An American’s journey to Mecca

800px-Masjid_al-Haram_panoramaFarooq Ahmed in the FT:

Muslims are required to travel to Mecca in the kingdom of Saudi ­Arabia to perform hajj at least once, if they reasonably can. The pilgrimage, which begins next month, is the single largest gathering on the planet.

On the spectrum of piety, I fall decidedly left of centre. And although I would never win a “World’s Best Muslim” award – for what he did as a law student on behalf of Guantánamo inmates, my brother is a far better candidate – I joined him, our more devout parents and a beloved uncle to undertake what I had been assured would be a life-changing trip.

I grew up not far from the geographic centre of the continental US, and performing the pilgrimage seemed untenable then. Living in New York as an adult, it seemed unwarranted, perhaps unnecessary. Still, the descriptions I read of hajj from sources as varied as Ibn Batuta, the Arabian explorer who journeyed from western Africa to China in the 14th century, and Malcolm X, primed me for the experience. When the opportunity came, I took it.

Our hajj group consisted primarily of middle-aged, upper-middle-class South Asian Americans like ourselves: that is to say, Indian and Pakistani doctors and engineers. Most had spent hefty sums of money securing “super deluxe” reservations guaranteeing well-appointed hotels and tents, comfortable travel and sanitised meals, thus ensuring minimal interaction with the supplicating masses – a Disneyland version of a pilgrimage. It sounded like the kind of spiritual journey that I could handle.