Shadia: Tip-top shape is a must for Islam's boot camp

One of Islam's five pillars is Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca.

We also call it boot camp.

Islam's boot camp, which happened this week, is so challenging and rigorous that it would scare the toughest fitness instructor out there.

Yet an estimated 2 million to 6 million people from around the world are eager to be there each year, and millions more save up their entire lives to fulfill it.

I say Hajj is boot camp because you don't just need to be prepared physically for the minimum-two-week journey. You need to be mentally and spiritually prepared. Like praying five times a day to stay connected to God and fasting during Ramadan to recharge your spirituality, Hajj is a once-in-a lifetime opportunity to seek forgiveness and start anew with God.

You also must summon the patience and kindness in the world to deal with the humongous crowd, with being in a foreign country and culture, and all that comes with it.

It's not cheap, either. The average cost from the U.S. is about $6,000, and many can't afford that kind of money, especially people from poor nations.

In fact, boot camp comes with the condition that you are physically and financially able to make it.

My mom, Shadia, who is 49, did her boot camp in 2009.

Aside from arthritis, which runs in our family, I would say my mom is pretty healthy. Although I was so happy for her, I was deeply worried when she was over there, not only because I know it's a difficult journey for the healthiest of people, but because she's my mom and I wasn't with her, and I wanted to make sure she was going to be safe every single second she's was there.

When my mom returned, she recounted her experience, and while she loved it and described it as overall spiritually fulfilling and positive, she said that it was so difficult at times that there were days when she could no longer walk. She herself doesn't even know how she made it through. My mom said there were times when she would pray to God so hard to give her strength to take the next step and to help her fulfill her duties. (She made it through by the grace of God, she always says.)

It sounds so grueling and so trying, yet since she's been back, she can't stop thinking about going back.

You may hear about an accident here or there, but considering how many people gather in Mecca, and the lack of properly trained police officers and security personnel, most of whom are foreign to Mecca because they are gathered from around the country during boot camp season, it's relatively a peaceful and successful event that has been taking place annually for more than 1,400 years.

People are on their best behavior.

And beside America, there's one other place I could easily point to as a bowl of salad, if not quite a melting pot. It's Mecca. But only during boot camp season.

While there, your gender, looks, body type, wealth, skin color, social status, citizenship, house and car don't matter. What matters is who you are on the inside. What matters is your connection to God and the opportunity to be reborn.

During boot camp, Muslims relive the journey Hagar took to Mecca with her son, Ishmael. They walk in the footsteps of the Prophet Abraham, who we believe built the house of God, the Kaaba. They walk in the footsteps of the Prophet Muhammad.

It's humbling that even those who have never been there, including me, are in such awe of its greatness.

Boot camp ends with the daylong stand on Mt. Arafat. Muslims around the world join the boot campers by fasting from sunrise to sunset, which is taking place Thursday.

The Prophet gave his farewell sermon on Mt. Arafat during Hajj. About 100,000 Muslims were in attendance. Some of his most famous words of wisdom were given during that sermon, including: Be good to your women. A white man is not better than a black man, and a black man is not better than a white man. An Arab is not better than a non-Arab, and a non-Arab is not better than an Arab. Nothing matters but your deeds.

Then we celebrate the day after. That happened Friday.

Muslims sacrifice a sheep or another animal and distribute the meat to those in need in their respective communities. The sacrifice of the sheep commemorates Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son, Ishmael, at God's command.

Someday, I hope to make it to boot camp. I sure hope God gives me patience to get through it, because God knows I kind of have none.

MONA SHADIA is a reporter for Times Community News. An Egyptian American, she was born and raised in Cairo and now lives in Orange County. Her column includes various questions and issues facing Muslims in America. Follow her on Twitter @MonaShadia.

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