As someone born and raised in Iowa as a Muslim but who had never been to the Muslim world, I visited Mecca for the first time in August and September. I went to study with the scholars and, more importantly, to perform the minor pilgrimage in Islam known as “umrah.” The umrah is like the Hajj — the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca and one of the five pillars of Islam — but is shorter in rites duration and can be done any time of the year.

For Muslims, Mecca is the most revered and holy city in the world. The city is mentioned in the Bible as “Becca.” It is the birthplace of Prophet Muhammad (d. 632 C.E.), peace be upon him, who Muslims believe was the last messenger of God for all time and humanity. Muslims do not believe the message he came with was new but was the same basic message revealed to previous prophets such as Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Ishmael, Moses and Jesus, son of Mary, may peace be upon them all. The basic message being that there is nothing worthy of worship except God alone, without partners or associates.

The Muslim world today

Today, Muslims are estimated at a population of 1.5 billion, making about one in every four people Muslim. They come from every part of the globe and the book and faith they share is the common language between them literally and figuratively. Across nations, races and languages Muslims share the same basic sayings and greetings such as “Asalamu alaykum!” — or, “Peace be upon you!” — and all recite the Quran with melodious voices in the same original Arabic tongue and script as revealed to Muhammad more than 14 centuries ago. They also all share the same direction of prayer, toward the Kaba at Mecca.

Muslims believe that the Kaba was the first house of worship established by God for mankind and built by Abraham with his son Ishmael. It is mentioned in the Quran that they prayed for their descendants to be of those who bow their wills to God, literally “Muslim.” Today, millions from all over the world travel to Mecca each year to visit and perform umrah, hajj or both. Originally, Muslims in Muhammad’s time prayed in the direction of Jerusalem, but as time went on, God commanded them to pray toward the direction of Mecca.

Muslims do not worship the Kaba. One can even pray inside the Kaba in any direction. In fact, one of the members of our group did just that during our umrah trip. The Quran also states that it is not righteousness that you turn your faces towards the east or west, but it is righteousness to believe in God. My first time visiting Mecca and the Kaba was an unforgettable experience.

Upon reaching the Kaba

We reached the city after 10 p.m. Despite the tire of travel and classes, we were excited and energized and headed to the Kaba to perform the umrah. When I first saw the Kaba it was so amazing it did not look real. I had only known it from the video clips, pictures and books. The Kaba glowed under the bright lights in the night and the people circled it as it towered over them. Fulfilling the dream of my life, I headed down the white stairs to the Kaba floor with my group to perform the umrah rituals, which include circling the Kaba seven times, praying two units of prayer behind the station of Abraham, drinking from the Zamzam well water, running between the hills of safa and marwa — as Hajar did centuries ago — and finally shaving the head while women clip a piece of hair.

Special prayers and remembrances are said during this time, both personal and prescribed, and because the rituals have been preserved for more than 14 centuries one can perform the umrah just as the Prophet Muhammad did.

There are no strangers in Mecca

It is difficult to describe experiencing Mecca without doing injustice to it. To a Muslim, there is no greater place on Earth. The Prophet Muhammad is reported to have said that prayer here is worth 100,000 times more than prayer in any other mosque, besides his mosque in Madina and Al-Aqsa in Jerusalem. In Mecca, one sees people from all over the globe and of all races, colors and languages. We do not necessarily speak the same languages or have the exact same cultural customs, but we do share the greatest bond that is a common belief and practice.

I ran into people who were complete strangers, but after greetings of peace and only a few minutes of conversation, I ended up with their contact information or address and an invitation to their country as a welcomed guest. One man even offered me one of his daughters in marriage, a job and a place to stay in his country as we sat talking not far from the Kaba.

Saying that Muslims are hospitable and generous is an understatement, and their hospitality is, at times, a little overwhelming.

In Mecca, when the call for prayer is made the business world stops for God. Shops close or are even left open with sheets placed on merchandise as there is little to no need for fear of theft. Men, women and children all head toward the Kaba at the Grand Mosque to pray. Anyone arriving late can join groups of people praying in the sidewalks, walkways or shopping malls. At night, families, friends and perhaps even strangers sit and talk and enjoy tea, dates and each other’s company. Children play and some race in what are now popular roller skate shoes on the marble floor just outside entrances of the Grand Mosque.

Dream and reality

Being in Mecca brings to mind a verse from the Quran: “O mankind, indeed, We created you from a male and female and made you into nations and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the one who is most deeply conscious of Him (righteous)” (49:13). Certainly, in Mecca one can surely get to know the different nations and tribes from all over the world.

I truly thought that the person from China to my side was my equal and so was the person from Africa, Asia, the Middle East, America, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Russia, Europe and so on. We all bowed in peaceful and willful surrender to God. One remembers that no matter how distinguished we may be in race, class, color, sex, language or lineage, the trait that truly distinguishes us all is our God consciousness and righteousness that can ultimately only be known to God.

Malcolm X, after having experienced Mecca, stated that America could learn a great deal from Islam. Junaid, a member from our group and a convert to Islam, said that while making a video for his family and friends from Mecca, “Martin Luther King Jr. said he had a dream. No disrespect to Mr. King, but it is not a dream, it is a reality.”

And it has been going on for more than 1,400 years.

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