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Pilgrims' Progress

Southland Muslims recall the hajj as a memorable, life-changing journey. The just-concluded event in Mecca brings many races and nationalities together in peace and brotherhood, they say.


Snapshots of the hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca that concluded this week:

Unity. Rahamat Phyakul, a Norwalk city worker from Thailand, made the pilgrimage in 1997. He can still vividly picture the ocean of Muslim pilgrims of every stripe and station in life wearing the same white clothing, performing the same prayers, bound by the same belief in the oneness of God.

Endurance. To Muneeb Malik, a Culver City software engineer from Pakistan, his 1999 hajj seemed an endless test of forbearance: the pushing, the elbowing, the wait-wait-waiting, as 2 million people from 70 nations headed to the same places at the same times. Twelve-hour airport lines, four-hour bus delays. Wanting to snap, but swallowing your tongue and turning your thoughts to God instead.

Transformation. For Wafa Yassine, a Brea businesswoman from Lebanon, a pilgrimage five years ago reshaped her entire attitude toward life. The hajj filled her with a new commitment to submit to God's will and steadied her for the terrible trials that were to come: the deaths of her brother, a trusted business associate and her husband all within the last year.

In contrast to the grief and anger she felt when her 17-month-old baby drowned several years ago, Yassine said she was able to accept the more recent deaths and the financial turmoil they are causing her with equanimity, as part of God's plan.

Most important for all three Muslims, the pilgrimage filled them with the ecstatic, profound feeling of God's presence, of being purified and reborn in the torrid Arabian desert sanctified by the holy footprints of the prophets Muhammad and Abraham centuries ago.

"You don't think about anything but that God is at hand. You feel it in your whole body: goose bumps. Everyone looks like angels, all in white, coming together to praise God. It is so good. It is amazing," said Yassine, 50, her words rushing out, spilling over.

The spiritual journey of hajj is one of the five pillars, or central duties, of Islam. It is required that all Muslims with the health and means go at least once.

This week, Muslims worldwide celebrated the conclusion of hajj by their Muslim brethren in Mecca with Eid ul-Adha, the Festival of Sacrifice that commemorates Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son at God's command. (Muslims consecrate the story of Abraham's son Ishmael, in contrast with Jews and Christians, who look to the story of his other son, Isaac.)

Across the Southland, Eid prayers were held Thursday in gathering places large and small, including the Los Angeles Convention Center and the Pomona Fairplex. One of Islam's two major religious celebrations, the festival is also highlighted by special meals and presents for children.

But it is the pilgrimage that takes center stage during this holy season. Often called the largest peaceful assembly in the world, the hajj appears to leave no pilgrim untouched--sometimes with historic ramifications.

It was Malcolm X's pilgrimage to Mecca more than 30 years ago that turned him away from his black nationalist brand of Islam toward the universal teachings of the orthodox Muslim faith. Astonished by the peaceful mingling and united purpose of so many races in Mecca, he declared a "reappraisal of the white man" and a commitment to orthodox Islam as a cure for the racism that bedeviled blacks in America.

"Never have I witnessed such sincere hospitality and the overwhelming spirit of brotherhood as is practiced by people of all colors and races here in this Ancient Holy Land," Malcolm X wrote. "America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem."


Three decades later, Phyakul, 59, shares similar sentiments. The Thailand native immigrated to the United States in 1968, earned a degree in business administration and now works as a Norwalk city financial services manager. He said he has to "work twice as hard as local people" to succeed here because of his language handicaps and his skin color. He is happy to do so--"I'm not a crybaby"--but allowed that he thinks discrimination played a role in his losing out on a few jobs.

In Mecca, though, there was "no ranking," he said. Business tycoons and beggars marched side by side, shoulder to shoulder, in the series of rituals that mark the pilgrimage.

Those rituals, Muslims believe, were established by Abraham, became muddied by pagan practices and were restored to their original purity by the prophet Muhammad 14 centuries ago.

First, pilgrims enter a state of consecration by washing themselves and changing into the white clothing called ihram. Once clothed in white, a symbol of purity, Muslims are forbidden to quarrel, commit violence, have sex, shave, cut nails or wear jewelry.

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