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Velcro straps and the ihram

Muslim pilgrims who undertake the prescribed fifth pillar of Islam — the hajj — are faced with a contemporary experience that has long abandoned the camel.

I undertook the pilgrimage last month. Contrary to expectation, this path to Allah that includes devotions at the Kaaba in Mecca (believed to have been built by the Prophet Ibrahim and his son Ismail) is not difficult at all.

As a first-time pilgrim I found the modernised facilities that form part of the hajj have streamlined the experience appropriately.

The Saudi Arabian government houses Islam’s holiest sites in its cities Mecca and Medina and it has ploughed resources into making the hajj more efficient for pilgrims.

The rituals have existed for hundreds of years and trace the footsteps of the Prophet Ibrahim and his wife, Hajira, as related in Islamic sources. It is also a journey that the religion’s Prophet Muhammad had shown his fellow Muslims how to perform. Although the procedures of this ritual remain intact, the marvel of the modern is in the detail of its current setting.

One of these fascinating features — at least for me — is the Jamarat, a massive building on a site called Mina, just outside Mecca, which houses three huge stone structures. Islam informs that Mina is where the Prophet Ibrahim stoned Satan at three points when the devil tried to dissuade him from carrying out a command of Allah.

Muslims re-enact this triumph over Satan by stoning the Jamarat with small pebbles. The Jamarat also represents the evil within us and the stoning is seen as a process of inner cleansing. We are meant to stone the devils in our souls.

But here’s the surprise. The Jamarat is meant to be a representation of Satan, hell’s prime protagonist. According to most religious sources, hell is supposed to be hot. But in Mina the three devils are stoned in a cool air-conditioned building.

Pilgrims can do the stoning on any one of five floors. Saudi authorities have increased the size of the Jamarat to accommodate the mass of pilgrims. The stoning has to be done for three days and with about three million pilgrims the operation has to be free-flowing.

The pebbles deployed to bombard the Jamarat are usually collected at a site called Muzdalifah, also near Mecca, in line with the Prophet Muhammad’s tradition. But another modern touch, courtesy of the Saudi government, is that the pebbles can be obtained pre-packaged at no cost to the pilgrim. The pebbles come in small fabric bags that are handed out to pilgrims at Muzdalifah.

The Grand Mosque of Mecca, where Muslims encircle the Kaaba, is another contemporary ever-expanding architectural giant. It can house more than a million worshippers, has enough air conditioning to fight off the Gulf heat and its features are extravagant chandeliers, marble flooring and intricate carvings at its multitude of entrances.

The heat of Saudi Arabia ensures that the hajj comes accompanied with sufficient tests of patience. This year it was said pilgrims travelled to Mecca from 183 countries. A range of faces and tongues bore witness to the diversity of the Muslim world.

The hajj made me feel like a global citizen, a far cry from parochial Cape Town. In Mecca race isn’t important and there isn’t time for concern about the colour of individuals praying alongside you.

The hajj builds to a climax when pilgrims gather from midday until sunset on Arafaat, an empty expanse of land near Mecca. Here they beg Allah to forgive their sins. It is said that a pilgrim who performs the hajj with sincerity, and whose prayers are answered on Arafaat, starts life with a clean slate, like a new-born baby.

Viewing the never-ending stretch of pilgrims from an elevated area on Arafaat was breathtaking. It is a majestic impression when 2,52-million people gather in one place to unite in prayer.

Arafaat was covered in white with male pilgrims wearing the ihram: two white sheets of cloth wrapped around the top and lower halves of their bodies. Women’s ihram are any modest clothing while performing the hajj. A pilgrim in ihram is forbidden various physical pleasures — including sex — until after the hajj.

By the time we had reached Arafaat, most of the men also had their hair shaven, so all looked the same. This journey is an equaliser. Being dressed in the ihram is also a reminder of the day when Muslims will be buried because the deceased are also wrapped in white sheets.

One does a great deal of walking throughout the hajj so it’s vital to be dressed comfortably. The rituals last about a week and throughout this period you’re navigating your way through a sea of flesh. The Velcro straps on a modernised ihram I purchased kept me covered among the masses. (This is important because men don’t wear underwear under the ihram.)

Although I was fortunate enough to stay in a hotel, I was confronted by rows of sleeping bodies as I made my way to pray at the Grand Mosque. The number of poorer pilgrims who embark on the hajj with just a few items of clothing and a bit of money for bread is staggering. As a result there is some begging, but it’s not overbearing.

Asserting one’s individualism while performing the hajj is not possible. One has no choice but to be tolerant, patient and practise self-sacrifice. This is a great lesson to be learned from the experience.

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