Preparation for Hajj

The Hajj is unique. There is nothing that happens on our planet that is in any way comparable to it. It represents the only truly global pattern of human social behaviour. If someone out in space were to observe the surface of the earth as a whole over a period of years, they would see many localised patterns of movement by human beings. They would see cities filling up and emptying out on a daily basis as people go to and from their places of work. They would probably notice within the continent of Europe a seasonal movement backwards and forwards between North and South as people head for the sun for their summer holidays. But in the main the movement of people about the surface of the earth would appear to be completely random to an outside observer and it would seem that there was no real cohesive human activity involving the whole human race. Just one thing would belie this conclusion.

At a certain time every year people would start, at first by ones and twos and gradually in ever increasing numbers, to move towards and gather together in one particular arid spot on the earth's surface. If the observer had very sophisticated equipment he would see the growing gathering going round and round in circles around one central point and then backwards and forwards between two adjacent points. Then on a clearly pre-specified date the whole mass of gathered people will be seen to move into a nearby valley and the following day to stream across the desert and remain stationary there for several hours. They would then return to valley from which they set out and, after a couple of days they would start to disperse and return to all the places, near and far, from which they had originally come. Our observer in space would certainly conclude that this was the one discernible phenomenon which tied together the whole human race and the only global pattern of human activity. From our necessarily limited earthbound human perspective it is all too easy to lose sight of this universal aspect of the great institution of hajj and to forget what a truly magnificent thing it is to be part of it.

Another aspect we tend to lose sight of is the ancientness of the hajj and the fact that by participating in it we are carrying on an unbroken tradition which has continued uninterruptedly from the very dawn of human history. It is at least six thousand years since Sayyidina Ibrahim instituted the rites of hajj centred on the House he built in the valley of Makka and it has been going on in that place year by year ever since that time. And there is compelling evidence from other parts of the world that similar gatherings, involving circles and straight lines, were taking place in even earlier times. So when we go on hajj we are taking part in a series of rituals that have been an integral part of human existence since well before the beginning of recorded history. We may well be the only surviving link, connecting us as human beings back to our first forefather Adam and the beginning of the human race.

Although modern means of travel have made going on hajj far easier, there is no doubt that the very lack of difficulty now involved in making the journey has in a certain way made it more difficult to bring to it the same intensity of purpose that was an almost automatic accompaniment of hajj for the Muslims of past generations. When going on hajj meant leaving home for a minimum of several months, and in some cases for a year or more, people tended to think much more seriously about what they were embarking upon than we do when it is just a matter of hopping onto a plane for a couple of hours, something which many of us, in any case, do quite routinely in the ordinary course of events. In the old days the departure of someone for the hajj and their eventual return from it were the reason for significant celebrations not only for individual families but also for whole communities in many parts of the world, nowadays it has become so commonplace that people's departure and arrival almost pass unnoticed in most places.

Another way in which the experience of hajj has been to a certain extent devalued has been the unparalleled proliferation of photographs and television coverage of the holy places. Our ancestors' exposure to the Masjid al-Haram and the Ka'ba only happened through the spoken words of people they met who had been there, written descriptions they may have read or heard, a few diagrams and primitive illustrations in books of fiqh and the almost symbolic depictions to be seen on the walls of mosques and zawiyyas. This meant that the reality of direct vision of the holy places was confined for them to when they arrived there and saw them with their own eyes. How ardent was their longing and how profoundly moving for them the actual sight.

We, however, have been bombarded with photographic images of these wonderful places – no Muslim home is complete without a photo of Makka al-Mukarrama and another of al-Madina al-Munawwara gracing its walls somewhere – and nearly all of us have witnessed the crowds circling the House of Allah and running between Safa and Marwa on television to the extent that it is almost possible to feel that we have been in Makka without having travelled there at all; it is even possible to attend the Jumu'a prayer in the Masjid al-Haram and the Mosque of the Prophet, salla'Llahu 'alayhi sallam, without leaving your favourite armchair, and many people do. While it is certainly not true of the Muslims to say with regard to these things that familiarity breeds contempt, I think it can fairly be said that familiarity does breed a certain casualness towards them, a kind of know-all-about-it feeling, which it is really quite difficult to be unaffected by.

