‘Umrah 2008 – The Trip I’ve Been Waiting My Whole Life For


Before I delve into the heart of this post I would like to plug and praise the Madinah Institute. It was through their hard efforts that we all had the most enjoyable time, no doubt at the cost of them sacrificing some of their own enjoyment. May Allah reward all of you for your efforts. Second, you will notice that I have abandoned the usual academic, stoic prose in favor of a more heart/religion on my sleeve approach. This was no ordinary trip, thus warranting no ordinary post. I hope you will enjoy it.

But not to fear. For those of you who just anxious to see the images, here they are [I’ll be trying to put these back up again soon]. I hope that after you view through them, you’ll take a few minutes and read over the post.

Another quick note about the post. When you see [s], this stands for sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam [May God send peace and blessings upon him]. It is a salutation that Muslims send on the Prophet Muhammad when we mention his name. Ok. Enough notes. Enjoy.

It’s hard to believe, that at 11:20am, I am sitting comfortably in JFK airport on July 10th, 2008. From the first moment that it entered my head I never thought it would ever come to fruition. I must learn to be more trusting and imaginative with my Lord. Truly, God never ceases to astound. And while the time has seemed to hang in Limbo over the last month or so, it has all compressed here in this moment. All of the thought, the planning, the speculation, snares and trip wires, have evaporated and all that remains is myself, two bags and a 2pm date with a very sexy looking 747.

To relate how this trip even came about I must first relate how I met the brothers from the Madinah Institute at the ISNA 2008 Baltimore convention. They happened to be involved with facilitating it. In short time we were hanging out and having coffee, discussing projects that we might want to work on together in the future. The standard meet and greet that one does at such places. But shortly after meeting them it was immediately suggested that I accompany them on their Summer ‘Umrah program in Saudi Arabia. I politely nodded my head, giving an affirmative response that was more articulated on manners I learned as a child than sincere foresight of actually praying in the Holy Mosque. We promised to keep in touch after the conference, and that I did sincerely intend to do as it’s not often that I meet many Muslims today that I really feel comfortable with. Perhaps I’ve just had a string of unfortunate circumstances. Either way, I am very glad to have met them.

While toiling in my office in early June, I received a phone call from one of the brothers asking, “what can we do to get you to come with us to ‘Umrah?” I was shocked and excited at once, like diving into a swimming pool on a hot summer’s day. You know it’s going to be freezing and yet it always surpasses your prediction. But once the cold water washes over your body, you can’t imagine standing poolside any longer. You want to be engaged. You want to stay engaged. Such was my initial feelings when I received my invite. The negotiations were quick and subtle and before I knew it, I was putting in a request for time off. For the next four-plus weeks I had to respond to, “you’re going where?” I graciously replied, “Mecca [from here after referred to as Makkah]. Saudi Arabia. You know, the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah? Yeah, there’s where I’ll be.”  I even took the time to point it out with Google Maps. It was at that moment that the realization hit me in successive waves: staring down at the computer screen, two tiny dots seemed to grow bigger and bigger in my mind. Makkah. Madinah. The birthplace of Islam. Where it all started.

Preparing for a trip such as this one took one a little bit of finagling. Initially, I thought I would have to buy my ihram from the Internet but I was easily able to locate one in Philadelphia, not more than ten blocks from my house. In a small Muslim shop on 52nd and Chestnut in West Philadelphia, I procured my ihram from Shaykh Muhammad, the proprietor of Muslim Fashions. In fact, I had called the day before to see if he sold ihrams and he had set one aside for me. The shop was a quintessential inner city Muslim store, filled with rows of jumbled books, organized in no particular order. A small supply of men’s clothing in the forms of shalwar khamees, thobes, kufis and the like and a large selection of women’s clothing apparel. But what stands out the most with shops like these is the overwhelming bouquet of odors. Dozens of vials full of perfumes and body oils clutter the display case, their scents mixing vigorously with piles of incense, from boxes full of brown and green sticks to cones. The olfactory is completely stunned – one may not be able to smell properly for several hours even after exiting the store. And of course, anything one buys from Muhammad is ripe with the scent, needing four to five washings to attempt to remove. But the most important thing about this exchange is that none of the above should be seen as a negative. It’s just part of the experience.

