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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 5    Issue 13   16 - 30 November 2010

The Hajj Pilgrimage: Glimpses of a Sacred Journey

From Xi’an to Mecca

The ancient Chinese city of Xi'an is home to the famous terracotta army and was at the very centre of Chinese civilisation during the Tang dynasty from 618 to 907.

It is also home to about 60,000 ethnic Chinese Muslims and boasts 1,300 years of Islamic history.

Proud of their Islamic heritage and their country's traditions, the Muslims of Xi'an have merged their own ancient Chinese culture with Islam, remaining faithful to the central tenets of their religion.

'Lifetime's responsibility'

Forty-six-year-old Ma Yi Ping is well-known within Xi'an's Muslim community.

One of the ten imams at the city's Great Mosque, he also owns a small shop selling Islamic calligraphy in the city's Muslim quarter and acts as a religious teacher for those about to embark on the Hajj pilgrimage.

"I was born into a devout Muslim family and I'm the only child. I started studying Quran since I was young. I was told that I should devote myself to Islam as well as [to] the Muslim people and contribute to the peace of our society, to our country," Ma says.

"When I was a kid my father sent me to an imam's place to learn the Quran. At that time it was forbidden for children to study in the mosque because of the political pressure brought by the 'Gang of Four'. All religions were affected badly."

China's Communist party closed all of the country's mosques in 1959 and during the 1966 Cultural Revolution, more than 29,000 mosques were destroyed.

Ma was 16 years old when the mosques re-opened and he became an imam.

"As an imam, it's my lifetime responsibility to promote Islam," he says.

Ma first went on Hajj in 1994 and has been again several times since.

Unlike in Singapore and Malaysia, there are no elaborate preparations that the Chinese Muslims undertake. Ma helps to guide his pilgrims and teaches them some special prayers to perform while in Mecca.

"I want to help the Chinese Muslims as they are very pious. The only problem they face is that they are not familiar with all the religious activities [that take place] during the Hajj, since they are not done locally."

'Ancestors' wishes'

Jia Wang Yi and his wife are two of the soon-to-be pilgrims Ma is helping. Both in their sixties, they have been saving for five years for their pilgrimage.

"This trip is very important to both of us. We have done lots of preparation work with the instructions from the imam and my son.

"I have been very conscious of my health, working very hard to study the Hajj rituals, preparing our clothing and medicine. We have prepared thoroughly," Jia says.

Their son, Jia Ren Ping, was hoping to go with them but work commitments mean he will not be able to make it this time around.

"Both my grandparents and parents desired to participate in the Hajj. But due to various reasons, my grandparents were unable to do so. They faced financial problems and lived during a war-torn period," Jia Ren Ping explains.

"Thus, my parents have this strong desire to go to Hajj, firstly to accomplish the will of Allah, secondly to fulfill the wishes of our ancestors."

The Jias will be part of a group of 251 pilgrims leaving Xi'an for the Hajj. As the community is so closely-knit, almost everyone knows the others going from their neighbourhood.

Unlike in some other countries, the Chinese pilgrims do not receive any special government subsidies to help cover the cost of performing Hajj.

The less well off often save for years to be able to afford it.

'Reinforcing faith'

For Xi'an's wealthier Muslims, like Jia Hong, who owns a successful fried rice restaurant in the heart of the Muslim quarter, performing Hajj is a matter of coordination and timing.

He will be going on Hajj for the first time, but his wife, who has just given birth to their daughter, will be unable to accompany him.

"Everything with my family has been taken care of and I am not concerned for my own safety. Going to the Hajj is the obligation of every Muslim.

I leave everything in Allah's hands. The Hajj is going to reinforce my faith, not compromise it," Hong says.

On the day of departure, the Xi'an central train station is full of those saying goodbye to their friends and relations. Each pilgrim has a send-off party of about 30 to 70 people.

Managing the thousands-strong crowd is one of the biggest challenges facing the city's authorities.

Many of those there, including Jia Hong, have never before left the country.

As his family and friends wave him off, he says: "What I'm feeling now is beyond words. I just want to get there as soon as possible and fulfill my obligation."

From Panama to Mecca

As one of the world's iconic landmarks, the Panama Canal has been the facilitator for many long journeys.

For Ray Henry it constitutes the departure point for what he considers the most important journey of his life.