The reason I have dwelt on this a little is because it has an immediate bearing on what is probably the most important aspect of our preparation to go on hajj, our making ourselves ready for this journey which is the most significant one we make in our lives. This ease of travel and excessive pictorial exposure to the holy places definitely has an effect, and one unfortunate result of it is that the amount of forethought and preparation, both inward and outward, people now bring to the act of going on hajj tends to be significantly less than it used previously to be. There is little doubt that it has made it much more difficult for most people to generate the same intensity of purpose which came so naturally to our forebears. The Prophet, salla'Llahu 'alayhi sallam, said:

"Actions only go by intentions. Everyone gets what they intend. Anyone, therefore, who emigrates to Allah and His Messenger, his emigration is indeed to Allah and His Messenger. But anyone who emigrates to gain something of this world or to marry a woman, his emigration is to that to which he emigrated.'"

This hadith, transmitted by the Amir al-Mu'minin, 'Umar ibn al-Khattab, radiya'Llahu 'anhu, is the first hadith in the Sahih collection of Imam Bukhari and was also chosen by many others, including Imam an-Nawawi in his Riyad as-Salihin, to head their collections of hadith. The reason that these great scholars gave primacy of place to this particular hadith is that it encapsulates the fundamental precept on which everything we do is based – without a correct and sincere intention our actions will have no worth with Allah; they will in fact have no real existence whatsoever. Allah tabaraka wa ta'ala says about people who perform actions without an appropriate intention that:

their actions are like ashes scattered by strong winds on a stormy day.

What trace of them will you find when that happens – nothing whatsoever. No, it is only intention which connects what we do to Allah, which makes our actions real in such a way that they will survive our departure from this world and be things that we will find counting for us in the balance on the Day of Reckoning. Without a clear and definite intention it will be as if we had in fact done nothing at all. For this reason, scholars have always made it clear that all acts of worship must be preceded by a clear intention. In the case of prayer, if you forget your intention, you always have another prayer a few hours later when you can make amends. With fasting there is always the next day so no irreparable damage will have been done. But with the Hajj, often a once in a lifetime opportunity, failure to make the proper intention may well be irremediable. The fact that you are here today is a clear indication that you are people who realise the importance of what you are undertaking.

As I have said, the sheer difficulty and unknown quality of what they were going to made a strong intention an almost automatic factor for Muslims of past generations but, paradoxically, we, as Muslims of this information age, when direct visual evidence of what is in front of us is so freely available, may well have to make a far more conscious effort to generate within ourselves the same strength of intention which came so naturally to those before us.

The first thing to bear in mind is that intention is not just a matter of verbal expression. There may well be formulae which clearly articulate the intention we want to make but it is vital to remember that this must be the outward expression of a clear inward purpose contained in our hearts. An intention is a bit like an iceberg: the words expressing it are like the tenth which appears above the surface which is only there because of the nine tenths hidden below it. Inside our hearts we must have a clear picture of exactly what we are intending to do.

We must first be clear about the type of hajj we are going to perform. There are three types of hajj – hajj al-ifrad, hajj al-qiran and hajj at-tamattu'. The first is hajj on its own, the second hajj and 'umra combined, and the third 'umra followed by hajj. I will not go into the details of these here; perhaps my esteemed colleague will go into them later; suffice it to say at this point that perhaps the most significant difference where intention is concerned is that in hajj at-tamattu' you come out of ihram after completing your 'umra and then go back into it again for hajj, so it is obviously important to be clear about this when you make your original intention.

I have just mentioned ihram and it is , of course, the first of the four pillars of hajj and the absolute precondition for its performance. Some people confuse ihram with the two unsewn cloths which men must wear to do hajj, but the cloths are only a sign of ihram which is in reality a particular state of being. You go into ihram or take on ihram when you pass a particular point known as the miqat on your way to do the hajj. The word ihram is from the same root as haram and it is used because when you take it on certain things which are normally permitted become forbidden. The word is also used in the prayer for the takbirat al-ihram and there is a clear similarity. Once you have said the takbirat al-ihram you are cut off from normal life: you may not speak or eat or turn round and are bound to certain clearly defined movements until the prayer is finished.

The same principle applies to taking on ihram for hajj. Once you have done so certain normally permitted things become forbidden to you. Men may wear no sewn garments and may not cover their heads. Women may not cover their faces. It is forbidden for you to comb or scratch your hair or do anything which is likely to remove hair from your body. It is forbidden to cut or bite your nails or otherwise remove them. It is forbidden to use perfume. It is forbidden to hunt or kill game. And it is forbidden to have sex or marry. It is sunna to have a ghusl before going into ihram and to pray two rak'ats when you do so and it is the time when your hajj begins and when your formal intention to perform hajj should be made. But, of course, it is a serious undertaking and much forethought and inner and outer preparation is necessary to get yourself ready for it.

