Stay healthy in body and spirit for Haj
It is an obligation that need only be completed once in a lifetime, and yet Haj occupies a supreme rank among Muslim rituals.
One of the five pillars of Islam, the start of Haj is right around the corner. From September 9 to 14, millions of Muslims from around the world will gather in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, to perform one of the most important acts of worship in their lives.
It is a gruelling experience that places physical, mental and spiritual demands on participants. Therefore there is a need for careful preparation.
The rites of Haj require a great deal of strength and endurance. The constant crush of close to three million pilgrims, each trying to perform the same rites at the same time, in limited space and extremely hot weather, compounds the demands placed on the body and mental state. In addition, the risk of illness inevitably increases.
“Every single pilgrim should visit their doctor and make sure they get a check-up before committing to Haj,” says Dr Nahed Ghobrial, a GP at Al Salama Hospital in Abu Dhabi. “They have to make sure they are up to date on all their vaccinations.”
Some of the most common illnesses picked up during Haj include colds, flu, respiratory conditions such as bronchitis, food poisoning and gastrointestinal – or digestive – diseases, skin diseases, dry eyes, and sun or heat stroke.
“Travellers’ diarrhoea is also common during Haj,” says Ghobrial. “Pilgrims have to remember to drink plenty of fluids made up with oral rehydration salts to avoid dehydration. Buy those sachets from a pharmacy and take them with you.”
Doctors always warn pilgrims to be aware of the early symptoms of meningococcal disease: fever, headache, nausea and vomiting, weakness, a stiff neck and a rash. Seek medical attention immediately if you develop any of these symptoms.
Bring a few basic medications with you, including cough drops, vitamin C tablets, an antibiotic that your doctor can prescribe and a painkiller. If you are on any prescription medication, bring an adequate supply.
If you’re not staying at a four or five-star hotel, bring personal toiletries such as towels, paper towels and napkins.
Get all the appropriate vaccinations – this is a prerequisite ordered by the government of Saudi Arabia. Make sure you visit your doctor before your trip to prepare.
Don’t walk barefoot – invest in a light sandal.
Head towards the King Fahad Gate if you start to feel faint, overheated or exhausted and in need of a break.
“The entire area surrounding the gate is air-conditioned, so you will feel better there,” says Noha Safar, a Jordanian teacher working in Jeddah who has been on four Umrahs and performed her Haj pilgrimage in 2014.
“I always stay in this area as much as possible, especially during the middle of the day.”
Cover your mouth with a surgical mask to prevent dust, germs or other particles from entering your mouth. Wash your hands frequently, or at least keep a hand sanitiser with you at all times and use it often.
Wear sunscreen and stay in the shade as much as possible. The Saudi government says there were 1,014 cases of heat exhaustion, 723 of sun stroke and 1,737 heat injuries during Haj last year. Some Haj rituals can be performed at night so you can avoid the intense heat.
Food and drink
Check that any cooked food you eat is served piping hot, and only eat fruit that you have peeled yourself.
Always buy bottled water – never drink water straight from the tap. Drink only water or beverages that are in sealed containers or which you know have been purified.
Food is plentiful and readily available. You can buy almost anything you need while you are there, but it doesn’t hurt to pack some healthy snacks to help maintain your energy levels.
Souzan Najm, a nutritionist who works at the Advanced Nutrition Center in Dubai, says snacks such as dried fruit and nuts, granola bars, dates and energy bars are the way to go.
“You need to keep your energy up during a very tiring time, when you will be exerting a lot of physical energy, so energy bars that are high in protein can be the ideal snack, especially if you’re skipping meals,” says Najm.
“Drink plenty of orange juice, drink warm water with lemon and honey, drink ginger tea – all of these are immunity boosters.”
Crowd crushes and stampedes are a very real danger during Haj as the rush of pilgrims to move from one station to another can cause panic.
Also, even though it is a holy place, pickpockets and thieves are common during the Haj season and pilgrims are reminded to be careful and remain aware of the risk. Keep valuables in a hotel safe, not on your person.
