The Umra Experience

Pilgrimage to Mecca is a compulsory tenet of Islam. All adult Muslims with means are obligated to perform Haj once in their lifetimes. Once upon a time people outside the Arabian Peninsula would save all their lives to go on Haj. The route to Mecca was perilous and long. For many this would be the first and last time they would travel outside their native places. Many of them would die en route or during the pilgrimage and achieve their dream of being buried in Jannat ul Baqieh, the holy graveyard.
Umra is not obligatory. It is the shortened version of Haj and increasing number of people are opting for it. The improved means of transportation, time and budget constraints have made it the popular choice. The edited version provides those who either can’t afford to go on Haj or have already had the full experience; to seek penance and salvation in quick time. Umra is a convenient way of mixing religion with tourism. Religious tourism is a guilt free trip and all expenses are justified. Besides it provides the world weary pilgrim a short reprieve from the daily humdrum of life and an instant way to make peace with the Creator. I have had the good fortune of performing Haj early in life (circa 1985) and Umra a number of times. Last time I went for Umra was in 2004. It was during the month of Ramzan and I had taken along my mother and an aunt. My wife had wanted to go on Umra then but had relented in favor of the senior relatives. She wanted to make up for the missed opportunity this year (2015). She had made some covenants with the Almighty and wanted to fulfill her part of the bargain by visiting the holy sites. I had no issues provided she made the arrangements with the travel agent. I must say she admirably did the planning and execution of the holy journey.
The weather in the last week of February was mild and most well suited for a religious excursion in a desert-land famous for its hot weather. The flight connections were good and the service nice. The arrival formalities in Jeddah went without a hitch. The prearranged taxi was waiting for us and took us to the hotel as planned. The hotel was well appointed and we were upgraded to the Kaaba view side because we had a hospitality card of the chain from our earlier world-travels. This hotel stay in Mecca and Medina were the good parts of the religious tourism.
Despite being off season, there were a large number of devotees thronging the holy Kaaba. The space was restricted due to the massive extension being undertaken before the next Haj causing a rush of pilgrims often amounting to a mini stampede during the Tawaf (the perambulation around the House of Allah). Only the Fahad gate was open making entry and exit cumbersome. These problems notwithstanding, the famously rude Saudi religious police, centuries of experience in handling pilgrims, modern machines and a well drilled expatriate team of maintenance men all combined together to make the pilgrim services with all their complexities a well oiled operation. We certainly did not face any major inconvenience during our week-long stay in Mecca and Medina. There is no gainsaying the fact that with a little bit of organization the pilgrim’s progress can be made easier e.g. minor rites such as touching or kissing the Hajr-i-Aswad (the Black Stone), praying within the Hateem in the Holy Kaaba and visiting the grave of the Holy Prophet and praying in the Riaz-ul-Jannah (piece of heaven) in the Prophet’s mosque can be regulated. There is no need to push, jostle and step on each others toes to seek divine blessing. Online tickets can be issued and queues formed without much fuss. Wheelchairs should not be allowed inside the inner ring. Perhaps an electronic orbiter like a giant Ferris wheel can let the old and infirm perform Tawaf without getting in anyone’s way. Those not able to squat during prayer and in need of chairs should be confined to specified places within the two holy mosques. No one should be allowed to take selfies during the Tawaf or move against the tide of the devout circling the Holy Kaaba. Other age old vexations can be solved with greater police control and surveillance e.g. the Saudi taxi driver’s blatant exploitation of the pilgrim by over charging and going back on his words can be checked by meting out exemplary punishment to the defaulters. The beggars and con men, many of them Pakistanis who prey on unsuspecting countrymen should be rounded up to make the pilgrimage a hassle free event.
The visit to the holy sites in Mecca and Medina is an interesting experience. For a fee of 100 or 150 Riyals, a taxi driver In Medina can take you to the battlefield of Uhud and the graves of the martyrs, the seven mosques of the battle of the trench, the mosque at Quba, where performing two rakat prayers is equivalent to an umra and the mosque of Qiblatain, where the prayer was interrupted mid-course to face Mecca instead of Jerusalem. In Mecca, the popular places to visit are the Mina, Arafat and Muzdalfa, all important staging places during the Haj. Other places are Masjid-i-Nimra, where the sermon of the haj is read out, the Jabl-i-Rehmat, where Adam and Eve reunited after having landed separately on the planet earth, the Jannat-i-Muala graveyard, where Khadija, the Holy Prophet’s eldest wife is buried and the cave of Hira. The hike up the hill to the cave of Hira is a special experience. Steps have been made up the hill with a steep gradient. There are perhaps 120-130 steps winding uphill. A number of people at all times of the day and night trek up to the place, where the Holy Prophet used to mediate and where he first received divine communion through the angel Gabriel. I made the journey after sunset and found among others some really old Turk ladies leaning on sticks as they made the journey. There are some shacks on the way selling cold drinks and snacks. Despite signs telling the wayfarer to keep the holy site clean, the hill face is littered with empty bottles and wrappers. Pakistani beggars shining the light or just seeking alms are a common sight. The entrance to the cave is very narrow and the place, where the Holy Prophet used to pray narrower still but an emotional experience worth remembering.
The umra was a purifying experience. It makes one humble to be clad in two un-stitched pieces of white cloth and becoming one with the great mass of humanity from all over the world. While out of Ihram, one notices the interesting array of headgear that men wear signifying their places of origin. Fez, Karakul and skull caps all bow together in unison before Almighty Allah in humility and supplication. Why then I wondered heads of state are given VIP treatment within the precincts of the holy places or why are princes belonging to the royal family be allowed to construct palaces in the vicinity of the places of worship or indeed declaring them a part of a holy site.
During our visit to Saudi Arabia, the Middle East was in turmoil. The new King was assessing the emerging situation and consulting with allies. A string of high profile visits took place during the one week that we were there. Abdullah, the king of Jordan; Sissi, the president of Egypt; and Erdogan, the president of Turkey were the high profile visitors. The prime minister of Pakistan was schedued next week. Th new Saudi defence minister was on a visit to UK to touch base with his country’s strategic ally. The President of Yemen had escaped of the Houthi militia and re-established himself in Aden. The Saudi government promptly shifted their embassy to the new capital to show solidarity with Abdo Rabb Mansoor Hadi and their disapproval of the Shia militia. The newspapers juxtaposed the visits of the kings, presidents and prime ministers with that of foreign housemaids. Maids, the reports said were homebreakers, particularly the goodlooking ones from Chile and cheap ones from Bangladesh were about to be imported. At 600 Riyals per head they cost less than Filipinas. The expatriates not only provided cheap labor but also were also a source of drugs and a number of ills within the society,
The expatriates in the hotels that we stayed in, mostly Pakistanis and Bangladeshis were happy and satisfied with their circumstances. They were sending regular remittances back home and only wanted us to give them favorable reviews in response to the emails sent by their emplyers. All of them spoke Urdu and this was the third language used for signposting inside the Holy Kaaba. The other two being Arabic and English.