I’ve never been one to make too much of a fuss on New Year’s Eve, but this year was one night that will stay with me for the rest of my life. A series of (fortunate) random coincidences – some would say divine providence – meant that as the clock struck midnight to welcome in the New Year, I was circling the Holy House of God in the blessed city of Makkah, completing my Umrah – what’s known as the lesser pilgrimage of the Islamic tradition.
Dressed only in two plain white sheets (try not to let your imagination go too wild), I joined hundreds of thousands of worshippers as I fulfilled the rites of the ancient ritual, established by the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings upon him, that retraces the steps of his great-grandparents, Prophet Abraham and wife, Lady Hajar.
Since my last visit over 10 years ago, I’ve longed to return to the blessed sanctuaries of Makkah and Medina, but always managed to find excuses. They say that, ultimately, if you find your way to the Holy Lands it’s because you’ve been invited, and that invitation comes with a duty and a responsibility to commit to an inner and outer reformation of one’s self and one’s character, hence these resolutions!
The Umrah levels you. Draped in the most basic of clothes, a billionaire and a beggar could be praying next to each other and have no idea who the other is. Disconnected from the world and dishevelled, the various rites force you to introspect and reflect on every aspect of your life.
This trip has been doubly special as I have been travelling with an incredible scholar of Islam, Sheikh Hisham Mahmoud, who has been guiding us through the history and deeper spiritual lessons of this pilgrimage. His words moved our hearts and his character and company have left me in utter admiration.
Despite my body feeling exhausted, my heart, mind and soul feel refreshed with a renewed sense of purpose. As the trip came to a close, I was reminded of the timeless words of Rumi who said: “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”
With this in mind, I’ve set myself a series of resolutions for this year, and with each one I’m hoping to improve some aspect of my personal, professional or spiritual life:
1.With the help of an exceptionally insightful new app (check out HisLo) we were able to locate the exact birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad in the City of Makkah. Sheikh Hisham talked us through his miraculous birth and his not-so-often talked about relationship with his mother, Amina, may God be pleased with her. The whole time all I could think about was my own mother and how blessed I am to have her in my life.
So my first resolution will be to better serve my mum – as much as I have strived to be there for her, we can never repay what our mothers have done for us. Any personal and spiritual growth that does not coincide with a better relationship with one’s family simply isn’t true personal or spiritual growth.
2. After talking us through the story of his birth, Sheikh Hisham spoke about the Prophet’s childhood and later his relationship with children. In contrast to the culture of his time, the Prophet would make special time for young people, showing them love, care and attention. His relationship with his own children was even more incredible; he was a role model for the best of parenting. My second resolution will be to invest more quality time with my children, drawing inspiration from the life of the Prophet, and breaking away from the mundane routines that we all too often fall prey to.
3. One of the highlights of the trip was being with an awesome group of people. We served and supported each other as we went through all the rites and rituals. As we spoke and caught up over lunches and dinners, it struck me that they were all just regular (awesome) people. We formed such a close bond in such a short period of time because we were all focused on the divine, and that collective vision and intention bound us together for the duration of the trip. Eating together, travelling together and most importantly praying together helped forge relationships that will, God-willing, last a lifetime and beyond. My third resolution will be to take this spirit of fraternity back home. Instead of finding a quiet corner to quickly get my prayers out of the way, I hope to spend more time building and contributing to the spiritual community at work and beyond, starting by praying together more!
4. Sheikh Hisham would often impress on us the stark difference in the attitude of many Muslims today and the attitude of our pious predecessors who built and inspired Islamic civilisations across the word. One of the things that stood out was their firm commitment to Ihsan, spiritually-infused excellence, in everything they did. We must be role models for the best we can be in all that we do and not settle for anything less, and this is my fourth resolution for this year.
