There are a set of rules and guidelines for those who perform the fifth pillar of Islam – the pilgrimage to Mecca, or Hajj.
They include paying off any debts before embarking on the journey, abstaining from any sort of confrontation or argument, desisting from foul language, and wearing nothing more than two simple white cloths.
This is arguably the most unifying aspect of Hajj. As millions of Muslims circuit the Kaaba, it is impossible to differentiate the rich from the poor, the educated from the illiterate, the prince from the pauper – each one of them is wearing the same type of cloth, each has shed their worldly belongings in submission to their lord. In recognition that ultimately, when they stand before their lord, it is not their status in society, nor their bank balance or job title that matters. It is what is in their heart that is infinitely more meaningful.
But beneath these white garbs that unite the pilgrims, each has a story of their own. There are those who consider themselves fortunate to have found an open flight to get them to Mecca, and there are those who consider themselves lucky just to be alive.
Among the latter are pilgrims from Myanmar. Specifically from the province of Arakan, an area that has witnessed ethnic violence for decades.
Human rights groups say the local Muslim population there has consistently come under attack by armed Buddhist groups, and that government forces have either assisted directly in these attacks, or indirectly by standing by as they took place. Entire villages have been burned to the ground, thousands have been expelled from their homes and hundreds have been killed over the years.
The situation has gotten worse in recent months, with dozens of Rohingya Muslims being killed and several villages and townships burned to ashes.
Thus it is no wonder that Muslims from there consider themselves fortunate to be alive.
Imagine then how a Rohingya Muslim, who survived the violence, escaped the conflict and made it all the way to Islam’s holiest site feels?
I met up with one such person. Too scared to speak to me in front of his fellow countrymen, and even more petrified to be filmed, this pilgrim – who I will name Mohammad – narrated to me some of the most ghastly and horrific stories which he says took place in his village in Myanmar.
For him, the pilgrimage to Mecca means so much more then it does to those doing it in their bid to serve God. For Mohammad, the Hajj is the first time he has ever truly felt at peace. For him, Mecca is the only place he has felt safe. On this pilgrimage, Mohammad found the true meaning of equality, he tells me. Up until now he only felt what it was like to be a second or third class Rohingya Muslim in Myanmar, but here, in Mecca, he prays side by side with an Egyptian, who stands next to an Englishman, who kneels beside a German who prostrates next to a South African, who holds his hands to the sky and prays for all humanity.