The only intervening activities of note from here until departure was the head scratching one does at puzzling out how to wear the ihram without it coming undone and flashing everyone at the House of God. Definitely not in the itinerary. But like so many things in modern life, a simple Google search [sh. Muhammad ‘Adaly] – coupled with an hour or two of laughs and you’re a pro a walking around the house in two bed sheets, practicing, “Labbayka allamhuma labbayk -  [At your service, my Lord, I am at your service]”. With the ihram mastered, it’s time to pack.

Anyone who ever needs to fly from JFK and lives in Philadelphia, I highly recommend the Grey Hound/MTA/AirTrain combination. An e-ticket from Grey Hound can be had for as little as $12 – $15. Two dollars gets you from Port Authority to Howard Beach on the A Train. Another seven klaks and you’re on the AirTrain which will take you to any terminal in the airport. As long as you leave with plenty of time, it’s the most relaxing way to fly out of New York City for under $30 one-way.

For those who don’t know me as well, I have an extreme phobia of flying. Extreme to the point that I need to be medicated to board the jet. Logical persuasions always fall short of the mark. After all, it’s a phobia – it is not dictated by the norms of logic. And from the first moment I laid eyes on the Saudi Arabian Airlines 747 jumbo jet, my fear escalated to another level. I was astounded by how absolutely massive the aircraft was. My mind raced, trying to find a believable equation that would justify 50 tons of steel flying up into the blue yonder. But if there’s one thing I’m learning on this trip and that’s to not underestimate the Grace of God. I spent the two nights before my flight reverently supplicating to have a safe flight as nightmares flashed through my head of crashing planes, wreckage and worse. And yet, on boarding the plane, a peculiar sense of tranquility washed over me. A subdual of my fears granted me a very comfortable flight. Even take off and landing, which are normally fraught with anxiety went by smoothing [well, fairly smooth – my palms were still slightly moist]. The crew was quite pleasant and I enjoyed talking with them, discussing my first trip to Saudi Arabia. “Truly, with hardship comes ease.”

Saudi Arabia is very hot. That is something that should just be put out in the open and gotten out of the way. Or, if not out of the way, put out in the open to establish a context in which almost all actions, activities and indeed thoughts, occur in. From the moment you step off the plane you know you’re in a very different place. Not just because of the language or the palm trees but because of the heat. In fact, it is the environment of Saudi that impresses me the most. Harsh and yet beautiful, it commands your respect instantly. On the ride from the airport at Jeddah to Makkah, you pass through a very harsh terrain that is composed up scrub, sand, broken rocks, boulders and mountains. One is reminded of the times that the Prophet Muhammad and his people had to live in. The pre-Modern Bedouin has all of my respect. Traversing such terrain on camelback is not for the faint of heart.

Our arrival at the hotel was made quick as we landed in Saudi on Friday, the day of communal prayer [Jumu’ah Prayer]. Our task was to unload as quickly as possible, shower, and head off to the Haram [the Holy Mosque]. Having never set foot in Makkah before, I was anxious to get underway and within thirty minutes I was strolling down the street, white ihram wrapped around my body, headed towards the mosque, with only a general sense of where I was going. The street was packed bumper to bumper with traffic, as Makkah’s inhabitants tried to find parking spaces for the prayer. I gazed around me, bemused, as the thought occurred to me [and not for the last time, either]: “What is a boy from Michigan doing walking down the street in Makkah?! Wow!, I am really here!”. And I seemed to belong there somehow. As if I my very feet had contributed to smoothing the path that leads to the Ka’abah. It was with this thought in mind, rounding a corner, that the minarets of the Grand Mosque came into view. I was completely stopped in my tracks, transfixed in a gaze. At your service, my Lord, I am at your service [labbayka allahumma labbayk]. It was huge. Bigger than huge. It was magnificent. It took me several moments to take it all in, to digest it. Like a whirlpool, the gates of the Haram swallowed patron after patron, headed to find a spot to sit, awaiting the Friday Sermon. But yet again, another silent thought came to me: “This is modern architecture. As beautiful as it may seem, these minarets are modern fabrications. What I am in search of is ancient. Much older than these.” And so I picked up the pace, descending the last portion of the road that connects to the white marble outside the Haram.

