Samreen Ahsan is an award winning novelist and a writer. A Prayer Series is her first story about paranormal events based on Islamic concepts. Her new book: Once Upon A [Stolen] Time is a romantic fantasy fairy-tale, and she is also the  official judge of 2015 World’s Best Story. Here, Samreen recounts her own identity as a Muslim and her experience with Hajj.

 

I’m a proud Muslim and a firm believer in God and there is no doubt in the fact that I feel complete with this identity. Being a Muslim was not a choice but a way of living in the society I was raised. Born and brought up in Pakistan, where most of the population is Sunni Muslim, I learned one thing: your faith and practices are hundred percent correct and the rest will burn in Hell.

 
Really?

 
Another interesting thing I learned in my Muslim dominating society is: the remedy of all pains and problems is Umrah or ultimately Hajj. To my readers who are not familiar with the concept of Hajj: it is a pilgrimage to Mecca (the holiest and most sacred place on planet according to the Muslims), which falls into the last month of Islamic calendar, and all Muslims are expected to perform it at least once in a life time (those who are physically fit and financially sound).

 
The other sacred act of prayer is Umrah, which is also a part of Hajj but can also be performed on its own. It can be performed at anytime of the year, where you do the Tawaf (which is circling around Kaaba—the house of God), in the state of Ihram. Ihram is a sacred state of cleansing your soul, in which the Muslims perform Hajj or Umrah.

 
The only purpose of these worships is cleansing of your soul.
But interestingly what I had seen during my childhood, observing people around me:
Not getting married: perform Umrah. Allah will heed your voice.
Not having a child: perform Umrah. Allah will grant you a baby.
Not having a son and too many daughters: perform Umrah. Allah will grant you a beautiful son.
Too sick to recover: perform Umrah. Allah will heal you.
Bored of sinning too much: perform Umrah. Allah will wash away your sins
And most interestingly…
Too much money: perform Umrah!

 

 

I have literally watched people performing Umrah and Hajj, whenever they feel like. I’m not judging anyone here but has anyone understood the true meaning of it?

 
Keep in mind, the average cost of Umrah starts from 2K USD (per person), depending on your agency and can range up to 5K. Hajj apparently starts from 5K USD to 20K USD per person. Obviously, being a woman you cannot go alone, the price is doubled.  So in order to have a ticket to Heaven—one must be rich! And interestingly, these acts do not even guarantee your straight flight to Heaven.

 
I was blessed with the opportunity to perform Hajj in 2014. Every ritual I performed was my connection with God and no one else. I didn’t do it to show to the world or label myself as Haji. It was my personal contact with my Creator. What I felt within me is tied to my soul and I don’t even give anyone the right to judge me.

 
But what does Hajj actually teach us? The purpose is self-cleansing and developing patience within you. But sadly, what I observed during my journey was not even close to humanity. It is quite true when they say Hajj means a lot of struggle and challenges. Indeed, it is!

 
Lets start with my journey from Medina, where tomb of Prophet Muhammad is present. It is the second holiest place for Muslims. It’s undoubtedly the most beautiful piece of architecture and engineering I’ve seen in my life. Once you enter this mosque, you don’t feel like leaving it. Praying there feels good—I really felt peace and contentment in my soul. The Green Dome inside the mosque is Riad ul-Jannah, which is considered to be a part of Paradise. It is a small place in Masjid-e-Nabawi, floored with green carpet just to identify it, and the entire Mosque is floored with red carpet. Praying on the green carpet means you prayed in paradise.

 
But once you enter, you’re segregated by four major categories: (one) Middle Eastern or Arab speaking, (two) Canadian-American-European-Australian, (three) South-Asian and (four) African. So, if you’re from the first or second category, your number comes first, no matter if an Ethiopian came two hours prior to you to pray on the green carpet. Racism starts right here! Once you reach to the green carpet (after three hours of waiting—even on priority), it is so crowded and packed that you hardly get a chance to stand. Praying comes way later—the first thought that crosses your mind is to struggle for survival. Survival to breathe, not being squished by other women, and yes, pray that you come out alive without breaking your bones. According to one belief, if I had died with claustrophobia, I’d have taken a straight flight to Heaven. But I didn’t want to die. Why? Because my young children were waiting for me to return to Canada.

