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American Muslims make a journey of the heart

About 2 million Muslims -- roughly 12,000 of them from the U.S. -- will take part in the annual hajj pilgrimage, required of every able-bodied and financially able Muslim at least once in a lifetime.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Don't wander off because if you get lost, you may end up in prison for days before someone even asks your name.

Don't try to sneak a camera into the sacred sites because the guards will grab it and smash it in front of you.

Don't bend to pray when circling the holy Kaaba, revered by Muslims as the first house of worship.

"Believe me, people will walk over you," Safi Khan warned a group of Muslims at Dar-Us-Salaam mosque in College Park, where he is the imam, one recent Saturday morning. "You'll look up at them and they'll be smiling as if to ask for forgiveness, and of course you have to forgive them."

Khan ticked off many more do's and don'ts during a series of workshops about the hajj. The annual pilgrimage, required of every able-bodied and financially able Muslim at least once in a lifetime, begins in Mecca today. About 2 million Muslims -- roughly 12,000 of them from this country -- will take part. Among them will be Khan, leading a group of about 100 worshipers.

As a spiritual guide and interpreter of tradition, Khan's role with his travelers transcends language, a barrier faced by most Muslims, who pray and perform rituals in the original Arabic of the Koran even though they are not native Arabic speakers. He works to mesh the emotional, cultural, historical and practical elements of the sacred journey.

So for weeks before taking off from Dulles International Airport, Khan dispensed no-nonsense advice to those who came to listen. Elderly men. Newly married couples. Middle-school girls without much else to do on a Saturday morning.

As he spoke, rows of men before him, and rows of women behind them, scribbled into notepads in the cramped cafeteria of Dar-Us-Salaam. Anxieties surfaced. Hands shot up in the air.

What if I have a heart attack? Can I carry my Koran and my shoes in the same bag? Will we get bathroom breaks? Are socks a permissible part of the hajj dress code? Can I bring my digital Koran?

One woman asked hopefully: "Can we recite the doaa [prayers] in other languages?"

Khan urged her to strive for the Arabic, then offered a pragmatic tip.

"We still have 25 more days," he said. "Let's say five doaas a day. By the time we get there, you'll have 125 memorized."

'Historical perspective'
Memorization was not the problem for Chaudhary M. Shafi when he did the hajj in the late 1990s with a New York-based travel agency. Information-gathering was the bigger hurdle.

After completing the pilgrimage, Shafi came back wondering: What did I miss?

His group's religious leader had far more to say in Arabic than English, flummoxing non-Arabic speakers like him.

"Every lecture was about an hour in Arabic and five minutes in English," said Shafi, a retired businessman in Glenwood. "I personally felt that in Arabic they explained everything better and gave more historical perspective."

He signed up to go this year with Khan, a longtime family friend whom he could "question at will."

"One of my weaknesses is that I did not learn Arabic," said Shafi, who is of Pakistani descent. "If I did, I wouldn't have to go to anybody for translation. Knowing the Koran in the language of the Prophet leaves no room for error."

As a teenager, Khan could relate to that dilemma. He, too, is of Pakistani descent and grew up speaking English and his parents' Urdu, which left him feeling disconnected from the holy book.

As an adult, he embarked on a life-altering journey to resolve the issue for himself.

That journey, he said, began soon after a drunk driver slammed into Khan as he waited at a bus stop near his family's Silver Spring home.

It was Dec. 17, 1975. Khan was 17 and a University of Maryland freshman. He said that doctors predicted his injuries would kill or cripple him. But Khan threw himself into a strenuous rehabilitation program, and started walking without aid about 16 months later. Today, he limps ever so slightly.

"It was after that accident that I began to reflect, that I realized I could've been gone in a second and that death is real," said Khan, 48.

Back in college, he sought out other Muslims and reexamined his commitment to the Koran, which the world's 1.2 billion Muslims believe is the literal word of God as revealed to the Prophet Mohammed.

"I was not inspired by the English translation of the Koran," Khan said. "It sounded archaic, old-fashioned, distant and not really practical for modern-day living. It seemed the reasonable thing to do was learn the Koran in Arabic so I can know for myself, without intermediaries, exactly what God said and how he said it."

