“…If you ask, then ask Allāh, and if you seek help, then seek help from Allāh and know that if the whole world was to gather to help you, they would never be able to help you except with something which Allāh has already preordained for you. . The pens have been lifted, and the scrolls have dried.” [Tirmidhi]
This hadith perfectly describes my recently completed hajj trip. This was the trip that I had been promising my wife for some time as she still had to complete the obligation. As for me, I was fortunate enough to complete my first hajj about 10 years ago, a few months prior to 9/11 – a trip that was full of wonderful memories, with a young Tawfique Chowdhury who had kindly agreed to be the hajj guide to three friends (including me) from Houston. Tough to beat that kind of personal guide! We could not have imagined that that Tawfique would go on to become the Shaykh Tawfique with a da‘wah empire spanning the world? That has been the story of my life. I seem to be in the right place at the right time with many Shuyūkh, getting to know them well before the world got to know them. With Shaykh Yasir Qadhi, a friend from college. With Shaykh Waleed Basyouni, a friend from the little masjid on the Clear Lake prairie. With Shaykh Yaser Birjas, inviting him to Texas da‘wah when he was planning to come as an attendee. The advantages of these personal connection are huge, and the friendships well beyond shaykh-student relationships.
Getting back to that trip of 2001: So while we performed all the rituals correctly (inshā'Allāh), I felt that my patience was low and spiritual aspects of the hajj were not fully nourished. To expound further, a few incidents stick out as memories that would bother me after the trip. At Mina, we met some other American brothers, similarly without a hajj group, and together we formed the “Detroit Brothers Hajj Group,” though half of us were from Houston. I remember being stuck in a Mina tent with a group of Shia' hajjis from Pakistan. Some of the other “Detroit Brothers” were aghast at this and whipped up a frenzy of “we can't sleep together under one tent, what if we hear 'yaa ali' if a calamity struck?” Young as we were, we got all sold on this emotional premise and remained up all night, engaged in loud discussions, followed by a fiery speech by our young Shaykh Tawfique mentioning the fada'il of Abu Bakr (RD), Umar (RD) and Uthman (RD). All this was to designed to move our Shia neighbors out, but all in nought.
This time, 10 years older and hopefully wiser, I intended to focus more on the human dealings, while maintaining the sunnah aspects of the rituals. But first I had to get there, and in Qatar, planning a hajj trip is no guarantee that you'll make it!
Let me start a few months earlier. I saw a dream that I found particularly heartening. In a dream that I remembered clearly after waking up, I was giving adhān, and not just adhān, but the most beautiful adhān. Now let me be the first one to tell you that my muadhin skills are less than first-rate. So, this definitely felt special. At my first opportunity on the computer, I quickly checked with Shaykh Google, and indeed this could be good news:
ATHAAN (call to prayer): Seeing oneself giving the call to prayer may indicate one's plans for Hajj will succeed. [Sharh as Sunnah vol 12 p 224] Based on: “Proclaim the Hajj to mankind” [Surah al Hajj (22): 27]
So, early in August, I registered online with the Qatar Hajj commission and promptly gave my details to the one of maybe two hajj groups (Al-Haramain Hajj group) that accommodates English speakers from Qatar. And then the wait started. The Commission was supposed to announce hajj visa results after 'Īd al Fitr. So, we waited patiently through Ramadan. 'Īd came and went but no news. The Hajj group really couldn't do anything except to repeat the mantra of “tomorrow, inshā'Allāh.” As time progressed, many hujjaj were already in Mecca, Dhul Hijjah was around the corner, and I had pretty much given up hope of going. Then, out of the blue on Nov 2 (25th Dhul Qiddah), I received an SMS that our Hajj applications had been approved and we had 7 days to join a group. Immediately, I called up the Hajj group and assuming that we were automatically in now, I took my time to get to their office.
As I entered the office of Al-Haramain, I found the office packed with other people, who like me had just received news of their approval. And then I started hearing responses by the staff on the phone, “we are full, sorry,” and I started feeling nervous. I took a bit of comfort in that I had called the owner cum manager (cum everything – delegation is not in this man's dictionary!) who had told me to come in and get the paperwork done. So, I assumed I was ahead of the queue already. But nothing was guaranteed. As we toiled in the office, I felt the beginnings of hajj already – the need for patience and fortitude. By this time, I had also found out that a friend, another American Muslim, Nasir, was in the same boat as me, so our hajj companionship started flowering from here on. I advise everyone who goes on hajj to try to form a strong bond with another person (if by yourself) or couple (if going with your wife). You'll find this bond will come in handy at various times during hajj as well and act as a sort of “keep an eye on each other” net. Don't count on the hajj group to be watchful over hundreds of its participants, rather keep a friend handy.