I will endeavor to try and describe many of the wonderful things I have seen, heard, tasted and touched on this trip to the best of my ability. But I must plead guilty to being unable to properly describe what it meant to behold the Ka’abah the first time. Also named the House of God and the House of Abraham, the Ka’abah is the centerpiece of Muslim prayer. It is the direction to which Muslims pray. Often people will say that Muslims turn the direction of their prayer to Makkah, and while this is true, it is only true in that Makkah houses the Ka’abah. When at the Haram, one’s direction of prayer is the Ka’abah. It is stunning to see all four of its walls lined with people. Men, women and children all bowed in prostration towards it. Again, I was hit with the thought that when I am at home or in the office and praying, it is towards here, here!, that I am pointing my body. My qiblah [direction of prayer] leads here.

But in addition to the direction of prayer, it’s also the significance of being at the Ka’abah, to know that one is standing on the very same ground as the Prophet [may Allah bless him and grant him peace] once stood. That the companions of the Prophet once stood [may Allah be pleased with them]. An avid student of the religion from day one, I have read many an account of this or that event taking place at the Ka’abah, like the reading of ar-Rahman, the 55th chapter of the Qur’an, at the Ka’abah and the reaction of the Quraysh to it [my apologies for readers who are unfamiliar with some of the terminology. Feel free to contact me you wish to have a more detailed explanation]. But now with being here, I’ve gone from passive observer to active participant. To being inserted into the historical narrative, however small my bit part might be.

The Ka’abah is also much larger than one thinks, perhaps twenty feet in height and draped in black cloth, sewn and adorned with golden writing and calligraphy. The focus of the Ka’abah is the Black Stone. Pilgrims strive day and night to pass within its vicinity; to touch it, to kiss it. And despite what one thinks, being big is much more of a disadvantage when you’re trying to wade through a sea of people. I was never once able to get remotely close to the Black Stone. I simply take up too much room. But tawaf is not about touching the Black Stone or kissing it. It is nice if you can but it’s more just the presence of being in this place – one can feel the sanctity of it. The floor of the Haram is covered in white marble, which can be quite blinding in the intense midday sun. Thus I walked in, joined shoulder to shoulder with perhaps several thousand people, to make the Jumu’ah [Friday communal] Prayer.

After prayer I spent a little time walking through some of the shops that line the street going back to the hotel. Makkah, in a word, is bustling. There’s a palatable beat and rhythm that the people move to. Not in some exotic notion but rather that the people are always moving briskly – going somewhere of importance, at least to them. Shops line the streets selling a variety of goods from prayer mats, skull caps, and head scarves to money changers, food carts, fruit sellers and the like. There are also the make-shift vendors, many of them women, dressed head to toe in black, who call out their wares, haggling down to the last riyal [Saudi Arabian currency]. There is also no shortness of beggars, many of whom seem to border on professionalism, repeat the same stories over and over about how they came with their families to Makkah, had all of their money stolen, the car wrecked and so forth and ask you humbly, “Ya hajji, hajji, fiy sabiyliyllah” [O’ Pilgrim! Give for the sake of God]”. And while many of them are no doubt regulars there are indeed poor people on the street, many missing limbs and the like. For those who have not been and are planning to go, you must steel yourself for these encounters for while the professional beggars can be easily brushed aside, it is sometimes a child in the street with a missing leg or arm that can pull at the heart strings. But Makkah is for worship. That is the best advice I can give. Stick to worship at the Haram, at the Ka’bah and that will pull you through.

