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The Day of Arafat marks the climax of the Hajj. For hundreds of years, pilgrims have congregated on the plain, at the Mount of Mercy, begging God for forgiveness. Below are the accounts of the Day of Arafat of 10 pilgrims, spanning 800 years and four continents. Some are Muslim, others are not. 

1. Ibn Jubayr

Abu al-Husayn Ibn Jubayr was a 12th century scholar and poet from Spain, and travelled on the Hajj in 1183. From The Travel’s of Ibn Jubayr:

“The next morning a multitude filled the plain, greater than anyone living could remember…Personally, I don’t believe that since the time of Harun al-Rashid, the last caliph to perform the pilgrimage, there has been such a gathering of Muslims. May God grant them immunity and mercy.

The people stood in tears during the prayers, begging God for mercy. The cries of “Allahu akbar! God is great!” rose in the air. It was a day unequaled in weeping and penitence, of necks bent down in reverent submission and humility before God.”

 

2. Anonymous European Pilgrim

In 1575, a European, possible Italian, went on the Hajj via an Egyptian caravan. His account appears in Richard Hakluyt’s The Principle Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques, and Discoveries of the English Nation (1599):

“…the Mountain of Pardons (Arafat), which rather should be called a little hill: it is low, little, delightful, and pleasant, containing in circuit two miles and surrounded with the goodliest plain that ever with man’s eyes could be seen. The plain likewise is compassed with exceedingly high mountains. This is one of the goodliest situations in the world. It seems Nature has shown all her cunning there, in making the place under the Mountain of Pardons so broad and pleasant.” 

 

3. Joseph Pitts

Pilgrims camp on plain

Pilgrims camp on plain

Around 1685, an enslaved Englishman, Joseph Pitts, was taken on the Hajj by his master, who then eventually set him free. He later wrote about his experiences as a slave, including an account of the Hajj in A True and Faithful Account:

“It was a sight, indeed, able to pierce one’s heart to behold so many thousands, in their garments of humility and mortification, with their naked heads and cheeks watered with tears, and to hear their grievous sighs and sobs, begging earnestly for the remission of their sins and promising newness of life, using a form of penitential expressions, and thus continuing for the space of four or five hours…”

 

4. Ali Bey al-Abassi

Domingo Badia y Leyblich was a Spanish nobleman and Muslim, who wrote under the name Ali Bey al-Abassi. The following is taken from The Travels of Ali Bey al-Abbasi, who completed his Hajj in 1807:

“It is here (Arafat) that the grand spectacle of the pilgrimage of the Musselmen must be seen- an innumerable crowd of men from all nations and of all colours, coming from the extremities of the earth through a thousand dangers, and encountering fatigues of every description, to adore together the same God, the God of  nature…No, there is not any religion that presents to the senses a spectacle more simple, affecting and majestic!”

 

5. John Lewis Burckhardt

Eastern side of Arafat

Eastern side of Arafat

Swiss explorer John Lewis Burckhardt went on Hajj in 1814, writing about it in detail in Travels in the Hijaz of Arabia:

“There is perhaps, no spot on Earth where, in so small a place, such a diversity of languages are heard; I reckoned about forty and have no doubt that there were many more. It appeared to me as if I were here placed in a holy temple of travellers only…”

Regarding the sermon “The preacher, who is usually the Qadi of Mecca, was mounted upon a finely caparisoned camel which had been led up the steps, it being traditionally said that Muhammad (pbuh) was always seated when he here addressed his followers, a practice in which he was imitated by all the caliphs who came to the Hajj, and who from hence addressed their subjects in person. The Turkish gentleman of Constantinople, however, unused to camel riding, could not keep his seat so well as the hardy Bedouin Prophet; and the camel becoming unruly, he was soon obliged to alight from it.”

 

6. John F. Keane 

John F. Keane was an Englishman who was born and raised in India. Although not a Muslim, he undertook the Hajj in 1877, writing about his experiences in Six Months in the Hijaz:

“As I looked down on the great throng, a grey rippling sea of black heads and white bodies extending from the sides of the hill, thickly clothed with men to a mile and a half off on the south and half a mile across, and remembered the distant countries from which they came and what brought them, it was impossible to help a feeling almost of awe. It set one thinking. Could all this be of no avail and all this faith be in vain? If so, it was enough to make a man lose faith in everything of the kind.”

