I was reading about zoomorphic and anthropomorphic calligraphy via moleskinerie (“This practice established itself only relatively late in Islamic art, when the taboos outlawing religious iconography had lost some of their power”) when I was reminded of an article (via BoingBoing) about how traffic scientists were trying out new crowd control measures applied from knowledge of fluid mechanics to reduce, or eliminate altogether, the risk of a stampede happening at Mina during the stoning ritual of the Hajj. Every year I have read in newspapers about hundreds of pilgrims who lost their lives when they fell and were crushed by the surging crowds eagerly thronging towards the jamarat for the penultimate ritual that would complete their pilgrimage. This year there has been no casualties and the experiment has proven to be successful—on Wednesday, at least...
A lot of us had so-called life-changing experiences or epiphanies in our teenage years, on the cusp of adulthood, whether we knew it or not. Whether we were ready or not. Since a young age I have been publicly asking questions, trying to make sense of the faith I had inherited. I was fourteen-years old, already interested in philosophy, and had started an online correspondence with a would-be professor in comparative theology (or so he claimed; I only told him my name, my age and interest. This was back in the days of flat-rate dial-up.) He introduced me to many names that I would later remember and look up in libraries. He introduced me to Rumi and then other mystic poetry. He was an atheist, but I believed that he was sincere because like me, he said, he was driven by the quest for knowledge. By this identification, he guided me into the corpus of the philosophy of religion.
A couple of years later, when our correspondence had petered out, I was still the same inquisitive boy who had gone on to read works by Muslim scholars, translations of the Qur'an, revelling in the poetry. I had also a healthy interest in the cosmos and the natural world, and I avidly took in images and information about the world, all the time actively trying to reconcile them with my experiences.
So when my parents took me for the umrah (a visit, as opposed to the actual Hajj pilgrimage, though much in the same spirit) in 1995, I went with my eyes wide open. I was an avid photographer, but quickly learned that I won't be allowed to take pictures of the holy sites, not even from outside. One man even made to confiscate the Yashica SLR camera I was using to take a picture of the Prophet's Mosque in Madinah from the hotel doors, but he then just took the roll of film out and destroyed it, unreeling it and exposing it to the light.
One time in Madinah, as I was engrossed with the Qur'an, reading aloud, an Arab man came to sit next to me to listen and asked me to read louder, mimicking a raising gesture with his hand, palm open facing upwards. A few others also came to sit nearby and before long I had an audience. A few people reached out and anointed me with perfumed oils. Not knowing what else to do, I continued my readings until it was time for prayers and we all prayed together as a group. This went on repeatedly. It was much of the same in Makkah, where I would sit at edge of the Holy Mosque's courtyard surrounding the Ka'abah in between prayers and other rituals. Most nights I don't return to my hotel bed, preferring instead to sit awake through the night, making full use of my time in the holy land, and astonishingly needing very little sleep nor nourishment. I recognize now that I was in the grips of a euphoria.
For two weeks I spent the better part of my days in the mosques in Madinah and Makkah, engaged in prayers, reading the Qur'an (I read it from beginning to end in those two weeks) or otherwise meditating. Other times, I went out to explore the cities and observe the people.
I saw many things, bits and pieces of which I still remember clearly now. Seeing the stone pillars at which pilgrims would throw pebbles in a symbolic act of stoning the devil. The blessed waters of the Zamzam flowing through my fingers. Thousands of people, male and female of diverse ethnicities circumambulating the stone house draped with a heavy black cloth embroidered with gold threads. The doors to this house, lavishly and ornately decorated with gold. The clay cast of Abraham's foot just off to its side. The hajar aswad, the black stone—said to have been as white as snow but now blackened by the sins of man—set into a corner of the house in a silver frame that looks like a vagina, where a mob converges to come close to touch. I saw many men and women pushing against the sides of the Ka'abah, some standing with arms spread to embrace and stand bodily to cling against its walls. At the hajar aswad, some clamber over others, tears streaming on their faces to press their lips on the stone. Those who could not go as far would reach out to touch the stone with their fingertips, and then bringing their fingers to their lips. Even in the very late hours of the night, when many are asleep, I would sit at one corner of the courtyard facing the Ka'abah, and watch the worshippers and listen to the the chanting, the singing, the cries: Labaikallah hummalabaik... I come, my Lord, to heed your call.
Sometimes I participated in this ecstatic worship; other times I would walk around or just sit and watch, all the while reciting the zikir softly, a rosary in my hand.
We went to other places, of course. I went for solitary excursions and walked all over Makkah. I talked and bargained with the local traders, some of them who could speak Malay better than my pedestrian Arabic. We saw the historical sites around the cities like the Hira' cave where the Prophet reportedly first met the archangel Gibrael and the divine revelation began. We went to see the scenes of the famous battles around Makkah. One day we went to a hill where there was another stone pillar, erected there to mark the place where Adam and Eve had found each other after years of separation when they were cast down from heaven to earth. Many pilgrims visit this hill in the belief that if you prayed at this spot to find your fated partner, God will soon answer your prayers. On the pillar were numerous graffiti of names and dates, perhaps names of loved ones remembered or asked for.
There is a ritual called the tawwaf wida when pilgrims to Makkah would circumambulate around the Ka'abah in the spirit of a farewell, and for this they would usually go in normal daily clothing, doffing the customary religious garb (the ihram) that one is required to wear in order to perform a normal tawwaf.
On the last day of my visit, I was performing this tawwaf wida, a few hours before I was going to leave to Jeddah for the flight to Cairo, where we were to spend some time before finally heading home. I was slowly walking around the Ka'abah, spiralling inwards towards the center and the hajar aswad —to get a final look and perhaps even to get a farewell touch this legendary rock—when I was accosted by a man wearing the common Arab attire of a robe and checkered red and white headdress. He grabbed my shoulder from behind, then stepped forward and stood to bar my path, forcing me to stop. He pointed to my t-shirt while saying something in Arabic that sounded like an admonishment. He pointed to the designs on my t-shirt which look like cave paintings of bison, sheep and other animals; they were aboriginal art from Australia, one of them funky ones from a zoo.
“Haram! Haram!” he said, pointing and pushing at the drawings on my chest forcefully, making me involuntarily take a few steps back as other pilgrims jostle past us, engrossed in worship, then grabbing the bottom my t-shirt and pulling it up, telling me to take it off. I protested that these were not religious icons, reasoning that these were just artistic depictions of animals, but this man then grabbed my arm and insistently pulled me away from the Ka'abah towards the mosque's gates and then left me there, pointing the way out, obviously telling me to leave for what is considered 'improper attire'.
That was how I left the holy land—distraught—without finishing my goodbyes.
I continued my conversations, engaging with anybody from all walks of life and beliefs. Then two years ago I met someone who stated to me that pagan Arabs used to worship stone statues, and stone was the object of animistic worship and asked: so are not Muslims everywhere facing a house of stone to pray five times a day continuing the same sort of worship?
I thought about it for a long time, and remembering what I saw and how I was ejected from the House of God, feeling foul and fouled to this day, I have since vowed never to return to that place.
But that has not stopped me in my quest for knowledge, for the truth. That is my reason to exist, above love and duty; the one command—divine or otherwise—that I heed, helplessly being human, all too human.