College chaplain completes third pilgrimage to Mecca

By CECELIA SCHEUER

AUGUST SCHULTZ
Hussain was originally planning to make the journey when she was much older, until a change in her lifestyle began to shift Hussain’s conception of her own spirituality.

Three years ago, Saifa Hussain, associate chaplain to the Muslim Student Association and Mosaic Interfaith House at Middlebury College, set out on a journey to connect more deeply to her faith. Now, at just 28 years old, she has fulfilled the pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca three times. It is a feat which all Muslims are obligated to complete once in their lifetime if they are physically and financially able.

The pilgrimage, also called the Hajj, is the last of the five major tenants of Islam, and takes place between the eighth and the 13th of Dhu al-Hijja, the 12th month of the Muslim calendar. Hussain performed her first Hajj the summer of 2017, and made her third pilgrimage to the holy city alongside her husband this past summer. However, her decision to trek across the world and make the trip three times, let alone once, was not always part of her shorter-term agenda.

“Back then, I never thought about making the Hajj pilgrimage,” Hussain said, explaining that it is an undertaking many Muslims save up their entire lives for. “It was originally something that I was planning to do when I was much older.”

Hussain decided to make her first pilgrimage while living in a micro home built by her husband on a farm in New Haven, Vt. They had moved there from Chicago in the spring of 2017 to practice sustainable living, minimalism and Islamic spirituality. At the time, making the cost-hefty journey did not seem possible. That is, until her change in lifestyle began to shift Hussain’s conception of her own spirituality.

“A lot of it was fueled by me negotiating my various identities and seeking out teachers and spiritual guides to help me connect deeper to my faith,” Hussain said. “One of the things that they advised me to do was to make the Hajj pilgrimage.” 

The holy pilgrimage, they told her, was “central to rooting yourself as a Muslim in a modern American context.”

She began looking at Hajj packages online, and that August, she left to meet the group she had been matched with. Hussain said it is common to make the pilgrimage in a group, and that there is a “whole industry” connecting Muslims from all over the world who wish to make the trip with others traveling from similar areas.

After meeting her group in Chicago, they flew to Germany and then to Jeddah, the gateway for pilgrimages to Mecca. Their spiritual journey, however, began on the flight to Jeddah, during which the group entered the purification state of Ihram, which is required before one embarks on the Hajj pilgrimage. In order to fully achieve Ihram, one must pass through several points around Mecca called the Miquat, the first of which the group happened to pass on the plane.

“There were pilgrims on the plane getting into this Ihram state, putting on the clothing, making the intention, starting their reciting,” Hussain said.

While in this state, men must dress in a traditional white cloth, and a variety of practices are prohibited, such as bathing with scented products, clipping nails, cutting hair, wearing perfume or having sexual intercourse.

“You really go into this liminal state where you are out of the ordinary and are in this monastic, austere way of being,” she said.

This past summer, Hussain’s Hajj journey once again began in Jeddah, where her group was picked up by a bus which made the day-long drive to Mecca. Once there, they rested and prepared to perform the rituals of the Hajj that would take place in the days ahead.

Each day of the pilgrimage is separated into distinct rituals, many of which are dedicated to the life of the prophet Abraham. On the first day, Hussain’s group performed the tawaf, which entails walking seven times, counter-clockwise, around a black cube-like structure called the Ka’ba. In the Islamic tradition, this is the point where heaven and earth meet, but more than that, Hussain said, it is the point which Muslims consider to be “the center of their spiritual universe.”

“It represents this circular movement of oneness, and you’re doing this with millions of pilgrims from all walks of life,” she said. 

Next, they passed between the hills of Safa and Marwa to commemorate the struggles of the Lady Hagar. Along the way, they also drank holy water from the well of ZamZam, which is meant to replenish pilgrims who “experience the intensity of the heat and the struggle of these rituals,” she said.

The next day, they traveled to the tent city of Mina and then to the Plain of Arafat in Mina for a day of vigil and prayer.

“This is the encounter of a lifetime with God,” Hussain said. 

Hussain said it was a highly emotional experience during which she felt that many pilgrims were in “a complete state of submission.” She and millions of other pilgrims stopped to just cry. 

“You go there with all of your life in your heart and all of other people’s lives in your heart,” she said.

Hussain was one of the millions of people who took prayers of their loved ones with them to read on the pilgrimage. Before she left, she created a shared Google document for others to write their prayers on, which she then read off of her phone at various points throughout the Hajj. Hussain extended this offer to Muslim students at Middlebury, too. 

After traveling from Arafat to Muzdalifa to spend a night in the desert, she returned to Mecca with her group to perform the next ritual, the Jamrat. During this ritual, pilgrims stone the pillar of Jamrat, an act that symbolizes casting away the negativity in one’s life. Hussain said many pilgrims believe that when they throw the stones, they are hitting the devil.

Once these major rituals have taken place, an animal is sacrificed, which allows a pilgrim to exit the purification state of Ihram. To signify this transition, men will typically shave their head and women will cut off around an inch of their hair. Pilgrims are then also allowed to resume their normal hygienic practices.

The last ritual of Hussain’s Hajj took place in Mecca, where she returned to perform the farewell tawaf, this time from outside  the state of Ihram. With each journey into and out of the state of Ihram, Hussain said her life changed in ways that have allowed her to realize the meaning of her connection to God and who she truly is as a spiritual being.

“The Hajj takes you out of autopilot, and that is the purpose of pilgrimage,” Hussain said. “To get out of the mundane and into the sacred … What it did for me is that it disrupted the monotony, or the human sort of heedlessness that we often find ourselves in.”

Ultimately, Hussain’s journey to step out of the mundane of everyday life is one that she knows will be ongoing, which is why she plans to make the Hajj every year.

“It doesn’t mean you have to have it all figured out, but I think it’s the questioning that’s important,” she said. “Because if we can’t question things, then we will just be in autopilot forever.”