Hajj, Jan - Mar 2004

Inside Mecca: An Extraordinary Insight on the Hajj

By Kazi Mahmood


December 17, 2003

Inside Mecca is a nice production depicting the journey of three Muslims from three continents: one from Malaysia, one from the United States and one from South Africa, describing their experiences both before and during the Hajj.

One of the five pillars of Islam, the Hajj is required of all who can manage it at least once in a lifetime. Each year, Muslims from all over the world travel to Mecca to praise and give thanks to Allah, to ask pardon for their sins and renew their spiritual commitment through an elaborate series of rites and rituals.

National Geographic gained privileged access to the holy city of Mecca, which allowed it to film three Muslims from different backgrounds as they embarked on an epic five-day reaffirmation of faith and quest for salvation, wrote the National Geographic website in its preview to the show.

The program depicts with great insight what goes on in Mecca during the Hajj, and why 2 million Muslims from all over the world gather in the holiest city in Islam during this month. However, the production by the National Geographic Magazine TV and broadcast on Astro Television in Malaysia on October 27th, failed to respect an important issue in the Islamic world. The one-hour telecast showed paintings of what is supposed to be images of Prophet Ibrahim (peace and blessings be upon him) and his family.

While some people may overlook the portraits of Prophet Ibrahim (peace and blessings be upon him) and simply enjoy the journey through the holy cities, many Muslims around the world will definitely launch an outcry against this production. Apart from this, it is a brilliant demonstration of the emotions and sacrifices of Muslims performing the Hajj in the name of Allah in the sacrosanct holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

Inside Mecca starts with shots of the three individuals: Malaysian Ismail Mahbob, a successful executive; a religious radio commentator from rural South Africa, Khalil Mandhlazi; and an Irish-born college professor from the United States, Fidelma O’Leary. Beginning with their preparations at home, it lead up to the climactic events of the Hajj; where all had to leave their material comforts and family, as well job or business behind for this spiritual journey to Mecca, and from where they would return to their normal lives, but not as the same persons.

Inside Mecca is a rich documentary, describing in great detail the reasons why Muslims embark on such a mission to turn to their Creator, the Almighty Allah, by following the footsteps of the wife of Prophet Ibrahim (peace and blessings be upon him) in performing the Sa`i. The documentary is also rich with vivid images on how Muslims circumambulate the House of Allah, the Ka`bah; in the Tawaf which has been performed by so many since Adam (Peace and blessings be upon him) built the Ka`bah itself. It also describes the powerful meaning of throwing stones at the symbols of Satan, which Fidelma said was a strong moment of expiating one’s own sins, and that she had no problems with the concept of throwing the stones.

The National Geographic commentator said at the beginning of the program that Hajj as we know it was first performed by Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), whom he referred to as one of the greatest Prophets the world has ever known. The commentator went on to inform the audience that Ibrahim (peace and blessings be upon him), whom they addressed as Abraham, was the one who instituted the Hajj pilgrimage, whilst it was Adam (peace and blessings be upon him) who built the Ka`bah from a cosmic stone that fell from space.

The program portrays the Ka`bah in some admirable black and white shots and added graphics showing the area before Adam (peace and blessings be upon him) built the Ka`bah and the subsequent rebuilding by Ibrahim (peace and blessings be upon him), as well as the recent progress made in enhancing the facilities at Mecca.

Obviously the idea of filming the three Muslims performing the Hajj and of putting one Asian, one African and one tall fair “white” lady, who embraced Islam from Christianity, was to show the non-Muslim world another facet of Islam. The program never failed to depict the mental and physical trials the three pilgrims had to go through from day one of their arrival at the airport in Saudi Arabia. It also explained how patient and courageous the three were in facing the constraints and limitations in the city of Mecca, due to the flow of people and for other reasons as well.

Though the journey seemed less troublesome for the Malaysian, Ismail Mahbob, it was a challenge for both Fidelma and Khalil. The latter was refused a place with the South African contingency at Mecca, and struggled to find a group with whom he could associate himself during the Hajj. He finally joined a group of black African Muslims from Malawi who had no problem with him being a black man from South Africa. Khalil insisted that he would not lose his calm and patience as he was in a state of Ihram, and moved on with the Malawi contingency. “God is looking into your heart,” says Khalil, who was visiting Mecca for the first time in his life.

Fidelma had to face the queries of many others who wanted to know whether she was a Muslim or not. Her tall figure, covered, as any other Muslim women at the Hajj, did not convince them that she was indeed a Muslim and that stressed her. “I had some women in my group try to tell me what it’s like to be a Muslim and ask me, “Are you really Muslim?” said O’Leary. “I think they forgot for a moment that you can only be here if you’re Muslim. It gets a little bit tiresome day after day. It can be upsetting.” decried the newly converted Muslim lady, who also prayed for a good husband, caring and loving and who would abide to the Islamic principles.

“If Jesus (peace and blessings be upon him) was God, how could he worship God?” asked Fidelma before she embraced Islam. She told the producer that this crucial moment in her life had brought her, for the first time, in front of the Ka`bah; a center point which, like all Muslims, she turns to five times a day for her prayers.

For Ismail, it was a great emotional moment when he sat at Arafat for prayers and asked Allah to let him play a better role with his life. “It all depends how sincere one is when asking Allah for forgiveness,” said an emotional Ismail who cried when interviewed by the producer. “Only Allah knows what is in my heart. At times I am alone.” he added.

Arafat, where Adam and Hawa (may Allah bless them both) met after being sent to earth, was buzzing with souls coming to expiate their sins and find rewards for their good deeds. “Its judgment day at Arafat,” Fidelma commented, showing her deep emotions when she visited the place where Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) made his last sermon. “All reminds you of judgment day, no difference in races, no discrimination,” added Khalil.

Inside Mecca remains an extraordinary insight of what happens inside the walls of the strictly guarded holiest city of Islam, where only Muslims are allowed to go. The one-hour film shows to the external world a city full of life that tells the tale of wisdom like no other city could ever tell.

Perhaps the most striking story in “Inside Mecca” is that of O’Leary. A blonde, green-eyed woman with a faint Irish lilt, she hardly looks the part of the stereotypical Muslim. Born in Ireland to a devout Catholic family, O’Leary converted to Islam whilst in college. Dr O’Leary, a divorced mother of two, had to get a certificate from her mosque to say she was a legitimate Muslim, and her son had to write her a letter giving his permission for her to get a visa for the Hajj. “I don’t know why anyone would want to go and spend a week with three million sweaty people in the heat of the desert unless they were really doing this for the love of God.” She said. Moreover, the love of Allah and of His Prophet was clearly intoned in the production, which also showed the powerful image that Islam is submission to Allah.

Anisa Mehdi, who for over 20 years has reported, written and produced television news and documentary programs, produced “Inside Mecca”. As an American Muslim of Arab descent, Mehdi has a vested interest in the area of Middle East conflict resolution and accurate reporting on that part of the world. She is the first American woman to report on the hajj on location in Mecca for U.S. television and was one of the first reporters to cover the blossoming American Muslim political movement.

Perhaps, Mehdi, who is an award-winning reporter and filmmaker, specializing in religion and the arts, could drop the images of Prophet Ibrahim (peace and blessings be upon him) to make the movie acceptable to a larger Muslim audience.

Kazi Mahmood is a former BBC radio Africa stringer covering the Indian Ocean Islands. He worked as a journalist for the past 20 years and contributed to several London based political and economic magazines. You can reach him at kazi_mahmood@yahoo.com