In searing Saudi Arabian heat, being pushed in his wheelchair around the Kaaba within Masjid al-Haram, the Great Mosque of Mecca, Farid Ahmed had the privilege of being able to contemplate and pray.
“And I took that opportunity. I was careful not to waste a second.”
It was the trip of a lifetime.
Ahmed, who was born in Bangladesh, survived being struck by a drunk driver in Nelson in 1998 but was left partially paralysed. He thought he’d never be able to undertake the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, the fifth pillar of Islam, an obligation on all Muslims once in their life, if they’re able.
In 2019, Ahmed survived the terror attack on two Christchurch mosques, but, tragically, his wife, Husna, was shot and killed, along with 50 others.
After the tragedy, Saudi Arabia offered to pay for survivors and families of the martyrs to undertake Hajj. Last month, Ahmed took that generously paid-for trip, helped by support person James Te Paa, part of a 60-strong group.
And so it was, Ahmed found himself undertaking tawāf, the counter-clockwise circling of the Kaaba, in Islam’s holiest place.
He prayed for “all the issues”, he says: for humanity, and for his compassionate adopted home, New Zealand. “I prayed for all, including the gunman.”
This shouldn’t be a surprise.
In the days following the attack, he said while he can’t support what he did but he loved the gunman as a person. “I have forgiven him, and I’m praying for him that God will guide him, and one day he will be a saviour, rather than a killer.”
At a national memorial service two weeks later, he called the gunman his human brother, and received a standing ovation from thousands of people.
The prayers in Mecca were a continuation, and deepening, of Ahmed’s path of peace.
He prayed God would give the gunman an understanding of kindness and compassion.
“I cannot hold a gun on somebody else. I cannot even imagine hurting anyone. Why? Because of my understanding.
“But what if my understanding was crooked, poisonous? Who knows what I could do? So my prayer was: God, give him understanding.”
By dying in the attack, Husna achieved martyrdom.
“For his mistake it was a gain for her – that’s how I see it, and that’s why I feel sorry for him,” Ahmed says.
“He’s a young man. And even from being in prison, if his understanding is good he can motivate so many angry young people in this world to think right.”
As he did straight after the attack, Ahmed eshewed hate and revenge. With a charming smile, he asks: what has he got to lose if the whole world is happy and peaceful?
“I was thinking for the peace and prosperity for me, for my family, for my community, for New Zealand, for the world.”
An estimated one million Muslims performed Hajj this year, the largest number since the emergence of Covid-19.
According to the Islamic holy book, the Qu’ran, the Prophet Abraham/Ibrahim built the Kaaba with his son Ishmael/Ismail. “They will come to you on foot and on every lean camel; they will come from every distant pass.”
Beyond tawāf, the Hajj also involves running seven times between Mount Ṣafā and Mount Marwah, going to Mt Arafat, going to Muzdalifah and then Mina, for a stoning ritual, and qurbani, an animal sacrifice.
The rituals are meant to bring pilgrims closer to Allah.
Ahmed was struck by the harmonious environment and unity of purpose, and the humility of men rich and poor donning simple white sheets. (Women can wear sewn clothing.)
“I saw millions of people, but I saw in a pin-drop silence, everyone was focusing in their prayer, and it was so peaceful.”
On the third day, with his support person away, he began the tawāf himself, but a veiled stranger in her 20s swept in to push his wheelchair.
“Thank you for your kindness but you don’t need to,” he told her. She replied: “Hajji, I’m going to do my circling anyway … you can focus more on supplication.”
While the Hajj was spiritually enjoyable for Ahmed, it was physically difficult. After five days of following rituals he was physically exhausted.
“But spiritually, I was happy. I was mentally strong and I was so happy that the impossible was possible for me.”
He also caught Covid late in the trip. The isolation period delayed his return to New Zealand.
“If we all have peace, then each one of us can become a peace house, like a lighthouse.” – Farid Ahmed
Going on the Hajj fulfilled the trip Husna wanted to undertake but wasn’t able to. It motivated Ahmed during tough times.
“Whenever I felt very tired over there, her memory reminded me, ‘Come on Farid’. She had done so much sacrifice for you. And this is something you want to do and you’re feeling tired. Get up and get going.”
Personally, he was moved by what he called a clinging feeling with the supreme power.
He already had a strong connection to God – that’s what prompted his messages of forgiveness and peace after the terror attack. But that feeling moved beyond the somewhat theoretical to something more practical.
“I felt at peace and comfort that … I was not alone and I belonged to a supreme power who is up there, looks after me, looks after Husna, looks after all the people.
“I felt that very, very strongly and that was very uplifting for my soul.”
The trip increased his conviction he had been on the right path – of peace and forgiveness – and had to continue.
Ahmed says spiritual tools allow a person to lift their mind and see the bigger picture, about the benefits of kindness, of love, of harmony and forgiveness.
“If we all have peace, then each one of us can become a peace house, like a lighthouse. And we can radiate that, to our families and to our communities, to our countries. And that way we can contribute so much peace in this world.”