As the Pilgrimage winds to its glorious end, let me share with you some of the more remarkable experiences I have encountered over the past few days. After spending several days praying at the Kaaba in Mecca, we were prepared for the great climax of the Hajj – the vigil in the desert plain of Arafat. On Saturday, December 6th, my mother and I left the comfort of our hotel in Mecca and traveled by bus to the outpost of Mina, the ancient site where Pilgrims have gathered for thousands of years at the finale of the Hajj.
As we approached the valley, tucked between towering mountains, I saw a flash of white through my bus window. I looked outside and gasped. The entire plain was blanketed in pavilions, stretching from horizon to horizon in every direction. This was the famed Tent City that is erected every year to accommodate the Pilgrims that have arrived from every corner on earth to meet their Maker. At that moment, I became aware of how vast an enterprise this truly was. This year, a record four million people had come to perform the Pilgrimage. Out here in the wilderness, far away from the skyscrapers and winding roads of Mecca, the true enormity of the Hajj came home to me. Everywhere I looked was an ocean of humanity, of every shade, race and age, spreading out beyond the power of vision. I suddenly felt truly small, like a pebble lost on the rocky coastline of an ancient and forgotten continent. In that one instant, all of my Hollywood pretensions were stripped away and I came to see how insignificant any individual is in the vast expanse of the cosmos. Insignificant, and yet still infinitely precious to our Creator, who has summoned us to see this magnificent sight with our own eyes.
We settled into our tents, my mother going to join an air-conditioned pavilion prepared for the ladies, while I joined the men. We dropped our luggage off and pulled out the small mattresses that would serve as our one luxury over the next few days. We were crammed together in the tent, sleeping next to each other like refugees from some terrible conflict. And in a sense, we were. Refugees from the mindless battle of modern life, the struggle to achieve material success even as the winds of economic chaos flowed against our sails. Lying there on the ground, I was struck by how much life in the West has become an endless fight to move forward, without any idea as to where we are going. We spend every waking hour trying to make money, and no matter how much we have, it is never enough. And even when we imagine that we have gained victory, building sandcastles of wealth that we believe to be invincible, the marketplace turns against us like the tide and washes all off our illusions away.
The hubris of the wealthy and powerful became particularly evident to me during our stay at Mina. I stepped outside of the tent and saw thousands of Pilgrims sleeping on the hard stones, too poor to afford the simple comfort of the tent and mattress that I had purchased. Entire families, including those at the beginning and end of their lives, laying out in the open, under a harsh an unforgiving sun. I realized that most of these impoverished Pilgrims had saved their entire lives to afford the journey to Saudi Arabia and had nothing left over for even the basic amenities. They had come here literally with the clothes on their back and nothing more. And yet I did not hear them complain about their lot, as some of my affluent colleagues inside the tent were doing when the air conditioner malfunctioned or dinner was late. These people out here were the true Pilgrims, people who had given up everything to come here and face God. And their faces were serene and filled with a deep contentment that I have rarely seen among the so-called privileged classes. I felt suddenly ashamed of my own arrogance, my own obsession with the rat race and the endless pursuit of shiny toys at the expense of what really matters – faith, family and community.
And I was not alone. I saw a man sitting outside staring at the huddled masses sleeping amidst rocks and rubbish. Tears were flowing down his face. When I asked him if he was okay, he nodded. He was a successful businessman from Florida, and he too felt the shame that was coursing through my veins at the sight of these humble and happy people all around. “God says that on the Day of Judgment, the rich will envy the poor,” he said in a choked voice. “I finally understand that now. And I envy them today.”
On Sunday morning, we gathered after dawn prayers to take a bus to Arafat, a desolate and mountainous plain where we would spend the entire day communing directly with God. The Day of Arafat is considered the most significant part of the Pilgrimage, and failing to attend the gathering invalidates the entire Hajj. As we arrived, the reason for this became clear. For it was here in the open plain, far from the relative comfort of the Tent City, that the believers would stand shoulder-to-shoulder before God, stripped of all man made barriers and contrivances. I went to the central site of Arafat, the Mountain of Mercy, where Prophet Muhammad made his Last Sermon to the believers shortly before he died. It is smaller than most of the mountains that ring the plain, a hill in truth, but one that stands out starkly in the wilderness, its dark boulders contrasting with the yellow-white sand all around.
