Guest Post by ZAHEERAH BHAM ISMAIL – DECEMBER 2007 /1428

As I walked towards the tent, my body trembled with anticipation..the anticipation of knowing that my entire life was about to change…but not knowing exactly what to expect. The ten feet walk, filled with dread and anguish yet anxiousness in the hope to alleviate the impending doom that surrounds me…this is my first day at Mina!

Living in a country that’s governed by a Hajj quota system, our preparations for the greatest journey of our lives starts with placing our names on a list and hoping that the powers that be, accept our applications.

Having not seen my name on the first list, my disappointment was immense as with the application form I almost felt like I was on my way already. My husband and I started making other plans for December, but at my father’s insistence, these plans were put on hold as he repeatedly stated “This is your year! You will be going for Hajj!” I often asked him how he could be so certain and he always said ” this invitation is only from Allah..no list will keep you away if Allah wants you there!”

True to his word, by the end of Ramadhaan we saw our names on the list and the sense of accomplishment was already tangible. The stories that fellow hajjis had previously regaled us with came flashing back as I realized the daunting task that I know faced. I was about to undertake a journey that would complete one of the pillars of my faith…the very basis and foundation that underpins my value and belief system. Seeing our names on the list now seemed to be the easiest part!

As our family members and friends found out about our invitation from Allah, we were honoured and it seemed like everyone rejoiced in our news. Our collectiveness and unity as a community is most visible at times like this. People helped with every aspect of our preparations from food, to books, prayer mats, sanitizing bottles (for the Hajj ablution facilities), lists , what to expect, lessons in patience, preparations for fights and arguments – especially with spouses, and tons of advice!

Every time there was a seminar or lecture, we received numerous SMSes, some from fellow hajjis ,others from concerned family and friends ,to ensure that we were adequately prepared for our trip.

And so the journey began. The level of technology continued to amaze us: the wonder of being able to access every aspect of the hajj journey on the internet. We chose not to watch videos of the hajj so as to not form a pre-determined idea of what our hajj was to be like.

This is very difficult considering that the many anecdotal stories forms a very mental picture in your minds. Speaking to the many family members, friends and Ulama that would join us on this remarkable journey, we finally felt adequately prepared.

I spent hours consolidating all that everyone had told me to read. I was given lists of what to pray in Medinah, Mecca and also for each day of hajj. Being too scared to leave anything out, for fear of forgetting any particular duaa or person, I compiled yet another “summary” list.

The night before we are due to leave, I spend my time packing and repacking. I repack all my notes and prayer bags. I tick my check list one more time. I spend the rest of the night watching my children as they slept. I look at them and wonder how different I would be when I returned to them.

I close my eyes for a brief respite before my alarm for the Fajr prayer awakens me from my slumber. After Fajr, the first calls of the day start. There’s still so much to do despite being overly prepared. The day passes by so quickly and as we journey to the airport, the trip and its significance dawns on us. I look at my family and it’s difficult not to be emotional. This journey represents so much for them in as much as it does for my husband, Khaleel, and I.As we greet our family members, the thought of us never returning is present, but the thought of one of them not being there when we return is far from my mind.

As much as I knew this trip would change a lot in my life, nothing prepared me for the life altering experience Allah had in store for me. Before we left for Hajj, so much emphasis was placed on the “minor” aspects that we feel will heavily influence the outcome of our trip..our food, our toilet facilities, the people we’re with. We temporarily forget the Creator we are going to meet.

Two days before we leave for Mina, I tell my dear father that my trips in Mecca and Medinah had already changed so much for me and hajj hadn’t even yet started. We talk about the influence this will have on my life and his words “this will be the best thing that you do for your children” is balanced by my remark that “ this is what I will do for you and mum as well”. The truth in this statement was to become very real within a few days from this conversation. Deciding to put all my faith in Allah, which is what Hajj is about, and not worry about my children, I mentally prepared myself for the journey. At my father’s request, I assured him that night before I left for Mina that I will not lose focus and I will complete my Hajj to the best of my ability.

The morning that we are due to leave for Mina, a renewed spirit is awakened within me. As we walk to Mina, my thoughts go back to ten years before, when I performed Umrah with my parents, grandparents, siblings and cousin. I think about my father reading his ”Labbaik” aloud. I smile as I hear him reading this “Labbaik”, picturing my next conversation with him. I focus and remember that in this moment my conversation is with Allah. I call out to my Lord and announce my presence. My spirit is louder than my voice as it screams the resounding sounds that “I am here, I am present!”. We walk with thousands of people all on the same path, all treading the same spiritual course, so similar in outlook yet each so
individual in their own intentions and purpose for being there.