The next major task was to make ‘Umrah, one of the major foci of the trip. ‘Umrah is a type of pilgrimage, like the Hajj, but is shorter [taking only a few hours to complete], sometimes referred to as the minor Hajj. It does not fill the requirement of Hajj [the once in a lifetime mandate to make Hajj] – and can be performed any time of the year where Hajj is only performed in the month of dhul-Hijjah [the month of Hajj]. ‘Umrah consists of two major rituals, tawaf and saa’iy, follow by halq [complete cutting/shaving of hair – for men] or taqsiyr [partial trimming – for men/women]. ‘Umrah is performed in an item of clothing called an ihram. Ihram is also the name for the state that the mu’atamir [‘Umrah pilgrim] is in until the ‘Umrah ritual is completed. The garment [for men] consists of two white, seamless sheets of cotton, one wrapped around the waist and the other over the shoulders. Again, the mu’atamir remains in the state of ihram until s/he cuts the hair.

My days of practicing putting my ihram on and walking around the house paid off and before I knew it, I was headed off to the Haram, ready to perform my first ‘Umrah. I was accompanied by several members of our group, including Shaykh Muhammad Ninowy. We had waited until after the final evening prayer to go, hoping the crowds would be a little less and the heat a bit lower. We were granted one of our requests – it was only about 98 degrees instead of 109 but the crowd was still going strong. So lining up at the corner of the Black Stone, I raised my right hand, saluted the Ka’abah and said, “bismillah. Allahu akhbar, Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar [in the name of God. God is great, God is great, God is great]”. The first three times around the Ka’abah [making tawaf] the pace is sped up a bit by men, followed by four units at a regular walking speed. During the counter-clockwise navigation of the Ka’abah, one offers up prayers and supplications for oneself, one’s family, one’s loved ones, friends, the Prophet Muhammad [s], all the Prophets, all Muslims worldwide, all of humanity, and so forth. Other various prayers are offered up as well. It is a truly magical thing. Surrounded by thousands of people you do not know from Adam, and yet you find yourself smiling at them. Smiles are returned. Greetings are exchanged [as-Salaamu ‘alaykum, peace be unto you] and your thoughts glide upward to the Most High. We started as a group but by the first round of tawaf we were separated and all of us interspersed into the greater crowd. Over and over, we circle the Ka’abah, all thoughts on God. I don’t think I’ve ever had a more selfless moment in my life. I pray I can return for many more.

Once our seven units of tawaf were completed we offered two units of prayer at the station of Ibrahim [Abraham]. The many rituals of ‘Umrah and Hajj are symbolic representations of what Abraham and his wife Hagar did. For instance, saa’iy, the seven units of walking between the hills of Safaa and Marwa represent the anxious search of Hagar of water until God revealed to her the location of the Zamzam well. We left the station of Ibrahim and proceeded to saa’iy.

It was unclear if the current conditions at saa’iy are temporary or permanent. Saa’iy used to be open-aired but now is enclosed. This created two issues. One, the effects of the heat are intensified as the heat has nowhere to go. It was the only place in Saudi that I felt humidity. And two, it makes it more difficult to discern the localities of the small hills of Safaa and Marwa. I can only hope these are temporary measure due to construction on the Mosque.

The crowds were tight in here as well, as with the area being enclosed, there was nowhere for the crowds to spill over to. There are two main paths, one leading to Marwah and the other back to Safaa, with a small path in between the two to allow for the disabled in wheelchairs to make saa’iy as well. Again, one starts off by making supplications and the sets off between the two hills. Some people stop at intervals and have a small cup of Zamzam water before carrying on. At the completion of the said seven units, the rituals of ‘Umrah are now completed, with only the hair cutting remaining. Despite only walking, we were all fairly exhausted from the effort and headed back to the hotel for a shower and hair trimming.

