Two Tempe men are back at their jobs at Chandler Regional Hospital after accomplishing one of the defining goals of an able-bodied Muslim’s life — a pilgrimage to Islam’s holiest shrines in Mecca and Medina in west-central Saudi Arabia.
Dr. Housam Alasaly, 43, and Mohamed Elzayyat, 49, have fulfilled their Hajj obligation, one of the five pillars — or obligations — of Islam. For much of a week, they exchanged their Western clothes for two pieces of unstitched white cloth, the ihram, and selflessly blended into an estimated 2.2 million Muslims engaged in ancient pilgrim rituals where their prophet Muhammad originated the 1.2 billion-member faith 14 centuries ago.
The two men joined the blurry maelstrom of bodies going counterclockwise seven times around the sacred black Kaaba shrine inside Islam’s holiest mosque. The goal of many is to touch or kiss the the black stone believed to have been a meteorite.
"There is this feeling you get when you see this huge number of people," Alasaly said. "Whatever self-importance one might otherwise feel about one’s job and family evaporate. You forget about everything. You find yourself one small piece of a huge number, and you feel basically that as an individual, you are a very, very tiny."
The sheer loss of identity in the multitude of white ihrams "gives you an idea about the day of judgment," Elzayyat said.
To see the Kaaba for the first time — that monolithic stone to which every Muslim on the planet faces for the five prayers each day — was a grand moment, they said. It "sums up the fact that they all worship the one God," Alasaly said. "Hajj stresses the fact that worship is made only to God who has no equal, and people performing Hajj are advised to say, ‘Oh, God, we answer your call.’ "
Muslims consider Muhammad the last in a line of prophets who include Abraham and Jesus. They link the Kaaba to Abraham and his son Ishmael, although Bible scholars say the current location is inconsistent with what is known about Abraham.
The two men are among an estimated 30 Muslims from the Valley and about 10,000 American Muslims who made this year’s pilgrimage. They purchased a Hajj travel package, which included round-trip flights to Medina, hotel stays, accommodations in tents near pilgrimage sites and their ihrams. They made the 11-hour flight from New York with 360 pilgrims. The 19-day pilgrimage cost about $5,000 per person.
"We had been thinking about doing it for years," Alasaly said, but last fall decided the time was right. "Within two months, we had everything arranged," said Elzayyat, a Palestinian born in Beirut, Lebanon.
Before setting off on Hajj, pilgrims are expected to have sought forgiveness for any wrongdoings and to have paid their debts or have made arrangements for their payments.
"Probably what you find for each individual person performing the Hajj is that this is something they there were longing to do for a while, something they had to do and they got the opportunity to do it," said Alasaly, who was born in Syria.
This year’s Hajj was marred by a deadly stampede on Feb. 1 while pilgrims were taking part in a stonethrowing ritual at Mina. While they cast pebbles at three columns symbolizing the devil, participants began pushing from two sides, causing some to fall and be trampled. At least 251 died. The rite continued after bodies of the dead and injured were removed.
Alasaly and Elzayyat passed those pillars later in the day, unaware at the time of the tragedy.
"The problem is that a lot of older people go there, and the older people cannot take the pressure of them pushing and shoving," said Hafez Turk of Tempe, who went on his Hajj in 1999. "No matter how much the government does (to emphasize safety), it is very difficult."
More than 250 died of natural causes as well during Hajj this year.
Muslims commonly believe that to die while on their Hajj pilgrimage is a "gift from God" and cleanses them of sin. So, there is less than outrage when Muslims die during Hajj.
Not even advanced fears of terrorism this year stirred concerns.
"When you do the Hajj, you are not thinking that there will be anything to harm people," Elzayyat said. "You are in front of God. It is hard to imagine that anyone would do anything."
The Tempe men said they were pleased how smoothly their Hajj experience went.
"I think we were fortunate in a way," Elzayyat said. "We thought we would find more hardship, but I think God was looking out for us. It wasn’t that hard. The group we went with took care of everything — transportation, accommodations and even our luggage."
For Alasaly, the experience carried many themes. "It was the first time actually that I felt the equality between human beings, seeing all the people coming from different places, different shapes, colors and ethnic backgrounds and wearing the same two pieces of white unwoven clothing."
Despite the variances in their social and financial status, they looked alike, confirming "the saying of the Prophet that God does not judge us by our looks but our hearts, referring to good intentions and the purity of one’s soul."