As I climbed the ancient stones where the Prophet himself had stood almost 1,400 years ago, I gazed out at the magnificent crowd all around me. Pilgrims from Iran mingled with believers from Africa. Thousands of Asian faces – Indonesians, Malaysians and Chinese – contrasted with those of the Arabs, Indians and Pakistanis all around me. White, black, brown, red, yellow and every possible shade in between. These were the faces of mankind, all standing out in the desert under the scorching Arabian sun, hands raised to Heaven in supplication. I understood at last why the Day of Arafat is said to be a precursor to the Day of Judgment, when all human beings will emerge from their graves and stand before God and learn the truth about who they were and what their lives really meant.
As I gazed out from the holy mountain, I remembered the Prophet’s famous Last Sermon, which I reproduce below, and which I discuss extensively in my novel. After praising, and thanking God, he said:
“Oh People, lend me an attentive ear, for I know not whether, after this year I shall ever be amongst you again. Therefore listen to what I am saying to you very carefully and take these words to those who could not be present here today.
O People, just as you regard this month, this day as sacred, so regard the life and property of every Muslim as sacred trust. Return the goods entrusted to you to their rightful owners. Harm no one so that no one may harm you. Remember that you will indeed meet your Lord, and that He will indeed reckon your deeds.
God has forbidden you to take usury (Interest); therefore all Interest obligations shall henceforth be waived. Your capital, however, is yours to keep. You will neither inflict nor suffer inequality. God has judged that there shall be no interest and that all the interest due to (my own uncle) Abbas ibn Abdal Mutallib shall henceforth be waived.
Beware of Satan, for the safety of your religion. He lost all hope that he will ever be able to lead you astray in big things, so beware of following him in small things.
O People, it is true that you have certain rights with regards to your women, but they also have rights over you. Remember that you have taken them as your wives only under God’s trust and with His permission.
Do treat your women well and be kind to them for they are your partners and committed helpers. If they abide by your right then to them belongs the right to be fed and clothed in kindness. And it is your right that they do not make friends with any one of whom you do not approve, as well as never to be unchaste.
O people listen to me in earnest, worship God, perform your five daily prayers, fast during the month of Ramadan, and give of your wealth in charity. Perform Pilgrimage if you can afford to.
All mankind is from Adam, and an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over black nor does a black have any superiority over a white, except by piety and good action.
Learn that every Muslim is a brother to every Muslim and that the Muslims constitute one brotherhood. Nothing shall be legitimate to a Muslim that belongs to a fellow Muslim unless it was given freely and willingly. Do not, therefore, do injustice to yourselves.
Remember, one day you will appear before God and answer for your deeds. So beware, do not sway from the path of righteousness, after I am gone.
O People, no prophet or messenger will come after me, and no new faith will be born. Reason well, therefore, O People, and understand the words that I convey to you. I leave behind me two things, the Qur’an and my life example and if you follow these you will never go astray.
All those who listen to me shall pass on my words to others and those to others again; and may the last ones understand my words better than those who listen to me directly.
Be my witness, O God, that I have conveyed my message to your people.”
There is so much in this final sermon to discuss that it would take several volumes. But what has always struck me about the Prophet’s words was the message of social justice and human equality that is prevalent throughout. A clear affirmation that all human beings are equal, regardless of race. A command to treat women well and an acknowledgment that men and woman have rights and responsibilities to each other. And a passionate call for economic fairness and the rejection of the interest-based lending system. Western finance is based entirely on interest, which has unfortunately led to profound economic chaos in recent days. It is significant to note that the Wall Street Journal and Reuters have written recently about how Islamic investment funds (which reject interest-based finance) have prospered even as the mortgage-based financial meltdown threatens to mire the world in a new Great Depression. The wisdom of Prophet Muhammad’s words and his warning of the dangers of racism, abuse of women and economic exploitation ring powerfully true today, even as they did 1,376 years ago from the very mountain I stood upon.
These thoughts weighed on my mind as I stood on the mountain, surrounded by millions of believers dressed in simple clothes, stripped of all visible signs of wealth and social standing. As I looked upon the sea of the faithful praying in the wilderness, dressed in little more than loincloths, I realized that I was experiencing something very ancient, something deeply primordial. It was a scene that Jesus Christ (called the Messiah in the Qur’an) would have recognized and appreciated, having himself spent 40 days praying in the wilderness. Or John the Baptist and Elijah (also prophets of Islam), who both lived in the desert, wearing only rough clothes and eating locusts and honey. It was a scene that Moses, a prophet and lawgiver like Muhammad, would have also felt completely comfortable in. In fact, as I stared out at the masses gathered at the base of the mountain, I felt as if I was experiencing what it was like for the Israelites who stood at Sinai crying out to God.
