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Through the exploration and qualitative analysis of four case studies, this paper will attempt to provide an understanding of the impact Hajj has on a Muslim with respect to his/her faith, identity and wellbeing. It will go through the various phases and mind-sets of the individuals going through this pilgrimage and how and what the individual’s lived experience was, at each phase, and consequently its impact on his/her psyche. The two overarching themes that will be touched upon are the feelings of being overwhelmed and the essence of peace experienced by each and every pilgrim on this journey.
The fundamentals of Islam are based on five pillars – the declaration of faith, followed by prayer, charity, fasting and pilgrimage. While the first four are acts compulsory throughout the life of a Muslim; pilgrimage is for those who have the means, financially, physically and mentally, to do it. It is the duty of every Muslim to strive to do Hajj at least once in their lifetime. It is usually assumed that being a person of faith must come with its own ups and downs. And every person with faith in something will reach a point of doubt that is almost essential to reinstate that faith. This paper uses the Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis method to understand the scope of impact the annual pilgrimage of Hajj to Mecca has on those who have experienced it. Being one of the five pillars, Hajj establishes as a thing-to-do at the very declaration of faith for every Muslim. It remains a big part of a Muslims’ life in a passive way until the opportunity materialises. And when it does, the subconscious build up to it is unleashed in various forms. The understanding of what Hajj is to a Muslim could be put into anticipatory words or the urgent appeal to it may be understood through the list of rewards it holds, but the experience of it remains one that cannot be understood by mere words.
The anticipation of Hajj remains a quiet wish of every Muslim irrespective of the life they have lived. The theory of Islam and the understanding of the importance of Hajj and the impact it can have on a Muslim results in them seemingly being in wait of it until their time arrives. Muslims hold their last Prophet in high regard as He was sent down as the seal of the prophets meaning He is the last of them. This adds to the reasons for a Muslim to perform Hajj as every Muslim leads life following the footsteps of their Prophet. For most part of their life, Muslims view hajj as a distant, far-off dream. But as this dream shows more prominent signs of becoming reality, a lot of deep, layered feelings come to the surface. One of the most prominent themes during this phase is the general anxiety about whether or not they will be able to do justice to the experience, whether or not they are worthy of this blessing. Apart from this, one also takes note of a nervous anticipation and longing to finally be able to perform hajj. On the news of the journey to perform Hajj being confirmed, there is a certain immediate gratitude that is observed that perhaps comes from the Muslim feeling like they have carved way to fulfil their duty towards the fifth and final pillar of their religion.
In the midst of all these feelings being unleashed at the confirmation of the experience of a lifetime, the individual also has to take into account the duties one as to fulfil before the journey towards performing Hajj is undertaken. To some this can be easy but for some others, it might not be so. These duties include the Muslim ensuring that all his/her debts to anyone, financial or otherwise, are cleared. It includes clearing the air of any misunderstandings or ill feelings towards anyone be it family, friends or others, and seeking forgiveness from those they might have hurt in their life, intentionally or unintentionally. It also requires them to write a will. These are not easy prerequisites to say the least. It involves them clearing their heart and mind from all negativity collected throughout their lifetime. Which is why preparation for the pilgrimage starts months before the actual journey. The thought of the performance of Hajj weighs heavy on the mind of the individual because of such confronting tasks. One person from the case study even described him writing a will as “Surreal” (Jamal). It is not an everyday experience for one to write a will without the looming thought of death nearby. Although it is in the way of life of a Muslim to live like death is just round the corner, there are very few instances of this being needed to put into action the way it is in writing out a will.
Many Muslims look to Hajj as being a reinstatement of their beliefs and a way to please and reconnect with their Creator. Matters of faith are never a straight graph. People’s devotion and enthusiasm keeps shifting based on how life is treating them and how much they are convinced of their faith to begin with. But with hajj round the corner, these graphs always seem to show an upward, positive influence. After having cleared their slate in order to qualify for Hajj, Muslims often find themselves being engulfed at the reality of the happenings during Hajj. One of the most prominent themes observed in all the case studies was the feeling of being overwhelmed at the first real touchdown of the experience. For most, it was the first sight of the Ka’aba in Mecca.