So in 1980 he went to Egypt and then Saudi Arabia to study with Islamic scholars.

Man with a mission
After five years he returned to Maryland with a mission: To help the youth who strayed from Islam, as many of his childhood buddies had.

With his wife, Samira, he founded Dar-Us-Salaam, which sprung from the Al-Huda School. The recently accredited school now has more than 340 students from kindergarten through eighth grade.

Though Khan now speaks Arabic fluently, he's concluded that the language, while critical, is not obligatory. After all, plenty of native Arab speakers do not heed the Koran, he said, and plenty of non-Arabic speakers submit fully to God's word, which is the literal meaning of the word "Islam."

"If somebody were to ask: Can I be a good Muslim without Arabic? I would say, you can be a fantastic Muslim, better than myself even," Khan said. "It's about the heart."

Advantage of English speaker
The heart is what guides a Muslim through the hajj, which has drawn the faithful to Saudi Arabia for centuries, Khan said at one of his workshops. If the heart is filled with envy, hatred or ill will, it can do more damage than the sins of the body because the heart guides the body's actions. Keep your heart pure, he said.

He performed the hajj twice in 1980s and five more times since 2002, when he began guiding groups for RendezVous Travel, which has offices in Falls Church and the District. The agency's owner, Adel Faramawi, had known Khan's family for years and reconnected with him after hearing him speak at Dar-Us-Salaam. Faramawi asked Khan to join with him in leading RendezVous hajj trips, which cost $7,000 a person. (Khan does not collect a fee, but the agency covers his travel costs.)

"Before Safi Khan, we used an imam from Egypt and it didn't work very well," Faramawi said. "His English was not so good."

During the five-day pilgrimage, performing the prayers and rituals in Arabic can feel like rote recitation for many American Muslims seeking spiritual growth through the hajj. Khan's fluent English interpretations of the underlying traditions offer a bridge between two worlds.

"The hajj is an opportunity to audit yourself, look at all the things God has given you and determine if you could be more attentive to Him," Khan said. "Ask: Have I been heedless? How can I improve my commitment? What can I do with the time I have left?"

During the hajj in particular, the language unites, compels the pilgrims to obey and gets them into "the zone," said Ebrahim Moosa, a professor of Islamic studies at Duke University.

"It's really all about the alchemy of the words," Moosa said. "The most important thing is the sound, the primordial tone, the idea that exactly the same words that sounded before sound now."

'All coming together'
The Arabic words drove Safia Kadir to tears when she recited them one morning in her Silver Spring home: "Here I am at your service, O Lord, here I am -- here I am. No partner do you have. Here I am. Truly, the praise and the favor are yours, and the dominion. No partner do you have."

These are the words chanted on approach to the Kaaba, which Muslims believe Abraham and his son built as the first place of worship devoted to the oneness of God.

"I was weeping because of the idea that I'd be entering His house," said Kadir, an estate planning lawyer. "I just broke down. Then I thought: 'Safia, get ahold of yourself. You're going to be in front of all those people.' "

Kadir, 51, moved to this country from Pakistan in 1980. She was culturally exposed to Islam, but did not study it as much as she should have growing up, she said. She just stuck to what she describes as the basics: "Tell the truth. Don't sleep with guys. Don't drink, and fast during Ramadan."

But when a nephew suggested that they do the hajj together, she rounded up other family members and signed up for the trip with RendezVous Travel. She went to Khan's workshops and bought the books and packed the prayer "cheat sheet" he recommended.

"Suddenly, the whole process has gelled in my head," Kadir said. "It's like taking the bar exam. It's all coming together now. This is the feeling I got while listening to him."

At Dulles, Kadir hung out with her family at dawn, relaxed and laughing, ready for her 9 a.m. flight on Saudi Arabian Airlines. Then came the announcement. The flight would be delayed until 8 p.m. The group gave a collective sigh.

A few feet away, Khan was mingling with other pilgrims, and one of Kadir's relatives reminded her of what Khan said weeks earlier: "Brothers and sisters, please, the name of hajj is patience. You're not going to Saudi Arabia to straighten out the government of Saudi Arabia. . . . You're going there to make hajj. Whatever happens, be patient, let it go."