SHAFAQNA -Â Millions of Muslims will soon take part in the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. The Hajj is the fifthÂ pillar of Islam and every Muslim adult who is physically and financially able must undertake it at least once in their lifetime.
But a subtle change is happening in Mecca; pilgrims are getting younger.
Traditionally, Muslims would wait and save their money for many years before embarking on their own personal journey. But as the Islamic world evolves, many become pilgrims very soon after becoming adults.
“This is certainly an increasing phenomenon in the West,” explains Rashid Mogradia, director of theÂ Council for British Hajjis, a charity that protects the welfare of British citizens who go on the Hajj.
“Third and fourth generation Muslims living in Western countries tend to have the means to do the Hajj earlier than their counterparts in the Far East,” he adds.
Some 25,000 British Muslims will be undertaking the sacred journey this year.
But this is not a backpacking trip. For the pilgrimage to be valid and accepted by God, the Hajji must have the intention of cleansing their soul from all sins.
“Hajj is a religious duty, not a holiday,” explains Mr Mogradia.
However, such a magnificent, long journey, inevitably brings moments of self-discovery, adventure and even danger.
Here, three young Hajjis tell their stories of the whirlwind that is Hajj and explain why, for them, it was the journey of a lifetime.
Lubaaba Amatullah, went on Hajj at 17
My grandparents had decided to perform Hajj again and my grandmother asked me if I should like to join and keep her company.
Circling the Kaaba is a very emotional moment for Muslims on Hajj
I had other reasons to go. My mother, who was in remission from cancer, received a report upon routine check-up that she had relapsed once more.
Having celebrated at what had initially appeared a cure from this long term illness, we were in shock.
Suddenly it was not just about us, but about my mother: pilgrimage became an additional opportunity to pray for a cure and the alleviation of the pain in our hearts.
It is not without reason that Hajj was the experience that changedÂ Malcolm X and his outlook on race.
I remember walking and driving around the tent city of Mina to witness the different people and cultures that had gathered and truly appreciating what unifies us as humans and what enriches us in our diversity.
It was rather entertaining to see how different Hajj groups managed to keep together; some groups would colour coordinate and others wore uniforms.
Perhaps the quirkiest example of coordination I saw was of several groups of women who wore big – and I mean very big – bright flowers on top of their headscarves. No way to miss those if you got separated from your group!
The pelting of the three Jamarat, stone pillars, is one of the steps of Hajj
At one point, most of the group fell ill from a minor form of food poisoning. In such a setting of crowding and interaction, the chance for getting ill is always high and the authorities constantly seek to encourage hygienic surroundings and practices.
Much of my Hajj was spent in prayers for my mother – that she be granted the best of this world and the hereafter and that her illness be alleviated. My mother passed away a year later, but I do not feel that my prayer was left unanswered.
The Hajj taught me to appreciate God’s ways in answering prayers and knowing that, however God answers, it is for the best.
Nazia, performed Hajj at 25
It felt like the time was right: I had graduated, had been working for a few years, paid off my student loan, and had some savings.
I thought, why not? It was an obligation and I wanted to be young enough to experience it to the fullest.
You’re supposed to prepare for Hajj as if you are about to die: wrap up any loose ends, make sure all obligations are filled, make peace with people, say the things you want. Once you come back, you’ve been given a fresh start.
This was probably the toughest, most emotional part.
Everyone had been telling me how special it would be, which was a little hard to imagine. I was worried: what if it wasn’t like that for me? But it was so special and like nothing I’ve ever experienced before.
Masjid al-Haram, the Kaaba, was my favourite place. Praying and reading the Koran whilst the Kaaba was in front of you was a little surreal. That’s what you pray towards wherever you are, and it was right in front of me.
The last tawaf I did was very sad but very special. It was about 2am and it felt like the safest place in the world. Nowhere else would I ever be out at that time on my own.
On the Day of Arafat I sat making supplications for four hours, including reading the ones from the young girls I teach.
Some of them made me cry, others made me smile – from the selfless prayers they made to some of the younger ones asking for a specific toy or game.
I think the most challenging thing for me was the lack of personal space. I was sharing rooms for the whole month, and found it difficult not having my own space.
Catherine Heseltine, performed Hajj at 27
One of the incredible things about Hajj is having people from all round the world gathered together.
Pilgrims waiting to board the plane in Abu Dhabi
I always thought London is quite a multi-cultural place to live, but the experience of arriving in Medina and seeing so many different people [is something else].
African women in brightly coloured prints; Arab women in black; big groups of Turkish women in matching outfits. I even saw some Uzbek men in long coats and hats which looked much better for the climate in Uzbekistan than Saudi Arabia.
Then when the Hajj started everyone was dressed the same and you were part of this sea of pilgrims in white.
I got lost once and it took over three hours to find my way back to our tent. But the biggest challenge was the crowds – commuting on the underground was good preparation for some parts of Hajj.
I bumped into a friend from London outside the mosque in Mecca – with over three million people from all round the world you don’t expect to suddenly hear a familiar voice calling your name in the crowd.