Local Muslim embarking on journey of faith

March 28, 1998|By BRENDAN KIRBY

by Richard T. Meagher / staff photographer

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Millions of Muslims from around the world will begin pouring into Saudi Arabia this week for the annual holy pilgrimage to Mecca, the birthplace of Islam.

Hagerstown resident Muhammad Abdus-Salaam will be one of them.

Abdus-Salaam, the chaplain at the Maryland Correctional Institution, left Friday for his first pilgrimage, or hajj.

"I'm just excited about it. If I complete that, all my sins go away and I can start over," Abdus-Salaam said last week.

Anyone who dies going there, or while they're there or coming back, is guaranteed a place in heaven with Allah.

"So, you can't lose," he said.

The hajj is one of the five pillars of the Muslim faith. All physically able Muslims who can afford to must make the holy journey at least once in their lives.


The pilgrimage, which lasts about five days, begins on the eighth day of the Muslim month, Dhul-Hijja, which falls in early April this year.

As Abdus-Salaam was preparing for the trip, other members of Washington County's close-knit Muslim community told him what he can expect.

"It's very hot over there. Last year, it caught fire. Many tents burned," said Dr. Abdul Waheed, 48, a Hagerstown doctor who made the hajj four years ago.

When millions of Muslims converge on the holy city, they learn a new definition of gridlock.

Imam Omar Housni, of the Islamic Society of Western Maryland, compared the experience to a crowded football stadium. Imagine a packed arena and multiply it by 40, he said.

"The traveling will be hard for them, although the Saudi government does very well," Waheed said.

The distance from Mecca to the Desert of Mina, where Muslims spend three days in tents, is only few miles. From there to Arafat is only a few more.

Traveling in buses provided by the Saudi government, pilgrims can expect a six-hour to eight-hour trip, Waheed said.

"You can see it, but you can't get there," Housni said.

The holy journey

The hajj marks the pilgrimage of the prophet Abraham 4,000 years ago.

It begins at the Ka'bah, the holy house said to have been built by Abraham. Worshipers then spend three days in the Desert of Mina, staying in tents. From there, they go to Arafat and Rahmath, the Mount of Mercy where they ask Allah for forgiveness.

Muslims then spend three more days in Mina and return to the Ka'bah. Muslims encircle the Ka'bah. Those who are close enough kiss the hajar, a holy stone they believe fell from the sky. Others simply raise their hands in praise of Allah.

Several rituals are associated with the hajj. Muslims sacrifice a lamb, which signifies Abraham's sacrifice of his son. As he was about to be slaughtered - on God's command - the boy was replaced by a lamb, according to holy scripture.

During the hajj, all Muslims wear a simple, two-piece white garment. This is meant to signify that everyone, regardless of class or race, is equal before Allah.

Muslims also shave their heads during the pilgrimage.

The hajj can be overwhelming, and even a little dangerous.

Waheed said some Hagerstown residents have relatives who have died during the pilgrimage. His son, Rehan, who was 12 at the time, suffered heatstroke during the hajj.

"It was a tremendous experience. I didn't want to go in the first place . I was a little scared," Waheed said.

Waheed said he met people from all over the world - an eye-opening experience. One man, who was from Iran, was lost and asked from directions. But he was speaking Persian.

"I had no idea what he was talking about," Waheed said. "It is very interesting when there are people all around you and you can't speak their language."


It will be a week of firsts for Abdus-Salaam.

In addition to his first hajj, Abdus-Salaam will be making his first flight.

The Richmond, Va., native has come a long way from the gritty ghetto streets of his youth.

Born Calvin Tyler, Abdus-Salaam said he accepted Islam in 1975. Then 20, the Baptist-raised youth was on a downward spiral. He recalled the day his life changed.

"Almost getting killed by people who put a contract on me and my older brother," he said.

Abdus-Salaam said he did not believe in God but said a prayer that day anyway.

He survived the day and came across a group of Muslims on the other side of town who took him in for about a year. Abdus-Salaam said he converted along with two of his brothers.

Before he found Islam, Abdus-Salaam said he was a gang leader who tormented others. He said he robbed and chased people.

"When it turned around on me, then it got scary," he said.

So Abdus-Salaam changed his ways. About seven years ago, he moved to Hagerstown to become chaplain at the Roxbury Correctional Institution and then later at MCI.

Abdus-Salaam said his parents, committed Baptists, were uneasy at first with his newfound faith but later accepted it.

"They were just happy I was thinking about God," he said.

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