Finally, our turn came, and no surprises with it. We filled our paperwork, gave our passports and photographs, submitted the hefty payments, and turned to go home to start preparations. As another reminder that Allāh decides who gets this opportunity, there was a person in the office who was representing two people (his bosses). Even after being told that there was no place, he just hung around. And then out of the blue, a Qatari man walks in and changes his booking, opening up two spots in the Mecca residence. The agent tells him there is space, and the man is elated, and so I assume were his bosses who he called to inform them of the news. But then, after he filled out all of the documents and turned in the passports, the agent realized that they belong to two men, while the space availability was for a couple! I could see signs of desperation on this man's face, and I can only imagine how his bosses must have felt with this roller-coaster of “you're in, but then not.”
With regard to our exact itinerary and flight to Jeddah, we were told to just go home and relax, and that we would be informed! That it could be in a few days or it could be on Nov 11th, the 5th of Dhul-Hijjah! Since there was no point in arguing, and we were just happy to be going (so we thought), we left for home to start the preparations.
Time slowed down, so it seemed, and no news arrived of a hajj travel date. A few days later, upon inquiring (forget about the agent calling you back), we were told that the tickets were ready, that we should come pick them up, and oh, don't forget your shots! Both Nasir and I were also told that we were “luckily” flying with Qatar Airways that departs at 1:30pm in the afternoon, since the group's chartered flight would be leaving at 2:00am the next morning, so we'd be flying out in daytime. Sure sounded good!
Over the next few days, we made basic preparations for our children who we were leaving behind, as well as sending emails and facebook messages to ask for forgiveness and du‘ā’' requests. Later, I would compile all the requests onto one sheet for use at Arafah and it sure did come in handy!
On Thursday, Nov 11, we were up early in the morning in anticipation of our great journey. Everything was packed and ready to go. I also had the boarding passes printed. Since we were planning to do hajj tamatau, my wife and I made our hajj intentions, and got into ihram from home. Unfortunately, I timed my cab trip to the airport precariously close to departure time. Moreover, the cab was a few minutes late, making us even more nervous. On the way there, we got a panicked call from Nasir, asking about our whereabouts. He also dropped a bombshell on the phone that non-Gulf nationals were not allowed to travel to Jeddah except with Saudi Airlines!
I looked at my boarding passes and thought to myself, “we'll see about that.” We finally reached the airport and rushed in. I went straight for the bag-drop counter but was guided towards one check-in aisle, where I acted nonchalantly, handing over my bags for check-in. The guy at the Qatar Airways counter looked a bit perplexed after taking my boarding passes, and then basically confirmed what Nasir had stated. “Yesterday was the last day for any other airlines to transport non-GCC hajjis, so check with Saudi Airlines.” Check? What hope would we have of grabbing a seat on the last day of travel via Saudi Airlines?
We found our Hajj group agent who confirmed the issue and told us that we were not alone, 13 from his agency, and 50 from another agency were in the same boat. But with typical Middle Eastern knack, he told us to make du‘ā’' and “not to worry… you'll go if Allāh has written it for you.” He would try to get us on the waiting list on two Saudi Airlines flights leaving at 2PM and 4PM (the LAST two). When I pressed him further for contingency plans, the response also summed up the Middle Eastern style saying with a smile, “don't think like American. inshā'Allāh, things will work out.” For someone who lived most of his life in America, including all of my adult years, it's tough to switch off the “American style.” There's a reason why America does well, its style of preparing for contingency means that it doesn't put all its eggs in one basket and hope nothing happens to the basket! But it wasn't the right time to argue with the guy or to figure out whose fault it was in making such a basic travel reservation error (the airlines or the Hajj agency). We just wanted to get to Jeddah, didn't matter how!
I still remember our desperation. In the back of my mind, I was thinking of the return home from the airport, of all the preparations, of all the du'as that people had asked us to make (even at the airport), and of the dream. And it was the dream that comforted me. I kept the faith in what I felt was unmistaken sign from Allāh.