Just as with the takbirat al-ihram in the prayer you cut yourself off from the world and devote your attention to Allah for the length of the prayer, so with the ihram of the hajj you cut yourself off from the normal preoccupations of your life and devote yourself to the service of Allah in the way that He has prescribed until your hajj is concluded. It is as if during the whole time you are in ihram your body no longer existed and it is only your connection with your Lord that matters. You have to eat and do wudu but apart from that you forget about your body and its appearance altogether. It is the only time when letting yourself go is obligatory and normal grooming forbidden.

So this is the state of ihram but for the purposes of intention it is also indispensable to have a clear idea of what you are going to do while you are in it. Obviously you do not and cannot know exactly what is going to happen and the reality is always very different from any idea we may have of it, nevertheless it is vital to have in your mind a clear outline of the various rites and practices you are intending to perform for your intention to be complete and, therefore, for your hajj to be properly fulfilled. The basic picture is quite simple and not difficult to grasp. Once you have got hold of it you will always be able to focus on the task you have undertaken and are less likely to become distracted from it by the chaotic bustle which will almost certainly envelop you when you arrive at your destination.

The basic sequence of hajj events is as follows: ihramtalbiyatawaf of arrival – sa'y – going to Mina on the 8th of Dhu'l-Hijja – standing at 'Arafa on the 9th – spending the night at Muzdalifa – returning to Mina on the morning of the 10th – stoning the Jamra al-Aqaba – sacrificing – shaving or cutting the hair – Tawaf al-Ifada – leaving ihram – stoning the three jamarat for two or three days – tawaf of departure. This is, of course, an extremely telegraphic version of what happens and I will flesh out the picture a little so that it becomes more accessible and easier to assimilate. I will not go into any detail. As I have said what I am concerned with here is that all of us have in advance a clear idea of what is in front of us as we approach the hajj so that we will be prepared for it and able to properly focus on it. Those who have been on hajj before will obviously be familiar with this but even for them I think there is still benefit in going over it.

I have already spoken about going into ihram. With it the hajj proper begins and those going on hajj start reciting the talbiya. The talbiya is the formula which starts "Labbayk Allahumma labbayk", "At your service, O Allah, at your service," and you should repeat this periodically until you come out of ihram but you should not recite it when you are doing tawaf and sa'y. When you reach Makka you go as soon as possible to the Masjid al-Haram to do your tawaf of arrival. Tawaf consists of seven circuits of the Ka'ba, starting and finishing at the corner containing the Black Stone, followed by two rak'ats at the Maqam Ibrahim, facing the side of the Ka'ba where its door is situated. After drinking some water from the well of Zamzam you go directly to Safa for sa'y. Sa'y involves going backwards and forwards between the two rocks of Safa and Marwa seven times, ending at Marwa. This ends the preliminary rites at Makka where you should stay until the actual hajj begins.

On the morning of the 8th of Dhu'l-Hijja you go to Mina where you stay until after Fajr the following day, the 9th, when you proceed to 'Arafa. You stay at 'Arafa the whole day, praying Dhuhr and 'Asr together in the shortened form and spend the time remembering Allah and making du'a' to Him. Shortly after sunset you leave 'Arafa without praying Maghrib and go to Muzdalifa where you pray Maghrib and 'Isha joined and shortened. You spend the night at Muzdalifa, remembering to pick up enough small pebbles to stone the jamarat in Mina on the following days. After the Subh prayer on the morning of the 10th of Dhu'l-Hijja you go to the Mash'ar al-Haram and make du'a there.

From there you return to Mina where you first stone the Jamra al-Aqaba with seven of the pebbles you collected at Muzdalifa. After completing the stoning you make your sacrifice if you have an animal and then men should shave their heads or at least cut off some hair and women should just shorten their hair a little. Your next obligation and the last of the pillars of hajj is the Tawaf al-Ifada for which, of course, you must return to the Masjid al-Haram in Makka. The best time to do this is the day of the 'Id after you have shaved your head or cut your hair but it can be done on any of the Days of Tashriq which are the 11th, 12th, and 13th of Dhu'l-Hijja. When you have completed your Tawaf al-Ifada and not before, you come out of ihram and all those things which were forbidden for you during it become permitted again. You should spend two or three days and nights in Mina, stoning all three jamarat with seven pebbles on each day, preferably in the afternoon before nightfall. After the days of Tashriq you should return to Makka and immediately before you leave you should perform your farewell tawaf.