Source: archive.boston.com/bigpicture/2010/11/hajj_2010.html

Every step of that day is as clear in my mind today, 9 months later, as it was on that day. I close my eyes and I can recall every thought, emotion, smell, sight and sound.

Walking up to the gates, I look at my dear friend and sister on this trip, and I sense a change in her demeanour. Many of our conversations in Mecca revolved around wondering what we needed to do to ensure that our hajj would be accepted, wondering how we could make ourselves worthy of Allah’s invitation. I smile at her and put my arms around her to assure her that we’re there together.

With these thought, I step onto the stairs of our entrance. My excitement builds and I can’t wait to begin the climax of my trip. As I turn the corner to our tents, I see all my friends and family waiting, standing and watching. I smile, wave and wonder why everyone seems drained of the energy that is part of my every step. My dear sister walks towards them waving them back.

As I write this, my heart feels that same trepidation, anxiety, fear and restlessness that still struggles to leave me. I close my eyes and I’m taken right back to that day.

My aunt comes running towards me, hugging me and tearing. I am so happy to see her until I realize that her tears are not due to the overwhelming feeling of standing on the soil of Mina. Before I make any sense of what has happened to her, she‘s whisked away and I am pulled into the tent. I’m already nervous as I fear something has happened to her and desperate to find her. My Haji sister makes me sit down and holds my hand. I look at her and I know that something in her has changed. Her anxiety and fear is tangible. Those few seconds before I’m called to see my husband feels like ages. I sense something is amiss, but unsure as to what
it could possibly be. As I walk out of the tent, tears are already streaming down my face. I am oblivious of people watching me walk to meet my destined fate, of which only I am unaware of.

My tears are apparent, the reason for it is not. I’m uncertain as to what to expect. As Arshad, a fellow hajji, opens the tent, the vision of my husband in tears, breaks my heart. 11 years into our marriage and I’ve never seen him so broken or devastated. I’m unsure as how to console him as I’m uncertain as to the situation that presents itself.

It takes me awhile to get anything from him. As he whispers “your dad”. The only thought that runs through my mind is “Oh Allah, my dad has had a heart attack” I chide myself for being so negative, but this is the worst fear that I had.

How wrong I was..Khaleel can’t get the words out and as he says it my heart stops. My ears ring with the echo and I feel every part of my body freeze. I’m certain that my mind is playing tricks on me. Khaleel repeats it again and this time every part of my body hears his voice “your dad has passed away”. Even as I write that today, my heart skips a beat and my breath catches in my throat. The situation becomes surreal. My body and mind both want to go back a few steps, before I heard this, before my life had changed when things were easier and simple. I want to go back to a time when my biggest concern was the ablution facilities.

Nothing prepares you for this. No amount of hajj readings, lessons or discussions could ever prepare you for the loss of a beloved father. Phoning home, the agony that I feel and the pain that is imminent is echoed in my sisters’ cries. I pray that this is all a dream and that Allah will restore my previous reality. I yearn for the reality that I know and the reality that I’m comfortable with.

Walking to my tent, I don’t even feel my feet touching the ground as the sisters that Allah has blessed me with, protect me and envelop me with their love, patience, comfort and understanding. The constant stream of people coming through the tent, makes the situation so
surreal as this is not the hajj I expected , not the hajj I envisioned…mines was meant to be simple, uneventful, safe, happy.

Hearing the funeral announcement of my family members on the loudspeaker, seems as though the Moulana must be talking about another person. Friends , family, strangers all surround me..I almost want them to stop so that it won’t be real.

I wonder how I can be at the home of Allah, having come so close to Him, having found a peace that I’ve never experienced before, having had more miracle moments than ever before..how can this alter it all?

I wonder if I had done anything wrong: I trace back all my steps wondering what I have done to bring this on? I wonder if my nights spent praying for peace for my parents on the Rowdha Mubarak has culminated in this outcome. I ask for forgiveness for this pain that I have brought onto my family. I wonder why my duaas were not more specific!

I call back home realizing that there must be a mistake only to hear my uncles voice saying “Allahu Akbar” when he hears my voice…I break down in tears and know that this must be real. My mind still wonders if it’s my father – who for me has always been larger than life. I cry and ask for my salaams to be passed on to my father who I’ll never get to see again. My tears stream down my face as I try and grapple with mourning the most private loss, in front of so many strangers with whom I have to now share a tent with.

