Ramadan Around the Globe Series:
SAUDI (Mecca) 2010
There is no better place for I'tikaaf during the last ten days of Ramadan than the Haram in Mecca. I truly miss those days. What better place do you need more than the hometown of Islam where the Qur'an was first revealed? The emotions and ecstasy experienced there are indescribable. It is one of those beautiful feelings which you cannot describe with words; you have to live it in order to see it and feel it. Although I have done many I'tikaafs, alḥamdulillāh, in many different masājid in different places in the world, including the masjid of my beloved Rasulullah, salla Allahu alayhi wa sallam in Madīnah, there were none like the experience of al-masjid al-Haram, the Grand masjid in Mecca, may Allāh preserve it and protect it. The ambience there is just amazingly sensational.
As a student of the Islamic University of Madīnah back in the early 1990′s, my colleagues and I were privileged to live in the city of Rasulullah salla Allahu alayhi wa sallam for a number of years. We were also privileged to only be four hours away from Mecca. Alḥamdulillāh, consequently we were able to visit Mecca for Umrah frequently, and enjoy the sight of the Ka'bah every chance we could catch outside of school days. I can never forget the sight of the beautiful sacred house, the Ka'bah and the enormous number of people of all colors and all walks of life going in circles around it. It was breathtaking.
One of the privileges we had back then was to take the last ten days of Ramadan off, and with an extra few days for the 'Īd we ended up with almost two weeks off. I remember how we used to start our planning ahead of time, because we knew that we would be leaving Madīnah to go to Mecca. We used to spend most of the Ramadan hours, days and nights in the masjid of Rasulullah salla Allahu alayhi wa sallam. Just thinking of who used to walk around in this same area 1400 years ago, and who used to spend his time in this place was electrifying.
When the last day of school was over, we rushed straight to Mecca for Umrah in order to make sure that we entered the Haram and our I'tikaaf before sunset. If you want your I'tikaaf of the last ten days of Ramadan to be counted for you, then you should be in the masjid right before the first night of the last ten nights start. That means just before sunset on the 20th day of Ramadan.
Regulations in the Haram in Mecca prohibit keeping any kind of luggage, suitcases, clothes or anything of the sort a traveler might need during his stay in the masjid for I'tikaaf. You have to keep everything outside. This prohibition put a limit on what we could really carry with us for the I'tikaaf. So we carried just two or three thoubs, the traditional Arab garb, a shimagh or head cover which we also used as an eye cover so that we could get the feeling of dark night, one casual short sleeved thoub for the daily activities which also served as our pajamas, few number of underwear and t-shirts, general hygiene stuff and of course books to read. In the I'tikaaf in Mecca, you need to forget about the luxury of pillows and blankets, let alone a mattress or bed. You use the carpet as your bed and the ceiling as your cover. Well, we still used the stuff we had with us, we would pile them up to make a pillow, and then use the Ihram, the two white sheets, one for a mattress (or a mat to be precise) and one for a blanket.
With no lockers anywhere to keep your belongings safe and with millions of people, commuters and travelers from all over the world who come to visit for Umrah, keeping our stuff outside in the open was impossible for us, as there would be no way to keep all of your things for the duration of the I'tikaaf without losing them. So we had to smuggle them in, yes, smuggle them.
We would first go back to the Haram right after we are done with our Umrah, as early as possible, to look around for a prime location. The Haram during the I'tikaaf season would be divided, unofficially of course, into small lots the size of a twin mattress each, just enough for you to lay down and get some sleep. A prime location meant a place in the corner far away from the traffic. Getting close to the balcony so you could overlook the beautiful sight of the Ka'bah and the Tawaf court, was nice in the beginning, but then as people start jumping all over you to enjoy watching the sight themselves, the location was no longer so prime.
If you couldn't get a corner location, which was almost impossible - how many corners are there in a masjid anyways - then you would look for the wall. Taking a wall site is good because it traps your items by the wall so they won't go anywhere, and it also limits the traffic in that area. The third in the line of favorite locations was the side of one of the main and humongous pillars of the masjid. Although you would be surrounded by others all around you, having one side of the cubic shaped pillars gives you the base of one side all for you. If you were unable to get any of these spots then you risk ending up in the middle of the crowd, and that was never a good place to be during a long I'tikaaf.
