Eye of the Storm
Today, Wednesday, August 1, 2007, early in the evening, I departed from Mecca, that physically barren, but spiritually rich Arabian city, after two incredible days filled with prayer, Qur’anic recitation, supplication and rest, joyous rest. With no lessons to prepare, no classes to teach, no meetings to attend, no place to go, no people to see, no things to do, for two days I was able to sleep all morning until my body, not the alarm clock awakened me, after spending most of the corresponding nights in devotion in the Sacred Mosque.
Having arrived in the city Monday night, I was blessed to perform the lesser pilgrimage, ‘Umra, beneath the watchful eyes of both he stars and the few pigeons who continued to circle the blessed precincts after most of their colleagues, found in droves during the day, had retired for the evening. Accompanied by my wife, I entered the mosque and found a renewed sense of awe gazing upon the Ka’ba, the black-shrouded cubic structure that defines the direction of prayer for the world-wide Muslim community.
The awe inspired by the Ka’ba is born of many thoughts, reflections, and realizations. That relatively small structure serves as the focal point of the devotional and liturgical lives of over one billion people. Although Muslims do not worship the Ka’ba, nor the black stone located at the intersection of two of its walls, it is central to our worship. The ritual prayer (Salat) is the very center of our spiritual lives, and our Salat is not valid if we do not try to orient our faces towards the Ka’ba, to the best of our ability, to perform the prayer.
Gazing upon the Ka’ba and the waves of people almost surreally swirling around it, I thought of a hurricane. Just as the eye of a hurricane is the energy center that spins out bands of clouds in ever expanding circles, the Ka’ba could be viewed as the energy center of the global Muslim community sending out ever wider circles of believers, who, no matter how distant, are united by the power of the core around which they revolve. Just as one who has been into the eye of a hurricane expresses awe at the stillness and indescribable calm to be found therein, so too would I describe the awe I experienced as I viewed the Ka’ba. Despite all of the power emanating from this source, there, right at the core, dwells an indescribable tranquility and calm.
I swam in that calm as I made the obligatory circumambulations of the ancient house. Even the first three circuits, which are made at a hastened pace, seemed unhurried. Moving to the Well of Zamzam, I savored the cold water whose unique taste bespeaks of benefits fitting its fabled history. Having fasted that day in the desert heat, the energizing refreshment of the water was all the more clear. I drank my fill and then doused my head with a cupful, reenacting the practice of our Messenger, Muhammad, peace upon him.
The ‘Umra concluded with the pacing between the mounts of Safa and Marwa, imitating Hajar’s search for water for herself and her babe, Isma’il, after she had been left in the parched valley by her husband, the great prophetic patriarch, Abraham, peace upon him. Here the throng gradually swelled, feed by the waves of primarily Iranian and Egyptian pilgrims whose numbers grew as the night progressed. However, even those numbers and the efforts to dodge the fleet of wheelchairs that snipped at my ankles, did not disrupt the peace and sweetness of the night. Having paced between the two hills seven times, the ‘Umra was concluded with the shaving of my head, an indication that the state of sanctity entered into for the pilgrimage had formally ended.
The end of that sanctity was not the end of the night. Ample time remained for other devotional acts and to simply sit on the floor of the mosque and gaze upon the Ka’ba and the seemingly endless stream of people enveloping it as they made their way around it. The scene reminded me of an incredibly fitting verse from the Qur’an, Peace, a reigning reality until the break of dawn. (97:5)
Thus did I spend my two days in Mecca. The peace found there makes departing extremely difficult, but depart I must. For just as the eye of the hurricane inevitably passes over and the observer finds himself battered by the violent winds and sheets of rain lying just outside of the eye, one must leave the “eye” that exits at Mecca and move on to expose oneself to the battering winds and pounding rain that comprise the storm of life. Entering into the eye constitutes a brief reprieve from the storm, so to does the ‘Umra. However, it is a reprieve that energizes and invigorates, allowing one who has enjoyed it to better face the challenges of this worldly life.