I call home trying to be a part of the mayhem that is to be our lives. Feeling so far removed, I am regularly informed as to my dad’s funeral arrangements by friends smss’. As I sit thousands of kilometres away in Mina, I wonder if Allah brought me here as He knew that if I was at home I wouldn’t let anyone even take my father away from me.

My first lesson in hajj has started: I have always relied on my father and husband to get me through every situation.. this time I felt Allah was asking me to put my faith only in Him: my dad has now been returned to Him and being in Mina, my husband and I are separated. The lack of perceived power, that we feel we have, dawns on me.

Sleep avoids me. The shock is still so present. I clutch my tasbeeh in one hand and my phone in the other..praying to God, yet hoping that my phone would ring and that I would hear my father’s voice on the other end.

Leaving for Arafat I leave with my heart in pieces. I call home only when I know I can offer words that would give my family strength and courage. As I put down the phone I silently cry and ask Allah to help me believe it all as well.

Before I left I was told of the experience on Arafat. I was told how precious time was and to ensure that I made the most of my time there. Realizing that I wanted to be outside and by “myself” amidst the millions, I walk outside with my husband. After sitting and praying I see space at the top of some stairs and I climb up – subconsciously wondering if the higher I climb, the closer it will take me to my Allah. My pleading for my father starts. Every duaa and thought goes back to my father and family..those that are still waiting for me at home and those that are gone. I talk to Allah in only the way I know how to – from my heart. Every prepared piece of paper, every duaa and every Ayaat that I had prepared for this meeting is left aside.

Source: archive.boston.com/bigpicture/2010/11/hajj_2010.html

With hands raised in supplication, I cry and beg Allah for His mercy, forgiveness, love and blessings on my mother and sisters and for my dear father, As much as my pain comes to fruition at that point, I almost feel as though Allah is holding my heart in His hands… a feeling I wasn’t initially sure I would ever feel. My talk with my Allah continues as I console myself with the thought that Allah brought me close to Him, held me in His arms and then took away the best part of me. The very part that forms the foundation of who I am today. I wonder who I am without my father – fundamentally my entire being changes from the moment I hear this news.

My meeting with God feel’s like it’s just me and Him despite the many people around us. My questions as to why Allah has chosen me for this meeting becomes apparent. I wonder that if I held on a little longer onto the telephone with my father, if Allah would have heard the pleas of a daughter and spared my father..but as I ask the question, the answer of my pleas being heard are evident. Allah has invited me to His home so that I could pray for my father at a place and time where Allah regards every duaa and supplication as accepted. My thoughts go to a verse in surah an – Nisa, verse 78 that says: “Wherever ye are, death will find you out, even if ye are in towers built up strong and high!”

I realize that everything belongs to Allah. My father was my gift from Him and now it was time to return what was just loaned to us..but never belonged to us. What we thought was part of us..what shaped us..but was never entirely ours. I think about how much I would give to keep my loved ones with me..but what we have absolutely no power or control over this decision. I pray for all the people helping me through this and for all those at home looking after my family. I realize that Allah has placed all these people in our lives for a reason.

I still have so much to talk to Allah about. My dialogue is interrupted by a light tap on the shoulder to make me aware that its time to leave. As we leave Arafat, feeling emotionally drained, the long bus journey to Muzdallifah gives me a time for the privacy I need. I sob the entire journey through, in the darkness of the night and in the privacy of Gods holy lands.

Finding a place to sleep in Muzadallifah, we pray our zikr..every moment, every place, every minute becomes important, valuable and irreplaceable. Every place becomes one more place where duaas are accepted..one more place where I can pray for my father..one more place to ask for Allahs mercy..one more place to ask Allah to guide and help my family ..one more place to ask Allah to help us cope with the loss He has placed before us…one more place to ask for Maaf for the doubts and fears I know that I will experience..and one more place to ask for all the strength I know I will need.

As I sit on the plains of Muzdallifah, I look into the dark, calm sky and wonder how this could happen to my family..I never thought it would come to my doorstep..at least not this early..I wonder why us, why me…and as I look around at the people around me I realize “why not me?” I wonder what pain is fraught within each individual that is here and every other person.

We live in such a cocooned world that we assume Allah’s blessings are for us only, whether consciously or subconsciously..this is evident when we question why things happen to us. As I sit in Muzdallifah the moment of being just one small being in Gods great plan becomes obvious.

I realize that we are no more special than the next person lying there. In Allah’s eyes we are all part of His creation. I am consoled by a saying that the one whom Allah loves, He tests. We expect all our trials in this life to be easy, we expect our Hajj to be comfortable, we expect our lives to all fall into place and expect that we will never be tested by our Creator.

