Years ago while visiting my Mother on the plains of Colorado, I walked out to the edge of the suburbs to look at the sky in all its glory as the sun was beginning to set. Once I reached my destination I sat in meditation and said over and over again in Arabic La illaha il Allah (There is no reality except God) centering my focus on my heart. After some time a storm that looked to be far away in the distance rapidly closed in with flashes of lightning striking all around me. As I began to walk home I continued my dhikr (sacred remembrances) but the lightning came closer and closer so I started to run, then boom, flash, I was too late – a strike hit so close to me that all I could see was an all-encompassing white light around me.
What seemed like an eternity ended in a flash and then it was gone…. Ah! I was still alive, and after experiencing that flash of light encompass my entire being, I realized that this is the closest existent metaphor for the spiritual or metaphysical light mentioned in the Qur’an which encompassed every layer of my being while I visited the holy city of Mecca for the first time shortly after that lightning strike. This story is about my second trip to Mecca this past winter as I traveled across the world to make Umrah (the lesser pilgrimage to Mecca), to visit my wife’s family in the Arabian Peninsula and seeking to bask in that divine light again even if it was only for a moment.
It was with a bit of suddenness and surprise that I was able to travel across the world and retrace the steps in the path of the Prophets, the Awliyah (the spiritual saints/ sages) and all those millions and millions of people who came before me over thousands of years to visit these lands of pilgrimage.
Journeying from airport to airport to airport – San Francisco to Frankfurt to Istanbul to Jeddah – then straight to Mecca made for the ultimate contrasts in realities. In a world that is continuing to shrink culturally, and in airports throughout the world you can be anywhere and feel that you are always in the same place, immersed in the monoculture of westernization/ neoliberal capitalist colonial modernity. People wear mostly the same clothes, drink mostly the same drinks, eat mostly the same foods, shop at mostly the same shops and speak increasingly with similar lingual tongues. Not to say great and important cultural differences don’t still exist but in these spaces they are hard to see at times and there is probably no greater constant space of bombardment of capitalist consumerism than at the airport, which I just so happened to be stuck in as I was on and off of planes for over 30 hours.
On this day the contrasts were also embodied by my change in clothing going from my everyday suit jacket, vest, and dress shoes into changing to my ihram (essentially two white towels that men making pilgrimage to Mecca wear with nothing else) on the plane, going from wearing wingtip dress shoes to going barefoot (I forgot to bring sandals) for my last two hours on the plane, off the plane, through customs, from Jeddah to Mecca, a half mile walk from my hotel and to the sacred mosque. While the ihram is meant to symbolize the equality of all humans in front of God and ultimately on the day of judgement, getting off the plane I saw how temporary of a state this was for me and though the clothes may have contrasted with the others in line, my privileges as a White American convert to Islam were always still present with me. As I got into the customs line I stood behind two-hundred Bengali men, migrating to Saudi Arabia for jobs as the working underclass in this country that no Saudi would ever take. While surely most of these men would love to be wearing the ihram and visiting Bait Allah (The House of God) like myself, they instead were to be intensely scrutinized by customs officials then off to work, while I flew through customs with my blue passport, met my taxi driver and was off headed in the most sacred of directions. These men were in my thoughts just as were the homeless people who I passed as I walked to the Subway in my home city Berkeley, California, that took me to the airport a full day before. My change in clothes was a change in states physically, and it is an important gesture for all of us to be reminded of the state of poverty we will all permanently visit when we are lowered into our grave, but a reality I feel far from as a moderately wealthy White western man visiting a country where the poor and women have few rights.
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