At a traffic circle in Maryland, Mona Eldadah watched her father plodding in circles.
Hadi Rahnama, 77, was walking around a black cube, a replica of the Kaaba shrine in Mecca, to demonstrate the tawaf, or ritual prayer, that Muslims perform when they visit the shrine on the hajj.
Eldadah corrected her father.
“No, Daddy, the idea is that the car is actually going to do the tawaf,” she said. “It’s a drive-through.”
This is the time of year when many Muslims undertake the the pilgrimage to Mecca.
But the coronavirus pandemic has prompted Saudi Arabia to limit access to a limited number of Saudis and foreigners living inside the kingdom.
So Eldadah and her father took part in a mock version of the hajj last Sunday in Sandy Spring, Md., done by car to keep people safe from COVID-19.
Rahnama had made the real pilgrimage to Mecca three times, where he joined a river of Muslims, all dressed in white, circling around the black monument.
“Nobody knows whether they’re poor or they’re rich or whatever. Equality 100 percent,” he said. “And that is the beauty of the whole thing.”
Eldadah, 43, had planned to be in Mecca this week, wearing a flowing white embroidered tunic that her mother-in-law wore on her own hajj.
She is creative director of Next Wave Muslim Initiative, a Montgomery County, Md. Islamic group that meets in conference centers. She proposed to her colleagues that they capture the holiday spirit by car — much like a drive to see Christmas lights.
“All you’re doing is kind of looking out from your window,” she said. “But you get in the festivities of the season. So I said, you know, we could do the same thing.”
Eldadah hosted the mock pilgrimage at Sandy Spring Friends School, where two of her children went to school and a third is set to start in the fall. Eldadah wore her holiday tunic and a face mask and directed guests to stations where they could reenact the rites she was missing.
In Mecca, a river of Muslims, all dressed in white, circles the Kaaba. By contrast, in Sandy Spring, Hondas and Teslas drove around a mockup of the monument made of black flannel draped over PVC pipe.
Religiously speaking, it was not a substitute for the real hajj, which all Muslims must try to make in their lifetime.
The visitors could hear a live chanting of the prayer recited on “Mount Arafat,” which pilgrims on hajj visit to commemorate where the Prophet Muhammad gave his last sermon.
That was meaningful for Ranwa Abdelnabi, 45, who recently moved from Egypt with her husband and daughter. She said the past few months have been isolating.
“It takes time to really build strong relationships, so the pandemic is not helping that,” Abdelnabi said.
At another station, 6-year-old Yaseen Khan leaned out of a white minivan to throw pebbles at a cardboard pillar. That evoked the hajj rite of casting stones to drive out the devil.
His father Faisal Khan, 41, said he’s been avoiding mosques because of the pandemic. But he still wanted to teach his two boys about the holiday.
“It definitely feels much more safe when we’re in a car, not close to a bunch of people. It’s really nice what they did,” said Khan.
Islamic schools often teach children using a miniature hajj, said Hurunnessa Fariad, who heads outreach at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society Center in Sterling, Va., one of the largest mosques in the nation. Those indoor pilgrimages are mostly canceled this year, however. Fariad said she never heard of a drive-through.
“This is the first year I saw that, because of COVID. I thought it was really cute to keep the kids and the families engaged,” she said.
This innovation is part of a trend across religions of looking for new ways of keeping the faith during a pandemic. One Los Angeles cantor presided over a “Car Mitzvah” celebration in a parking lot. Churches hosted drive-in services.
Fatimeh Asi, a 38-year-old homemaker and mother of three daughters, said she found the drive-through refreshing. At the Maryland mini hajj, she stepped out of her blue Tesla and stood, masked, with friends near the parking lot. She said she marked Ramadan by tuning into Zoom sermons and other holidays with smaller family gatherings, but rarely saw members of her congregation in the pandemic.
“This is the first actual real-deal community feeling, and my kids feeling like they’re seeing the rest of the community,” she said. “This is the first.”
Eldadah estimates about 500 people came to the drive-through pilgrimage. The visitors also left about $2,000 in donations for the needy, she said. Eldadah said she hoped the “pilgrims” drove away inspired to go on the real journey once it’s possible.