In February of this year, I was blessed to be given the opportunity to perform Umrah. It was going to be a whistle-stop tour: we were going to spend four days in Mecca and 3 days in Medina before flying back home. Because we travelled on Middle Eastern Airlines we had a stopover in Beirut of 4 hours. This meant that we were travelling for about 2 days of our holiday – but that all added to the sense of being a pilgrim.
Indeed, before we had even left Heathrow we began to sense the feeling of common purpose when we saw the aeroplane was going to be filled with Muslims from all parts of the country all heading for the same destination as us – Jeddah. That is the nearest city to either Mecca or Medina with an airport. All pilgrims have to start their pilgrimage from Jeddah airport. The tag on our luggage confirmed that we were indeed all pilgrims as it read `Umrah’ and our fellow travellers were all discussing prayers to recite, carrying booklets, like me, on how to perform what and where. I felt in good company.
The stopover in Beirut was really quite comical. All the men got off the plane from Heathrow in jeans, shirts and T-shirts and by the time we were boarding the smaller plane to Jeddah they had all changed into two unstitched cloths and slippers. Within 4 hours they transformed themselves into simple pilgrims.
Women are not required to dress in a particular way for Umrah but some of them had also decided to change into white clothes and some little children too – which was really cute.
Once we had landed in Jeddah we had to get a taxi to Mecca and our hotel. The journey took us forever (it seemed) because, don’t forget, we had been travelling for about 20 hours by that time. Eventually, we got to our hotel – exhausted and weary. I couldn’t wait to change out of my clothes and brush my teeth. When I heard our room was on the 21st floor, I sighed. So high! I thought. I won’t ever be able to take the stairs if the lift breaks down.
Then when I entered our room for the first time – all my weariness simply disappeared. Why? One side of the room was simply made up of a huge window overlooking the Ka’aba. I couldn’t take my eyes off the scene below. It just dominated the room and drew you towards it. Then we heard the adhan being recited and we could hear it, not only from the speaker in our room, but directly from the Ka’aba – from its source. It seemed like we were part of another world.
After a little rest we decided that we would perform our Umrah that very night after Isha prayers and some dinner. Despite our long journey, I was so caught up in the excitement that I just went along with the whole plan. I didn’t feel tired at all.
We walked around the Ka’aba seven times, called tawaf, and said the prayers I had been learning as we passed the corner with the Black Stone. There were people from all walks of life, all moving round and round with us. Some had distinctive scarves of red or blue as they were part of a special party. Some were really elderly or disabled and were being pushed in wheelchairs. Whilst others were just so engrossed in their prayers, they just marched on regardless of anyone around them.
One thing that you should try to do is touch, or kiss the Black Stone. However, I had been told this could be really dangerous as the closer you got to the actual brickwork of the Ka’aba, and that place in particular, the more emotional and passionate the atmosphere becomes. Everyone at that spot was so keen on trying to get near the Black Stone people actually injure themselves. My husband thought he would lose his wrist when he tried it!
There was a police man who was positioned right near the Black Stone to try and keep order. He was strapped to the wall and had a baton in his hand. Beneath him there was a permanent scramble of people fighting to get their hands on the Black Stone. Every now and again he would wave his baton at some pilgrims to shrug them off. Then he would take up his position again looking straight ahead ignoring the hustling going on under his nose. It looked really funny, like he couldn’t wait for his shift to be over.
I decided not to chance it and simply waved a salam to the Black Stone as I passed. Then we proceeded to the Safaah and Marwah, the two little hills that Hazrat Hajirahra (also known as Hager) had run between in her hunt for food after she had just given birth to Hazrat Ishmael (as). If you don’t know the story, Hazrath Abraham (as) had left her near the Ka’aba upon Allah’s instructions. After giving birth, she became desperate because there was no food or water in that place. And I can certainly say that the area around Mecca is very much still like that. On our drive from Jeddah airport that is what I noticed the most – how lifeless and bare the area was. In her time the area was rocky and dusty and you can imagine what a struggle it must have been in the heat of the sun, after having just given birth to run seven circuits. Anyway, an angel came to her aid and directed her to a spot where the baby Hazrat Ishmael (as) was kicking the dust with his heel to reveal a gushing spring. That spring was Zam-Zam.