The 2pm Saudi Airlines flight was chalk-full. People were hoarding around the Saudi Airlines check-in counter and there was noticeable tension and anger. Being in ihram, I felt the need to remain calm and not engage in any sort of bickering. But that didn't stop many of us from pacing around the airport, in our ihram, waiting for some sort of miracle to happen. I also then noticed that Dr. Bilal Phillips had arrived at the airport and he too was “stuck,” and that gave me a bit of hope that the agency would find some way to get him there, since he was to be a guide for the English speaking section of the group. I had met Dr. Bilal a few times before, once in Sharjah way back in December 1993 and then a few times in Qatar. But they were all casual meetings and he didn't know me from a random guy on the street.
Slowly and painfully, the clock ticked on and time marched towards the 4PM mark. Again, the crowd collected around the Saudi check-in counter, and again it was obvious that the waiting list would remain waiting. And so now all options from Doha to Jeddah were exhausted. At this time, I gave us 10% chance of making it, 9% of it associated with the dream.
Again the wait started. Around 6pm, like a rainbow that springs after a particularly nasty storm, our agent's smile heralded potential good news. He appeared genuinely pleased and that meant hope. He said he that there was a Saudi flight leaving from Muscat, Oman at 2am that had available seats, and so now all we had to do was to get to Oman! Not only was this the last day to leave for hajj, that Thursday was also a very busy holiday departure day as a full week of 'Īd holidays was in store for Qatar residents the following week. So, finding a seat to Oman wasn't going to be easy.
Now the crunch time began (again). The flight to Muscat was to leave at 830PM. As time rolled on, it was close to 7PM and no sign of confirmation for our new itineraries. When we inquired, the agent said that his co-worker was out and about on the streets of Doha to arrange the tickets! And if anyone knows Doha, Thursday evening before the holidays means packed streets. We weren't going to get it done this way. We suggested fax or email, and understanding the urgency, the agent went looking for a machine! The situation may have been straight out of a comedy movie, and would be quite amusing if our hajj trip didn't depend on it! At the same time, our hearts were pounding, waiting on these faxes. Then after a few minutes, we saw the agent, having successfully located a fax machine, and with a few papers in his hand. Surely, this was it? Nay, this hajj was going to test every bit of our patience. The faxes were only for 4 people. One by one the guy brought faxes down. The clock kept ticking.
Finally, at about 7:30pm, he brought down the fax for my wife and I, and we rushed towards the check-in line. I also dragged Nasir with me, telling him that if the ticketing is done, it should be in the system, so let's just try his luck there. As we got to the counter, I told the agent that we were travelling as a group, the four of us (Nasir, I and wives). She pulled up our information and also found the booking for Nasir and his wife. We breathed a sigh of relief, checked in our baggage, and rushed towards the departure gate and onto the plane.
Finally, we relaxed a bit. Little did we know that Nasir's presence in the plane was a miracle. In fact, his booking had not been ticketed, as time ran out on Qatar Airways systems (they close ticketing one hour before departure). So, somehow, Allāh had covered the eyes of the check-in agent, who miraculously issued boarding passes to Nasir/wife despite not being ticketed! Even the hajj agent was confounded as he looked around the terminal to give Nasir the bad news. But an Indonesian couple who was to travel with us was not so lucky; they didn't make it to hajj. May Allāh give them both equal reward for their intentions and their longing for it, āmīn (the agent told us how the wife was crying uncontrollably when told she wasn't going).
Not much later, we were at the Muscat Airport, where Nasir and his wife were told (somewhat expectedly) that they had no tickets to Jeddah! But alhamdulilah, Allāh is indeed the best of Planners. The flight from Muscat was nearly half empty (a source of confusion for me to be honest) and they allowed him to buy tickets on the spot for the rest of the travel.
The next morning, we were onboard Saudi Airlines, comfortable with lots of empty seats to facilitate a quick nap. Finally, at about 4am on Friday, Nov 12, we reached Jeddah. After about 8 painful hours (and 24 hours since the beginning our trip in Doha) of red-tape and nonsensical bureaucracy at the “efficient” hajj terminal, we departed for Mecca. After reaching our hotel in Aziziyyah (an area in the vicinity), and after a few hours of rest and refreshments, we were on buses to the Haram. It took another 3 hours of being stuck in traffic, at closed junctions and various arguments between drivers and the “navigators” to cover the 6-8 km distance. Finally, at around 8PM, we gazed upon the Kaaba, in all its majestic glory. Truly, hajj is all about patience.
Labaikallah humma labaik, labaika la shareeka labaik.
And so it was written that we would be at hajj.