5. One of the amazing features of this trip was visiting famous historic sites, including the Mountain of Light which is home to the famed spiritual retreat of the Prophet, the Cave of Hira. It was here that the Messenger would escape the hustle and bustle of the city and spend time reflecting and praying. I live a 24/7 life as a philanthropist and entrepreneur and I have long needed to spend more focused time on self-care (and I don’t mean massages and mocktails). For my fifth resolution I hope to spend more time in spiritual retreat, taking care of my heart and soul, reflecting, forgiving, realigning myself and always recentring mind, body and soul.
6. The blessed cities of Makkah and Medina are overflowing with every type of human you can imagine. Every nationality, ethnicity, language, colour and culture, all united with a sole focus; to intimately know and worship their Creator. More often than not I found myself in conversation with people who did not speak a word of English. Despite the language barrier, we connected on a higher level, heart-to-heart. There is so much kindness in these holy places, people offering food to one another, making way for each other, praying for each other. My sixth resolution is to channel this spirit of kindness back home. More than just wishing for others what you wish for yourself, it is about preferring others over yourself, giving up a little so that someone else may enjoy a lot – it’s a small change, but it makes a big difference!
7. Working in the Muslim community is an honour and a blessing, and I often get to spend time with leading Muslim voices around the world. Sadly, but perhaps as to be expected, there is a vast range in the quality of what or rather who we deem to be scholars and leaders of Islam. Sheikh Hisham, however, really was a model for what Prophetic leadership should look like. His genuine sense of humility was matched only by his confidence in drawing from the Islamic tradition to address the contemporary challenges that face us. Beyond his knowledge, his conduct left us all truly inspired; he was the first to do any good deed, whether it was picking up a piece of rubbish or helping a stranger on the street. His words were always measured, uplifting, hopeful, positive and crucially, contextualised. Inspired by the Sheikh, my seventh resolution is to seek out quality company, and befriend and spend time with the leading teachers of our time who impart wisdom, wit and most importantly, character. The best company nurtures your soul and expands your heart and I can’t wait to get more of it!
8. With all the languages spoken in these blessed lands, you quickly learn how to communicate without words too. We’ve all heard the Prophetic saying that a smile is charity, well, here in the blessed sanctuaries you’ll find some of the most charitable people on earth! I think most people who know me would say I’m a cheery person, but after 10 days of rejuvenation in the Holy Lands, I hope to be smiling from the inside out as much as I possibly can – that makes eight resolutions.
9. Part of the Umrah rites include running between the mountains of Safa and Marwa, retracing the steps of Lady Hajar, the wife of Prophet Abraham. We reflected on her struggle, rushing between the hilltops in search of food and water for her starving child. Sheikh Hisham guided us through an important lesson, that while she had utter conviction in God, she still did whatever she could, seeking out the means to her safety. God will always provide. What is written will always come to pass, but we are tasked with seeking the means. She didn’t just wait for water to appear, she did whatever she could to find it, all the while having trust that God would provide. I thought about the story, and I realised I’m pretty good at seeking the means; I work myself hard and demand the best from my teams. What I need to learn to do more, however, is to let go of the outcomes. God will always provide, sometimes in the last place and through the last people you might think of. It’s liberating to know that despite your best efforts, the only thing that will ever come to pass is what God wills, and submission to His will is the very definition of our faith. Thus, my penultimate resolution is learning to trust in God’s plan more and accepting His will in every sense of the word.
10. Lastly, this trip has quite honestly been one of the best I’ve ever taken in my life, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. The group was fantastic, the teacher was phenomenal and the organisers were a dream. My final resolution is not to wait so long to return to the Holy Lands and bring the family too, so that they can enjoy the peace and the pleasure that this trip has offered me!
As I began the journey back home, I felt honoured to have been given such a beautiful start to the new year. 2019 already feels like it’s going to be a special one and I can’t wait to see what’s in store. Thank you for being part of my journey so far and I hope my resolutions have offered you some food for thought! Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!
2019 – here we go, let’s do this!