Nowadays, thankfully, the whole area is marbled and air conditioned. So, I just felt that this is simply too easy. How on earth are we ever to share in the pain and agony of that noble woman? Well, let me tell you those hills are deceptive! The backs of my legs ached for days afterwards and there was a whopping big blister on my right foot.
All around the Ka’aba there are huge barrels of Zam-Zam water free for anyone to sample at any time. They have a great system to reduce litter. You take a cup from one side of the barrel and once you have finished you put your used cup in a chute on the other side of it and it is disposed of. How neat is that? Another way they keep the area clean is by having teams of cleaners washing the floor around the mosque around the clock. This is a sight to behold, how they close off the area with two or three cleaners acting like mobile cordons stretching across some tape. Within the area they have blocked off three of four cleaners with mops zoom around mopping up the cleaning fluid they have just splashed on the floor. Then as the cordon moves on a drying machine driven by another cleaner buffs up the floor. Within 5 minutes people can walk there again. This was just amazing to watch.
After we had performed our prayers, our Umrah was essentially over.
We then proceeded to begin to enjoy the rest of Mecca: the shops, the food and the constant rhythm of adhan and prayers. Because all the shops shut as soon as namaz begins throughout the day, after Ishaa prayers the shops stay open way into the night. You can be wandering around at 1.30 am and buy a prayer mat, some rice and chicken or some aspirin. I saw a young girl, wearing a full-face veil manning a Lebara phone card stall after midnight with not a fear in the world.
And that’s another thing, women there wear all types of purdah and work. I saw women in hotels working as receptionists, women in the markets selling bangles and women in the mosques acting as security guards. All wore some kind of purdah.
The next few days were also spent visiting the battle sites of Islamic history. We went to the place for the Battle of Badr, Battle of the Trench and the Battle of Uhud. We also visited the site of the Last Sermon that the Holy Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) delivered – that is Mount Arafat.
There were many lovely mosques to see too. One mosque was only recently discovered, which they say dates back to the time of the Holy Prophet (pbuh) and is where he received some early Muslims who had travelled from Medina to see him. Remember, that the Holy Prophet (pbuh) remained in Mecca for 13 years after his mission had been revealed to him to try and convert his people. Well, the disbelievers made it really difficult for him to perform his prayers and so he went to this mosque just outside Mecca (or so the story goes). You can still see the mosque in the middle of a new road complex. It looks so quaint.
When we were there, we met one of the constructors who had led the excavation and he explained how they had come across the mosque. They had been digging and breaking up the ground with their bulldozers and drilling machines to make a road for pilgrims to go from Arafat to Mecca more quickly. Well, at one point they noticed their machines kept breaking and they couldn’t understand why. Then they stopped work and took a closer look. As they began to unearth the sand and dust, they discovered this little mosque. What an amazing find!
After 4 days in Mecca we took a taxi to Medina. This is the final resting place of the Holy Prophet (pbuh). He lies within the confines of the magnificent Nabwi Mosque with Hazrat Umar (ra) on one side and Hazrat Abu Bakr (ra) on the other
Masjid Nabwi is extremely impressive and has features not found anywhere else. There are special umbrella-like canopies all around it to protect worshippers from the sun and the rain. There are also about 30 or so different doors to get inside the mosque – only one is reserved for women.
Although it was very difficult to find out how to get near the final resting place of the Holy Prophet (pbuh), my female companion and I managed to do it after Ishaa prayer. It took us about 2 hours of queuing, waiting and wondering if we were in the right place, and scrambling ahead when the security women let us go ahead. The mosque area near this site is very beautiful. It marks the boundary of the original mosque but was completed 30 years after the passing of the Holy Prophet (pbuh) by sahaba’s who knew the Holy Qur’an off-by-heart.
Before we knew it, our time was coming to an end. We headed for Jeddah and our journey home. I noticed the change in atmosphere as soon as I entered Jeddah. Gone was that sense of common worship, of spirituality, of love for Islam. By contrast Jeddah just seemed like another international city with takeaways, huge department stores and the odd mosque tucked here and there.
Now I am back home I think back and can still feel the magic of that time in Mecca and Medina. I can picture in my mind’s eye all the wonderful places I visited. If I feel a little lost, I just gaze into the prayer mat I bought from Mecca and relive my view of the Ka’aba from my hotel window.
Article by Maleeha Khalida Malik