By now, most Muslims who went on this year's hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, are back home. They're telling their stories of being swept up in a sea of faithful followers fulfilling some of Islam's most sacred rituals.
They're talking about the spiritual ecstasy of circling and recircling the Kaaba in the Grand Mosque, the epicenter of their faith toward which the faithful from around the planet face during five daily prayers.
They are telling of the vast tent cities in Saudi Arabia that temporarily housed pilgrims or of taking part in the "stoning of the devil" at the huge pillars at the new four-tiered Bridge of Jamarat in Mina. This year, pilgrims didn't have to gather the stones to hurl. They were distributed to them in velvet bags. Pilgrims needed at least 49 pebbles to toss at three pillars during three days. It re-enacts Gabriel's command to Abraham to pelt the devil, an act that is said to draw one closer to God.
The new leader of Islamic Community Center in Tempe, Imam Amr Elsamny, and Ahmed Osman of Gilbert, who attends prayer services there, were part of 2.4 million pilgrims, although unregistered Muslims may have taken the count much higher. Hajj was Dec. 6-9, though many Muslims extended their stays in the holy region.
Elsamny, who became the spiritual leader at the mosque on Nov. 7, made his third pilgrimage to Mecca. A native of Egypt, he has lived and studied in the U.S. for 10 years and trained in Peoria, Ill., as well as at the largest Islamic university in Saudi Arabia. "The first time I went was with my family - my mother and my wife - but when I got to go by myself (last year and this year), I really got to enjoy it more," he said. That's because he could focus more on his own spiritual experience and not be as concerned about the safety of loved ones in the tumult of the masses. Yet his first hajj was "very sweet," he said.
Hajj has been the planet's largest demonstration of religious devotion in one place, and, this year, major steps were taken to minimize the loss of life that has occurred because of the concentration of people crowding into the holy places.
"They've actually done a lot of work there, and they expanded it," said Elsamny. "A lot of chaos has been there before, sometimes stampedes, but this year it was really easy. They have a lot of soldiers. Thousands of them organizing everything. In the past, people legally could sleep on the floors, but now they have stopped that."
Besides greater security, the Saudi Arabian government, which oversees hajj logistics, created one-way foot traffic in the ritual areas. The changes came to avert tragedies like one in 2006 when 363 people were crushed to death in stampedes at Mina.
Osman, 41, who came to the U.S. from his native Somalia 20 years ago, had contemplated going on hajj for the past three years. "I had been delaying it every year," the engineer said. "It is a call for everyone who can afford it to go there."
But it was hearing a lecture at the mosque this year that nudged him to make 2008 the year. "The gentleman giving the lecture talked about the hajj and the fruits of hajj, and that triggered me to go. Something inside me told me this was the year," he said. One of the five pillars of Islam is to make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once, if one is physically and financially able. Because of the world economic slump, the Saudi Arabian embassy in Washington, D.C., told The Associated Press that it had issued 2,000 fewer hajj visas this year.
Financially, Osman said, it was a sacrifice - about $6,000. But he raised the money. Muslims are instructed to come up with the money on their own, yet not go into debt for it. "If friends give you money, that is one thing, but you have to earn that money on your own," he said. He joined nine people from the Valley headed to hajj, with flights to New York, then to Amman, Jordan, and then Medina, Saudi Arabia. Osman still revels in the instant bonds he developed with fellow pilgrims - people of different nationalities and lifestyles, yet exhibiting strong unity in their religion.
On arrival, men and women traded their clothing for the simple, seamless, traditional white garment, or ihram, whose purpose is to eliminate social and economic status and serve as a living example of equality in the brotherhood of Islam.
Osman said he was especially inspired by the visit to Mount Arafat, (also called the Mountain of Mercy), a hill 12 miles east of Mecca, where pilgrims ask for forgiveness and where they believe God answers prayers. It was there, they say, that their founder Muhammad gave his farewell to followers. "That is also where Allah revealed the Quran to Muhammad," Osman said. "To go to Arafat is what performing the hajj is all about."
Osman said he was lucky when he performed the tawaf, or the circling of the Kaaba, seven times counterclockwise. He was able to touch the black, cube-shaped stone that is actually a large empty room, called the House of Allah, a structure Muslims believe was built by Abraham and his son, Ishmael.
"It got near the Kaaba and I touched it!" he said. "It is the most awesome feeling. It is really amazing."
He remembers how tired he was from riding a bus for 13 hours through the night from Medina to Mecca in crawling traffic. At 8 a.m., their bus arrived. "Physically and mentally, we were drained," he said. "We were sitting cooped up in the bus traveling for 12 hours" but on arrival "no one wanted to rest. We all wanted to go to see the Kaaba. We wanted to see the house that Abraham built for Allah.
Imam Elsamny said he is now sharing his hajj experiences with the 700 who attend Friday prayers at the masjid, or mosque, 131 E. Sixth St., Tempe.
He conveys to them the spirit of unity the pervades the pilgrims. "You go there and you find extremely poor people coming from poor countries and you appreciate what you have," he said.
Osman said hajj had made him feel more at ease. "I feel a lot more responsibility toward common men, regardless of creed or religion," he said. "Spiritually, I feel a lot more uplifted and in the presence of a superior being."
"I feel more about donating and giving to the community, helping out people who are less fortunate than I," he said.