Sana and Amin spoke to The Post from Mecca via video call on Friday, describing what it’s like to make Islam’s holiest pilgrimage, and what it means to them.
Sana: As a couple, we’re in this transition now. We just finished our studies, and we moved back to Minnesota, and we’re starting to integrate into the community there, close to family, and also hoping to form our own family. So it’s sort of that we’re starting a new chapter in our life.
The rites of the hajj are rooted in Islam’s story of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic prophet Abraham (or Ibrahim in the Arabic spelling). Pilgrims retrace the steps of Ibrahim, his wife Hagar and their son Ismail, and consider the sacrifices they made. Amin and Sana had grown up with an awareness of the hajj, but once in Mecca, found themselves confronting prejudices they didn’t realize they had.
Amin: Honestly, I was worried. I think about a million or 2 million people in one place, and I feel claustrophobic. I like watching football games from home because I feel claustrophobic in a stadium. But I haven’t met anyone yet who hasn’t been splendid. People just smile. And they engage in conversation. Today we listened to a lecture from a scholar from Kenya. Yesterday, we got into an impromptu conversation with someone from Nigeria. … It is like a mini United Nations out here. … Coming from America, my experience of Islam is perhaps different from those who grew up in a Muslim country. For example, when I used to see men with very long beards, in the back of my mind, I’d be affected by the biases I have as an American. Like, “Oh man, who are these people?” But I’m in a safe space here to converse with people, and what I’ve found is the overwhelming majority are such good people. … I asked a taxi driver we talked to, “Why did you come this year?” And he told me he had been saving up for five years so he and his wife could do hajj. And I was like, “Dang, talk about dedication.” It made me really humble about my background — we didn’t save up. We got a gift.
Upon entering the holy city, pilgrims chant: “I am here, O, my God, I am here.” They bathe and don simple, white clothing. For men, it consists of two sheets of cloth known as an ihram.
Amin: We’re taking off clothes that represent our world and desire and status, taking off our Abercrombie & Fitch. By wearing these two white cloths that every person wears, you’re all the same. … When you wear ihram, a bunch of things also become prohibited — for example, you cannot kill a fly, get into a fight, go hunting, wear perfume, shave or have sex. For women, you can’t cover your face.
The Kaaba, a large cube that sits at the center of Mecca’s Grand Mosque, is the most iconic point in the hajj and the first destination in the pilgrimage. It is believed that Ibrahim and Ismail built the Kaaba to honor their one God. On their first day in Mecca, Sana and Amin walked there from the hotel — through 110-degree heat — and performed the rites that millions perform every year during the pilgrimage.
Amin: The first thing we noticed coming out of the hotel is it’s like walking into a wall of thick, muggy heat that just hits you in the face. Within seconds of being outside, you already start sweating. And then after that, you start hearing the honking horns and the merchants on the left and right telling you to buy stuff from them. … As we got close to the mosque, we saw a sea of white, and it almost looks like marble. But then you start seeing that white is moving — it’s people. So immediately you feel like, “Wow I am one of hundreds of thousands.” … You see the holy Kaaba, and that picture that we’ve seen our whole life through books or artwork in homes — we’re seeing it in real life for the first time, and it almost feels not real.
Pilgrims circle the Kaaba seven times in a ritual called tawaf.
Amin: You have to start at the black stone, which is on one corner of the holy Kaaba. The narration is that this is essentially a rock that came from heaven. A lot of people want to touch it. We just gave up on that cause it’s kind of crowded. … It’s like men and women all together in a peanut butter sandwich.
Sana: It’s also hard to keep track of how many rounds you’re doing.
Amin: The first round, you’re sort of wondering, “Am I doing this right?” And you’re observing the fact that you’re being pushed and shoved, and there are hairy, smelly people, and everyone is in this thing together. Then after the first one, you start to think, “Why am I actually doing this?” And my mind went to the fact that the biggest sin that a Muslim can commit is to ascribe physical properties to God. And yet we’re all here, walking around a box. What are we doing? … Honestly, [I realized that this is about] a remembrance of God, whether that is thinking about your blessings or your missteps in the past, or reciting the Koran and thinking about your favorite verses. … While every person is doing the same act, every experience is completely unique. … One of the realizations for me is my life is full of hustle and bustle and ups and downs, but the one thing that is fixed is God.
Amin and Sana decided to make their hajj a spiritual exploration of the world around them, their religious philosophy and their personal values. They also devoted time to thinking about Amin’s mother, who died a year and a half ago after a battle with cancer.
Amin: After my mom passed away, I found that my faith — and I guess “God-consciousness” — started dwindling. I almost feel like me coming to hajj this year is God calling me back and saying, “Hey, buddy, I’m calling you to my house now, and we should have a conversation.” … So we have kind of a “dear diary” thing. Every day, we’ve been journaling to be present with what’s happening. And then in addition to that, there are specific questions that each of us are trying to answer on our own: Why were we invited to hajj? What does God want for us? What do we want our lives to look like five years from now, 10 years from now? What is holding us back from completing our goals?
On Sunday, all of the pilgrims will converge on Mount Arafat, the spot in the desert where Islam’s prophet Muhammad is believed to have delivered his final sermon.
Amin: I’ve never been there, but the scene is supposed to be like the scene on the day of judgment. There’s no hotels, there’s no shops. There’s just tents, and people don their white clothing. … Every pilgrim is supposed to be there, all 2 million people on the same day, at the same time, in a barren desert, with the heat pouring down on our faces. And the goal is to, in the most sincere way possible, have a conversation with God and confess your sins — the sins of your past, of your college days, all your sins. And on that day, every individual will be forgiven for their sins. And this is, I think according to many scholars, the climax of hajj.
After that, they’ll visit a few more sites, casting pebbles at pillars meant to symbolize Satan and sacrificing a ram on Eid al-Adha — the holiday of the sacrifice — in commemoration of God’s command that Ibrahim sacrifice his son Ismail, only to replace Ismail with a ram at the last moment. (Jews and Christians believe that God ordered Abraham to sacrifice his second son, Isaac.) Then they’ll return to Mecca and circle the Kaaba again.
Islam, like Judaism, uses a lunar calendar, so its holidays fall on different days each year. This year, the pilgrims’ day at Arafat will coincide with the 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Amin and Sana were children when it happened. But the tragedy — and the negative image of Muslims that it left in the minds of some Americans — have shaped their lives as American Muslims and colored how they see themselves.
Amin: For me in the past, I had a lot of trouble with the question of “Am I proud to be a Muslim? Am I confident in my identity as a Muslim?” That’s something I struggled with through middle school, high school and college. … But having come and really experiencing [the hajj], I think so far — I mean, we’ll see in three days — but so far, this has been one of the most uplifting experiences in my life, specifically how I see myself as a Muslim. … Oftentimes when people think about Islamophobia, they think about how non-Muslims view Muslims. But no one ever thinks about how it affects how a Muslim views himself. I think this has actually given me a lot more faith and confidence in who I am and my identity.