Students at Tampa Islamic school simulate the hajj

Brother Mamdouh Gomaa of the American Youth Academy in Tampa leads the 3- and 4-year-olds of the school on a hajj simulation Wednesday. The hajj, the fifth pillar of Islam, is a pilgrimage to Mecca.

SKIP O’ROURKE | Times

Brother Mamdouh Gomaa of the American Youth Academy in Tampa leads the 3- and 4-year-olds of the school on a hajj simulation Wednesday. The hajj, the fifth pillar of Islam, is a pilgrimage to Mecca.

TAMPA

Beneath robes, scarves and towels meant to resemble traditional Islamic garb, dozens of small feet shuffled hurriedly.

The children were beginning a journey Wednesday — walking in the path of prophets.

More than 400 students at the American Youth Academy marked the annual hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, by simulating the five-day expedition to Islam's holiest city that began Wednesday.

Every year for the past five, the school has hosted a hajj simulation to familiarize students with the rite, the fifth pillar of Islam and a requirement of every Muslim who is physically and financially able to perform the pilgrimage at least once.

Those who make the religious journey are called pilgrims. As they travel to Mecca, they re-enact significant events in the lives of Abraham, Hagar and Ishmael as chronicled in the Koran.

At the school Wednesday, children as young as 2 participated.

Handfuls of students climbed into a modest tent to demonstrate how pilgrims camp in tents in the town of Mina on the first day of the hajj. The children lie down only for an instant when an instructor bellows:

"The sun has risen! Time to continue our journey!"

The children moved to the mountain of Arafat, then collected stones to cast at the devil.

Older students who have performed the simulation before whispered excitedly as they scrambled for pebbles.

"Most of these kids are too young to fully understand the significance of what they're doing, but we try to get them into a rhythm," said principal Souheil Zekri. "Islam is all about finding a rhythm. It's the rhythm of life."

Children sang songs and held hands as parents looked on, many taking pictures or video with smartphones.

Fatima Khan's son Adil is in the first grade. This is his first year at a religious school.

"It's quite the change for him," she said. "He doesn't speak a word of Arabic."

Adil's class was the first to perform. They sang one song in Arabic and another, Islam has been built on five pillars, to the tune of The Itsy Bitsy Spider.

Shahira Saad, 25, wiped away tears, as she watched her son Abdelrahman Yasin, 5, perform.

"He's been singing the songs all week," Saad said. "I can't help getting all emotional."

Playing pilgrim was particularly fun for Jude Sullaiman, 5, who talked excitedly about her favorite part: drinking the water of Zamzam, a well that sprung up to quench the thirst of Hagar and Ishmael in the desert.

The water, poured out in colorful plastic cups, tastes "sweet, like strawberries," she said.

Although few parents in attendance had performed hajj themselves, many hoped their children would have the opportunity, and the knowledge, to do so.

"I hope someday she will have the desire to go and do it for real," said Soloman Tamari of his daughter Zain, 5. "This teaches her early to appreciate the hajj, to have a good, clean heart."

Marissa Lang can be reached at mlang@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3386 or on Twitter @Marissa_Jae.

Students at Tampa Islamic school simulate the hajj 10/24/12 [Last modified: Thursday, October 25, 2012 12:26am]

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