And then the Day of Arafat became clear to me. It was not only a time of prescience, imagining the Day of Judgment yet to come, but also a time of memory. Of reconnecting with a world that is lost to modern civilization. A world of faith and wonder that is described in glorious detail in the Bible and the Qur’an. In that moment, I was pulled out of the 21st century and transported back to the time of Moses, Jesus and the prophets. A time when men and women of faith regularly went out into the wilderness to find God. This desert vigil unique to Islam, allows believers to experience what life was really like for the holy ones whose stories we read. I suddenly felt a moment of sorrow for my Jewish and Christian friends who would probably never experience anything like this. They would read in the holy books about such experiences in times long past. But most would never get to live it, to follow in the actual footsteps of the great Biblical heroes who found God in the wilderness and were transformed. I suddenly understood why modern desert vigils like Burning Man are so well attended. The human heart longs to escape the cold metallic world of skyscrapers and automobiles and return to its origin, to the vast open plains where life is hard and every breath is a precious gift.
When the sun set upon Arafat, I stepped down from the mountain, my heart overwhelmed by the feeling that something special had indeed happened that day. God had always been with me, and yet I realized that I had never been with Him. Never let truly him into my heart. Standing on that bleak and desolate plain, under the shade of the Mountain of Mercy, the barriers I had erected between my Creator and me were torn away and I could finally speak to Him directly. And I knew finally why the Prophet said: “Arafat is the Pilgrimage.”
That night, we drove to the nearby rocky plain of Muzdalifa, where we prayed under the stars. And then the Pilgrims began to scour the desert, looking for 49 small stone pebbles for the major ritual that was to begin the next day – the Stoning of the Devil. Near the Tent City in Mina, stand three towering stone monoliths – the Jamaraat. According to Muslim tradition, these three pillars represent the site were Satan appeared to Abraham to tempt him to disobey God’s command to sacrifice his son. Each time the devil appeared, Abraham picked up pebbles and stoned him until he vanished. The sacrifice of Abraham is a pivotal story that Jews, Christians and Muslims share, although we disagree about some of the details. The Bible says that Abraham was commanded to sacrifice Isaac, while Islamic tradition states the boy was Ishmael (the Qur’an itself does not mention by name which son was selected, and honors both Ishmael and Isaac as beloved sons of Abraham).
Regardless of the identity of the boy to be sacrificed, what is critical for all three religions is Abraham’s willingness to surrender to God’s command and give up what he loved the most – his own flesh and blood. But when Abraham raised the knife to kill the boy, the angel Gabriel appeared and stopped him, substituting a ram in its place. This absolute devotion to God and Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice everything for Him is what is honored by all three religions. And it is Abraham’s rejection of the Devil, the evil impulses within the human heart, which is honored by the Islamic tradition of stoning the Jamaraat. As I stood before the grey stone pillars, joining the Pilgrims all around me tossing pebbles against their cold face, I realized that the human impulse to do good will always be greater than its temptation to do wrong. In our heart of hearts, we are all Abraham, and we all have the capacity to turn against the voice of temptation, the call to expediency and moral laxitude, and drive it away from us. As the pebbles clanged against the Jamaraat, I could hear the echo of triumph as our souls committed to the task of mastering our inner demons.
The Stoning of the Devil lasted over three days, during which we made a short trip back to Mecca to again circumambulate the Kaaba and follow in Hagar’s footsteps between the hills of Safa and Marwa. By now my mother and I were both deeply exhausted. We had slept little more than a few hours every night for over a week, and our stamina was at a low point. But I was proud of my mother, who never complained, and asked only that we proceed through the rituals slowly so that she could maintain her strength. Looking back now, I realize that the exhaustion of the Pilgrimage is very much intentional and serves a spiritual purpose. With so little sleep and so much physical effort, our bodies were shutting down, as were our conscious minds. We were perpetually moving about in a state that resembled a dream. The psychological term for the experience was hypnagogia – the state between wakefulness and sleep. As students of psychotherapy and hypnosis understand, the hypnagogic state is the ideal time to create lasting impressions on the subconscious mind. Whatever we think about, whatever we focus on, tends to become deeply programmed into our psyche during this state, and can lead to lasting transformation of the human mind. As I thought about this, the genius of the Pilgrimage became clear. By pushing us to our physical and mental limits, we are provided with a unique opportunity to reprogram ourselves, to free our minds from the patterns of self-destructive behavior that had ruled our lives before. Instead of spending a lifetime seeking answers in a psychiatrist’s chair, we are provided a powerful opportunity for psychological re-engineering while worshipping out in the desert. Suddenly, all the stories I have heard about people being radically transformed by the Pilgrimage made sense. And Malcolm X’s account of how he renounced a lifetime of racial bigotry after the Pilgrimage suddenly took on a new and poignant meaning.
