Our first taste of the Pilgrimage (Hajj) had been at the very end of September 1948, when we saw the Kiswah, the brocaded black hangings of the Ka’bah, being carried in a festive procession through the streets of Cairo.
Ever since the Middle Ages, this rich silk and cotton cloth has been specially woven in Egypt.
The expert weavers do no other work, for as soon as they have finished one Kiswah they start on the next, a new one being sent as offering to the Holy House every year.
A few days after this procession we set off by boat from Suez down the Red Sea.
But I did not realize until we reached Jeddah that we had had the honor of traveling with the Kiswah itself which was on board with us.
We decided to make the Visit (Umrah) first, so when the time came to consecrate ourselves, as our boat drew level with a little oasis midway between Madinah and Makkah, about thirty hours after leaving Suez, we made the greater ablution, put on pilgrim’s dress, prayed a special prayer and formulated the intention of entering the state of ihram in order to perform the Visit.
Arriving in Jeddah
The boat anchored outside Jeddah the next morning.
We were traveling in a group of pilgrims who were all connected in some way with the University of Cairo or with that of Alexandria—lecturers, students and servants.
The Kiswah, together with its body guard, naturally had to be taken on shore first, which meant, owing to other delays also, that we did not leave Jeddah until after sunset.
Some two hours later, the cars drew to a standstill, and we were instructed to get out and perform the ablution, as we were about to enter the Sacred Precinct, al-Haram, which comprises not only the city of Makkah but also the country for a few miles all round it.
Makkah – Finally
On reaching the sacred city itself we were taken straight to an old school where we were to lodge.
They gave us three or four empty rooms and we each took a small floor-space and spread out our bedding.
Then we set about praying what prayers were due.
It must have been about midnight when our mutawwif (one who arranges for the lodgings and tents of the pilgrims and who tells them, if they require it, what to do and say) came to take us to the Ka’bah.
As we went through the narrow streets we met one or two groups of pilgrims coming back—Indians, Javanese, Chinese—who chanted in greeting to us the pilgrim’s invocation labbaik Allahumma labbaik,” here I am at Thy service, O Lord God, here at Thy service.”
We entered the Great Mosque by the Gate of Peace.
We went straight down to the Black Stone, which is built into one of the corners of the Ka’bah.
It is the sunnah to begin each of the seven circuits by kissing the Stone three times, but even so late at night, in the small hours, there were so many people that I could do no more than put my hand on it and then to my lips.
After the seventh circuit we stood and prayed in front of the door of the Ka’bah which is a little to the right of the Black Stone.
The Station of Abraham and Zamzam Well
Then we withdrew to the edge of the central precinct where, enshrined like the tomb of a saint, there is a small rock which has in it the imprint of feet.
This is Maqam Ibrahim, the Station of Abraham. It was originally beside the Kaaba but was moved a little distance away—at the order of the Caliph Umar, so I was told.
It is said that while building the Ka’bah Abraham was standing on this rock and Ishmael handed him a stone the weight of which caused his feet to sink into the rock.
I prayed in front of the Maqam and asked for many blessings.
Then I went to the Well of Zamzam which is just beside it and I was given a large vessel of the holy water.
When I had drunk I poured what was left over my head so that it ran down over my clothes and body.
Zamzam was a Divine gift to Hagar and Ishmael after Abraham had left them at Makkah.
The sacred spring is said to have gushed forth miraculously when Ishmael thrust his foot into the desert sand while his mother was searching for water nearby between Safa and Marwah.
Mounts Safa and Marwa
We left the mosque by the Gate of Safa in order to visit Safa itself which is a rocky mound about two minutes’ walk away.
From Safa we went to Marwah, a similar rocky eminence about a quarter of a mile distant, and then back again to Safa going between the two seven times, mostly walking but always breaking into a run between two points where the land was lowest.
As we went back again to Safa we met, coming back to Marwah, those who had been going to Marwah when we were going to Safa, and at each course we would pass almost the same pilgrims moving in the opposite direction.
It was like a strange and marvelous dream; many of the white-robed figures that we met face to face might have stepped out of the pages of the Old Testament.
One might have expected them to say: La ilaha illa ‘Llah, Ibrahim Rasulu ‘Llah (There is no god but God, Abraham is the Messenger of God).
At last we completed our seventh course, which ended at Marwah.
Then those of us who were performing the Visit had some hairs cut from our heads, as an alternative to having our heads shaved, and the rite was completed.
Those who were already on the Pilgrimage kept their state of ihram and did not have their hair cut until the first day of the Feast.
Five Days in Makkah
We stayed in Makkah for the next five days.
Every morning at day-break we were woken by the call to the dawn prayer, which we prayed in the Great Mosque.
One of the most beautiful things in the world, and one of the great glories of Islam, is the call to the prayer.
But the beauty of this, as of so much else, is ruined by the use of microphones which that very year they had installed at Mecca for the first time.
However, most fortunately, they were not always able to make them work; and without them, as I heard it once or twice, the call was indescribably moving.
The chief muezzin calls from one minaret and he is answered by six other muezzins calling simultaneously from six other minarets.
I usually went to the Mosque about an hour before the noon prayer, but the most pleasant time to be there was between the mid-afternoon and sunset prayers.
Then there was no need to sit at the edge of the Mosque under cover of the roof, as after mid-afternoon the Western side of the open courtyard was mostly in the shade.
I used to take my prayer mat and spread it out on the pebble stones as far away from the people as I could.
Martin Lings’ reflections on Hajj with video footage of his 1948 trip to Makkah
(This is an abridged version of “Pilgrimage to Mecca”, an essay by Martin Lings, Abu Bakr Siraj as-Din, which appeared in the journal “Studies in Comparative Religion” 1967, Autumn Edition (Vol. 1, No. 4).
For the full version of the essay click here)