The barber in the hotel was a curious fellow from Egypt. I believe he was from Aswan and perhaps of Sudanese heritage. He took a lot of pride in not only shaving heads but giving us a hard time about politics and religion. He kept us laughing for the better part of an hour, after which most people in the group had their heads shaved. I opted for a simple cutting of a few locks. And with the hair cutting completed, we finished our ‘Umrah and resumed our normal affairs, taking off our ihrams until the next time.

We remained in Makkah for a few more days, attending classes and recovering from the efforts of ‘Umrah. I had a chance to go out and get to know the city a bit. Zayd and myself took an excursion one day which resulted in a very funny incident.

Bartering is how things get done in Makkah. You barter for just about everything and anything. Prices are not what they seem and unless you just want to get taken for a ride, you’d better learn to barter. A little Arabic under your belt wouldn’t hurt either, as was the case with Zayd. While walking in a predominantly Bengali section of Makkah, Zayd [who, for the context of this story, is a white-American convert with a slightly Southern accent] needed to new AA batteries for his GPS tracking device [p.s.  just for the record. If you don’t want to be treated like a tourist and gouged on prices, put away the shinny GPS device and just get lost like the rest of us!]. Upon entering what looked like to be a promising little shop, the owner spotted his rent for the day and offered Zayd two AA batteries for the sum of 75 riyals! That’s about twenty American dollars. The man feigned speaking English of course and thus Zayd came back, requesting some assistance. I lent my swarthy appearance to the task and when I inquired about two AA batteries the negotiating started at 10 riyals, and the end of which the man was widdled down to three [about 80 cents]! Again, unless you want to spend all your hard earned cash on AA batteries, put away any all possible traces of American-ness.

In addition to classes we also took a tour around Makkah, visiting a number of significant historical sites from the grave of Khadijah, may Allah be pleased with her, the Prophet’s [s] wife, other graves of the Companions of the Prophet, may God be pleased with them, to some of the sites that the Prophet [s] used to frequent before his call to Prophethood. Caves and mountain sites where he [s] would go into spiritual retreat and meditate and pray. The shuyukh [plural of shaykh] provided us with a bounty of commentary on each and every place we went, enriching the experience and making it all come alive. May Allah reward them for the time and effort. It was these tours, combined with the classes, which really made the experience of going with the Madinah Institute extremely worthwhile. I commend them and ask Allah to reward them for their efforts in organizing such a wonderful trip.

From Makkah we journeyed approximately 5 hours through the desert to Madinah, also knows as al-Madinatul Munawwarah [The City of Light/The Enlightened City] and Madinatun Nabiyy [The City of the Prophet]. In pre-Islamic times it was known as Yathrib. Our stay was first at the Movenpick hotel followed by the Hilton. Both accommodations were quite splendid. Another small tip – befriend the Egyptian guy that cleans your room. If you get him to like you [which means trying to converse with him in a face-paced, half-intelligible Egyptian slang about soccer and Hajj, where your family is from and whether or not you’re married as well as leaving him about 10 or so riyals a day], you’ll want for nothing. At least that’s at the Movenpick. At the Hilton you can just speak English with the Bengali staff. They’re very gracious.

Madinah. The City of the Prophet. From the first moment one steps into Madinah, you can feel the tranquility of the place. A completely different vibe underpins Madinah versus Makkah. The hustle and bustle of Makkah is replaced with a much more toned down pace of life. Even the weather is tamer, despite it supposedly being warmer. A gentle breeze always seems to be blowing in Madinah. It is the place from one’s initial contact; you know you never want to leave it.