We completed the final Stoning of the Devil on Wednesday. We returned to Mecca one last time, where my mother and I slowly circled round the Kaaba seven times, a formal farewell to the House of God. After we finished and said a last prayer, I looked out at the Kaaba with both joy and sadness in my heart. It was like saying goodbye to an old friend, not knowing if we would ever meet again.
And then I turned and helped my mother walk to the bus, which would take us to Jeddah, and from there to the airport. The past ten days have been grueling, but they have increased the love and bond between us. My mother tells me that the experience has changed her forever. She has a newfound respect for many of the ancient traditions of Islam that in her Western feminist outlook she sometimes dismissed as sexist. For example, she is now considering permanently donning the hijab, the headscarf she has worn during the duration of the Pilgrimage. She says she no longer sees it as a sign of limitation on women’s freedom, but as a noble dress meant to heighten her dignity and spirituality. On my part, I have become cleansed of much of the materialism and greed that drove me before. I remain committed to my career as a writer in Hollywood, but I am no longer interested in participating in the rat race nor am I fearful that I will slip through the cracks if I don’t dedicate my entire life to my career. I have come to understand that everything I have is on loan from God and will be returned one day for an accounting. When seen through that lens, the glamour of Hollywood looks more like fools gold than the real thing.
Before I close, I would like to share with my readers a few remarkable moments that happened on this Pilgrimage. Moments that I would consider miraculous. I have many photos from Medina and Mecca, taken surreptitiously on my iPhone (the Saudis prohibit photography at the sacred sites, but I chose to ignore their rules). I will be posting these pictures on my website in the days to come. But there was an interesting and enigmatic experience at the Prophet’s Tomb, which I think many will appreciate. I was able to take photos of the Tomb’s outer walls with ease, but when I finally managed to come close and snap pictures through the silver grill to the grave itself, none of them would develop. They come out black.
Perhaps it was just a malfunction of the iPhone, but I have never experienced something like that with a digital camera. There is an interesting Sufi tradition that says that the Prophet’s Tomb exudes a mystic light called “Noor” which can only be perceived by the spiritually aware, and can blind those who are exposed to it and are not ready for its energy. I am left wondering whether my camera simply malfunctioned, or whether something more magical was at work.
A similar experience happened when I took pictures in Jannat al-Baqi, the graveyard that houses the Prophet’s family and companions. All the photos emerged perfectly clear – except for the shots aimed at the graves of his daughter Fatima and grandson Hasan, which would not develop. In the Sufi tradition, Fatima and her children share in the radiance of Noor, and she is referred to as “The Shining One.” Interestingly, the famed appearances of the Virgin Mary to Christians at the city of Fatima in Portugal share an Islamic parallel. The town was once ruled by the Moors, who named it “Fatima” after locals started seeing visions of a “shining lady” who they interpreted to be the Prophet’s daughter.
Whether these photographic failures were miracles or not, I leave for you to judge. For me, they were signs that there is still wonder and magic in this world. If I have learned any lesson on this Pilgrimage, it is that Shakespeare was right. There are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in the philosophy of mere mortals.
I turn now to finish my packing as I prepare for the long flight back to New York City. The last thing I will place in my suitcase will be very special. My ihram. The simple white garment that has served as my only clothing for the past several days. I will take it home and have it cleaned and than placed safely away for the day it will be used once more.
For it is an Islamic tradition that Muslims who have completed the Pilgrimage to Mecca should be shrouded in their ihram when they return at last for the final meeting with their Lord.
God bless all of you, and may God’s blessings be upon Prophet Muhammad, his family and his companions. Amen.