In 2011, my wife and I embarked on our pilgrimage to Makkah – called the Hajj. For those who are not of the Islamic faith, here’s a basic explanation of the Hajj – and how it fits into Islam. I’ve documented the entire journey over a 30-part series, but this time, I’d like to focus on just one segment – which drew out my biggest lesson.
The first, necessary separation
The Hajj reaches its peak on the second day – known as the Day of Arafah. It’s a period in which pilgrims spend the afternoon in deep prayer – begging their Creator for forgiveness, and making sincere supplications for themselves, their families, communities, and the world at large.
It’s the spiritual peak of a Muslim’s life, and for me (and many others), it was one I needed to spend mostly alone.
This was slightly problematic, because my Hajj group focused heavily on communal activities. They gave us only a few short hours alone, before commencing with a group programme.
Of course, with this being a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – and something I’d prepared very well for – there was no way I was going to be limited by group activities. And I wouldn’t sacrifice a huge chunk of what was deeply intimate, private time with my Creator. So when the group programme started, I went off to a quiet spot far away from everyone, and continued with my own supplications.
I had a rough idea of when the programme would finish, and even though I was far from done, I made my way back to the camp. The logistical arrangements meant that I would need to be with them when they left.
At the camp, I wandered around, trying to find out if they’d announced exactly what time they’d be leaving. For most of the day before that, they’d been very non-committal – so we had no idea what time things would happen until they announced it. Every person I asked gave the same answer: no; they’d let us know. No announcement came, and I wouldn’t have known the time of departure had I not overheard one of the group leaders tell someone that we needed to start moving. Of course, with a long walk ahead (roughly 14 kilometres in total), it was a prerequisite that you needed to use the toilet before leaving – especially since there were no facilities on the road.
But, as was customary on Hajj, the toilet queues were long, so I had to wait a while. After doing my business, as I walked back to the camp, I passed my wife’s cousin – who told me that they were preparing to leave. I just needed a few minutes to get my stuff and would then meet them, so I thought they’d wait for me. But when I came back, they were gone.
I spoke to my wife on the phone, and assumed they were still standing and waiting for people – as was the case for most group activities on this trip. She’d failed to tell me that they were already on their way. The group had left, and she hadn’t waited for me.
But I figured I was only a few minutes behind them, so I would catch up. Everyone was walking in one direction, so there wasn’t much chance of getting lost. With a feeling of anxiety mixed with bravery, I prayed for a safe journey and ventured off alone – among the not-too-many people leaving at that time.
Catch us if you can
After leaving Arafah alone, I had some hope because – via mobile phone – I was in constant contact with my wife and the group leader, who was trying to figure out how far behind I was. And as I walked, I remembered the verse in the Quran about how we “flow” from Arafah, imagining that we were supposed to be feeling pure and liberated. But such sentiments were far from my heart and mind.
My focus was on catching up to my group – who were nowhere in sight. My hope was fading as I realised I was totally alone: in the middle of this desert, unfamiliar with the surroundings, knowing no one and not speaking Arabic.
Most people think that it’s impossible to get lost at this point – because there’s just one road and everyone goes in the same direction (to the next stopping point: Muzdalifah). But the reality was different. Early into the walk, there were side roads, and people going off in different directions for their busses. I didn’t know who to follow and ended up taking numerous wrong turns – which set me further back from my group.
In that first hour of walking, the reality of the situation hit me, and I grew angry at my wife for ‘abandoning’ me. I knew she hated waiting for me, so I blamed her impatience. I felt betrayed. She knew that for the Hajj walks, couples are advised to stick together – yet she couldn’t wait a few minutes. But I knew that the devil was trying to get to me – as he does on that very road from Arafah. So, I asked Allah to take away those angry thoughts. Blame wouldn’t be constructive. I needed to focus on correcting the situation by finding them.
My feelings oscillated between adventurous curiosity, fear, and anxiety. How could this be happening? And why? Why me?
One possible answer popped into my head: our group leader’s advice that unexpected events on Hajj are Allah’s way of trying to teach you lessons. So my mind settled a bit, confident that I’d catch up to my group, and I focused on enjoying the adventure.
Most of my walk was along the side of the road, which gave me plenty of exposure to extreme bus drivers. For example, one driver would be stuck, with no room to move forward, yet the driver behind him would hoot like a maniac. The front driver would then hoot back…so it felt like this was just their natural conversation. Another time, a bus snuck up on me from behind, then blared the hooter to give me an unwelcome shock.
