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Holy rituals in Mecca, new innocence in lives
Salah Shamsi was one of about 2 million Muslims who gathered last year in the Islamic holy city of Mecca for a pilgrimage.
The ritual was arduous at times, requiring the Pakistani native to walk many miles and endure long hours of prayer. He and his wife, Rukhsana, who now live in San Antonio, set aside money for nearly a dozen years to pay for the trip. Yet the feeling of forgiveness they felt there was worth every penny, Salah Shamsi said.
"I was literally shivering and asking for the forgiveness of Allah, that I don't make any mistakes," he said.
Muslims must make the mandatory trip to the city in Saudi Arabia at least once in their lifetime, the way they've been doing for centuries, so long as they can afford it and are physically able. The experience grants them a clean slate, returning them to the innocence of a sinless baby, according to the Koran, which the world's 1.2 billion Muslims believe is the literal word of God as revealed to the Prophet Mohammad.
The holy pilgrimage, or hajj, is one of the five pillars of Islam — the requirements of Muslims to be in good standing with Allah. About 2 million Muslims — roughly 12,000 of them from the United States — will take part.
Each year in at least the past five years, between 10 and 20 Muslims from San Antonio journey to Mecca, said Nazli Siddiqui, a longtime leader in the local Muslim community.
Because Muslims follow a lunar calendar, the timing of the hajj is different every year. The pilgrimage, which this year began Thursday and ends today, commemorates the story of Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son, as told in the Koran. However, a voice from heaven instructs him to sacrifice a ram instead.
Muslims believe that test of faith came after God instructed Abraham to take his second wife, Hagar, and their son Ishmael to Mecca, a barren, rocky valley, and to abandon them there.
When their food and water supplies ran out, Hagar desperately searched between two hills looking for a fresh water supply. Then water sprang from a well, which today is called the well of Zamzam. Those hills and the well are a part of hajj rituals.
The required rituals begin in Mina, just outside Mecca, where hajjis , as the participants are called, spend the day in prayer, dressed in white garb.
On the second day, they go to Mount Arafat, where they repent and seek God's forgiveness. Muslims believe that prayers made on Mount Arafat will be answered, said San Antonio Imam Omar Shakir.
"We're all praying for forgiveness. We're praying for paradise," said Shakir, who converted from Christianity to Islam in 1975 and performed hajj two years ago. "We're praying for our relatives. We're praying for everything."
On the night of the second day, the pilgrims proceed to Muzdalifah, a valley between Mina and Mount Arafat, and begin collecting stones for their next ritual — the pelting of pillars, known as the Jamarat, representing the devil.
The throwing of stones happens in Mina, on the third day, before the pilgrims return to Mecca to walk seven times around the holiest structure in the Islam faith — the Ka'bah, or cube.
The mammoth shrine, covered in a black cloth and embroidered with verses from the Koran in gold thread, is believed to stand on the site where Abraham built the first house of worship.
Sarwat Husain, president of the Council on American Islamic Relations in San Antonio, said the prayers she had been prepared to recite froze in her head when she came face to face with the Ka'bah.
"I thought, 'My God, this is it,'" said Husain, who made the pilgrimage last year. "I never thought I would get there. I just don't have the words to explain what it did to me."
Before hajj is complete, pilgrims must walk seven times between the two hills that Hagar ran between in search of water.
Husain said it took her more than two hours to circle the Ka'bah seven times. That ritual, she said, is by far the most strenuous because pilgrims are not allowed to rest before they are done.
Modern transportation makes other parts of the pilgrimage more comfortable, she said, with buses provided by the Saudi government taking pilgrims from one ritual site to the next.
Still, the journey is not without danger.
The Jamarat has been the scene of six stampedes since 1994, which have killed more than 1,000 pilgrims, including 363 during the last hajj in January 2006. Now, Saudi Arabian officials are giving pilgrims tips on how to relieve overcrowding.
Instructions include not bringing luggage to the Jamarat, not camping on streets leading to rite sites and not thronging to the Jamarat at noon, when the Prophet Mohammad is said to have performed his stone-throwing ritual.
Husain said the trip opened her eyes to equality — men and women, rich and poor worshipping side by side. Shamsi said he returned to San Antonio with a greater compassion for the less fortunate.
But, the challenge, Husain said, will be maintaining the fresh start that completing hajj has given her.
"Every step you have to watch," she said. "And that is the test of being in the world."
The Washington Post and Religion News Service contributed to this report.
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