Three a.m. came far too early.|
The Saudi Arabian skies had just paled to a faint pink glow when Augustana College senior Fatima Kazmi, 21, and her sister, Fareha Kazmi, 23, tumbled out of bed.
Donning their traditional Muslim head scarves known as ''hijabs,'' and floor-length coverings, the Kazmi sisters grabbed each other's hands so they wouldn't lose each other in the throng of people on their way to morning prayer.
They had traveled this route faithfully each morning of a July 12-27 pilgrimage.
Summer vacations for the Kazmi family, practicing Muslims from Bloomington, Ill., meant an opportunity to participate in a minor pilgrimage to Mecca, known as Umrah, which all Muslims are encouraged to embark on during their lives.
The trip took the family to cities of Medina and Mecca, for a chance to see traditional Islamic buildings, and an opportunity to strengthen their faith.
Fatima Kazmi recalled how her sister and she that day fought through a crowd of people entering the Masjid al-Haram mosque, which houses a 43-foot black cube called the Kaaba.
Muslims face this structure during prayer, Ms. Kazmi said.
Umrah participants begin by circling the cube seven times in an anti-clockwise direction.
Attached to the cube is a small black stone, known as the Stone of God, which is believed to have been cast down from heaven, and eventually turned black due to the evilness of the world.
Through the throng, the Kazmi sisters noticed a guard shooing crowd members away to clean the Kaaba before prayer.
The Kazmis, though, were able to slip by the guard and hundreds of people diverting his attention and made it to a large gold door of the cube.
"Getting a chance where no one's around, it never happens,'' Ms. Kazmi said, adding that because she is so small, ''no one noticed."
As her sister and she touched the ledge of the Kaaba's door, Ms. Kazmi kept mentally repeating a "thank-you-God-for-letting-me-be-here" mantra.
"It was very surreal thinking that my whole life I've been praying toward it," she said. "Seeing how emotional people get -- you don't get to see that very often, not to that extent."
Pilgrims visit Mecca from all corners of the world to participate in Umrah or the larger, more comprehensive Muslim pilgrimage, the Hajj.
Hosts of people she met from Egypt, Indonesia, Malaysia and other countries were surprised Ms. Kazmi was from America.
"I look Middle Eastern so people right away just started talking Arabic," she said.
Ms. Kazmi speaks Urdu at home with her family, a language spoken in parts of India and Pakistan, but has no Arabic knowledge.
"After a while, you start using your hands," she said.
It was a difficult way around the communication barrier, ''but I got better over time,'' Ms. Kazmi said.
Per Islamic tradition, Ms. Kazmi's father used a separate entrance during prayer time. Men and women are not allowed to congregate during prayer.
Both genders are to remain covered in social settings, outfitted in loose, floor-length gowns and long sleeves, called "abaya" for woman and "ihram" for men, she said.
The hijab also was required wear for Ms. Kazmi.
Sweltering heat made it challenging, she said.
"The first two days, I was basically praying in 110 degree weather,'' she said. ''There were fans, but fans can only do so much. There was a few times when I got overheated, so I was like, 'OK, hurry up and pray so I can get some water.'"
Mecca's main source of water comes from the Zum Zum Well, which is between the mountains of Al-Safa and Al-Marwah, Ms. Kazmi said.
According to Islam holy book, the Quran, when a prophet named Ibrahim left his wife, Hagar, and infant son, Hagar, frantic for water, she dashed between the two mountains. God appeased her by granting water, which sprung forth from the heel of her young son.
Zum Zum water, as a result, is considered holy, and is used for drinking and absolving aches and pains.
During a second Umrah ritual, known as Sa'i, the Kazmi family, and hundreds of other pilgrims, were expected to run between the two mountains seven times, to represent Hagar's journey.
The 1,480-foot trek between the mountains is now taken through a long, marbled-corridor of the Masjid al-Haram mosque. The corridor also includes a wheelchair lane for those who are unable to walk, but still wish to complete the venture.
Umrah's final step is a ceremonial hair-cutting. Men often shave their heads fully, a process known as "halq." "Taqsir" involves only a shortening of the hair.
After finishing the rituals, the Kazmis climbed the Jabal al-Nur mountains, on Mecca's outskirts, to see the famed Hira Cave, where it is believed that the first verses of the Quran were revealed to the Islamic prophet Muhammad.
It was a trip her family and she made at 3:30 a.m.
"It was dark out, so it was a little scary,'' Ms. Kazmi said. ''You could see the steps, but there was no railing.''
It was an 890-foot climb that ended at sunrise.
She found it amazing to feel how Muhammed must have felt "when he was going up there," she said.
The Kazmis also visited other tourist attractions before a 15-hour flight back home.
Camel rides and enjoying a beach in Abu Dhabi, the capital and second largest city in the United Arab Emirates, were fun, she said, but felt ''kinda'' weird ''after going through such a religious experience.''
That experience has made her feel ''more energized to keep on praying now,'' Ms. Kazmi said.
Yet, in a way, it was easier when she was in an Islamic country, she said.
"There, you could be anywhere, and you can hear the call for prayer, so there's no excuse for forgetting or missing," she said.
It's sometimes difficult to make time to pray the customary five times a day while following a chock-full collegiate schedule, she said.
Ms. Kazmi, a biology and pre-vet major, plans to attend the University of Illinois' school of veterinary medicine next year. She also serves as Augustana College's Muslim Association president.
Her summer pilgrimage was a trip of a lifetime, and ''made my faith stronger,'' she said, ''and made me want to be a better Muslim."