Despite this, it was incredible to see and be among the 3 million pilgrims heading to Muzdalifah – both by bus and walking. The busses held passengers inside, on the roofs, and in the luggage compartments underneath. Those busses sometimes ran so close together that it was hard for us pedestrians to cross the road at the off-ramps (as one lady in a wheelchair narrowly found out). And with traffic being so incredibly slow, it really was quicker to walk.
But the sidewalks weren’t that safe either. Men on bikes regularly drove on the pavement – giving people lifts (presumably for a large fee) and not seeming to care who they may knock over.
By this time, it was already dark and I’d given up hope of catching my group on the road – so I figured I’d meet them at Muzdalifah. My wife, who’d been panicking for several hours, eventually realised that she had to stop worrying and put her trust in Allah. As for me, I was physically uncomfortable as I had to carry a heavy backpack (with limited food and water), and I also had other physical challenges at the time.
As I approached Muzdalifah, I chose to follow a small group of pilgrims walking on the side of the road – thinking it was a more adventurous route. The detour took me into open desert – so I got to walk on the sand of this Makkan desert, and experienced the night sky from that viewpoint.
At one point, I started smelling animals. And then I saw them: a group of sheep in a pen, with no humans around. They were probably waiting for the morning’s Eid sacrifices. “B-a-a-a”, I said, greeting one of them. “B-a-a-a”, came a reply. Nice to know the sheep weren’t ignoring me…
Strange as it sounds, I actually enjoyed the whole episode of being lost. Being a person who’s quite comfortable on his own, I didn’t really mind being away from everyone. It gave me time to think, feel, and just experience something that was completely out of the ordinary. It felt like Allah’s gift to me – initially seeming like a disaster, but turning out to be the highlight of my Hajj up to that point.
For most of the walk from Arafah, I drank minimal water – since there were no toilets on the road (and the water I had was warm anyway). As I neared Muzdalifah, I started to feel a bit like a marathon runner. At the side of the road, people were popping up handing out cool, refreshing water. I gratefully took some and continued – now sure that it was only a matter of time before I reached my group.
When I got into Muzdalifah, I was still lost. As was the case throughout the walk, I spent quite a bit of time and energy on the phone, trying to find my group. And, just like all the other times, my conversations with both my wife and our group leader served only to confuse and frustrate me more. When I told them I was in a park, and could see some pilgrims walking with shopping bags (presumably from a nearby supermarket), the group leader thought I had become delirious.
But I was just fine, and was experiencing a side of Muzdalifah that my Hajj group never got close to. Realising it may still be a while until I’d be reunited with the group, I decided to give the search a break and settled down in that small park to make my two evening prayers (which are to be combined and made at Muzdalifah).
Still a wandering soul
After a brief rest, my search for familiar faces resumed. I regularly spoke to my wife and our group leader on the phone, and at several points, he asked to speak to the Arab locals near me – hoping they’d have more success trying to direct me to the group.
I walked up and down trying to find the landmarks my wife and the group leader described. I must have walked from one end of Muzdalifah to the other several times, but to no avail. Whether I asked policemen, military personnel, or taxi drivers – nobody seemed able to help. They either waved me off in a vague direction, or called others to escort me. But every single time, the end result was failure.
The entire search was both tragic and comical, especially the point where I saw a bus from my cousin’s Hajj group approaching. South Africans at last! But, fitting in with the night’s theme, it was hopeless. They were too far away, so I couldn’t get to them to seek their help.
Through all of this, I still took the time to observe the scenes around me. Muzdalifah is basically a massive space of just tarmac and gravel, with a few hills around. Aside from toilets, there wasn’t much infrastructure at all. The pilgrims settled down in just about every space available: many slept on mats under the stars, in tents, or in the luggage compartments of busses. Others prayed or walked around. Vendors also covered the area, selling torches, drinks, fruit, and food.
In all that time, I didn’t let tiredness get to me much. I was running on adrenaline, with my priority being to find my group – rather than worry about the strain being put on my body. Psychologically, I didn’t panic for a long time, but the fear eventually overcame me.
What if I never found my group? The next day – Eid – would be a hectic one, as pilgrims had more physically-demanding activities to undertake. I couldn’t go into that day alone.
My feelings of desperation intensified. I felt like crying. I did, a little.
I felt hopeless – like I wanted to give up. I just wanted to go home and forget all this. So what if it was Hajj? At that point, I hated the experience of being lost. I didn’t care if my Hajj would be ruined – I just wanted to get out of there, to a familiar and comfortable place again… even if I didn’t fulfill the remaining rituals I needed to do.
I felt like my wife and group had abandoned me, and this Hajj – this particular segment – was just a horrible, horrible experience.
