By Sofea Chok Suat Ling
September 10, 2018
THE Haj season this year officially closed
two weeks ago. It was, gratefully, a smooth and successful season with several
historic feats achieved for Malaysian pilgrims, among them, fast-track
immigration pre-clearance and air-conditioned tents in Arafah. Since returning
after covering the pilgrimage as a journalist and performing the Haj at the same
time, I’ve been trying to put my thoughts in order. It’s challenging as it
feels like an entire lifetime passed in the reasonably short period of 55 days
I was in the Holy Land.
Arriving at the Kuala Lumpur International
Airport just a few seconds to our National Day, and back on familiar ground in
the days thereafter, it felt as if nothing has changed, but so much, in effect,
Haj, it has been said, is a powerful
experience, and a catalyst for change like no other. And it is.
There was much I learnt being part of a
global community of more than two million people. We trekked under the
scorching heat of the desert sun, and waded through the crush of people
together, sharing not just succulent Ajwa dates and refreshment, but tears and
I saw how it’s possible for people of
different colour, backgrounds, and stations in life to co-exist as one. No one
is on a pedestal higher than the other, or more important. Everyone looks the
same and is clothed in similar garments, free of all their worldly trappings.
We may not know the different languages spoken, but everyone understands each
other completely when reciting the talbiah, Takbir and verses from the Quran.
This incredible diversity of people who
journeyed from all corners of the globe for a singular purpose is indeed a
sight to behold and you will be made acutely aware how small you are amid this
ocean of humanity.
If only this spirit, as well as sense of
community, charity and brotherhood can be replicated at all other times, and in
I also learnt that the Haj is not to be
feared. Some are reluctant to fulfil the fifth pillar of Islam and put it off
until they are in their twilight years not because of financial constraints but
because of a sense of unworthiness or unpreparedness. I felt the same too and
these thoughts were swirling in my head: am I ready? There is still so much I
don’t know. What if I embarrass myself by doing something wrong?
I will, therefore, always be grateful for
this advice: “Don’t wait. Go when you are invited. As long as you go with
sincerity and an open heart, InsyaAllah, all will be well.”
In Makkah, I met elderly pilgrims who
regretted making the journey so late in their lives as obstacles are more
difficult to surmount when the body is frail and weak.
Indeed, much has been said about how
physically demanding the Haj is. It can be arduous, especially now in the
summer months, when temperatures soar above 40°C.
This is hot enough to cause mobile phones
to overheat and shut down.
Thus, it is crucial to be prepared. There
will be discomfort, inconveniences, long waits and even longer walks during
Masyair, when pilgrims move from Makkah to Arafah, Muzdalifah and Mina to
perform the Haj rituals. Even religious guides from Tabung Haji (TH),
Malaysia’s pilgrims’ fund, advise people not to neglect physical preparations —
exercising and eating nutritiously — before departing for the Holy Land.
Spiritual preparations alone do not suffice as a certain level of fitness is
required for all the walking.
And just how long are the walks? At Mina
alone, it is at least 7km daily under the blazing sun from the tent site to the
multi-storey Jamarat Complex for the stoning ritual, and back.
Thankfully, when it seemed like my legs
were turning to jelly, I would see determined senior citizens charging ahead
with their walking sticks, and come across Saudi volunteers with water sprays
shouting, “Five more minutes!”, and feel re-energised.
For women, it is also important to be armed
with knowledge, especially with regards menstruation, as ignorance can have
Ask a religious guide if unsure. Nothing is
too embarrassing when it comes to something as important as the Haj, which most
people have an opportunity to perform only once in their lifetime.
As it is, the highest number of inquiries
received by TH guides is from women concerned about menstruating during the
Haj, a situation brought about by the increasingly younger age of pilgrims.
But what I learnt most of all from my
journey is what Islam is. Not how it is often portrayed. Not unforgiving,
judgmental or eager to punish. Not about hate, anger or retribution, and not
about brimstone and hellfire.
Throughout the Haj journey for me, there is
a sense of Islam as it is in its truest form. One can feel it when in the holy
This feeling of love, mercy, and
compassion; it permeates the air at the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah, which was
once the home of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), and the Grand Mosque in Makkah.
The sight of the Kaabah within the Grand
Mosque, and the undulating sea of people circling it is mesmerising, almost
This is where Muslims face five times every
day in prayer, no matter where they are in the world.
And many had been here before me, making
this journey on camel, foot, by ship and now air to answer the call by Prophet
Ibrahim (pbuh) so many years ago.
It’s easy to lose track of time and be lost
in the embrace of these holiest sites in Islam.
The feeling is difficult to describe. But
perhaps it is not meant to be.