By Iesa Galloway
January 23, 2005
Should I go to Mecca to perform Hajj? Would I find both my place and my place in my faith?
As an American Muslim, these weren’t just idle questions. I understood this as I pondered a surprise invitation to go to Hajj – a pilgrimage that is a pillar of my faith.
Only two things stood in my way. First the issues of terrorism, Islamophobia and the State Department warning that Americans should not travel in the region.
Second, I wondered how I would be accepted. Yes, Muslims are supposed to be tied to one another in a bond stronger and nobler than other kinships. This bond is rooted in prayer and reflected through every aspect of Islamic life. But how would other Muslims performing Hajj treat me, an American? Would I be accepted, with my biracial background – Anglo and Hispanic American – as one of them, and one with them?
Would the bond that I enjoy here be felt among Muslims there, regardless of nationality, international conflicts and propaganda?
To find my answers, I was soon on my way – halfway around the world to Mecca, the heart of nearly 1.9 billion believers of the one, and, as we believe, only God, the God of Adam, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Mohammed.
The experience was all extremely surreal, as if I couldn’t experience it enough. Everywhere I turned, there were people from far off lands. Everyone was unique, yet exactly the same. We were all wrapped in our two white sheets, the rich and the poor, from all different races and backgrounds, performing the same acts of worship, with the same purpose, to build our relationship with God.
I experience a micro-version of this every time I go to the mosque, but the sheer magnitude of nearly 3 million people moving in harmony is breathtaking.
The relationship we are strengthening is meant to be like a river with a delta at the base that springs into countless streams. This should open our hearts to loving all the creations of God.
This concept is the root of the word Islam, which linguistically has a compound meaning. The first meaning is the total submission to God and the second is the result of that submission — peace and harmony. When I look at the current state of the Muslim world, I am reminded of just how far away from the true meaning we are.
Over the days, a pattern in the conversations quickly developed. It started with, “Where are you from?” – meaning, “What country?” My answer was always “Texas.” Then again, “Where are you from?” – this time meaning, “What is your origin?”
My answer proudly this time, was again, “Texas.
Next came any one of the following: “How long have you been Muslim?” “Are your parents Muslim?” “Were you born Muslim?” I answer them accordingly: “Fours years.” “No.” “God willing, they will be guided,” and lastly, “Well, brother, all mankind is born in innocence.”
As someone who accepted Islam, I desire to practice my faith at the same level as everyone else. But this was far from what happened to me. Once it was discovered that I was from America, everything changed.
It began with a change in other’s faces. Their smiles were transformed into grins that spread from ear to ear. The warm handshakes and hugs became tight embraces and kisses as if we were long lost brothers. We were.
In the ensuing conversations, my questions about their lives were answered with questions put to me: What is it like to be a Muslim in America? How do Americans see Islam? What attracted you to Islam? Do Muslims in America receive the same rights and treatment as everyone else?
My answers were like an IV that pumped hope into their veins.
I represented hope — hope that Islam’s true face can be uncovered despite the current events and media distortions. Hope, that we as Americans know that Muslims do not hate us. And hope that we do not hate the followers of the true teachings of Islam.
I was more than accepted. All the people I met wanted — and almost needed — to see someone like me.
In the end, the family that Islam creates was stronger than I anticipated, and the people I met who were creating the most diverse crowd on the Earth were just that, people.
On my way home, I had a new issue to ponder. Would I find both my place and my place in my faith?
Will I be treated as what I am in my own country, an American?
Iesa Galloway is the executive director of Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) Houston.