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Muslim Airmen and Soldiers complete spiritual pillar during deployment

  • Published
  • 378th Air Expeditionary Wing

The trip reaches its 11th hour mark. The cars make their way through the dark night, headlights guiding them down the path. Passengers nod in and out of sleep, dreaming of the adventures to come. Thump! A deeply sleeping man’s eyes pop open, awoken by a rogue pothole. He scans his surroundings and is struck with intense joy. The Masjid al-Haram Mosque stares back at him from afar. After all these years, he has finally made it.

U.S. military members deployed to the Middle East are often able to experience the culture and local activities that surround a base, but one group of Muslim U.S. service members at Prince Sultan Air Base, Saudi Arabia, were able to accomplish a unique spiritual experience that brought them closer to their faith.

In the Islam religion there are five core principles called pillars, which consist of: a declaration of faith, praying five times a day, fasting during Ramadan, giving alms to charity and completing the pilgrimage, called Hajj or Umrah. The pilgrimage pillar requests Muslims visit Mecca and Medina, which are two out of the three holiest cities in Islam, both housed in Saudi Arabia.

“Ever since I arrived at PSAB, I have wanted to visit Mecca and Medina. It is the dream of every Muslim to visit the holy cities at least once in their lifetimes.” said U.S. Air Force Capt. Rashidaddin Shakirov, 378 Air Expeditionary Wing deputy staff judge advocate.

Shakirov wasn’t the only Muslim U.S. service member at PSAB interested in experiencing Umrah by visiting the holy cities. Though members can travel off base, there are restrictions that they must abide by. Due to Mecca and Medina being over ten hours away, base leadership would have to approve the trip, and each service member would need their individual commander's endorsement.

With the assistance of the 378th AEW Chapel, Safety, Ground Transportation and Office of Special Investigations, Shakirov was able to submit a tentative itinerary. The wing commander ultimately approved the trip for the 10 members. The team consisted of seven Airmen, two Soldiers and U.S. Army Capt. Asnage Castelly, 3rd Battalion 4th Air Defense Artillery Regiment chaplain, who oversees Muslim religious affairs in U.S. affiliated bases throughout the Middle East.

The four-day trip was led by Shakirov, who drove one of the two vehicles from PSAB to the city of Mecca. To officially complete the pilgrimage, all participants had to vocalize their intentions before entering the city.

The team then went to the mosque, where Friday service had already started. The first four to five levels of the mosque were completely full, holding nearly a million people. Luckily, there was space on the final floor, where they were able to perform prayer. The team then entered the center of the mosque and circled the Kaaba seven times while reciting prayers from the Quran.

The next day, the team drove four hours to Medina to visit the mosque where the Prophet Muhamed is buried. They were able to go inside and see the doors to the tomb and pay their respects. The rest of the day was spent visiting mosques, praying and sightseeing at the marketplace.

At the conclusion of the trip, the team reflected on their pilgrimage experience and how it brought them closer to each other and the Muslim religion.

“All Airmen and Soldiers were satisfied with the experience of completing Umrah. The trip was very fulfilling and spiritually enriching,” said Shakirov. “It was, hands down, an experience of a lifetime that each of us will share with friends and family. We all are thankful to all the agencies that made the trip possible.”

Having a U.S. presence in the Middle East offers Muslim service members a special opportunity to fulfill religious goals that couldn’t have been accomplished otherwise, while still getting the mission done. Ultimately, the trip was able to support deployed Muslim Airmen and Soldiers who yearned to complete their pilgrimage, while establishing a way forward for others in the future.

“It’s about people first; we all have spiritual needs,” said Castelly. “Helping these Airmen and Soldiers accomplish their spiritual goal while serving is what we’re all about, especially where we’re located. It shows our partners that we really do care and value our members.”