“I’ve heard so many stories of thefts during Haj and, depending on what kind of hotel you stay in, you might not be able to trust the hotel staff, even,” says Safar.
“My friend bought a small safe when she arrived in Makkah, for her hotel room.”
If you need to take any valuables with you, wear a concealed money belt or waist bag beneath your clothing. These are common travel items that can be found at airports or sporting-goods stores.
Do not carry your passport with you. Instead, make an ID card for yourself and wear it around your neck or taped to your clothing. Write your name, passport number and hotel address on it. Grab a business card from your hotel so you have its address and contact details on hand, as well.
Road-traffic accidents have become a major cause of injury as pilgrims may walk long distances close to or through heavy traffic. Caution is key.
Any pilgrim wishing to perform Haj must enter a state of Ihram: a special state of spiritual purity.
Men are required to wear a distinctive outfit consisting of two pieces of white, unsown, plain cloth that is either 100 per cent cotton or a light, terry-cloth material. One piece wraps around the midriff to cover the lower body and the second is draped around the shoulder to partially cover the upper body.
Women must wear a loosefitting outfit and must cover their hair. Covering the face is not required.
It is a good idea to pack at least two sets of Ihram clothing, most pilgrims advise.
“Ihram clothing is easy for women – you just need your abaya and a head cover,” says Diala Al Khateeb, a Palestinian living in Abu Dhabi who performed Haj last year. “Everyone should wear comfortable and durable sandals or shoes. There is so much walking so make sure your shoes won’t cause blisters.”
Al Khateeb also advises packing several small hand towels. She placed damp towels in her hotel fridge, then placed them under her hijab or against her neck when heading out each morning, to help keep cool.
Haj must be seen as a journey of the soul, rather than one of distance, says Sheikh Tahir Muhammad Latif, who lives in Fujairah. It is not about form, or ticking off a checklist of all that you must do, but about contentment.
“Your intention must be to perform Haj solely for the sake of God,” he says. “Wanting to please or to impress others or post on Facebook that you are there should never be a factor.
“I’m not saying don’t take pictures and don’t post on social media – but that’s not why you’re there.”
Instead, he says, think of Haj as a chance to come back to a better life after a journey of repentance and reformation that wipes you of your sins.
“Don’t let the fact that you performed the obligatory Haj go to waste once you return,” he adds.
Although pilgrims must be aware of and understand the reasons behind the rituals of Haj – some of which are time-sensitive – so they may complete them correctly and they must also foster their bond with God to reach a “true state of contentment and submissions”, says Latif.
Sheikh Taleb Al Shehhi, who oversees the Friday sermons in Reem Island’s Al Aziz mosque, says purity of thought is a key to getting the most out of the Haj experience.
“People’s actions are judged according to their intention,” he says. “Even if you haven’t memorised any du’a, it is enough to speak to God from your heart instead of reading from a book or paper just to check it off a list.”
To prepare your mental state for Haj, says Al Shehhi, there are some rituals pilgrims must complete:
• Make sure you are free of debt and have closed any outstanding accounts.
• Seek forgiveness from anyone you have wronged and mend relationships before you leave. Forgiveness must be sought from relatives and friends for any known and unknown mistakes.
• If you have dependent family members, the pilgrim must fulfil duties to ensure the family member’s care.
• Let go of any attachment or desire for wealth and worldly goods.
Abdelrahim Syed from Pakistan, who lives in Sharjah and took his mother to perform Haj in 2013, says the one piece of advice he gives people going to Haj is to manage their expectations.
“Yes, it will be hotter than you can ever imagine – just accept it and move on or it’s all you’ll be focusing on instead of prayer,” says the 38-year-old.
“And yes, it’s Haj and people should be spiritual and on their best behaviour, but the reality is you’re surrounded by millions of people from all over the world, from different backgrounds, cultural norms, socio-economic statuses and sensitivities.
“Not everyone will apologise for pushing you out of the way or elbowing you or taking your place. Let it go.”
Published: September 4, 2016 04:00 AM