HOUSTON – After traveling to Makkah to perform the ancient Islamic pilgrimage twice in less than a year, once for Hajj and another time for Umrah, Samir Anibou can attest to the difficult preparation required for the sacred ritual.
However, he can also testify to the power of the pilgrimage and what it’s meant for his spiritual growth and his faith.
“There’s nothing like it and nowhere on Earth like Makkah,” he told AboutIslam.net.
“(Going there) has been the best experience of my life, and I intend to go every year if I can.”
In 2016, Anibou, a native Moroccan living in Texas, joined a large, Houston-based group to make his first pilgrimage to Makkah for Hajj. This past summer, during the last 10 days of Ramadan, he journeyed again, this time with his aged mother and his sister.
Both experiences were meaningful and each presented their own unique challenges. He recently reflected on his arduous preparation and his impressions of the Islamic pilgrimage, one of the holiest requirements of all able-bodied and financially capable Muslims.
“For the Hajj the preparation comes in three steps,” said Anibou, who has lived in the United States for several years and owns his own transportation service. “Of course you have to be financially able to go. Each trip costs $7,000-$10,000, that’s the reality.”
He also stressed the physical demands of the ritual. “You have to be able to deal with the heat and the humidity, the crowds, the walking and the distance. If you are 55 years old or older I suggest you don’t go.”
Anibou is 44.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is the spiritual significance.
Anibou said it was this aspect that he took most seriously, devoting time to study books about the pilgrimage rituals, making sure he memorized additional Quran and learning particular supplications. He even attended courses to ensure he was ready.
“I spent at least four months studying,” he said. “Hajj is as if you’re going to your (faith’s ) final exam. You study, and you do your homework.”
Despite his commitment to readying himself for Hajj, Anibou said he was dismayed to discover that not many others in his travel group had made the same preparations.
He said, based on his observation, the vast majority of the people he traveled with weren’t making the pilgrimage for the right reasons, nor were they adequately ready.
“It seemed like most of the people were just going for fun, and they were going without any knowledge,” he said. “This isn’t going to work because once you’re there no one is going to tell you what to do.”
Anibou’s disappointment with some of his fellow pilgrims didn’t end there. In fact, it only intensified when he arrived in Makkah and began the Hajj.
He said he witnessed many people smoking, not waking for prayers, cursing at others who angered them, pushing, shoving and generally not exhibiting the behavior one might expect during such an ancient and spiritually important ritual.
Nevertheless, he said he treated all that he saw, especially the negative parts, as an opportunity to live up to the test he believed Allah was putting before him.
“In Hajj you have to have patience, and dealing with others’ lack of knowledge or bad behavior is the biggest challenge for patience,” he said. “If someone says a bad word to you, you can’t say anything back. If someone pushes you, you can’t push them back. This time is about patience and it’s a test.”
For Anibou, his patience paid off. He counts his first pilgrimage last year as one of the singular experiences of his life, one he was eager to share this past Ramadan with family, including his mother and his sister.
He witnessed massive crowds and worshippers praying for miles stemming from the Kaaba. Amazingly, his wheelchair-bound, 82-year-old mother Touria Matjinouche was able to attend her first ever Eid prayer in Mecca’s Grand Mosque.
But for Anibou, he said the pilgrimage experience transcended what was going on around him, such as the behavior of his fellow pilgrims or even the familial company he kept.
“That time alone with your creator, being alone with Allah, that moment is something I can’t explain to anyone,” he said. “For those days it was just me and God and the connection I had with Him.”