This, then, is the outline plan of the rites of hajj and everyone going on hajj should study the basic sequence of events before they leave and make them their own so that once there they will have an internal blueprint to refer to whenever they need it. It is a bit like studying a map carefully and thoroughly before setting out on a journey. Doing so does not necessarily ensure your safe arrival at your destination and the places, when you come to them, are not quite so straightforward as they seemed on the map but knowing where you are going in advance and the route to take certainly makes getting where you want to go a lot easier. The other day I had to get to somewhere in London I had never been before. I found out where it was on the map and worked out the way to get there. Once I got to the area it was all very different from what it had looked like on the map and there were all kinds of confusing factors but because I had worked it out in advance I kept going and, although I had to ask a couple of times to make sure I was right, I did not go wrong and went straight to the place I was heading for. I know that if I had not studied the map very carefully and so got an accurate picture of where I was going, I would definitely have got completely lost.

So we have been looking at how to generate and formulate a strong, correct and effective intention for hajj and I have devoted all this time to talking about it because without it there is no point in going on hajj at all. It is the absolutely indispensable precondition which makes it possible for our journey to be successful. So from that point of view it is the most important preparation we can make. There are, of course, other essential aspects of preparation, particular the practical elements of medical precautions and travel arrangements and other such pragmatic and useful things but I will not go into them here as I have no expertise in that field. There is, however, one other aspect of preparation I would like to look at and that is the settling of one's affairs before setting out.

In the past, people really did not know whether they would return home from their journey to hajj. Travelling itself was far more dangerous and illness claimed a lot more lives than it does now. Many people never made it home again. For this reason setting one's affairs in order has always been considered an integral part of preparing for hajj. It is one of the conditions of hajj that you should not only have enough for your own travelling expenses and to cover all the accommodation and food costs of your stay in the Hijaz but also leave behind you sufficient to cover the needs of your dependants during your absence. But on top of this you should also make sure that, as far as possible, you do not leave any loose ends which would cause difficulty to your family in the event of your failure to return. For instance if you have debts and you are unable to pay them outright before your departure, you should at least make sure that you make some provision for their payment. And there are any number of other things which will be different in every individual situation and which will need sorting out before you can set off with everything in order. This is very important for those you leave behind but it is also vital for your own peace of mind. The last thing you want is for the worry of unfinished business to intrude into your consciousness and occupy your heart when you are face to face with your Lord on the plain of 'Arafa.

I would like to finish this session on the subject of preparing for hajj by telling you what happened to a great friend of mine, an American called Aziz Schaller, when he went on hajj in 1993. He went with a group from England and Spain and they all met up by prearrangement in Jeddah airport. After the usual bureaucratic nightmare they eventually got their papers cleared and made their way straight to Makka. They were lucky enough to be staying quite near the Masjid al-Haram and fulfilled their tawaf and sa'y without difficulty. On the requisite day they went out to Mina and then on to 'Arafa. They stayed there correctly until after sunset but because many people had left early when they arrived at Muzdalifa it was difficult to find a spot to spend the night. They eventually found somewhere but it was a long way from a water supply and Aziz spent much of the night plying backwards and forwards with bottles of water making sure everyone in the group had enough for wudu and drinking in the morning. They completed the hajj successfully and returned to Makka and then after a couple of days set out for Madina.

Because of traffic congestion the journey to Madina took twenty-four hours and they finally arrived on a Tuesday just before Maghrib. They were given a place to stay overlooking the graveyard of Madina, al-Baqi', where so many of the Companions and great early Muslims are buried. On the Wednesday Aziz complained of feeling a little weak. On the Thursday the weakness increased and a couple of the group accompanied him to the local hospital for treatment. The rest of the group were invited out for the evening. When they returned and went to enquire how Aziz was they were informed that he had just died. They washed and prepared his body for burial and the funeral prayer was done for him in the Mosque of the Prophet, salla'Llahu 'alayhi wa sallam, after Jumu'a. The funeral procession went directly from the mosque to al-Baqi' and Aziz was buried between Sayyidina Uthman ibn 'Affan, radiya'Llahu 'anhu, and Imam Malik, rahimahu'Llahu ta'ala.

Remember this only happened seven years ago and that as far as he himself or any one else knew Aziz was in perfectly good health. Yet the time from when he first felt unwell until his death was scarcely twenty-four hours. Now I am not suggesting that this is a common occurrence, although we must remember that millions of Muslims daily ask Allah for such an end in their du'as, but it does bring it very forcibly home that such a thing is a very real if remote possibility for any one of us. The vital thing to realise is that whatever happens, and Allah-willing all of you will return safely, the reality is that everyone who goes on hajj, the most important journey which any human being can make, is going to meet their Lord. There could be no better preparation for hajj than truly recognising this.

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