Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Peace be Upon You

Our December religion series continues...

My mother was determined to take all of us along with her to Mecca, despite our resistance. She would not reliquish hope of saving us godless sinners.

We arrived in the middle of the night, after flying from New York. The guards at the checkpoints at the outer perimeter of the city peered into the car we were riding in and were apparently satisfied that we looked sufficiently faithful.

After checking into our hotel and wrapping ourselves in the requisite single white cloth (the same clothing you are supposed to be wearing when you are buried in a plain wooden box), we crossed the plaza and walked into the Great Mosque at Mecca, the house of the Kaaba.

The central mosque of Islam drips with ornament. Untold millions of petrodollars have gone into its development. The arrival of millions of pilgrims from all corners of the world presents a huge organizational challenge. Airport-like red digital signs hanging overhead display the times for prayer in several languages. At that time of night, though, the mosque was quiet.

The sacred meteorite

We stepped into the blinding light of the nearly empty marble courtyard of the Kaaba. The ground was covered with giant, dead locusts. It looked as if many of them were drawn in and killed by the blazing stadium lights blaring away under the purple desert sky at 3 a.m.

A small crowd of pilgrims in white swirled counterclockwise around the shrouded cube at the center of the Kaaba. At one corner, several had stopped, reaching down to touch—or kiss—a sacred meterorite embedded in a corner of the cube as the crowd circulated around them. The shroud over the cube, covered in gold Arabic calligraphy, rustled in the gentle wind created by the slowly swirling faithful. We fell into the intimate cluster and began the seven revolutions.

In all mosques, women and men pray separately. At the center, at the Kaaba, all distinctions fall away. Indonesians, Turks, Africans, Arabs, Indians, and Chinese, women and men, young and on death’s door, shuffled together in their bare feet around the cube. I became separated from my family, gently jostled in the circling swarm of strangers. The voices around me murmuring prayers felt like a type of warmth in the cool desert night.

For those moments, the experience did not feel like it was about Islam or any distinct religion. It felt—for an extended moment—as if it was about the shared experience of being human.

Of course, the experience was not so ideally universal. Those guards at the perimeter of the city represented the exclusionary aspect of a belief in one true faith. Nonbelievers were not welcome.

Who knows what to believe? I don’t. More than a billion humans call themselves Muslims, and many of them feel a pull, like gravity, toward Mecca, toward the house of the sacred black stone. What does this mean? Why are people kissing this stone? Does the belief of these millions of pilgrims, which steadily spirals them in tightening circles toward the Kaaba, create its own force?

The memory of quietly walking with those strangers in the night, barefoot and clothed as we would be buried, stays with me. It is one of absolute peace. I wish this image—one of tolerance, brotherhood, and peace—were the face of this embattled religion.

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