Hajj group leaders hold the hands of hujjaj year after year during their journey of a lifetime.
Hajj—they call it a journey of a lifetime. With the potential to have every sin committed throughout life forgiven, the moniker is quite appropriate.
When embarking on this journey that has such high stakes like an opportunity for rebirth, one doesn’t want to take it lightly. With numerous rituals to fulfill and rules to follow, all while being in a foreign land with millions of people, most travelers would opt for a guide. That’s where the Hajj group comes in.
Groups are responsible for providing travel packages for the public, taking care of visas, accommodations, flights, meals, and on-the-ground transportation among numerous other tasks. Oftentimes, they partner with larger travel agencies to get the items on the to-do list checked off before and during the days of Hajj. But aside from the logistics, the operators of these groups become the points of reference for all those who signed up with them. They are the leaders, the guides, the veterans who know what they’re doing. The rest of us rely upon them to complete our pilgrimage.
“The biggest thing you keep in mind as an imam is that people are looking to you for guidance,” says Imam Tahir Anwar, a scholar who has accompanied the Hajj group El-Madina Travel of New York for the last 15 years. “They’re looking up to you to make sure their Hajj is done correctly, so you have that responsibility and amana.”
Sacred Hajj, a group started in the Chicago area in 2009, also aims to do exactly that.
“We made [our group] about service, to take someone on this amazing journey and guide them properly,” says Hafiz Sayeed Shariff, one of Sacred Hajj’s three directors. “That was our driving force behind starting something like this.”
The guidance, contrary to what one might think, does not start during the days of Hajj. It doesn’t even start in Makkah or at the airport when waiting to board the flight to Saudi Arabia.
“As Americans, we take the Hajj for granted. We go for two weeks, max maybe three weeks,” says Hafiz Azam Hashmi, another director for Sacred Hajj. “In order for us to really benefit from this journey, it requires preparation.”
This preparation can be done through transparent communication from the group to its hujjaj. In addition to providing resources about the spiritual aspects, rites, and history of Hajj, the group must relay some real talk about the heat, physical challenges, crowds, delays, and more that will potentially occur no matter the amount of money one may put down on a package.
“You’re the guest of Allah. There is no entitlement,” says Tauqeer Zaidi, the director of travel at Qalam Hajj.
If these factors are understood prior to travel, it makes for a smoother ride because everyone is on the same page. When and if a trial arises, the leaders of the group communicate what is going on and then do what they can to tackle the problem, thus hopefully keeping their hujjaj calm.
“You make [the hujjaj] realize [the trial is] not to the extremity of what it seems like,” Zaidi says. “Whatever you’re facing, it’s been faced before.”
Hafiz Sayeed says Allah’s control over all things is one of the most important lessons he learned through his involvement with Sacred Hajj. In his “rookie” year as a group leader 10 years ago, he dealt with “a lot of anxiety, a lot of not knowing, and wanting everything to go perfectly.” While that nervousness still remains, it has subsided significantly with experience.
Sometimes a lot of experience can result in routine and loss of that initial excitement, like seeing the same tourist attraction multiple times. But visiting the Haramayn is different, Zaidi says.
Before his close friend and teacher Shaykh AbdulNasir Jangda recruited Zaidi for Qalam Hajj, he organized multiple Umrah trips for his local Bostonians. To ensure he does not take his opportunities to visit the Muslim holy sites for granted, Zaidi attends the lectures his group organizes for the hujjaj, acting upon the advice given to him by Mufti Hussain Kamani, a scholar for Qalam Hajj.
“You’ll have a handful of individuals who see the Kaba for the first time, and they’ll just be bawling and…mind you, this could be upwards the twentieth time that you’re seeing it [as a group leader],” Zaidi says. “But you have to vicariously live through them, and put their ibadah first over anything of your own. That does in a sense renew it, and it does make it special all over again.”
Hafiz Azam sites the same scene as one of the most rewarding of the trip.
“We’re directing the group to that spot where they can then look up [at the Kaba] and cast their first gaze. We also get a moment to reflect and see everyone’s reaction, the tears, the duas, the focus—I love that moment,” Hafiz Azam says. “For me, that sets the tone for the rest of the journey. I really feed off that.”
A moment to feed off is certainly needed. If the hujjaj are tired, the group leaders are exhausted. They’re in constant communication with agencies providing transportation, they’re fetching meals and drinks, they’re teaching the rites of Hajj to their groups, and they’re everyone’s go-to people if something goes wrong logistically or medically all while simultaneously trying to complete their own worship.
During his journey, Dr. Abdul-Bari Syed, another director for Sacred Hajj, carried the largest backpack of the herd to hold medicine needed to treat anyone who became ill due to various factors like heat, dehydration, and exhaustion among others.
“Last year, I saw women get IVs put into them due to dehydration right in front of me,” Zaidi says. “It’s getting more and more difficult every year. When you’re young, and you have the health and the ability, you should make Hajj.”
Instead of going in old age to wipe the slate clean prior to death, these groups emphasize taking advantage of your youth and setting yourself up for a successful future.
“Go when you’re young,” says Hafiz Sayeed. “That’s when you want to set your life on track and straighten yourself out. We are all people who make mistakes and we are going to mess up again, but at least you have something to hold on to.”
If people have the financial ability and health, they should make an intention and go. As age increases, so do responsibilities with marriage, children, and the home.
“A lot of times we want to accomplish certain things in life before we go for Hajj, and I think that’s a flawed concept,” Imam Tahir says. “The way we should look at it is, ‘Let me go for Hajj so that my needs and wants are fulfilled.’”
A common message the groups emphasize is Allah’s mercy during this journey. Couples struggling to conceive began expecting their first child after Hajj. Single individuals who made dua at the Kaba for a righteous spouse married soon after their return home.
“It brings me to tears thinking of Allah’s mercy on Hajj,” Zaidi says.
Every cent spent becomes worth it. People fear the financial burden that comes with the journey, but Imam Tahir explains Hajj was always meant to be physically and financially grueling.
“As expensive as Hajj is, every penny you spend on it is considered sadaqah,” he says. “Although you’re fulfilling an obligation, you’re doing a good deed while you’re performing that obligation. It’s a win-win situation.”
And to be in that situation of Hajj is surreal, it’s a blessing, and it’s an invitation from Allah. In the Mina tents, at Mount Arafah, under the desert sky in Muzdalifah, opposite the Jamaraat, and during Tawaf with millions from around the world to fulfill this obligation—all of it is due to Allah’s allowing of those people to be there.
“Twenty years ago, I would have never dreamed of this. It was never part of my plan,” Imam Tahir says. “Allah facilitated it for me and kept me going on Hajj and allowed me to do this. And I pray to Allah to continue to facilitate this for me for as long as I live.”
The leaders of these Hajj groups bring the utmost sincerity, holding the hands of the hujjaj until they see their pilgrimage complete. It’s a service no pilgrim can ever forget.
“If [our hujjaj] remember us with khayr and make dua for us, that’s a huge reward that we are a part of their Hajj memory,” Hafiz Azam says.
Imam Tahir adds, “For people to remember you because of Hajj and for you to be associated with Hajj and ultimately, Bayt Allah, the House of Allah—there’s nothing more powerful than that.”
When you accompany a person on Hajj—this journey of a lifetime—to sincerely provide a service for the sake of Allah, it seems only appropriate for you to be remembered in their duas for a lifetime as well.
JazakAllahu Khayr to all those who work tirelessly to make the pilgrimage proper and possible for us all. May Allah reward you and your families for your sacrifices and allow you to continue this great work. Ameen.
A version of this article was published in the July/August 2018 issue of Islamic Horizons.