“Do they think that they will be left alone on saying, ‘We believe and that they will not be tested’? For sure we will test them as we have tested those who came before them, to show (them) the truthful of the honest and the liars in their falsehood.”
[Quran 29:2-3]

Our Aalim has emphasized the importance of not wasting the time in Muzdlaafiah. He repeatedly stated that the Hajj does not end with Arafat, but rather continues with every moment and step of our journey. As I put my head down on the hard rocks below me, every comfort I am accustomed to, whether physical, emotional or mental, avoiding me, my tongue recites the zikr and praises of Allah. Every duaa, prayer and thought is in the hope of a reward for my father.

My mind is too anguished to rest. The daylight becomes a source of comfort as I know that the next part of my journey is to be accomplished. The movement keeps my mind focused and the pain that I know I have to face is delayed for a little while longer.

As we get to Mina, I feel like Allah’s protective hand is still holding my heart. We walk towards the jamaraats for our first pelting and as look up I see thousands of people before us and thousands behind us. But with Allah’s mercy, we reach the jamaraats and there could not have been more than ten people pelting at that time. One of my stones falls and my husband has time to open the packet and gives me time to do it again. We calmly and spaciously walk away in the direction of the masses we see before us.

I get to the hotel and I switch on my cell phone in the hope of receiving the messages my father had told me on that Sunday evening that he had sent. My heart tears yet again as I see everybody elses message but the ones I want. I hesitate in calling home..the sadness of not hearing my father’s voice, the sadness at hearing my families pain, the sadness and selfish relief of not having to confront it all as yet.. I lie on my bed . .numb! This Eid day I am made acutely aware of the significance of this day .I grasp the meaning of sacrifice and I wonder how Ebrahim (A.S) was ready to give his son so willingly to Allah. I shame at my selfishness to want to keep my father with me. I marvel at the faith that they both willingly exhibited and marvel at their total trust in Allah. I pray that Allah will give me this faith and trust.

The strong desire to be near the Kaaba is answered by the group deciding to complete the final aspect of our hajj ritual, the tawaaf, that evening. As we drive to Mecca, I look out the window and wonder how so much can be changed yet everything looks so much the same.

I look at peoples’ smiles and wonder if I’ll ever feel that again. I wonder what new sense of reality we’ll have to adjust to. I wonder about the new “normal” I will be exposed to, in the wake of my father’s absence.

Walking into the Haram the mass of the swarming crowds provides a welcome sight for me, as I hope to be lost among the millions. I hear concerns about the time it will take to complete the tawaaf as so many people are completing this ritual today. For me, it serves as an opportunity to engage with God once again. I feel like I need all the time I can get. As we start our tawaaf, the absence of my father dawns on me. Until my 5 days of hajj started, my father had been an integral part of my trip. Every moment during this trip was sms-ed to him . I wonder how I will complete my hajj without my fathers presence or phone call or message. My heart breaks as I realize that he would not be able to see me complete a journey that he
was so keen to see me experience.

Source: http://archive.boston.com/bigpicture/2010/11/hajj_2010.html

Every step around the Kaaba is filled with tears and prayers. My husband reminds me to make sabr and I am compelled to tell him that in no way am I not making sabr, but what he sees is rather a daughter at Allah’s home pleading for her father. As we complete our saee, we sit facing the Kaaba. My husband reads two rakaats of shukr salaah and waits for me to read mine. I sit for a long while looking at the Kaaba, contemplating what I will thank Allah for. Thanking Allah during every other part or moment of my life has always been easy for me. Today as I complete the greatest journey of my life, I look at the Kaaba and wonder how to even start. It was easy to ask and to plead and to pray..but how do I thank Allah, what do I start with, where do I start?

An un-comfortableness sets in and I almost want to leave until I can clear my mind. My husband sits and tells me to be patient and we wait. My mind finally gets my body to stand, ready to supplicate before my Lord. I face the home of Allah, the very home that I and millions of Muslims face every day,5 times a day. This is the very same place that my father taught me to face every time he prayed and the same place that I will teach my children to face when they pray. The very same place that unites us all as one Ummah!

As I pray, my conversation with God resumes. My heart my mind, my body all gives in and breaks down. My pain is real and tangible and I’m fearful that it may be more than I can handle. I thank Allah for bringing me to His home, I thank Allah for giving me the honour of fulfilling the right of a child to a father in a manner that I would not have been able to do back home. I thank Allah for allowing me to ask for my parents and my families salvation at a time when duaas are assured. I thank Allah for making my Hajj so real and for allowing me to understand the true value of my Hajj. I thank Allah for showing me the “realness” of my life and the fragility of all the that surround us. I thank Allah for giving me a father that was so loving, so kind and so compassionate . I thank Allah for giving me 30 years of a blessed
relationship that many people may not experience with their family members, despite having them for many more years.

