Although haj courses are not compulsory, they are crucial to fully understand what the haj entails and how to complete the various rituals properly. (FILE PIC)

THE annual pilgrimage to Mecca, the fifth pillar of Islam, has been described as the greatest journey a Muslim will undertake, a journey of a lifetime.

It starts when a Muslim decides he or she is going to perform the haj, or in the Malaysian context, at least, is informed by Tabung Haji (TH) that they qualify to perform the haj that particular year.

From that moment on, the pilgrim enters a different state of mind. He is among the chosen, invited by the Almighty, to visit Islam’s holiest sites, Mecca and Madinah. They will retrace the steps and perform rituals that Prophet Muhammad himself undertook more than 1,400 years ago, and repeated by generations of Muslims ever since.

They must prepare themselves for this trip, in more ways than just making sure to pack enough shorts and socks.

There are courses they can attend, organised by TH and local mosques and suraus. Although the courses are not compulsory, they are crucial to fully understand what the haj entails and how to complete the various rituals properly. If you want to do the deed, you need to make the effort to ensure you do it right.

There are also guidebooks handed out for reference and revision. Some pilgrims go the extra step of seeking out more knowledge on their own, from online sources or religious experts.

This process can provide not only the required basic knowledge of what to do and how to do it, but also the perspective of why these rituals are part of the haj and what they represent.

The extensive preparation may seem tedious to some, but it is necessary because for the most part, performing the haj has no replay or rewind option. You only get one shot at this.

Getting ready for the pilgrimage also involves coming to terms with the harsh possibility that you might not return.

Although this was truer in the old days, when travelling to Mecca by land or sea was a perilous trip filled with danger from bandits, disease and the weather, this prepare-for-the-worst mindset has prevailed.

Muslims are advised to have a will and tie up loose ends in their lives before leaving for haj. Seek forgiveness and blessings from parents, family, friends, and everyone we might have wronged. Forgive others. There should be no unfinished business for the pilgrim going for haj.

Once in the Holy Land, the experience is difficult to describe. It can be surreal, magical, humbling, liberating, and also stressful, tiring, frustrating and difficult. Each person will have their own personal connection, yet collectively, make up a brotherhood of more than two million pilgrims who left their worldly possessions behind to fulfil their duty to the Almighty.

The best advice I could offer anyone planning to go there, is to go with open hearts and minds. See, hear, taste, touch and feel what lies before you. Free your senses to absorb what the Holy Land offers. Relish every experience and learn from it.

There is no other gathering of its kind in the world. Imagine being in a place where everyone, at all times, seeking God’s love and reward by doing good deeds, helping each other, being patient, greeting strangers warmly, smiling and guarding their tempers, regardless of the situation.

If only we could be that way always and everywhere. Therein lies the final challenge of haj.

After a “life-changing” experience performing the haj, devotion to God, love and compassion for mankind, pilgrims return to their home countries with a clean slate if their worship has been accepted by the Almighty.

How will their lives change from that experience? Will they be more caring, patient, and devoted? What new priorities will they set for themselves? How will they impact others around them?

Each person will have their own unique reaction to the experience and how it will affect their lives from now on.

Yes, the haj is the greatest journey a Muslim will undertake, a journey of a lifetime. It is also a journey that is far from over.

LOKMAN MANSOR is a writer studied journalism at the University of Toledo, Ohio. He has been with the NSTP group for more than two decades, the majority of them at Business Times. He has a wide range of interests in movies and music, plays golf and the drums.

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