Local couple prepares for Muslim pilgrimage

MIDDLEBURY — Farhad Khan has spent a half-century dreaming about a trip designed to fortify his religious faith and cleanse his spirit.
The Middlebury resident’s dream is about to come true.
Farhad and his wife, Amtul, on Aug. 11 will join 16 other members of the Vermont Islamic Society (VIS) in a pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia. It’s called the “Hajj,” a religious obligation that every adult Muslim must fulfill at least once in their lifetime, if they are physically able and have the resources to do so.
“It is a self-purifying thing,” Farhad Khan said of what will be a 6,248-mile odyssey from Middlebury to Mecca.
“It is a new beginning for us.”
Khan, who is a Middlebury selectman, is a longtime, active member of Burlington-based VIS, a religious organization he led from 2009-2010 and from 2014-2016. Established in 1995, VIS currently counts around 3,500 members from such countries as Bosnia, Somalia, India and Iraq, according to Khan.
In addition to providing Islamic worship services and fellowship, Vermont Islamic Society has kindled many friendships among members. The Khans have become particularly close with eight other couples with whom they routinely go on trips, picnics and other social events.
The friends earlier this year decided to unite for what will be their most ambitious and important trip together — the Hajj to Mecca. The Hajj takes place each year during the last month of the Islamic calendar, and lasts five or six days. The crucial stage of their voyage will begin in Medina, Saudi Arabia, for a week of touring some important religious sites — including the burial place of the Islamic prophet Muhammad.
On Aug. 18, they will join the more than 2 million fellow Muslims from throughout the world in the trek to Mecca. The annual Hajj follows the steps that Muhammad is said to have walked almost 1,400 years ago.
It’s a journey that includes a lot of tradition and preparation, Khan noted.
For example, each male pilgrim — once within around 6 miles of Mecca — changes his clothes, putting on an “ihram,” a simple garment of two un-hemmed sheets wrapped around the man’s body. The garment, according to Khan, symbolizes the equality of the masses at the religious site.
Once at Mecca, the pilgrims will take in several significant Islamic locations. It will begin with an initial ritual upon entering Mecca’s Grand Mosque: A ceremonial walk around the famous black, cube-shaped centerpiece of the holy city, known as the Ka‘ba. Per tradition, the pilgrims will circle the Ka‘ba seven times, anti-clockwise, while praying.
Participants, among other things, will also shuttle between the two hills of Safa and Marwah, collect 49 stones to be thrown over several days at the three pillars in the valley of Mina, and partake in a great feast.
The Khans and their traveling companions will add to the international flavor of the pilgrimage. Farhad and Amtul, along with another couple, originally hail from India. Three of the couples come from Pakistan, two from Bangladesh, one from Egypt and one from Lebanon.
“It’s a diverse group,” Khan said.
Amtul Khan noted Muslims don’t see the Hajj as a holiday, but rather as a religious obligation.
“I’m very excited; it’s unbelievable,” Amtul Khan said of the upcoming trip. “I feel very blessed.”
She explained many Muslims can’t afford to go on the Hajj, or must wait until they are old and frail before accumulating enough money for travel expenses. The Khans are still young and able-bodied enough to make the trip and participate in the major rites of the pilgrimage before returning to Middlebury on Aug. 28.
“We want peace of mind there; we don’t want to be thinking about what’s going on here… ” Khan said. “Once you are there, you’re in a state of mind where you want nothing to do with the rest of the world. That’s the most important thing for us.”
The Khans also wanted to wait until their children were old enough to feel comfortable under supervision with their parents going on a solo trip. Their son Ahsan is now 15, and daughters Subia and Maryam are 11 and 10, respectively.
Farhad Khan hopes other Vermont Islamic Society members will organize similar group voyages to the Hajj in future years. The couple plans to share their experiences with fellow Muslims upon their return.
“I consider myself very lucky,” Khan said of his ability to attend the Hajj.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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