My pilgrimage

With Eid Ul-Fitr 2024 completed and my return to blogging on a regular-ish basis, I thought now would be a good opportunity to share just a little bit about an epic adventure I had undertaking a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Mecca, and Medina, all the way back in 2006. This is a very, very short account of my story as I want to make this easy to digest.

I was broke and depressed in my mid 20s, life had gone wrong in every area, and during an appraisal at work, my supervisor showed me some compassion and gave me some space. I returned to my desk, and the moment my bum cheeks touched the seat, the words “I’m going on pilgrimage” popped into my head. I then quit my job, scraped together the little savings I had, and went.

Do we really believe in these fantastical religious stories, or do we just tow the line to ensure we have the approval of our community, from whom to be ostracised is such a threat to our reputation? This is a profound insight into self-awareness, and funnily enough, the same experience of Abraham/Ibrahim as described in Jewish tradition and also in The Qur’an. This would serve as the core of my inspiration on this journey.

First I went to Jerusalem, then would take a bus through to Jordan, so that I could fly to Saudi Arabia and onward to Mecca and Medina. This latter part was not the Hajj, but the Umrah as it fell outside of the time window reserved for the Hajj.

I spent most of my time inside the mosques, reading The Qur’an in English, trying to understand what could be understood, and being left confused and filled with conjecture by that which couldn’t. I prayed with the Palestinians in Jerusalem, but was denied access to Al-Aqsa compound for Friday prayers by the Israeli army. And I prayed with every culture of people in Mecca and Medina, where Muslims from around the world congregate. I asked myself a lot of questions, praying for answers, hoping desperately to glean some revelatory insight that would alleviate my spiritual suffering.

Here are the conclusions I came to as a result of this pilgrimage, agree with me or not, this is my experience and my blog, they are true for me –

  • Religious affiliation does not equate to piety

Just because one is born into, or even converts into a religious identity, does not make one more pious or worthy of an identity of significance. There are so many religions, and so many ways to define yourself in belonging to them with a variety of hats, headscarves, and beards etc, yet none of that actually matters in reality, because it is how you behave on a consistent basis in your life that distinguishes your character. Now in my 40s, I’ve seen and known many who uphold the rituals and images of being religious, yet behave abhorrently towards others. And I know those who are of no religion, or not committed to their religious identity, and yet they are consistently kind and honest. Our labels means very little, how we consistently behave towards others each day is how we truly exhibit what we really believe.

  • The purpose of life is to grow

A few years before I even knew I would make this pilgrimage, I watched a lecture by Shaykh Khalid Yasin called ‘The Purpose of Life’. I’m sure you can find it online, it’s worth a watch. He specifically made a point of how life itself grows in the miraculous fashion that it does, and that only the ‘creator’ of such a magnificent reality is worthy of worship. I thought he made a great point, but I was already sold, I was born into this narrative, there was no challenge for me, this lecture was really for those learning about Islam, and at the end of the lecture a bunch of young people in Australia came forward to the stage and took their Shahadah (declaration of faith). However, during my time on pilgrimage, and reflecting on life, I came to a related conclusion that all ‘life’ actually does is ‘grow’. And it can grow to its highest potential, but only if it is nourished by what is good for it. This is true of plants, animals, and humans. And for humans it is a far more profound truth, as we grow not only physically, but also emotionally, vocationally, socially, spiritually, our growth takes us from being survivors on the planet, to masters of the environment. And thus abiding by this principle, is the best path in life.

  • The blessings we already possess

This last lesson was the most profound, it is quite long to explain and very personal. I’ve spoken about it on podcasts and to just about anyone who will listen, and is based entirely on a dream I had whilst I was in Mecca, in which an old school friend appeared. But for the sake of brevity, here is a very short version. Whilst religion, religious affiliation, ethnic, and cultural identities are important to us, they are not the end-all be-all of our existence. Despite the highly racialised narratives that are constantly a hot topic, it is great to feel a sense of belonging to one’s religious, ethnic, cultural, or national group etc, but the greater prize is in the virtue of relationships we share with those who care for us and for whom we care. I am ethnically Indian, religiously Muslim, born in Kenya, raised in Britain (and a little in the US), and my life has been characterised by the blessings of friends from very different backgrounds than my own. They have enriched the experience of my life, and taught me that under our labels, we are deeply connected through the virtue of a companionship that transcends our seemingly necessary boundaries.

Whatever you believe (or don’t), we are all the by-product of something fantastical, something that created and governs all of reality. Our understanding of it when reduced to the language we utilise, will always be a paltry metaphor for a magnificence that will always transcend our ability to encompass it with these limited organs of observation.

  • The journey continues…

Once completing a pilgrimage, one journey ends, but a new one begins, and the challenges change. Testing your new paradigms and limits again over a greater period of time, where faith is tested, squandered, broken, lost, and can even be found again. I would not have understood this when I was in my 20s, but in my 40s I am discovering new truths about life, and if I keep it up and live into my 60s and beyond, perhaps greater truths that I cannot understand now may emerge. As difficult as life can be, taking each day one step at a time and doing your best with what you have in the moment, is all one can really ever do.

Good luck with your journey, you’re gonna need it 😉

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