It was like an 'urf, or common law, among the dwellers of the Haram, that once you settle and unload your stuff in one location it becomes yours until the end of the I'tikaaf, unless you abandon it and take your things out of that location. Everybody respected that. Well, almost. Some visitors, as they looked for a place to get their nap, acted like “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” They just didn't care and would go ahead and violate the rule. They would find themselves a comfy place that did not belong to them and go to sleep. It was not that big of a deal to us but overall, people still honored the rule and respected the privacy of others.
One more thing about prime locations at the Haram is that it's better to stay on the first floor than the ground floor where most of the heavy traffic exists. You should also stay away from the escalators and the stairways which feed the area with more visitors. And last but not least, stay in a location where you can easily have an access to the bathrooms outside, believe me its one of the most important criteria of your search. It's not easy to remember your location when the Haram looks so symmetrical and sometimes confusing, but after getting lost a few times, you'll get there. GPS won't work there either, therefore you have to rely on your photographic memory, if you have one of course.
Now, how did we get our stuff in? Well, we used to take turns in getting our things through the doors. One would be outside keeping all our stuff with him, another would stay at the location to make sure it is reserved and then the third would be making trips going back and forth to get his things carried in. We would stuff the small things in our pockets, clothes under the books and look for a diversion by going through the most crowded doors. And even if you get caught with your clothes hidden between the books, you could still look for another gate and get through. The funny part was carrying the thoubs in. Some of us used to put them on one on top of another and then take them off as we entered the Haram.
Of course, we do understand why the authorities didn't allow clothes and luggage to be brought into the masjid because if this was allowed people would abuse the system. Nevertheless, during the last ten days of Ramadan there should be some tolerance because this is temporary and for I'tikaaf purposes only. These items are very important to help those who are in I'tikaaf to stay in good health and good shape. Before we left our spot, we would make sure to fold up our stuff and squeeze them towards the wall so that they would not get messed up while people were praying Taraweeh.
After we hadtaken care of our accommodations, we began searching around to locate two things. First, where the scholars would be giving their daily and evening classes, and second, where the food spreads were over which some scholars and students of knowledge, especially coming from other countries, would be breaking their fast. We later learned that most of these food spreads were located on the top level of the Haram facing the gutter of the Ka'bah known as “al-Mizaab.” Every time you go there, you will be blessed with one or two or even more scholars coming from different places around the world. On these food spreads, I had the opportunity to meet scholars from Egypt, ash-Sham, India, N. Africa and other areas as well.
On the sunset of the first night of the I'tikaaf, we would already be on the top level asking around to find out who was coming and where they would be breaking their fast. If we received the news about some scholars coming over, we would make sure the others got to know about it as well.
Iftar is usually made of the magnificent, lightly roasted Arabic coffee cooked with cardamom and some other flavors, served with fresh “rutab,” the moist and early stage of the dates. Dates come in different shapes and tastes and it would be a blessing if you were served some of the most expensive Qaseemi dates that grows in the heart of the Arabian Peninsula, such as sukkari, maktoomi and khalas. With that comes yogurt and freshly baked bread. Now, Bismillah.
After Maghrib prayer, we go back to congregate around the Shuyūkh and scholars, to listen, learn, take notes and drink a fresh cup of tea made with 'hasawi' mint. That tea used to give the session a whole different flavor, literally.
Later on, we would start getting ready for Isha prayer and Taraweeh afterwards. The prayer in the Tawaf court would have been the best place to stand in ṣalāh. However, since we loved to attend the sessions of Sh. al-Uthaymeen rahimahullah after Taraweeh, we had to stay on the top floor and pray right next to his official seat. If you wanted to benefit from the Ilm of the sheikh, you would need to sit as close to him as possible. Thousands attended his sessions and coming after ṣalāh to look for a space meant that you would be sitting at least a hundred yards away from him. The place would be crowded with waves of people. I have seen some very dedicated students who would preserve their spot from ‘aṣr time, and I really admire them for their devotion to the knowledge.
