— Note: I wrote this soon after returning from umrah in April 2015. Posting it today as a TBT. —
I thought I knew what the word surreal meant. I thought I experienced surreality a handful of cherished times in my life, like when I stepped on the court belonging to my favorite basketball team and met a legendary player. Or when I took in the view of the crowd against the bright blue sky at my college commencement while I walked to my seat on the field wearing my cap and gown. Or when I saw my name printed in a byline to a story I wrote for my favorite magazine.
But it wasn’t until Spring 2015, some minutes after 11 P.M. that I really experienced surreality. Never did something feel more real and unreal at the same time. I laid my eyes on the Ka’ba as I walked with my parents to perform umrah for the first time in my life.
All of the photographs, illustrations, and wall-hangings, all of the Sunday school projects, all of the stories from my Islamic history books—there it was in front of me. The Ka’ba. This is the direction we pray five times a day. This is where Islam started. But all that wasn’t running through my mind at that first glance. I was pretty much starstruck, but I put my hands together to make du’a like I was advised to do. I wish it lasted longer. I wish I was more prepared. I wish I could redo that moment and handle it with more care.
But alas, the moment passed, and I continued to walk until my parents and I joined the other members of our ummah who were doing tawaf. We performed the acts of umrah, and I pray Allah accepts it from us and everyone else—and invites us all back for another go ‘round. He knows best that I need it.
Prior to arriving in Makkah, I saw some pictures floating around on the Internet of groups at umrah, praying together. I’d see the Haram in the pictures, with tall red cranes in the background—clearly proving there was indeed much construction taking place. Upon our arrival, one of the new sections of the Haram was open for the public. My family and I opted to pray there:
There were birds, insects, and even cats who opted to pray there too. If I was in a masjid near my house and saw a cat walking on the carpet, I’d probably not be the happiest person (I’m not the most comfortable around animals!), but things were just different in Makkah. I felt a connection with those animals. They, like me, were a creation fashioned by the same Creator. Being able to share the space was beautiful.
Of course, it wasn’t just my family and the animals. There were people from all around the world. We prayed next to people from Turkey, Algeria, Iran, Indonesia, Malaysia, the United Kingdom, South Africa, Pakistan, India, and surely more. I should’ve said salaams to more people while I was there…it kind of reminded me how I’d feel in class on the final day of the semester. You’re next to these people day after day. You recognize their faces and know how they sit, but you never talk to them. And on the last day of class you wish you took more of an initiative to be friendly, but it’s too late. The semester is over and now you’ll go your separate ways. There isn’t much I can do about that now, but next time Insha’Allah, I want to give that first salaam the way a few women gave it to me. I remember their faces and voices and smiles. Although those brief encounters were the first and most likely the last times I will see those women, I don’t think I can ever forget them.
Perhaps what I’ll remember most from my trip is this:
This was the first prayer I prayed in Makkah. I walked out of the hotel and met the warm night air surrounding the Haram. We prayed on the tiled floor outside the walls of the masjid. In the second rak’a, the Imam recited the end of Surah al-Hashr—some of the most beautiful verses I’ve heard. They echoed throughout the lit-up sky and in my heart, and they stayed with me. And SubhanAllah, the final prayer I prayed in Madinah before heading home was the one below. In the first rak’a, the Imam recited those very same verses from Surah al-Hashr.
“O you who have believed, fear Allah. And let every soul look to what it has put forth for tomorrow—and fear Allah. Indeed, Allah is Acquainted with what you do.
And be not like those who forgot Allah, so He made them forget themselves. Those are the defiantly disobedient.
Not equal are the companions of the Fire and the companions of Paradise. The companions of Paradise—they are the attainers [of success].
If We had sent down this Qur’an upon a mountain, you would have seen it humbled and coming apart from fear of Allah. And these examples We present to the people that perhaps they will give thought.
He is Allah, other than whom there is no deity, Knower of the unseen and the witnessed. He is the Entirely Merciful, the Especially Merciful.
He is Allah, other than whom there is no deity, the Sovereign, the Pure, the Perfection, the Bestower of Faith, the Overseer, the Exalted in Might, the Compeller, the Superior. Exalted is Allah above whatever they associate with Him.
He is Allah, the Creator, the Inventor, the Fashioner; to Him belong the best names. Whatever is in the heavens and earth is exalting Him. And He is the Exalted in Might, the Wise.”
— Qur’an, Chapter 59, Verses 18-24
It’s truly amazing how Allah makes things work, how He can so easily change the meaning of a word in our lives. As wonderful as walking on the court, wearing my cap and gown, and seeing my name in a byline were, the true surreal moment of my life was hearing the same verses in my first and my last prayer at the Haramayn during this particular visit. The true surreal moment was seeing and touching the Ka’ba with my parents. The true surreal moment was realizing what surreal can actually be.