 

7. Arthur J. B. Wavell

Copyright Khalili Collection

Copyright Khalili Collection

Englishman Arthur J.B. Wavell, performed the Hajj in 1908 in Muslim guise. He wrote about it in A Modern Pilgrim in Mecca and a Siege in San’a:

“The hill was literally black with people, and tents were springing up round it, hundreds to the minute, in an ever widening circle. As we approached, the dull murmur caused by thousands of people shouting the formula “Labayk Allahuma labayk!” which had long been audible, became so loud that it dominated every other sound. In the distance it sounded rather ominous, suggestive of some deep disturbance of great power, like the rumble of an earthquake….

It was curious to reflect that the day before, this hill was silent and deserted, as it would be again tomorrow, and as it would remain till each succeeding year brought round the Day of Arafat.”

 

8. Muhammad Asad

CC: Omar Chatriwala via Flickr

CC: Omar Chatriwala via Flickr

Jewish convert, traveller and intellectual Muhammad Asad undertook the pilgrimage in 1927, writing about it in The Road to Mecca:

“…the Plain of Arafat, on which all the pilgrims who come to Mecca assemble on one day of the year as a reminder of that Last Assembly, when man will have to answer to his Creator for all that he has done in life. How often have I stood there myself, bare-headed, in the white pilgrim garb, among a multitude of white-garbed, bared-headed pilgrims from three continents, our faces turned toward the Jabal al-Rahma- the Mount of Mercy- which rises out of the vast plain: standing and waiting through th noon, through the afternoon, reflecting upon that inescapable day “when you will be exposed to view, and no secret of yours will remain concealed”…

And as I stand on the hillcrest and gaze down toward the invisible Plain of Arafat, the moonlit blueness of the landscape before me, so dead a moment ago suddenly comes to life with the currents of all the human lives that have passed through it and is filled with the eerie voices of the millions of men and women who have walked or ridden between Mecca and Arafat in over thirteen hundred pilgrimages for over thirteen hundred years…”

 

9. Harry St. John Philby

A convert and British civil servant, Harry St. John Philby was a friend of king Abd al-Aziz ibn Sa’ud, performing his Hajj with the royal convoy in 1931. The following is taken from Arabian Days: An Autobiography and a Pilgrim in Arabia:

“The congregation from time to time gave vent to tears or tearful demonstrations as the memories of he Prophet’s Farewell Pilgrimage of A.D. 632- almost exactly thirteen hundred years ago- were brought freshly to mind. Close by me an aged Indian lay convulsed in sobs, and one began to feel in common with one’s fellow worshippers something of the solemnity of an occasion, designed to keep in the hearts of men the story of an inspiration which had reached its climax on this very spot so many centuries ago in the perfection of a faith which in the interval has spread far beyond the borders of Arabia to be a guiding light to millions upon millions in Asia and Africa and even in Europe…”

 

10. Michael Wolfe

CC: Omar Chatriwala via Flickr

CC: Omar Chatriwala via Flickr

American journalist and author Michael Wolfe performed the pilgrimage in 1990, three years after his conversion. He wrote about it is his book The Hadj: An American’s Pilgrimage to Mecca:

“At Arafat, the Hajj became too big to be a subject (for words), too sprawling, too amoebic. There were no books by which to hoist the vista. Its edges outran the verbal frames we place around things. Its center was everywhere, confounding reason, opening the heart… 

If Arafat was a dress rehearsal for the Day of Judgement, one thing seemed certain: no one would be alone there. The crowds on the road gleamed like figures from two worlds. The Hajj was at its most ethereal right now, vibrating between the real and the symbolic…

On the inner edge of the road, near the hill, emotions ran higher. Walking there, I passed a dozen Filipino women. They were weeping. Farther on, a distracted Kazakh pilgrim in a brilliant hennaed beard stood lost in meditation by the road. On the hill itself, blocks of ihrams went up, and the chanting swelled in sections. Mount Mercy induced a notable self-effacing ardor. The nearer I came, the more my mind went blank and the place took over.” 




Further reading: A Thousand Roads To Mecca: Ten Centuries of Traveller’s Writing about Muslim Pilgrimage by Michael Wolfe

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