By Abdelhamid Omran
A journey halfway across the world and back takes a lot out of a person, but if done right and with the proper intention, the journey gives back much more than it takes. Perhaps this statement can be no truer than for a trip to the holy land of Mecca. Where else on earth does a Muslim long to be, and yet, at the same time, become full of stress from the difficulties that will be faced upon arrival? Given the overbearing sun, relentless heat, overcrowded spaces, and the inevitable confusion and miscommunication that come from millions of people from around the globe gathering in one place, Mecca is no easy place to be. However, there is also no place more holy, beloved, and spiritually cleansing for a Muslim to be than that very same land of Mecca.
I recently had the blessing to make the journey to this highly revered land for my first Umrah. I could feel the eminent spirituality it projected onto me as soon as I entered Mecca’s sacred boundaries. I immediately asked Allah (swt) to not let this be the last time I ever enter into this blessed land. The anticipation inside me built up as we drove closer to the Holy Mosque and the venerated structure of the Ka’aba enclosed within. I became increasingly jittery as the seconds passed by. We finally reached and entered into the Holy Mosque. There it was: one of the most sought-after structures in human history, the Ka’aba.
I had often dreamt about the Ka’aba and imagined how I would feel seeing it for the first time. I imagined I would be overcome with tears of joy and gratitude — that it would be the single-most groundbreaking, life-altering moment in my life. I imagined it would be etched in my mind forever as the moment when life’s course would change for me here and in the Hereafter. I imagined that all of this would come about simply from a blessed glance at the most blessed structure. And, in all honestly, I must tell you I was wrong.
To understand why, you must first understand where I had been and what I was doing in the days leading up to my first Umrah and trip to Mecca. Just a few days before, I had the honor and pleasure of taking another life-changing journey to Turkey and Jordan to see some of Zakat Foundation of America’s (ZF) projects in person for the first time. What I saw in those few days left me speechless with amazement and overcome with the thoughts and feelings of joy and gratitude. I had always heard and believed that the kind of work ZF did was a cut above the rest; that ZF values quality over quantity; that ZF never robs its beneficiaries of their dignity; that much of ZF’s work is actually done in silence and in private, away from the spotlight of cameras, articles, press releases, and the eyes of the public. I believed this simply based on the merit of the plethora of individuals who told it to me. Seeing all that to be true was something I still struggle to fully and properly articulate to this day.
I toured the ZF-established Zahra University in Gaziantep, Turkey, a nonprofit institution of higher-learning where the salary of all professors and staff members, student tuition costs, and all other operating costs for keeping the university up and running are paid in full by ZF. I visited the ZF-sponsored Muhammad Ali Safe House, also in Gaziantep, which is a breathtaking housing facility where young Syrian refugee orphans live with their mothers and each family has its own fully furnished apartment with home decor, all the kitchen utensils they may need, and a washing machine. Not only that, but ZF pays for their food, rent, education, language courses, vocational/job training for the mothers, monetary allowance for personal needs, and other living costs. I journeyed further to the Sigaruna Kibaruna Clinic in the Hatay province of Turkey, a specialized facility that teaches, nurtures and uplifts young Syrian children with developmental disabilities. There, children receive expert help in cognitive training, speech therapy, and auditory and visual processing. A step beyond that, they also receive genuine care and concern from the teachers who work there. I also had the honor of meeting Hind, which was the true highlight of my entire two-week journey. She’s a young Syrian girl who lost her family in ways too gruesome to mention, and who is now orphaned and receives aid from ZF. In these few days, I saw such amazing wonders of humanitarian work that I came back with a head held high and a new, stronger confidence in the honor, trust, and work that ZF does.
In an authentic hadith, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) asked his companions, “Which month do you believe has the greatest sanctity?” They replied, “This month of ours, Dhul Hijjah.” The Prophet asked: “Which city do you believe has the greatest sanctity?” They replied, “This city of ours, Mecca.” The Prophet asked: “Which day do you believe has the greatest sanctity?” They said, “This day of ours, Arafat.” The Prophet said: “Verily, Allah the Exalted has made your lives, your wealth, and your honor sacred, except by right of justice, just as your day, your city, and your month are sacred.” It was not until a few days after returning home from my journey and reflecting on this hadith that I realized why I was not as overtaken by being in the presence of the Ka’aba and witnessing its glory with my own eyes for the first time. That is because I was, for the first time in my life, able to understand what the Prophet meant in this hadith.
I saw people whose lives were lost and completely broken, yet who refuse to give up. They fight back with resilience to keep moving on. I saw children, who experienced some of the darkest and harshest realities, with the brightest smiles and faces I have ever laid my eyes on. I witnessed ZF’s empathy for mankind and its unrelenting will to serve others and do whatever it can to lighten their burden and suffering. I witnessed the value and sanctity of human life the Prophet (pbuh) was talking about, firsthand.
In another hadith, it is mentioned, ““I saw the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) performing tawaf (circumambulation) around the Holy Ka’aba, saying to it: “How pure and good you are! How pure and good your fragrance is! How great and exalted you are! And how great and exalted your sanctity is! But, by Him in Whose hand is Muhammad’s soul (by Allah (swt)), the sanctity of a believer’s blood and property in the sight of Allah is greater than your sanctity!’“
I had a deep and concerning inner-struggle in the days after seeing the Ka’aba and entering Mecca for the first time. I was confused and upset as to why seeing the Ka’aba, this house of worship adored by billions of believers throughout human history, did not affect me in the emotional and spiritual manner I thought it would. Without a doubt, the Ka’aba lacks no spiritual significance or stature; if anything, it is overwhelming in its glory and presence. But what I realized is that though the Ka’aba holds monumental spiritual and religious sanctity and significance, it is not the end goal of a believer’s worship and reverence. As Allah (swt) says in the Holy Quran 106:3, “Let them worship the Lord of this house (the Ka’aba).” We are commanded to worship and serve the Lord of the Ka’aba, not the Ka’aba itself. Believers can draw nearer and nearer to their generous and merciful Lord through the service of His creation, just as they can draw nearer and nearer to Him through ritual prayer and worship.
On this journey, I experienced the magnificence of the Holy Ka’aba, as well as the end results of the hours my colleagues and I put in. I experienced how it felt to draw nearer to Allah (swt) through ritual worship and prayer, as well as through the service of His creation. Due to the experiences on my journey, I learned that humanity is the greatest sanctity.