many people.

Muslim messiahs

Muslims hold this reverence too for Mary and Jesus. I used to think it was odd that Jesus was referred to in Arabic by the term “al-Masih,” or Messiah, which implies belief that he was the Messiah figure of the Jews. But I realised that this, in fact, concurs with the Muslim view that he was the awaited prophet of the Jews, and does not necessarily imply acceptance that he was the Son of God.

Still, Messiah figures are usually associated with the end of time and the day of judgement, which is why, I presume, few ever take them that seriously. In Islamic history, the “end of time” element is usually absent and, instead, they portray themselves as the bringers of a new order.

A native of the Hejaz called Mukhtar proclaimed that the Messiah was coming among Arabs and Persians in southern Iraq's revolt in 686 AD against the caliphs. Messiah figures (in the form of Imams) were behind the Fatimid dynasty that ruled from Egypt in the tenth century, and the Almohads who ruled in Spain and North Africa in the 12th century. There was the Messianic movement of the Mahdi which ruled in Sudan from 1881-98. And the 1979 mosque siege in Mecca was led by a warrior and his Messiah.

Historians have even noted that the Christians of the Levant appeared to believe that the Arab conquests were all about proclaiming a Messiah figure (and historians Patricia Crone and Michael Cook once memorably suggested that the warrior was Mohammad and the Messiah was the second caliph Omar).

Back to the Hajj. It was between 8 and 8.30 in the morning by the time I collapsed on to the mattress on the floor I was sleeping on at the ministry's hostel. We had been up for 24 hours and had only slept four hours the night before that. No on had had a proper shower in two days and we were wearing these white robes. T

A Meccan tragedy

At 9.30, my colleague's phone rang. There had been some accident down at the Jamarat, the pillars symbolising Satan, he said.

I called the office then ran down there as fast as I could with my notebook, pen and phone. The area was packed with people but it was impossible to get to the upper level, on the bridge, because security police had blocked access.

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I asked a policeman what had happened. Absolutely nothing, he claimed. I asked a medic at one of the portable clinics around the area. At least 100 people had perished in a crush on the bridge earlier. My God, I thought. But the medic wasn't going to give me his name. I asked another one. At least 200, he said. All I could do was tell the office what I had and try and find people who might have been there or in the vicinity when it happened.

When I'd done as much as I could do, I headed back up the steps and the road. I heard there was much consternation among the Information Ministry officials that we had published that the numbers of dead were of that order. “They're not supposed to say it's that much yet,” one knowledgeable source in Jeddah had said. They would admit the truth, but in their own good time.

The feast of sacrifice

That would prove to be in another two hours – Madani, the Minister of Pilgrimage Affairs, was to hold a news conference. Today was Eid al-Adha and, on this day, most pilgrims took off their robes and the men shave or cut their hair seriously short. It was in that unrobed state that they did the rest of their stone-throwing.

Owing to the rush of the morning's events, I hadn't managed to shower and change. The minister's revelation was that 244 people had died (rising to 251) in the stampede and 244 were injured. “There were more than 400 metres of people pushing in the same direction (which) resulted in the collapse of those next to the stoning area and those behind. That led to panic,” he said.

But he also said some odd things, suggesting a certain resignation and even nonchalance. The deaths represented “less than one percent of one percent of the pilgrims” and “no matter what research work we do, incidents do happen”, “it's bad luck rather than any lack of follow-up”. “I confirm that all preparations were made, but God's intentions are sometimes unknowable.”

Blame game

The problem, he said, was pilgrims who had not come on organised trips, but rather were expat labour in the kingdom who had come on their own steam – illegally, since Hajj requires special visas and permits. Many may have done the pilgrimage last year and stayed on in the kingdom illegally.

These people were moving around Mecca carrying all their gear with them and that gear had got in the way of other pilgrims on the top of the bridge as hundreds of thousands surged ahead. Most of the dead were Indonesians, Pakistanis and other Asian nationalities. But there was clearly another problem: pilgrims knew how to get onto the bridge but there was no clear process for getting off.

The bridge filled up with more and more people at a far faster rate than they were able, willing or encouraged to get off. Most pilgrims seemed largely unperturbed, but some seemed a bit wary during the stoning rituals on the rest of Sunday and on Monday. “I'm not frightened, but you have to be careful,” said Indian pilgrim Mohammed Seif, who complained that some pilgrims were still aggressively pushing their way to the pillars.

Fateful end

“You can stone any time, you don't have to do it all at once,” he said, which was the view that Saudi clerics were finally prepared to endorse in statements made in the aftermath of the tragedy.

“In the end it's fate,” said Saudi pilgrim Hussein Ahmed. “What can you do with millions of people in the same spot?” And Egyptian Ilhami Osman, who spoke to me as if I was a foreign intruder, as if I was putting on an act that he saw through, said: “Praise be to God, if you die on the Hajj, you are considered a martyr.”