And as I end my supplication, I thank Allah for my husband, children and our families and friends. I thank Allah for all those he has put in our path – who have turned into our Angels. And as I close my duaa I ask Allah to give my father my salaams – I wish Him all of Allah’s peace and blessings.

Without saying a word to each other, so much is conveyed between my husband and I as we walk out of the Haram. Each lost in our own thoughts, yet connected by an invisible thread that will forever bind us. We walk to meet the rest of our group and as we near them, I look at my husband and he looks shaken. He passes me my phone and every message that my father has sent me comes through. His final message just hours before his return to Allah is made, is a duaa for an accepted Hajj and for a request for him to be remembered in my duaas. How could my dad even think that every thought, every second of mine, would not be filled with his name. His duaa for an accepted hajj makes me feel his presence and I know that he is part of my hajj and again he has been here through yet another milestone in my life. Once again I feel Allah’s hands around me and my shukr to Allah is mixed with my profuse tears and the immense pain of my loss.

For me, hajj started off being a trip that I knew would be monumental but it ended with me learning the lessons that hajj is truly about. My trip mimicked my father’s trip..only I got to come “home” while he returned home.

I sit here 9 months later, recalling every minute of my trip and craving the peace that I found there. My moments of weakness here are balanced by my hope and faith in Allah and by the strength given to us by the people Allah has put around us. I live in the shade of the promise that Allah will reunite us with our loved ones in the next life.

Although we return from hajj with such strength and focus, being human, every day is fraught with trying to hold onto this clarity that was received. Every day I need to remind myself of the answers that I found and the sabr that I promised Allah I would make so that my father would receive the benefit. Every day I crave for my family to have received the same peace that I found there and sometimes still feel I need.

I struggle with closure as I still expect my father to walk into my life, but I take comfort in knowing that Allah will always be around me and that Allah will hold my hand through this “hajj” of my life. And I know that wherever my father is, he’s looking down on me, still a part of every moment of my life, as I know that Allah will never take that away from me or him.

As you embark on this phenomenal life altering experience, know that something in you will fundamentally change. Don’t go looking for this change, but embrace it when it finds you. No matter how many people are on the journey with you, as in life, your experience will be totally different from the persons next to you.

Go ye forth, (whether equipped) lightly or heavily, and strive and struggle, with your goods and your persons, in the cause of Allah. That is best for you, if ye (but) knew. ( سورة التوبة , At-Taubah, Chapter #9, Verse #41)

Hajj for me is about denunciating every material aspect of our lives and holding onto the love of Allah and putting total faith in Allah. Never has the meaning of hajj been more real to me than now. Every aspect of hajj is filled with a meaning and significance, more than what is written in every textbook or said at any lecture. The essence of the trip can never be truly captured or conveyed, only experienced.

Every step is a step in the path of those so loved by Allah and so dear to Allah, yet who were tested far greater than any of our tests. Hajj is more than just the 5 “ritualistic “ days. It’s the entire build up to those 5 days. It’s every experience along the way, every person you meet while there, every conversation, every good act, every word spoken to another, every prayer at the mosques, every look at the Kaaba, every tearful and heartfelt duaa and every step towards and throughout this journey. To emulate this journey that has more virtue and lessons in it than any other, is a truly humbling experience that only makes you more aware of you fragility, your relationship with God and your kinship to your fellow Muslims. The pilgrimage of Hajj is a daily part of our lives in our journey back to our Allah.

The physical act of Hajj is an act of our devotion and love to Allah with a strong message that when you are reading your labbaik, you will be truly present in the moment on that day, on every day and on each day back home until you return to your final abode!

Some Career Advice

  1. Imposter syndrome is a good thing – The combination of believing that you can get to almost wherever you want to be, having discipline, and having insecurity about where you are is the formula for a successful, impactful career
  2. Don’t be afraid to take a pay cut for the right experience – There’s just nothing to me so invaluable in my business, but in many businesses, as great mentors. And a lot of kids are just too short-sighted in terms of going for the short-term money instead of preparing themselves for the longer term.” — Stanley Druckenmiller
  3. What got you to level one won’t get you to level two – In the beginning of your career, your technical skills matter the most. You get tested on how well you can use excel, or write code, or design products, etc. But as time goes on, those technical skills start to matter less. How you interact with people starts to matter a lot more.

Full Article here