James Cameron’s blockbuster “Avatar” is the highest-grossing domestic science fiction film to date. So were “The Time Machine” and “The Matrix” in their releasing years. Interestingly, all of them were involved in lawsuits for copyright infringement. Not surprising as fierce competition exists in the sci-fi world with studios vying for the most remarkable storyline and sensationalist visual effects. So I smile to myself when I reminisce about the observations and insights I had during my hajj experience. It remains an endless source of reflection about a reality that sometimes seems stranger than fiction.
Science fiction typically involves imaginative depictions of time-travel, augmented reality, or the presence of other-world beings controlled by an unknown super-power. Striking elements corresponding in some particulars, but profoundly more powerful than any sci-fi thriller details, were vividly present during my pilgrimage experience. Every aspect of spiritual movement and dramatic devotion displayed by pilgrims at the black granite cube sparks extra-ordinary reflection on the mysteries of the universe, more so than any sci-fi movie, however spectacular. Elements of a great drama — plot, setting, character, struggle, symbol, and point of view — were all present. And all were synthesized in the ultimate perception of the experience as a praising and celebration of God’s presence, and a manifestation of His grandeur. This experience, as I describe it, is not an exaggeration; and its immense impact on my soul and daily life is something for which I was not prepared.
The first glimpse of Kaaba is a strange melding of an incredibly familiar place, from photograph and childhood impression, with a real-time, direct viewing — with such primal immediacy! — of the most awe-inspiring symbol of religious and spiritual authenticity.
My journey to Mecca began as mundane, and even at the very last minute, I was preoccupied with assuring that I had all necessary material provisions before I boarded the plane. Long waiting in the clamor of Jeddah Airport was animated, even exhilarating, still in the most down-to-earth way, enough to cast doubt on the expected and hoped for sacredness of the hajj experience. Then the bus ride through the dry and dusty stretch of a battered freeway flanked by ragged and barren boulders carried us towards the Grand Mosque. The cynicism in my young soul was yet to shunits attachment to the ordinary.
Suddenly, the towering illumination of the Masjid-al-Haram minarets appeared through an opening in the encircling hills, and I felt the genesis of what I can only call an awakening. The dissonant clamor of congested traffic and the fatigue I felt from a long flight — all disappeared instantly. A reverence grew in my heart as I approached the shrine, Islam’s holiest of places. The first glimpse of Kaaba is a strange melding of an incredibly familiar place, from photograph and childhood impression, with a real-time, direct viewing — with such primal immediacy! — of the most awe-inspiring symbol of religious and spiritual authenticity. Tears rolled down my cheeks and some deep inner yearning felt insatiable; I could not get enough as I stared at the marvel of architecture that so beautifully represented the apex of human surrender and devotion to God.
Some essential gravitational force was pulling me closer and closer to the elegant black cuboid adorned with golden verses of the Qur’an. I was immersed into an untiring human wave after wave of veneration as the pilgrims circumambulated the Kaaba. This profound ritual actually speaks to the intelligent design and harmony of the universe. The movement of people around the Kaaba reflects the core model of the entire creation, from the micro-dimension to the macro; from the atomic spin of electrons around a nucleus to the orbits of planets around the sun. Everything points, as Signs of God, to an orderly and perfectly proportioned cosmos, an integrated whole that is designed and sustained by a single self-sufficient power, the Sovereign, the omnipotent Creator.
In the counterclockwise movement of Tawaf, I felt that I was in a passage of time back to that of our beloved last prophet Mohammed (pbuh); then gradually to the era of the father of Tawheed, prophet Ibrahim (pbuh); then to the father of humankind, prophet Adam (pbuh). It was like I was connected to some primordial state of existence and innocence, as if the seven circumambulations were perfectly and precisely intended to elevate my soul and allow me a glimpse of a higher perception of reality, elegant beyond words, that draws me nearer to my Lord’s throne.
Life is in so many ways like the virtual reality in the movie, “The Matrix.” The “matrix” was a computer program that simulated reality, a cyberspace in which humans were unknowingly trapped and systematically deceived about reality, the rationale for their existence, and their sustenance. Only a few discovered the truth and sought an escape from the illusion to true life. Similarly, we are imprisoned in the illusion of this life, the material world. Every pilgrim was aware of the benefit of the hajj experience to help him or her see the transitory world for what it is, an “abode of delusion.” Their struggle, my struggle, was to attain affinity with the Almighty, uttering various Qur’anic verses, at times in whispers, in the silence of individual minds, or in the fullest vocalizations of divinely revealed Words. A mystical encounter of the many, all seeking salvation in a great concordance of yearning; one supreme God, millions of supplicants, each surrender uniquely poignant.
Hajj, for me, was the moment when the vanity of the apparent world revealed itself in full irony. The materials of the earthly existence are required for our survival. Yet, unless we put that survival in its proper perspective, as a means to a greater end, it is for nothing. I wished I had prepared myself better for this momentous journey, so that I might have taken home a more optimal awareness of the significance, the infinite significance, of the unseen reality. That reality speaks so vividly to each pilgrim at the holiest place on earth.
Every aspect of hajj is an invitation to deep reflection and great reverence. What makes it so unique is that it awakens a vitality in one’s loyalty towards the Lord; it reinforces a holistic realization of absolute truth; and it inspires by its demonstration of the remarkable oneness and greatness of the Most Gracious and Merciful, the Cherisher and Sustainer, the One most exalted in wisdom and power. Hajj is an awakening, a realization, and an inspiration that imbues each moment of life with surpassing meaning and purpose.