Indeed, this was true. They say that many of the old and infirm who come on the pilgrimage do so in the hope or expectation that at this spot they will die. “I pray to God that he will give every Muslim a chance to do this,” said Sudanese pilgrim Yassin Tahir. Nigerian Mohammed Ahmed, an expat labourer in Saudi Arabia, who was on his third pilgrimage, said: “I thank God. It has been a great religious experience for me. It gets better and better every time.”

The scribe and the pilgrim

These were stock responses and they ignored the stress of the experience, but honestly reflected the elation the Muslim has at carrying out Hajj. It was what I felt, despite the troubles, not least the trouble of having to write about it and the pressure that that added to my own battle to overcome the feeling of being an outsider.

As I write, a culture correspondent is talking to a Moroccan intellectual on an Arab television channel about “the traveller” and the motive behind the desire to travel. “I never saw any design or picture of the citadel in Marrakesh in all its seven centuries in existence except in Orientalist drawings,” the thinker observes. “They wanted to know the dimensions.”

I'm sure that's what some of those pilgrims who I accosted for comments, or some of the ministry officials thought. However, in all, the experience there is that which we choose to make known and that which we don't.

Erasing the T word

The big T word still dominated outside in the real world, with King Fahd and Crown Prince Abdullah issuing a message to Muslims to keep fighting terrorism. “Terrorism is corruption on Earth and seeks aggression, destruction and fighting God, his Prophet and Muslims. God abhors anarchists and forbids aggression and has laid down the most severe punishment for aggressors,” they said.

“Such acts must be confronted and their falseness exposed so they do not sway the ignorant. They are results of sick minds and deviant ideologies alien to Islam's laws and principles.”

At the Jamarat, meanwhile, police blared warnings via megaphones and helicopters hovered in the sky to try to avert a fresh disaster. On Monday evening, I went down there with a colleague to throw stones and get my hair shaved at the make-shift barbers shop set up alongside the bridge.

Braving the crush

The crush that evening was as bad as ever. It was astounding. Tens of thousands of Muslim pilgrims, crowded into the base of a narrow mountain pass to stone the devil, as God commanded, despite the ever-present danger of being crushed to death. Like others, we went at midnight thinking the crowds will be more merciful, but a mini-city of pilgrims had claimed most of the space around the bridge, severely limiting access to the pillars.

We headed underneath the bridge where there was a bit more space. A bulldozer had found its way through and was clearing away a mountain of small stones around the base of one of the pillars, dredging up dozens of plastic sandals and slippers thrown by women in anger.

The booklets handed out to pilgrims explained: “Some believe they are throwing stones at the devil himself, so they do it with anger and insults, but we are only asked to do the Jamarat in order to remember God. Some throw big stones, shoes or pieces of wood, but this is going too far and the Prophet forbade it.”

“USA” had been removed from the central pillar, though the clearing of the stones had revealed “Bush” written at the base of another. Men crowded in to get a good shot at the pillar while women strained at the back to hit the target.

Close shave

Although we moved away quickly once we'd finished, we weren't in safety yet. The way back to the steps that take you up to the road on the mountainside was completely packed because East Asians camped out on the roadside took up most of the space. Police on the other side did nothing about it. “What can we do?” one smirked like it was a comedy when we asked him about this chaos.

There were even young boys and girls sitting on the road begging. “Something given for the sake of God!” they shouted, pointlessly. No one was giving. At some point in the middle of this melee, I thought I would never get out alive. The key is to stay calm. Despite everyone's best efforts to maintain good spirits on the pilgrimage, tempers frayed.

The Quran enjoins Muslims to exemplary behaviour in the sacred Utopia of Hajj: “Let there be no obscenity, immorality or argument during Hajj, whatever good you do God will know about it.”

But with immense numbers the ritual now draws, it becomes a severe stretch on even the most pious' good manners. It's amazing to think there were only 20,000 people here in the eary 1930s, and now two million: 1.4 million from outside and the rest from within Saudi Arabia.

Bad manners

That evening at the Jamarat some people's behaviour was hard to excuse. A Yemeni man charged from the front with a woman in a wheelchair gasping for breath. An Egyptian came from behind on a motorbike. “I didn't think there would be crowds here,” he announced with an inane grin on his face.

“Is there anywhere here that isn't crowded?” I said back, flatly.

Men from Gulf countries tried to protect their fully veiled wives, though the smells, the pushing and the shoving had all but left their modesty in shreds. The standard call for making your way through the crowds was “Tareeg, Ya Haj!” – “Please pilgrims, gang way!” – but it was useless in a situation like this, in this mass of Arabs, Asians, Africans and the odd Westerner.

