Last week, I returned home after spending three weeks in places women normally don’t choose to go for fun—Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan. Yup, I made a quick jaunt to Kabul after my pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina. Read about my trip to Afghanistan in my next post. Here’s the concluding post on my pilgrimage.
In the haze of jet lag from flying halfway around the world and the confusion of sorting out my children’s carpools awaiting my return, I hope I can clearly convey my experiences especially since I’m still making sense of my pilgrimage juxtaposed against my current life.
After arriving in Kaaba, Islam’s holiest site, some of my co-pilgrims and I performed specific Umrah rituals symbolic of the lives of Prophet Ibrahim and his wife Hajar. The Umrah (in Arabic Umrah means populated place) acts we performed, outlined below, are believed to erase a pilgrim’s sins and it brings solidarity among Muslims around the world.
I'm in Ihram, ready to start my first Umrah
Entering the state of Irham: Prior to wearing my new Irham, the simple white outfit required for the pilgrimage, I was instructed to clip my nails, take a shower and make the intent to do Umrah. Perfumes, makeup or extravagant clothes are discouraged. The simple white clothes breaks down any wealth, or status barrier and it unites the pilgrims in their stated intent to perform Umrah.
Men in Irham doing tawaf
Tawaf of the Kaaba: Tawaf is the act of circling of the Kaaba seven times counter clockwise, while reciting specific verses of the Quran. Like all faith based rituals you get out of tawaf what you put into it. Some people around me walked trance-like and others cried. And then there were people like me, clinging to co-pilgrims in fear—fear or being lost, trampled or even worse, losing a headscarf. Tawaf can be done at anytime, but it counts towards Umrah only if you do it in conjunction of all these rituals. Once I became more comfortable with my surroundings and I found the best route into Mosque Al Haram and Kaaba, I performed tawaf every day. I found it most peaceful and spiritual when I walked without my co-travelers who always had helpful commentary and suggestions.
Video I took of of Pilgrims doing Tawaf
Sa'yee between the hills of Safa and Marwa: Sa'yee consists of walking rapidly walking back and forth between the hills of Safa and Marwa, now small rock formations in the Mosque of Haram, located right next to the Kaaba.
Sa’yee is the re-enactment of Hajar's frantic search for water after Prophet Ibrahim, her husband, was commanded by God to leave her and their infant son Ismael in the desert between Safa and Marwa hills. Once they ran out of water from her basic provision, with infant Ismael’s life in her hands, Hajar went in search of water. She first climbed Safa, to look over the surrounding area—unsuccessful, she then ran up Marwa, to look in the other direction for help.
Marwa hill - image from Masjid Al Haram Blog
Hajar travelled back and forth between the two hills seven times in the scorching Saudi heat before returning to her son, Ismael, only to find a water well revealed where baby Ismael’s heel had been striking the ground as he screamed with thirst. Some Muslims believe Angel Jibreel hit the ground with his wing to reveal this miraculous spring, known as Zamzam. The well saved Hajar and Ismael’s life. It’s said that the well was God’s reward for her patience.
Muslim’s recite Zamzam’s miracle to their children and pilgrims drink the well’s holy water believed to have healing powers. Originally the water from the well was drawn via ropes and buckets while pilgrims drank at it’s source. Now, it’s protected from the public and a high-tech hydraulic systems draws the water from the ground. Zamzam water is available throughout the Masjid al-Haram via water fountains.
Walkway between Safa and Marwa - image from Masjid Al Haram Blog
Unlike Hajar’s harrowing experience, we walked on a covered and well ventilated marbled path that connects the Safa and Marwa hills. I personally found this step of the ritual tranquil—I walked down the wide path without being pushed, shoved or kicked and I thought of Hajar’s fight to save her child as mothers do every day.
Taqsir, Exiting Irham: Taqsir is the act of cutting one’s hair and the last step of the Umrah rituals. It’s meant to demonstrate sincerity and humility to Allah without caring for one's physical appearance.
Some men shave their head and others cut a one inch lock. Women are encouraged to only cut a snippet of their hair and forgo the drastic act of shaving. I felt a little guilty, as if I was cheating the system, since taqsir didn’t seem like a big sacrifice for me—cutting two inches off my long hair didn’t make much of a difference in my appearance. However, I was happy to bring closure to our important journey.
One can do several Umrahs rituals in one visit. They can be for your own spirituality or each Umrah can be dedicated to a loved one who has passed on or a living person who is unable to make the journey. On the last last day of my stay in Mecca, I performed a second Umrah for my mom, Jeja, who is physically unable to make the long journey to Saudi Arabia.
Different faces of Tawaf
I feel blessed to have visited the land where one of world’s most influential and successful religious and political leaders, Prophet Muhammad PBUH was born. Sharing a prayer rug with an African, Arab and a Pakistani pilgrim, I experienced the strength of spirituality in creating bonds between people of different races and backgrounds. However, I didn’t come away with a major religious epiphany and I was not inspired to become a more devout Muslim.
In my two week journey I met pilgrims who were dogmatically going through the motions and others who were busy finding mistakes in what others were doing and going out of their way to educate everyone on the “right way” of being a Muslim.
Grand Kaaba and it's beauty
Then there was my friend Sonia Sekandar who I call my Umrah mentor. Her genuine love of Islam, the prophet and this pilgrimage was inspiring. She dispensed information without judgement, she provided support when I needed it and she encouraged individual thinking when many were set on mindlessly following the Umrah rites.
Sonia is deeply immersed in her love of Islam and I could see she drew energy from her 8th visit to the holy sites. I envy her unconditional love and acceptance of everyone she meets and her acceptance of me, a novice pilgrim. She could see that I was in a different stage of my spiritual quest and went out of her way to validate my journey.
From left Rostana, my lovely aunt Mayen, me and the beautiful Sonia - our last day in Mecca
It was my interaction with Sonia that helped me come away with a better understanding of why religion is a big part of many people’s lives and the importance of structure, community, and spiritual support that is hard to find in the disparate world we live in today. I’m grateful for making this journey with a mentor like Sonia.