As the Hajj season fast approaches, the smaller pilgrimage proves just as challenging when performed in Ramadan
It was early morning on 23 Ramadan. My family and I prepared to embark for Umrah, the lesser pilgrimage, to the holy city of Makkah. An hour’s drive by car from our home in Jeddah, with hundreds of thousands of Muslims from all over the world trickling into the holy city every second, we knew that it was going to be a long day.
Umrah differs from the annual Hajj, in that it can be performed at any time during the year. Unlike the hajj, it is not one of the pillars of Islam and is, therefore, not considered a duty for all Muslims, but it is highly recommended. The reward for performing Umrah in Ramadan is greater than that done in any other month of the year, as the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) stated that the performance of Umrah in Ramadan is like the performance of Hajj alongside him. Umrah is performed in an attempt to purify oneself of sins and to grow closer to Allah.
As we reached the city boundary, a large warning sign is seen displayed on the highway, cautioning non-Muslims to take an alternate route. Makkah al Mukarramah, one of the holiest sites of Islam, is considered a sanctuary for Muslims. As we crossed into the city, we knew that our journey, both physical and spiritual, had only just begun.
In order to reach Masjid Al-Haram, the Grand Mosque that surrounds Islam’s holiest place, we had to park our car at a distant location, some 10 minutes away, at one of many designated parking lots. Pilgrims are encouraged to take state transport services from here to the Masjid, in order to lessen the traffic of individual cars and cabs in the vicinity. Today, however, with the tremendous number of pilgrims making their way into the city, the buses could take us only so far, and we had to walk the rest of the way.
With what words can I describe the feeling when first laying eyes upon the Masjid? Amid the hustle and bustle within its surroundings, it stands tall and tranquil, yet with a commanding presence. One is deeply humbled by the tremendous favour of Allah, the blessing of being able to visit what is called Baitullah (House of God) is truly an honor. The gratitude is indescribable – automatically, my tears began to flow.
As it is Ramadan, and also a Friday, the number of pilgrims is astonishing. We arrived just before the morning prayer, Fajr, and already rows of people had started to form. Many had been here since the night before, saving themselves a spot to pray in congregation. Although exhausted from fasting, performance of tawaf (circumambulation the Kaa’ba) and other acts of Umrah over the past few days, and despite the streaks of dried tears on their faces, the weariness does not show in their eyes. Rather, the look on their faces is one of awe, one of tranquility and contentment that can only be found in a place such as this. The sense of urgency is contagious, everyone is in a rush to hastily take in a few morsels of food before the day of fasting begins, to find a place to pray, to make the most of their visit. Their thoughts are the same: have I done enough?
The doors to enter the Masjid are jam-packed with people trying to enter. Even the courtyard is already full; there is no choice but to pray on the street. There are guards and facilitators in every corner, guiding the pilgrims and politely urging them along to prevent traffic. Once the prayer begins, it is as if time itself has frozen. Everyone stands in obedience to God, personal possessions are left unattended, cars are left unlocked and all that matters is the prayer.
As soon as the prayer is over, people once more start to scramble in all directions. For some, like us, the day has just begun, and for others, it is the end after a long night of ‘Ibadah (worship). We have no choice but to wait several minutes as the scores of people within the Masjid leave, making room for us to enter. Squeezing our way through the crowds, we remove our shoes and step inside. In here, it is as if no one has left at all! The prayer carpets are completely occupied, some have even found spots in the corners of the hallways, on the stair cases, behind dividing poles. Many decide to take a few minutes of rest there before they return to softly reciting the Qur’an, and waiting for the Friday prayers to begin.
As if out of nowhere, the site of the Kaa’ba emerges. The Kaa’ba signifies the direction Muslims face during their five daily prayers. The circumambulation is performed around the Kaa’ba in the first part of Umrah. There is barely any room on the ground level, the crowd is so great that it seems as if they are barely moving. We decide to move to the first of two upper levels; here it is less crowded than below, but the circuits are longer. The sun has come out and the weather is getting warmer. We are all thirsty but we try to focus on the task at hand, and pray to Allah to give us strength.
Our tawaf takes almost two hours to complete – on an ordinary day it can take as little as half an hour. We stop to rest before we begin the sa’ee, which comprises seven circuits to and from the two mountains named Safa and Marwah. Sa’ee means “to seek”, and represents the story of Hagar, wife of Prophet Abraham, who walked on the very same path in her search for water for her son Ishmael. By this time, we are beginning to feel the effects of fatigue, but gathering every ounce of strength left within us, we push forward and complete the two miles of walking.
Finally at the end of sa’ee we each cut a small amount of our hair, to complete the Umrah rites. Heaving a sigh of relief, we rejoice and congratulate each other: Hajj with the Prophet (pbuh)! Alhamdulillah! May Allah accept our struggle and supplications! Looking around at all the other pilgrims, I realise that we are all in a race against time. Suddenly all deadlines, commitments, dinner parties and holidays cease to exist, for in that one moment, among so many people, you realise that you are alone – alone with God.
I pray that all my brothers and sisters be blessed with the chance of worship in Makkah, for words alone cannot describe the experience. May God accept all our efforts and help us to continue thus throughout the year as well.
* Muslims repeat the phrase “peace be upon him” after mentioning the Prophet Mohammed’s name. It is abbreviated to “pbuh” elsewhere in the text.
Image credits: http://www.
Reclaim Your Stage:
The Platform is a groundbreaking blog that provides current affairs and cultural commentary. Our pieces offer challenging opinions from a range of spectrums; that’s why we love hosting a platform for them.