As we eventually neared the stairway, we found that the ground was covered in compressed garbage – two days worth of plastic cups, bits of fruit, wrapping paper, and hair after pilgrims had shaved.

“This isn't Islam,” I heard an Egyptian fuming in disgust. “These are people who don't have homes in the first place.” In a way he was right, I thought to myself. Our complaints were the complaints of the relatively prosperous about the ways of the poor. It was such an odd sight: the campers sat there silently staring at the mass of people before them.

A policeman finally erupted at them. “Get out! Go!” he screamed at the front row. They scurried away without so much as a whimper, gathering up their mats, pots and pans and small parcels of food. Suddenly the ideal of a microcosmic world without social or cultural distinctions or a word raised in anger was exposed for the fallacy, even if a beautiful fallacy, that it essentially was.

Between ideal and reality

In pilgrimage, anthropologists say, you have a perfect community of believers, it is about seeking forgiveness at the place on Earth where God will most appreciate your efforts to obtain that. These are major themes of Islamic literature on the meaning of Hajj and, from my experience of the event, I would say they are both promoted by the Saudi authorities and cherished by the pilgrims.

But the logistics of the pilgrimage make it almost impossible for individuals to stick to polite behaviour and, in fact, results in behaviour that would require the forgiveness of God and, ironically, this happens in the overzealous, even selfish, pursuit of his favour and forgiveness on the pilgrimage!

Secondly, the divisions of class and culture are always lurking just beneath the surface. The Saudi authorities frown on those who don't do things their way and, in particular, Asians who are, in any case, treated with some contempt in Saudi society.

Further, there is a danger that the Hajj is being reduced to simply a set of actions emptied of meaning, an empty shell. Tired pilgrims are herded from one section to the next. But this is encouraged by the fact that the rituals of pilgrimage at Mecca are so many and so demanding.

Unifying pillar

The Hajj really is more than just a pilgrimage but a mega-pilgrimage, or a number of pilgrimages rolled into one. The circuit the pilgrim moves around is well over 10 km long and, as we've seen, involves heading back into Mecca on the third day before returning to the Mina area to complete the stone-throwing ritual.

Put simply; the pilgrimage in Islam is absolutely exhausting and surely always was. Muslims implicitly acknowledge this when they congratulate each other on completing the Hajj because it is recognised as a major physical achievement to do it. In fact, the infirm are exempted from ever having to perform the Hajj, which is, of course, one of the five pillars of Islam incumbent upon every Muslim.

Scholars have noted that the Hajj appears to merge into one a number of customs and practices of ancient Arabia and suggested a meaning to their amalgamation. Malise Ruthven explains this particularly well in his Islam in the World. “The central ritual of Islam, the Hajj, was arranged out of existing cultic practices. The actions themselves were almost unchanged, but their meaning was transformed to fit a new, vastly expanded, cosmic vision. The result was a religious and ideological tour de force,” he writes.

Ancient roots

Anthropologists have seen in the individual rites ancient cults connected with the seasons – for example, the day at Arafat was a rain-making cult, stone-throwing at Mina was to cast down the sun god, Muzdalifa was associated with the thunder god Quzah (Saudi Arabia, to this day, has an annual “rain prayer” given in the mosque in Mecca).

But the timings were altered and wrenched from their old context, demonstrating the uselessness of the pagan gods, and placed in the timeframe of the lunar calendar. Visiting and circumambulating the Kaaba is another well-attested pre-Islamic custom. The idea of Mecca as a sacred precinct may also have its origins in a pre-Islamic neutral zone where tribal warring was put aside.

At pilgrimage, we come to buy salvation through our presence and our suffering, which is of a piece with the extensive commercialism going around the pilgrimage. Thankfully, there's much honesty about this in Islam, and no one bothers to rail against the “consumerism” of pilgrimage – all the shops, trinkets and souvenirs – and I even feel guilty about indirectly suggesting such to that camel boy Nayef when I asked him how much money he made for giving rides.

In any case, his answer didn't even make it into the final version of the story as my editors chucked it out. But ideologically, the striking and most important point about Hajj is that it forms the focal point of a culture that is neither East nor West, a world whose centre of gravity is definitely not Mediterranean, European or Western. It brings together.

If there was no Hajj and it was not in Mecca, one wonders whether the Arabs and Islam would be what they are today. The early qibla in Islam was Jerusalem – it was to Jerusalem that Muslims were enjoined to face in prayer. The decision to move it to Mecca was momentous; to this distant corner in the rough hills of the Arabian Peninsula we turn in prayer, and to this distant corner Muslims head to circle a mysterious ancient object imbued with God's presence day after day, but most of all during those five days of Hajj in the lunar calendar that tricks the certitude of the seasons.


Andrew Scott is a writer and journalist based in the Middle East. He writes here under a pseudonym.


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