Asad Hayat called it the experience of a lifetime. He was full of emotion Thursday in the Kalamazoo Islamic Center as he tried to explain his feelings, three days after returning from a spiritual journey he says has changed him forever.
Hayat, a 24-year-old man born in Kalamazoo and raised in Portage, joined two other local Muslims, Hafiz Nauman Akbar and Shahzad Chaudhary, on a pilgrimage to Mecca, in Saudi Arabia, for Hajj, the fifth pillar of Islam.
More than 2 million Muslims from throughout the world made the pilgrimage, held annually during Dhul-Hijjah, the 12th month of the Islamic calendar. This year, the dates fell on Dec. 17-22.
"It is something I will never forget," said Hayat, who earned a degree in cellular molecular biology from the University of Michigan in 2005 and is studying to be a doctor. "I don't have the words. The emotion, the humility, the spirituality, is all-consuming.
"When I was at U-M, I considered myself a good Muslim, but looking back, I didn't really grasp it then," he said after his first trip to Mecca. "Now I feel more connected to God than I've ever been."
Islam teaches that the pilgrimage to Mecca should be made at least once by all Muslims who have the physical ability and financial means.
Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam, and is the Arabic word for pilgrimage. The other pillars are Shahada (witnessing), Salat (prayer), Zakah (charity) and Sawm (fasting).
Hajj focuses on rituals around the Kaaba, which is the center toward which all Muslims face when praying throughout the world.
Hayat and Chaudhary, a 25-year-old Portage native and Western Michigan University graduate living in Chicago, are among approximately 1,000 members of the Kalamazoo Islamic Center. The local mosque is led by Akbar, 26, who was making his third journey to Mecca. All of their family trees have roots in Pakistan.
Akbar came to Kalamazoo from Pakistan in 2001, became imam of the local mosque in 2002 and graduated from WMU in 2006 with a degree in electrical engineering. His given name is Nauman Akbar, but he is now known as Hafiz -- a name given to Muslims who have memorized the Quran.
Akbar committed Islam's holy book to memory by the time he was 8.
"Whatever a person achieves is only important in how it might allow that person to better serve God," Akbar said. "Selflessness, stripping yourself of your own identity before God, is what Islam is all about.
"Hajj is a perfect example of this. People from all over the world -- rich people, poor people, doctors and common people -- are all the same in the eyes of God."
One way Muslims portray that belief during Hajj is to strip to a simple, unstitched garment called an ihram. It is made of white, unstitched, seamless cloth and it serves to reinforce a sense of humility and purity, and human equality in the eyes of God.
When they agreed to discuss their journey and be photographed for this story, the local pilgrims stressed that the focus should not be on them as individuals, but on the spiritual meaning of Hajj.
Akbar made the pilgrimage to Mecca in 2001 and 2003, and he said he plans to travel "again and again" to Islam's most sacred city, located in what is now western Saudi Arabia.
Mecca is the birthplace of the prophet Muhammed and the site of the Kaaba, the most sacred shrine of Islam. The Kaaba is an immense cube-shaped stone structure, which Muslims believe was built by Abraham and his son Ishmail.
"As enormous and awesome as the Kaaba is, with 2 million people all in the same place, that isn't the most important part of Hajj," Hayat said. "The Kaaba is a representation of God. People who don't understand Islam think we're in the middle of the desert praying to a cube.
"But that isn't the case. We are praying to God."