The text below was written for my colleagues at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) two days after I had returned from Mecca, before I went back to work, as I wanted to share the impressions while they were still fresh. Accordingly, it is reproduced as I originally wrote it, without an updating.
I would like to thank everyone who covered for me while I was away on Hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca.) Without such support, I could not have gone.
Photography is banned in the mosques I was visiting. In any event, having a camera hanging around one's neck felt incompatible with being a pilgrim, so I left mine at home. However, I would like to share some snippets from the trip.
What does a pilgrim look like?
I posed for the picture [reproduced below] at home this weekend, since the outfit is hard to describe otherwise. Male pilgrims all wear two white sheets, which can be plain cloth, or towelling which is more comfortable. The resemblance to a shroud is intentional. Stitched garments are prohibited, (hence no underwear) as is headgear but you can have a sun umbrella. The Asda bag hanging on my belt contains my slippers. When you have no pockets, carrying capacity becomes essential.
I only had to dress like this for four days in the middle of the trip, and was then able to resume normal clothing.
Women wear normal Islamic clothes, i.e. loose clothes covering the body and the hair.
The rituals of Hajj
I won't try detailing these. If you are interested, look on this web site for full multimedia details:
Some lighter moments
You need your sense of humour to survive Hajj. Some of the most memorable:
The serious side
2.2 million people took part in Hajj this year. 800,000 were internal pilgrims from within Saudi Arabia. The other 1.4 million came from 140 countries. I saw more people than I have ever seen in my life, with all colours and languages represented. An experience like this makes concrete the Islamic belief that "all men are brothers."
The first part of the trip was in the city of Medina, about 300 km north of Mecca. As I filed past the graves of the Prophet (peace be upon him) and of two of his closest companions, Abu Bakr and Umar, the intervening 1400 years fell away. I started to understand the historical nature of the beginnings of Islam. Because Islam instantly became the religion of a new empire, its early days were recent enough to be captured as actual history rather than being lost in the mists of time.
For me, going on Hajj was relatively easy. You book some holidays and write out a cheque. The first night in Mecca, after completing the rites for that day, my wife and I sat on a wall outside the Mecca Hilton eating a chicken sandwich. Many third world pilgrims were sleeping rough on the pavement outside the hotel, and my eyes rested on the cracked feet of one of them. I realised the financial commitment Hajj represented to him, the depth of faith that made him come, and felt deeply humbled. As I tried to explain this to my wife, I started crying.
Before I left, many PwC people wished me well, and expressed the hope that I would get what I was looking for. If you go on Hajj and your Hajj is accepted by God, then you return as free from sin as a new born baby. How do you know if your Hajj has been accepted? By observing how you behave afterwards, and whether you are a better person than before you went. I hope I can fulfil this.
Please feel free to share these thoughts further.