 
Now, according to the instructions, all you need to perform here is two-rakat and step out of the green carpet. That’s it! God has not asked much from us. You need to give a chance to others, let others pray, without hurting anyone with your elbows. Don’t be so greedy. All right…it was too crowded and everyone wanted to have a piece of Paradise so I ignored the battle and stayed on the strategy of “move on.”

 
I saw women being crushed by other women in order to get closer to the tomb, to some how touch the wall. They are so blinded in faith that they do not see how much inconvenience they are creating for fellow pilgrims.

 
Really! Is that what Hajj teaches us?

 
Second interesting challenge I faced was at Quba Mosque, where only ten percent of the land is designated for the women to pray and the rest of (huge) mosque is given to men. Second form of racism! And then, you have a place of only twenty women at a time. You stand in a line (which is never-ending), wait for others to end their prayers or just push yourself through the crowd, to find your place. The choice is purely yours! Now, the ask here is also to perform only two-rakat and “move on.” But no…everyone has to pray ten times to make sure they’re done with the ritual. There is no such thing as: give chance to others.  After an hour, I finally got my turn, having one hundred impatient women behind me, fighting to take my place. It just takes five minutes and very conveniently, all women can have turns if they follow the rules. But the rule of Hajj is: you break all the morals if you want to survive and perform all rituals. You have to learn through a harder way to push yourself into the crowd, no matter if you’re hurting someone. All you need to do is to make sure you perform your rituals and ignore others.

 
Really? Is that what Hajj teaches us?

 
The challenges continue when you start Umrah. After reaching Mecca, the act of circling around Kaaba, seven times (called Tawaf) is performed. There are millions of people walking with you, pushing each other to some how reach to the point of touching Hajar-ul-Aswad, the black eastern cornerstone of Kaaba, which according to some believers—once you touch it: that is another way of going to Heaven. I noticed young men pushing elderly women harshly to touch the stone.

 
Really? Is that what Hajj teaches us?

 
Next interesting point is when you finish your Tawaf and drink the Holy Water (Zam-Zam). Here, the ask is to drink a glass of water (while standing) and “move-on.” But I noticed people pouring holy water on their heads, their clothing—literally taking shower, without giving a damn that it is a walking passage of marble and one can easily slip and fall. The poor man, responsible for keeping the floor dry and clean, continuously sweeps it, to make sure no one slips, while others are too ignorant in taking showers.

 
But wait…no! You don’t complain…otherwise, your Hajj will go down the drain! That’s what we are told repeatedly. I’m not complaining. I’m just asking other Muslims to show some patience. You touched the stone; you prayed on the green carpet, you drank the water, so now give a chance to others and “move on.”

 
If you have the best Hajj package then you get a chance to stay in Makkah Tower. The restaurant in the opulent tower offers grand buffet breakfast and dinner, serving hundreds of dishes at a time. People collect so much food on their plates that approximately more than fifty percent of the food is being wasted. You walk out of the holy mosque and see people lying on street, starved and penniless. There is a three-sixty-degree lifestyle shift from the lavish five-star hotel to the streets packed with men, women and children, burning under hot sun, asking for food and money.

 
And watching this level of poverty, you ask yourself: I have spent thirty thousand dollars for this act of worship (for two people) and there are thousands of homeless people, sleeping on the streets.

 
Really? Is that what Hajj teaches us?

 
If some people reading this article are seeding the idea that I oppose this act—well…I’m not denying that it is the closest you can feel God. But on such a high cost? There are Muslims who collect money all their lives, just to perform Hajj. They try to make most of it, but people like us, who can afford multiple Umrah and Hajj in our lifetime, is it justified to spend so much money to wash away your sins? If you help the poor, feed them, shelter them, educate them—isn’t it counted a better deed than spending so much amount, just for the desire of touching the black stone multiple times, or praying on the green carpet, at the cost of pushing people with your elbows, and actually hurting someone physically?

 
Doing it once is what recommended in Islam. That’s what our Prophet did. He didn’t perform Hajj multiple times. If you have enough money to label yourself as Al-Haaj (after multiple Hajj), open your eyes and look around. People are dying in hunger. They don’t have bread to eat or even clean water to drink, and we think staying in a five-star hotel, looking out to the Kaaba from the window is the greatest act of worship?

 
Really? Is that what Hajj teaches us?

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