“The first time everything was very vivid, we experienced many emotions.” - (Sobara)
“What I did feel was this overwhelming sense of familiarity. As if I had been here before.” – (Imtiaz)
“The sighting of the Ka’bah for the first time was overwhelming. I was awestruck by its magnificence… Tears streamed down my face as I…” – (Alveena)
“My heart started to beat a little faster, I felt like I was returning home after years of being away, despite the fact that I had never been to Mecca before in my life.” – (Jamal)
This, being in sight of the Ka’ba, standing in the holy house of the one they believe in, had a profound effect on the pilgrims that is sure to last a lifetime. Another very note-worthy feeling was how some of them described being there as being in a place of familiarity and even describing it as “returning home” (Jamal). This speaks volumes of their love and devotion to their Creator. When they describe a feeling such as being familiar, without any other descriptions it would have been hard to guess if that familiarity was good or bad. But in all the recorded experiences, the descriptions from beginning to end have only given positive indications. Which allows us to deduce that this familiarity they speak of can only mean a state of utmost comfort and an assured sense of being.
Being in the holy city of Mecca also brought about a heighten state of awareness at the diversity the pilgrims experienced (Haq, F., & Jackson, J. 2009). Yet the collective singular intention of each and every one of them seemed to be the uniting factor even though no one made any declarations out loud. This was a clear example of actions speaking louder than words, for when the call for prayer was recited, everyone within the city accumulated before the Ka’ba and proved their devotion by unanimously going through the movements of prayer together. This seemed to be an experience that went beyond proving to another mere human who they are and what their worth is, when everyone is equal in front of God. For many, this was the first time they experienced unity in every sense of the word. The fact that everyone dressed the same, did the same things, and came with the same intention was time and again present to reinforce the fact that all humans are indeed equal. This was especially felt in the first act of Hajj which is when pilgrims perform their first Umrah. Circumambulating the Kaaba seven times, called Tawaaf, all the while being in a state of humble devotion and also being very aware of the presence of people from all over the world. These people, each with a million different background stories but, all united because of their belief and devotion to one single God, in this consolidated act of Umrah. For most, it was the first time they performed Umrah and the constant physical demand of it seemed to be lost on them because of how unifying the experience was.
“All I know is that, if ever there was a human manifestation of equality, I have just experienced it.” – (Jamal)
These words can only come from a person genuinely experiencing intense emotions. Some think of the history and the amount of people before them who have performed the same acts they are performing now, and some just look around them; but all of them feel a sense of togetherness. A feeling that can best be described as collectively experiencing the same thing but tailor-made to each ones’ intensity and understanding. Several of them look around to see many others crying, being overwhelmed in their journey, but a couple of experiences later find themselves being those very crying people they just described.
After leaving Mecca, the pilgrims move on to Mina to stay there for one night. It is during these twenty-four hours that maximum interaction happens. Everybody is in tents; everybody is readjusting their levels of comfort they are used to. No one gets to choose their neighbours, there are around 3 million people from 170 countries, so there is no room for politics when everyone is donned in two pieces of cloth and rely on the food and facilities provided by the Saudi Arabian hosts (Haq, F., & Jackson, J. 2009). But more than any of that, no one is thinking anything bad because no one is there for another person. The reason they all chose to be out there is to please their Creator. So most of their time goes in devotion and prayers for friends, family and the million strangers around them and around the rest of the world too.
After the night in Mina, the next day the pilgrims travel to Arafat. A place of heavy relevance and the most important day in the days of Hajj. The plains of Arafat are scattered by pilgrims who completely immerse themselves in an exclusive dialogue with God. The collective theme of the experience in Arafat was twofold - one of intense gratitude and the other of humility. Gratitude, first and foremost, to their God but then also towards those close to them. The scenes being described from Arafat only confirm the hope one has in the existence of purity in every human. From descriptions of elderly crying, a cripple smiling despite the obvious hardships, to they themselves being moved, the evening in Arafat plays a fundamental role in the experience of Muslims undergoing Hajj.
“I felt incredibly insignificant as I asked for repentance from my Lord.” – (Alveena)
“After the dua I found my dad, hugged him and thanked him for bringing me here.” – (Alveena)
“Today I was truly humbled by someone who did not even say a word to me. Today I saw sincerity and dedication in the purest form. Today I was in Arafat.” – (Jamal)
After the evening in Arafat, the pilgrims move to Muzdalifah to spend the night. By then, they are exhausted but laying under the starry night sky provides them some respite. They also use this time to reflect on all the experiences until this point.