The rhythm of our stay in Madinah was more calculated, with classes being interspersed between prayer times. Less time was spent at the suwq [market], as was the case in Makkah, as in Madinah it seemed. We all really just wanted to spend time at the Prophet’s [s] Mosque, making Visitation to him, spending time in the Rawdah [a small section of the Mosque adjacent to the Prophet’s [s] house, which is considered by Muslims to be a part of the Jannah [Paradise]. I myself spent a lot time here, reading Qur’an one afternoon with El-Amin, a wonderful American brother I met on this trip, as well as making dhikr, making du’ah [supplication] for family and loved ones or just simply sitting there with the soothing thought that one is in the presence of the Best of Creation. Again, Madinah is a place of the heart and one longs to extend one’s stay here.

If one has the time and the resources, Madinah is a treasure trove of Muslim history, with many masaajid [mosques] and other places of interest. Many are within walking distance of the Prophet’s [s] Mosque. Unfortunately, I was unaware of this until after our trip. God willing, I will return again next year and frequent some of these places, hoping to photograph some of them. My intention to photograph them is not simply for the sake of tourism, but rather to preserve some memory of them as the Saudi government is studiously knocking down many important historical and religious sites. I can only hope that they will see that modernization can accommodate the past and put a stop to this. Amin.

Like in Makkah, the Madinah Institute also set up tours of Madinah. Several places were visited including amongst them the Masjid Qiblatayn [the mosque of two directions of prayer, where the initial qiblah of Jerusalem as moved to the Ka’abah in Makkah], Masjid Quba, the first mosque established in Madinah, as well as a number of other smaller and far well less know sites like the grove of date palm trees near Quba where there is a sweet-tasting well/spring, called Adhq [from dhawq, which means to taste], a place frequented by the Prophet Muhammad [s]. The grove was owned by Kulthum ibn Hadm, from Bani Amr ibn Awf. The Prophet’ [s], on the Hijrah [the Migration from Makkah to Madinah], stopped and rested in this palm grove area. We also visited the site of Uhud, where many Muslims were martyred. The Prophet’s [s] uncle, Hamzah, may Allah be pleased with him, is also buried there. Again, the efforts of the shuyukh in instructing us really made these legs of the trip so much more informative.

From here, I will conclude with just a few points. I have only scratched the surface of what this trip was and the more I think of it, I will not be able to adequately write about it. Perhaps, through a more personal correspondence with some of you, I can share a more intimate account. But in the end, it was a journey of the heart and thus, can only be truly articulated by the heart. My recommendation? Visit it for yourself. Taste it [dhawq] for yourself and then you will truly know what it means to visit the House of God. What it means to be in the presence of the Mercy to All the Worlds. Again, I prefaced my post that this would be written in the spirit of what I felt, not in my usual academic prose or interfaith dialect. I love Makkah. I love the House of God. And I love the Prophet. I pray I am invited again by its Host, to lay prostrate, open and completely human, as I have only felt in the Divine Presence of the Haramayn [The Two Harams of Makkah and Madinah].

My heartfelt thanks to the Madinah Institute for making this possible. To Shaykh Mohsin Al-Najjar for being patient with me and all of my questions. To Shaykh Ninowy to tolerating my clumsy Arabic with a kind smile [na’am, sidi, na’am, he would often say!!]. To Shaykh Muhammad Ali Ben Saddek Al-Ghumari. I treasure the time I had to speak with you. I apologize that my French was not better! Perhaps I can visit you in Fez, God willing. To British crew: I could not have bad better roommates than you sorry blokes [how’s my Cockney coming along?]!! I had the best time with Majid and Arfan [p.s. next time I look like I’m sleepy: wake me up. I won’t mind!! ]. To Asim – our time was short but I look forward to more. For Sajad and Esa: you guys were just excellent company. I really want to put together a trip to England to visit all of you. Faisal – I am counting on you to take me out for fish n’ chips when I come. And for all the others, brothers and sisters alike, you made this trip what it was. I hope we can all meet again under such favorable locations and spirit. But most of all to the Atiya family. Without whom, none of this would have come together and especially Moutasem, who’s tireless, selfless work made all of us just glide on rails the whole time we were there. May Allah reward you in it and increase you in that reward. Until the next episode, my heart will lay somewhere over the Atlantic, longing for Madinah.