Why would I ever want to come for Hajj again?
And what if I fainted or had some medical emergency? Being totally alone, I’d become some anonymous statistic on the side of the road – possibly never found by my wife or Hajj group.
These were all bad thoughts. Desperate, anxious thoughts.
While still seeking help from others, I turned to Allah time and time again in supplication. And time and time again, it seemed like I was going in circles – like a hamster on a wheel. Doing nothing but walking and walking and walking, but making zero progress.
By that time, since leaving Arafah, I’d been alone for more than 7 hours. I still had no idea where I was. I had no idea where my group was. My wife and others sensed my desperation and were encouraging on the phone, but it wasn’t too comforting at that point – because they weren’t with me in the moment. I was utterly alone – with all these foreigners who didn’t speak English around me. I had no one. No one but Allah.
When I reached my breaking point, Allah finally saved me: it was nearly midnight – which was the time when my group and many others would be leaving Muzdalifah to head for the next stop – Mina. One of the Hajj guides who I was in contact with on the phone advised me to head for Mina and meet them there.
It made sense, but given the various roads out of Muzdalifah, and the night’s predictable pattern of everything going wrong, I didn’t have much hope.
But I had nothing to lose, so I started walking in what I thought was the right direction. I figured I was on track because I was walking under the monorail – which went back to Mina. It was a relatively quiet walk, with not many people or Hajj officials around. I later found out that my walk to Mina was a stark contrast to my group’s experience, where they dealt with big crowds as well as hyped up Hajj officials who ripped bags off people they thought were carrying too much luggage.
It turns out I was on a different route to my group.
I ended up back on Mina, but then took a long while to find my group’s camp – arriving there at 1.30AM – a full 9 hours after I’d started walking from Arafah. Our group leader was happy to finally see me, and apparently everyone knew my story by then.
My wife was ecstatic, and despite being in ihraam (where we weren’t allowed any romantic contact), we shared a beautiful reunion (without violating the prohibition, of course!).
Gone were the negative feelings I’d held against her earlier on. All was forgiven. The 9 hours of almost non-stop walking and wandering wore down any anger and blame I was keeping inside, and I was just relieved to finally be ‘home’ – with my wife and in familiar surroundings again.
In case you’re wondering, I never made it to my group because I was on a completely different route to them. On the Arafah-Muzdalifah stretch, there’s a bus route and a pedestrian route. My group took the pedestrian route, but I completely missed that turnoff – so I was with the busses. It didn’t seem out of place because there were so many others walking on that route with me.
As for Muzdalifah, I still have no idea where my group had camped – despite the fact that I probably walked the length and breadth of the whole region that night.
As for not knowing when the group would leave Arafah, a year after our Hajj, I found out that the group leaders had in fact announced the departure time during the collective programme. But, of course, I’d skipped that programme – so I didn’t hear. And it just so happened everyone I asked neglected to mention this. Not on purpose, I believe, but perhaps just because that was Allah’s plan to ensure that I wouldn’t end up making the walk with them – and instead embark on my own adventure.
Added to that, I was blessed to leave when I did. Apparently, some time after I left, there was a stampede in the crowds leaving Arafah, and some pilgrims lost their lives. So, despite my initial perception that my timing was bad, it was actually perfect – because it would have been worse had I been in that crowd.
The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is reported to have said:
“…Be mindful of Allah and Allah will protect you. Be mindful of Allah and you will find Him in front of you. If you ask, then ask Allah [alone]; and if you seek help, then seek help from Allah [alone]. And know that if the nation were to gather together to benefit you with anything, they would not benefit you except with what Allah had already prescribed for you. And if they were to gather together to harm you with anything, they would not harm you except with what Allah had already prescribed against you. The pens have been lifted and the pages have dried.”
His words came to life that night. They came true in my life. I had sought help from so many different people that night – my wife, our group leader, the policemen, military, taxi drivers, and others – yet absolutely no one could help. All their efforts came to nothing. Allah had not intended for them to help me, so despite their efforts, they couldn’t make a difference to my plight. And it was only when I turned so utterly and desperately to Allah alone that He opened the way for me and guided me out of my misery.
That was my lesson in this whole ordeal. That was what Allah wanted to teach me:
Reliance on Allah alone. Tawakkul – in Arabic.
Hours earlier, on Arafah, I’d prayed for exactly that: for stronger faith and true reliance on Allah. And immediately after that, He put me through this trial. He brought that supplication to life. And although the whole experience was incredibly trying, it was the highlight of my Hajj.
This experience was originally documented as part of my in-depth Hajj series. All 30 parts are available as an e-book in PDF format here.