By Ebrima Baldeh
If anyone of you is preparing or is on the journey to the holy land to perform pilgrimage in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, one has to unavoidably, traverse through three cities with letter M. Here is my take.
The first port of call is Madinatul Munawarah (the City of Illumination), where a team of diplomats and hajj guides is anxiously waiting to welcome would-be pilgrims. Like other airports, the one here is as dry as the city, solemn and in good shape. As soon as one gets off the flight, a waiting bus welcomes you, while some try to flex their muscles to beat boredom and fatigue, the immigration formalities have to be observed; your passports are taken away and kept until it is appropriate to return them. The security officers are quite meticulous with bags, items or anything that may affect the smooth running of hajj operations, so a big video camera can be intercepted.
I watched as Gambian pilgrims were cleared to proceed to the next stage; a woman, appeared before the immigration officer and demanded her passport be returned to her, it became interesting when the woman began speaking a Gambian language to the officer. In the midst of the tense moments, I stepped up and told the woman that the passports will be returned to her later, and that the officer does not speak Gambian local languages.
The second bus was calmly waiting for us to move out of the airport to our place of lodging. As first time visitors, we fed our eyes with the beautiful roads and skylights that brighten the city known to have opened its doors to the Messenger of Allah. As the vehicles sped away, the structures of the buildings apparently looked the same, so too the people adorned in white and black robes.
The commercial taxi drivers, imported from neighboring Yemen and Qatar were at it again; taking opportunities of the new arrivals to make optimal profits on city travels. The muezzin called the adhan, and suddenly it solicited an instantaneous response from the pious pilgrims: : “La Ilaha Illallah Muhammadu-Rasulullah Sallalahu Alaihim Wasalam (There is no god but Allah, Muhammad peace and blessings be upon him is the Messenger of Allah).”
Some drew their beads and began performing zikr (remembrance of Allah), by shaking their heads occasionally, not allowing their mouths to talk, instead letting their eyes and minds feel the aura. The bus stopped at the place of abode where the Gambian pilgrims had booked. A roll call was made to pair the pilgrims to share rooms.
No one comes to Madinatul Munawwarah without visiting Masjid-ul-Nabi, The Prophet’s Mosque and perform nafl prayers. As soon as the rooms were sorted, dinner was served. The road to The Prophet’s Mosque was crystal clear. Tap, tap. The pious pilgrims walked their way to the place while taxi drivers bellowed “Jeddah, Jeddah!”, “Makkah, Makkah!”
None of us were interested. Our walk to the mosque was swift, but all the while we marvelled at the tall buildings and the beautiful lights that interjected the beauty of the city. As we walked, we could not help but wonder if we were walking the same path the Prophet and his disciples walked.
The mosque needs no introduction, for it has the tallest minaret and by far, the most elegant of structures and exemplifies the qualities befitting the Holy Messenger who used to live in the compound. When one steps in the gated compound, there is an electrifying moment that disarmingly tells you you have entered a revered place, where almost every door of the expansive mosque is named after a highly respected person in Islam. Performing the two rakka voluntary prayer at the blessed Rawdah, was perhaps the greatest chances one can get on the face of the earth, ostensibly, it is like seeing the Messenger of Allah in his physical form and figuring out the multitude that are also in the mosque or preparing to enter the mosque.
The appearances of the pilgrims tend to remind you about the greatness of our Creator and the gulf that exists between the known and the unknown, the created and the Creator, the Messenger and his rightly-guided companions. The gate named after the archangel Gibril, alaihim wassalam, reminded me about the invaluable lessons the Messenger of Allah taught us about his meetings and interactions with the archangel. While there is hardly any guide to take you through and explain every place in the holy sanctity, imaginations mixed with the little one knows about Islam may help form contours in one’s mystic abstraction.
One begins to wonder whether a silent voice is speaking out before you, or telling you to put names to faces or something is telling you that aha, this is where Angel Gibril used to descend and deliver divine messages! When you are seated outside the mosque, there are people resting on the beautiful white tiles that are usually spotlessly cleaned by the numerous labourers hired to keep the place clean and tidy. Some of these people resting on the floor wished that they were dead, and joined the rightly-guided forbearers. None is wearing an angry or dejected face, consumed about the vicissitudes of getting a penny, or not striking a deal. All these beautiful adjectives and rent-a-quote phrases were encapsulated by people who knew Madina very well.
Owing to his love and respect for the city, it has been reported that Sayyidina Anas Ibn Malik narrates: “Whenever the Prophet returned from a journey and observed the walls of Madinah, he would make his mount fast, and if he was on an animal (that is, a horse), he would make it gallop because of his love for Madinah.”
Qadi Iyaad reports that Imam Malik, would never ride an animal or mount in Madinah and he’d say: “I am too shy before Allah to trample with an animal’s hoof on the earth where Allah’s Messenger is buried.”
A writer sums it up: “The virtues of Madinah are many and its beauty is magnificent; all this owing to the fact that it honours upon its sacred soil the beloved and most revered grave (rawdah) of the Noble Messenger of Allah. For this reason, the Companions, the Tabi’een, and the Tab-e-Tabi’een have throughout the ages held an immense attachment and love within their hearts for the blessed City of the Prophet.
The Prophet is said to have prayed: “O Allah! Bestow on Madinah twice the blessings You bestowed on Makkah.”
Turning on some pages in history, one is not only spiritually illuminated but it will give you a sense of fulfillment about the ancient city and how historians valorised it. Is it not in Madina where Qiblatain is founded? The ancient mosque with two known qiblas, yet it is the only on the face of the earth where it is permissible to face Jerusalem, and Makkah while performing Islamic prayers. Besides the numerous Islamic relics in Madina, the next destination also has a lot to write home about.
Next on the pilgrim’s itinerary is Makkah, the city has its second name as Bakkah, like Madina, non-Muslims are strictly prohibited to enter. And no one enters Makkah without spiritual cleanliness. As you join the bus drive to the city, chants of Labaika from the pilgrims can be heard all over. The voices may not be melodious but the pilgrims are moved by these actions. Otherwise the journey becomes boring and unadventurous. As the bus driver speeds away, he will momentarily stop to either refuel or allow the pilgrims to restock their food supplies or perform prayers. This four-hour journey from Madina to Makkah tends to remind us about the Messenger’s experiences during his time.
The inscription, Allah, is the first sign you notice when you are entering the secured city. It is the tallest structure in the city, and always bright in the midst of other lights. A writer says: “Makkah is the blessed city which is the most beloved land in the sight of Allah and the chosen location of His House. It was here that the final prophet and guide of the whole of mankind, Muhammad, was born and commenced his prophethood.” The traders from Yemen dominate the market. As soon as dawn prayers are observed, the traders will be all over you, buy this or buy this souvenir. As you are about to get glued to Makkah, Mina is calling you, as the hajj enters its defining moment.
The journey to the tent city is usually by night. It is usually one of the challenging episodes of the pilgrimage. Unlike Madina and Makkah, in Mina, pilgrims have to take turn to use the loo and bathrooms. The tents can usually accommodate up to 24 pilgrimages per room, fitted with air conditioners, but that may not be cool for those not used to so many crowds. The stay in Mina is a warm-up to the next episode the standing at Arafat and Muzdalifah.
The author, Ebrima Baldeh, managing editor, GRTS-TV, was on assignment to cover the hajj in September 2014.