Arifa Akbar: My 'Malcolm X' moment at Mecca

Being a Muslim became for me a religious experience rather than a political identity
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I had only just arrived in the Holy city of Mecca when I found myself violently tripped up by a discarded flip-flop, bounced high in the air and carried by the sea of pilgrims, as if performing a religious stage dive, in the direction of the Grand Mosque for evening prayer. Just minutes after the stage dive, I slid to the ground and hit a human bottleneck on the steps of the mosque, where the first phase of the Haj was to begin.

Pressed up against a wall of sweating pilgrims, I saw a man with a mobile phone and a Frank Lampard shirt hanging out of his rucksack, telling his friend in a thick south London accent: "I think I can see you brother, Inshallah, we'll meet at the Kaaba. Safe, bruv."

Stuck in the jam, this allowed me a few minutes for reflection on why people like me, and this young Londoner, would make the trip to Mecca, which retraces the journey Prophet Mohamed is believed to have made in the seventh century, in as an authentic a manner as possible. Those who come must perform the Haj in a state of "ihram", with only two white sheets wrapped around them, forbidden from removing or changing clothes for days or using soap, toothpaste and perfume, with men shaving off their hair.

How do these ancient rituals impact on the identities of young British Muslims and, more specifically, how relevant is it to Muslim women who did not wear the hijab and who lived independent, integrated lives in Britain, to come to a country where women are required to cover up fully and segregated?

On my first visit to the Kaaba (house of God), I was admonished by a fellow pilgrim for leaving my face uncovered as well as a self-styled religious guide (he said he was doing a part-time Islamic course at the mosque) who told me I should be wearing gloves and have my face covered. He also decided he could distinguish the shape of my ankles because the trousers I was wearing under my abaya, or Arab gown, were slightly transparent so I needed to pile on more clothing. When I attempted to argue that it was an Islamic requirement for women's hands and face to be uncovered around the Kaaba, he grew tetchy.

I feared that in a country living under the Wahhabi strain of Islam, women pilgrims would inevitably experience it through the prism of that austere tradition. But by the end of the five days, I felt differently. Women from all over the world had come wearing their own national dress. The "modesty" that Islam requires of women's dress was displayed of in various ways, so women from Africa wore colourful headwraps and dresses up to their shins, while Pakistani women wore the "shalwar kameez" rather than Arab dress.

Also, the area around the Kaaba is one of the few places where the sexes share intimate space together to pray. While women in Saudi, as well as in British mosques, are delegated a strictly separate space to pray, where they are not visible to men, this does not apply to Haj.

A central aspect of the ceremonies performed at the Grand Mosque includes the re-enactment of a strenuous walk from the mountains of Safa to Murwa, which, according to Islamic stories, relates to when Abraham's wife ran between the mountains in a desperate search for water to keep her baby alive.

A fellow British female pilgrim, who felt as much out of her depth as I sometimes did performing some of the ceremonies, said she found it particularly rewarding that one of the main rituals of the pilgrimage should re-enact the experience of a woman.

When I arrived at the Kaaba and joined the fast-moving stream of people, I saw that many were chanting, some were declaiming Koranic verses with others repeating their words and many were crying or holding their hands up in supplication. I had arrived from a country where the expression of religious worship is demonstrated - and conservatively at that - only behind the closed doors of a mosque, church, synagogue or temple.

I was unsure of how to behave here, but by the third and final circumambulation in the five days, I had had what the Hajis were calling my "Malcolm X" moment. The American black activist and Muslim convert, who came to Mecca on pilgrimage, experienced a personally transforming moment of unity when he found himself circling the Kaaba next to a white man. The faith, he suddenly realised, was not about race politics or West versus East. Being a Muslim became for him - as now for me - a religious experience rather than a political identity.

Looking around at the diversity within the Islamic world - with pilgrims from more than 70 countries attending and making friends in the "tent city" of the nearby town Mina - the Malcolm X moment is just as relevant for today's world, in which many Muslim communities feel their faith has been overly politicised.

We are told that Muslim youths are increasingly adopting headscarves and Arab abayas, and turning to religion, in part as a defiant gesture in a climate in which they feel demonised by the West. But in Mecca, an Islamic identity is not ostensibly about feelings of alienation, disaffection or defiance, but about reflection and prayer.

It is, perhaps, not a bad thing for British Muslims, whose identities since the London bombings have become so mired in politics and violence, to go home holding on to that thought.