Another very significant part of every pilgrim’s experience is their travel to Madinah. It is the second holy site for Muslims for this is where their Prophet was finally laid to rest. The unanimous description for the experience pilgrims feel in Madinah can be summed up in a theme described in a single word: “Peaceful”. The first thing many noticed about Madinah was the beauty of the Mosque. Overwhelmed by the size of it, the intricate decorative works and the vastness of it, they only put this description second to the feeling of peace they experienced. Madinah also offers pilgrims a chance to greet their Prophet, the same one they follow mannerisms and words of, throughout their life. It offers them the opportunity to stand in his mosque, and convey their “Salaams” to him in person. They also feel overly aware of everything they do because at no point should they slip and mistaken their affection for him with the worship of their God. He is merely a Prophet of God, and this is to be remembered right alongside the declaration of faith (Caidi, N. 2019). Yet the descriptions of Madinah from those who have been there are so interesting, it convinces one of an otherworldly feeling.
“...it truly is the city of peace, blessings and wellbeing... Masjid-ul-Nabwi is a structure of inexplicable beauty…” – (Alveena)
“The mosque itself is so incredibly vast, you can't see where it ends. Its beauty and ornateness is only outdone by how peaceful and serene it feels to be there.” – (Imtiaz)
“Despite its size, the Mosque of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) is intimate, familiar and welcoming.” – (Sobara)
After the entire collective experience of Hajj and visiting the holy cities of Mecca and Madinah, the pilgrims often return with a sense of renewed faith and a determination to make it last as long as possible until the effects of it slowly begin to wear off. At the same time, they also almost immediately talk of a sense of longing, which actually makes sense when they initially described being there as being “home”. And it is in line with feeling of longing for home. While the levels of change might vary, there is no doubt about the theme of this part being an atmosphere of change. Be it an entire new outlook on their life, or an internal re-wiring that cannot be measured on an everyday scale – people who have come back from Hajj, are found to be changed. Having felt a wide array of emotions, mostly positive, in a short span, they come back feeling inspired, humbled, honoured, improved, and like they have one of the best experiences in life, now in their own private treasure-box of memories (Caidi, N 2019).
“I have done this. And I am better because of it.” – (Imtiaz)
“… it has been equally inspiring and life changing… all I can say is, never have I been so highly honoured. Never have I been made to feel more humble and unworthy.” – (Jamal)
“… Hajj is undoubtedly the best experience in the world.”- (Alveena)
While the experience of Hajj was sure to have its ups and downs, it did not seem to have any note-worthy negative impacts. The narrators in the case studies did mention the physical exhaustion, the sleep deprivation, and the lack of above-standard facilities, but they were quick to dismiss them as momentary inconveniences. And even went out of their way to reinforce their life-changing Hajj experience by saying that in the end, everything they felt, everything they went through, was all worth it.
Hajj has an ever-lasting effect on a Muslim’s faith, not just in the Oneness of God, but also in the purity of humanity. After Hajj, Muslims often strive harder to be better and do better in life in any and every way they can. It not only reassures their Muslim identity, but also helps silence the demons in their mind, and in turn helps them to be more confident and kinder individuals.
Breakwell, G. M., Hammond, S. E., Fife-Schaw, C. E., & Smith, J. A. (2006). Research methods in psychology. Sage Publications, Inc.
Caidi, N. (2019). Pilgrimage to Hajj: an information journey. The International Journal of Information, Diversity, & Inclusion (IJIDI), 3(1).
Smith, J. A., Flowers, P. & Larkin, M. (2009). Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis: Theory Method and Research. London: Sage.
Haq, F., & Jackson, J. (2009). Spiritual journey to Hajj: Australian and Pakistani experience and expectations. Journal of Management, Spirituality and Religion, 6(2), 141-156.
Pietkiewicz, I., & Smith, J. A. (2014). A practical guide to using interpretative phenomenological analysis in qualitative research psychology. Psychological journal, 20(1), 7-14.
Sobara’s Diary Entry - Posted on http://www.webislam.com/articles/66183-my_hajj_diary.html 27th February 2012.
Jamal’s Diary Entry - Jamal Elshayyal in December 2008 on the following website: http://english.aljazeera.net/news/middleeast/2008/12/2008121021567955825.html
Imtiaz’s Diary Entry - The final entry was posted on December 24th 2007
Alveena’s Diary Entry - posted on the following website on December 20 2007.
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