In the early years, the sheikh used to start right after Taraweeh and finish when they start the Tahajjud at night, that was more than four hours. SubhanaAllah, I have no idea how he was able to keep his energy level during this time for the entire ten nights. In the later years, the sessions where cut short and lasted until one hour before the Tahajjud, and even then, it was still a very long session.
The sheikh used to start by commenting on some of the ayat recited in ṣalāh at-Taraweeh that night for about 20-25 minutes, and then the session would be opened to Q & A. SubhanaAllah, the amount of Ilm one was exposed to in such a short time was amazing. Even today, I still have some of the original notes that I'd taken over the years from these sessions.
When we finished the session, we would go out to get some food for our main Iftar meal. You know the custom there was to delay the main course until after Taraweeh, which I love and enjoy. The initial Iftar was nutritious, easy and not overwhelming so that you can survive during ṣalāh at-Taraweeh, and once you've finished your ṣalāh, you get to eat your main meal.
Right after that, we used to start our own personal night activities which included reading and reviewing the Qur'an, praying more qiyam, reading books using this time for devotion and meditation and the best of all doing Tawaf, as many times as we were able, around the Ka'bah. There was no way you would get bored at the Haram because every second the scene changes and the experience is different.
We stayed up during the night waiting for ṣalāh at-Tahajjud where eight more rak'as would be performed at a slower pace than the Taraweeh, until it was finished about an hour or so before Fajr time. After that, we would go to eat our modest suhoor which we had purchased earlier when we had our Iftaar. Then we prepared ourselves for Fajr prayer.
Right after Fajr, Sheikh al-Uthaymeen rahimahullah used to have another session on the ground level for almost two hours. I sometimes felt extremely tired and very sleepy, but subhanaAllah, seeing the energy of the sheikh, who was at my grandfather's age, doing what he was doing would empower me again to stay until the end of the session.
Thereafter, we used to get back to our hiding places, our sleeping spots, and drop down like dead bodies. We stayed asleep for the rest of the morning until Dhuhr time when we awoke for ṣalāh. We stayed up for a while and then went back to sleep taking a power nap so that we could stay up all night again. After all, there wouldn't be much going on during that time, anyway. Even the halaqat and sessions of knowledge were scarce and didn't start until after ‘aṣr. Sometimes we seized the opportunity to make a relatively easier Tawaf before we head to bed.
Once ‘aṣr time starts, our day officially starts with it. We joined the few halaqat scattered around and then it would be time to get ready for Maghrib. Sometimes, we did Tawaf before we went to the top level and other times, we just went into seclusion for reading and reviewing the Qur'an. As the time of Iftar approaches, our preparation for the night increased. Once the adhān for Maghrib is announced, a new evening begins.
The program continues the same for the rest of the month except for some occasional changes based on rising opportunities such as receiving guests or family and sometimes meeting new people and old friends. Subhana'Allāh, even though the space in the Haram is so huge, and the number of people is so great, but it is still a small world. You always meet some old acquaintance, as if they fell from the sky. One year, I even met my own mother who decided at the last minute to come for Umrah with my father! We didn't have cell phones back then and there was no way to send me a message about their arrival. It was a friend of mine who met my father and sent me to him.
The entire season is special, but two nights were the most special nights in the entire month of Ramadan: the night of the 27th and the 29th. At least that's how people behaved on these two nights. The 27th is regarded as Laylatul Qadr, and the 29th is the night of Khatmul Qur'an, the completion of the recitation of the Qur'an. I remember when Sheikh as-Sudays used to pray the witr after finishing the Taraweeh and then he would pray the witr again after the Tahajjud, but then it was announced that the witr in the last ten nights would be performed only once after Tahajjud. And even this, was later changed to only after Taraweeh. Another year, the sheikh did not pray the Tahajjud and it was left for other Shuyūkh to lead but without praying witr at the end.
One of the most dramatic changes that I witnessed during those years of I'tikaaf was moving the Khatmul Qur'an to the night of the 27th. The imām of al-Haram, announced using the loud speakers, which was unusual, that in order to receive the blessings of that night in particular they wanted to join the Khatmul Qur'an with what is regarded as Laylatul Qadr. Another reason for this change, was in order to help people, and the visitors in particular, to attend the completion of the Qur'an and then get a chance to travel back home and attend 'Īd day with their families.