Ray who works on the canal was been chosen by the growing Muslim community in Panama as their candidate to undertake the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.

Visibly proud, he demonstrates that every last detail has been prepared for his trip.

"Well, as you can see my bags are out. I am ready," he says.

"They told me normal towels but normal towels won't work. And I am not that big a person anymore. I'm a shrimp of what I used to be."

Ray has been trying to improve his basic skills in Arabic, studying alone on his computer after his teacher left for the Middle East last year, aware that not speaking Arabic may be an issue when he arrives in Saudi Arabia.

Growing up in Colon, Panama's second most important city Ray converted to Islam about four years ago after seeing beyond what he says were initially negative images of Islam conveyed to him.

Growing community

"The idea of Islam did appeal to me at some point, but it was tainted by overtures of racism from the current that I received, and a lot of negative media input," he says.

"But I did get started reading pamphlets on the life of the Prophet and seeing how much of an extraordinary person he was… I was in a large meeting ... with a Muslim person and I started asking Muslims about their religion. And I came to understand the true meaning of Islam."

Although a relatively recent convert to Islam, Ray is a member of what is a growing Muslim community in Panama, a community that has long roots that historically were ignored according to Abdulkhaber Muhammed, the director of the centre of Islamic Studies in Panama.

"Historically Panama has never, wanted to acknowledge the history of the Muslims in this area," he says.

"Because Panama was a Spanish colony, and if we go back to that period of the inquisition, Muslims were being killed and forced to change their names. Islam in Latin America was taboo.

"Historically, however, the first Muslims that arrived here in Panama, came here from Africa. In 1552 a Spanish slave boat came to Panama because, Panama was the crossroads of South America."

Abdulkhader says there are Muslims living across Panama but those in Colon are mainly of Arabic origin.

The first mosque built in Central America, was inaugurated in 1982 funded in part by the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. There are now 10 mosques throughout Panama's nine provinces.

Ray says the sight of Mecca in photographs does not necessarily "excite" him but that he has definitely become more emotional as he has got older.

Ahead of his anticipated journey, he has the full support of his family despite initial concerns from his wife, Maria.

"When he converted to Islam, I felt little bit uncomfortable, because I wondered how could he decide to become religious overnight. And even more religious than me," Maria says.

"I did not understand his behavior, which made me worried. But I noticed great change in his conduct. I wondered, can this really be true? "But, it's good. The change has been incredible, and it has completely changed him.

I see that because of his sincerity, God will give him all the guidance that he wants in order for him to enter paradise on judgement day."

Visa issues

Ray has been getting advice on his pilgrimage from Abdulkhader, whom he met shortly after his conversion, who teaches him the importance of reading Arabic and what to expect during the Hajj.

But as Ray prepares, Jamel Saker from the Islamic Association of Panama, who picked him to be their candidate for the pilgrimage is up against it in his attempts to secure the all important visa for travel to Saudi Arabia.

The chosen Panamanian candidate has to have their visa secured via Caracas in Venezuela rather than in the US or Mexico. But it appears Ray is in the same predicament as 30 other pilgrims, in a race against time to make the journey.

Ray's visa does not come through in time and his disappointment is palpable.

"I'll keep my intention to make Hajj next year, God willing. This means I have to work little harder. Prepare myself. But like I said, I understand it is Allah's will, and I don't question that," he says.

While Muslims in Mecca perform the Hajj, Ray undertakes his own prayers and sacrifice for Eid al-Adha in Colon, a holiday that lasts for just one day in Panama rather than the traditional three.

He gets his hair cut for $3.50, in honour of the ritual he would have undertaken during the Hajj and seeks solace in his work on the canal he says is a "wonder".

"And part of the wonder, of this great project begins. The force of gravity will let water from this chamber into the adjoining chamber and lower the ship," he says.

"The locomotives will hold her in position and prevent us from going to the wall or drifting further forward or backwards. We are now 85 feet above sea level. By the end of the process which is three sets of locks, we'll be at sea level."

On the subject of his pilgrimage to Mecca Ray remains positive.

"Allah didn't think I was ready yet, so I guess there was some work to do, internal work to do. God willing next year he will think I'm ready and then it will all come together. The white towels will be used, for now, for house use."

(Source: Aljazeera, November 11, 2010)

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