Mumbai: 53-year-old Kristin Szremski, an American journalist, who converted to Islam in 2001 after she found interest in Islam while covering the Arab community as Special Assignment Reporter for the Star Newspapers in suburban Chicago, desribed her first Hajj as very special, powerful and something she will never forget.
"Being in the presence of God in Makkah, at the very center of the Earth, where Adam and Eve came to earth from the Garden of Eden, where Abraham and Ishmael rebuilt the Kaaba, and where Muhammad (peace be upon him) lived and received his first revelations from God is a tremendously invigorating and rejuvenating experience," Kristin Szremski said in an interview with Huffington Post.
"To be able to see the Kaaba right in front of me after all these years was powerful and something I don't believe I will ever forget", she added.
Describing how she converted to Islam, she said, "My conversion came while I was praying. The date was July 21, 2001. I was in a hotel room in Washington DC, where I'd gone to cover a meeting for a magazine I was writing for.
"I had the Quran open on the bed before me and I was actually on my knees praying, asking God to lead me to the truth when suddenly I declared the Shahada –- that there is no God but Allah and that Muhammad is His messenger. I later made a public declaration in Arabic but for all purposes it was at that moment that I became a Muslim.
"I love Islam because of its purity, its simplicity and its truth. The Muslims I had met were truly pleasant, patient and well-mannered people", she said.
"Once I came to believe this, it was an easy step to believe Muhammad (peace be upon him) was the messenger and prophet.
"The harder part was letting go of my belief that Jesus was the Son of God. Ultimately, it was the passages in the Quran where God tells us that He was not begotten nor has He begotten and similar ones that finally helped me.
"Also, Jesus figures prominently in Islam so I wasn't letting go of him, but just the idea that he is God", she said.
About her her experience during Hajj, she further said, "An integral part of the Hajj is the visit to Mount Arafah, where the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) prayed on the ninth of Dhul Hijjah when he made Hajj. The Day of Arafah is a day of atonement, when we stand in prayer from just after the sun reaches its zenith during midday until sunset.
"This year, it was about six hours. We were at Arafah long before that, though. We stayed in sweltering tents. It was 108 degrees outside and hotter inside because the air conditioning did not work.
"If one stands in Arafah in sincere devotion and sincerely repents of his sins, all his sins will be forgiven. And we also believe that supplications on this day made sincerely will be answered. Standing is key, although allowances are made for older people or people, like me, with health conditions. I stood a great deal of the time but had to sit from time to time.
"It was probably the most difficult physically and spiritually of the entire trip. But it was also extremely beautiful and cleansing. The most beautiful time came when it was close to sunset and hundreds of people gathered on a hillside, facing the Kaaba in the West, to make supplications while the sun was setting.
"All this was done while one imam made the supplications, called du'as, out loud. It was extremely powerful and many people, including me, were crying.
"I think there's a recurring point here. Hajj requires extreme effort but then offers extreme beauty, peace and joy in return", she said.