This change created a very dangerous and hazardous situation in the Haram. After the change was announced, people came from all over the country and from the surrounding countries as well, just to witness that night. It was within driving distance for the most of them. The Haram, as huge as it appears, was overpopulated to the extent where people started praying on top of the walls on the top level exposing themselves to an extremely perilous situation. People filled every space you can think of and spaces you cannot even think of. The escalators crashed and the stairways were closed because people were trying to get to the upper levels as the gates to the lower levels were closed. The authorities tried to keep people out but visitors would push their way through. It was a very dangerous situation. In addition to this, once the imām finished, people were trying to leave as early as possible and the situation almost caused stampedes all over the area of the Haram. The Imams of the Haram, realizing the danger, announced the following night that this combining of events would not happen again next year and that the Khatmul Qur'an would be restored back to the night of the 29th.
That year, when they moved the Khatmul Qur'an to the night of the 27th, the following two or three nights left of the month of Ramadan were the most peaceful nights of the month. Most of the visitors left and the Haram became almost empty. Overall, it was a one-of-a-kind experience that I was able to attend and witness.
I still remember one night when I had to leave quickly with a guest, a friend who was visiting with his mother for Umrah, and we had to go after Maghrib to get ourselves and his mother some food, it was impossible. People were like in a disaster zone, they were all trying to buy food. We didn't know why it was so different that night but it appeared that they were getting ready for their journey after the ṣalāh. We couldn't get anything, neither for his mother nor for ourselves, and when we tried to get back to the Haram the guards were already closing the doors to the upper levels and the escalators were all closed. I had to take him to some unknown paths, at least unknown to the common visitors, and then find our way up. To our surprise, there was no space at all. We had to wait until the Iqama was called and struggle to squeeze ourselves into the line even if we were standing somewhat sideways. It was an amazing and unforgettable night, which not too many people have had the good fortune to experience.
The blessings of the I'tikaaf are so many, and some of the lessons imām Ibnul Qayyim, rahimahullah, suggested we learn from this experience are:
- It is a form of 'Khalwa' that is living in seclusion – to a certain extent – where you can focus on your nafs and personal Ibadah and worship.
- It is a chance to connect with the Divine subḥānahu wa ta'āla because your focus is solely on pleasing Him and Him alone.
- It is a spiritual rehab and escape from the pressure of this life. You live a stress-free life for few days only for the sake of Allāh.
- You learn to limit your interaction with people and increase your interaction with your own self. It is like a moment of 'muhasaba' were you review your 'amal, or work, and check and balance your book of deeds.
- It is a chance to explore your potential and an opportunity to see how much you can really bear of the different acts of Ibadah you expose yourself to in such a very short time.
The last part of this experience for us was witnessing the 'Īd day. During the last night of Ramadan, everyone is in a high level of excitement in anticipation for the 'Īd announcement. If the next day was still Ramadan, then alḥamdulillāh, we would get to pray one more night of Taraweeh and Tahajjud. If 'Īd was the next day, then there would be an important thing to do before anything else. You had to run to your sleeping space and pick everything up with you, otherwise it would be swept out with everything on the floor. You see, during the last ten nights of Ramadan, other than the vacuum cleaners, the janitorial work would stop temporarily until the night of 'Īd. So right after Isha, in preparation for the 'Īd ṣalāh, the workers would start to take everything off the floor. Literally, everything. They sweep and wash and mop the floor of the entire Grand masjid, and then they lay down new carpet. Whatever is left down there will be piled up in one corner and you would be blessed if you can find anything of your own belongings.
SubhanaAllah, that night was one of the most depressing nights for us. After living for ten nights in the Haram, when it was full with people and full with duroos and activities, suddenly the hustle and bustle is gone and you are back to the reality of life. The place would be empty, absolutely empty. A temporary feeling of void would fill your heart and you would suddenly break into tears. At the end, you realize that you're once again back on your own.
Once Salatul 'Īd is performed in the majestic ambience and atmosphere of the Grand masjid in Mecca, we headed straight to the bus station. We took a bus ride back to Madīnah and returned with some unforgettable memories of I'tikaaf.
Ramadan 26, 1431 H.
September 5, 2010