Every year, Muslims from around the world make a pilgrimage to the Saudi Arabian city of Mecca. This spiritual journey, known as Hajj, involves a series of rituals whose roots go back thousands of years. All Muslims have the goal of "making Hajj" at least once in their lives, although not everyone has the physical or financial ability to do so. Among the millions of pilgrims who made the journey this year was a young couple from Northeast Ohio who say that the experience changed their lives. They shared some stories with ideastream's David C. Barnett
Faisal and Najia Quereshy are second generation Pakistanis who moved to the Cleveland area about 12 years ago to work in the healthcare field. But, they've been steeped in their religion since childhood.
FAISAL: As a kid, I went to Muslim Sunday school and in the summer my parents sent me to Muslim summer camp.
NAJIA: In fact, that's where we met.
Now in their early 40s, with kids of their own, the Quereshys decided it was time to make the pilgrimage to Mecca that they had heard about all their lives. They immersed themselves in books, downloaded PowerPoint programs, and watched instructional videos
SOUND FROM VIDEO: "Perhaps this is finally your year to perform Hajj and you need a guide to this whole process. This program will be for you..." UNDER
Faisal Quereshy says it reminded him of cramming for a college course.
FAISAL: I had a checklist of things I wanted to read, seminars that I wanted to watch. And, at the end, it was like: Okay this is it. I've got to take the "exam". I'm as prepared as I can be, now. I wish I could have done more, but now we've got to go.
Najia spent a lot of time attending to their personal affairs, the needs of family, before leaving their home in Solon.
NAJIA: Like one of my last-minute tasks was putting stuff in the jewelry box and getting things notarized, because we were leaving our kids. Finalizing things on our will. I really wanted to jump full-fledgedly into this and we really wanted to be disconnected from our previous life, completely.
It was a 12-hour plane trip. They stepped, jet-lagged, onto Saudi soil and for the next two weeks, they were pretty much living on adrenaline. The Hajj process involves tracing the steps of such religious figures as Abraham and Mohammed. You travel to several historic sites and recite ancient prayers at the various spots.
FAISAL: We were going on two, three hours of pockets of sleep, just to get us to the next prayer.
NAJIA: Sleep was something we only did occasionally.
A central place of worship is the Kaaba --- a cube of a building, about 50 feet high, that sits in the center of Mecca's Grand Mosque. Each year, it is covered by a black cloth, hand-embroidered in gold thread with verses from the Quran.
Five times a day, Muslims around the world face in the direction of the Kaaba and pray. For those performing Hajj, the Kaaba is something you can finally see...and touch.
FAISAL: I couldn't believe how many people there were in one area. I mean, you think about a football stadium --- Ohio State, for example --- 108,000 people can fit in that stadium. And here? Three million people.
There were over 200 countries represented at Hajj this year, including Pakistan, numerous African nations, Indonesia, China and the U.S. All the men are required to wear a humbling, two-piece, unstitched terrycloth outfit. The women are fully covered in a long, flowing dress, called an abaya, topped with the traditional headscarf, known as a hijab. The emphasis is on simplicity, emulating the lives of Islam's founders
NAJIA: And in those days, perfume was their luxury. Cutting their nails, cutting your hair, cutting your beard --- being essentially similar to everyone, so you can't tell the billionaire from the beggar. Everyone should look the same.
But, Najia Quereshy says that, even though a sense of equality is the goal, it is still easy to tell who is poor and who has money. It was an eye-opening experience.
NAJIA: I didn't know this, but there are people from these poor countries that have sold their homes, just to get a ticket on a boat or a plane to come and perform the rites of Hajj. And they have tents, they live outside, some don't even have tents. It's unbelievable. I was not prepared for that.
And she says it gave her some insight about what it means to live one's faith. Her Hajj journey also left her with a different perspective how one shows that faith to the rest of the world. Up until this point in her life, she has chosen not wear a hijab to cover her head in everyday life, like many Muslim women do. She chalks it up to vanity and a personal need to be fashionable. But now, she's changed her mind.
NAJIA: I want to be a visible Muslim, and I think that's a part of a Muslim woman's identity. But, I need to make sure that all the other things I have in my identity coincide. If I'm going to be a visible Muslim, it should be consistent with who I am as a human being, across the board. And so, I almost want the hijab to be on the inside, first, before I veil myself on the outside.
Faisal says that the Quran requires that a man performing Hajj must shave or at least cut his hair.
FAISAL: And the symbolism of the head shave, to me, is a re-birth. Before hand, I was really nervous about it --- I'm a vain person to begin with --- but, when I was in the moment, I decided to do it.
And in doing it, Faisal Quereshy says he felt a sense of solidarity with all Muslims --- the millions who had come to Mecca…the billion who practice his faith around the world… and the countless pilgrims who have come to this very spot for hundreds of years.
FAISAL: And at the end, when you complete the Hajj, everyone congratulates each other, and we all say, "May God accept your Hajj".
NAJIA: I remember there was a Malaysian group next to us, and I just hugged a random person, and we hugged each other. And it was just...it was cool! That's the kind of feeling you feel. You want to high-five people who don't even know what a high-five is. (she laughs). It's just crazy!
FAISAL: It was just that feeling of accomplishment. This was the best experience, ever.
An experience that Najia Quereshy says has left her humbled with a new outlook on her faith... and on what's important.
NAJIA: I will never complain about anything again. Seeing those people, with nothing, who are so grateful, just saying things like, "We're here." There's nothing in this world that I can ever complain about, because I have taken more than my fair share.