Sunday, 20 August 2017

How To Plan For An Umrah

Umrah is a 'minor pilgrimage' or 'lesser pilgrimage', while the Hajj (a resolve to some magnificent duty) is the 'major pilgrimage’.

While Umrah is highly recommended, Hajj is compulsory for every able-bodied Muslim who can economically and physically afford it. The Arabs address even the Umrah pilgrims as Haji (one who performs Umrah).

The Umrah (عمرة‎‎) is a pilgrimage to Makkah (Arabia) that can be performed by Muslims during any time of the year except the five days of 9-13 Dhul Hajj (during which it is considered makrooh tahreemi or prohibited). However, the Hajj is offered only during the eleventh Islamic month of Dhul Hajj based on the lunar calendar.

Why do you need to go?

Pilgrimage means more than just offering prayers at the Haram, consuming Ajwa dates and drinking Zamzam water.

Ask yourself a few honest questions before embarking on this holy journey:
  1. Am I going for Umrah for Allah’s pleasure or because it is a popular religious activity these days?
  2. Will I be able to wash off all my sins in Makkah?
  3. Will I be able to refrain from indulging in sinful behaviour after returning home?
  4. Why am I going to Makkah if I am unwilling to change?
  5. If I do not improve as a human being after performing Umrah, it means my pilgrimage was rejected by Allah. What shall I do to reverse this condition?
What is Umrah?

The word Umrah literally means ‘to visit a populated place’.

In the Shariah (laws derived from the Qur’an and Sunnah practises of the last Messenger of Allah) Umrah means ‘to perform Tawaaf (counter clockwise circumambulation) around the Ka’aba.

Running seven times between the hills Al-Safa and Al-Marwah is called Sa'i and which commemorates Hazrat Hajira’s search for water and God's mercy 
in answering prayers. This is done after assuming Ihram (a sacred state), from one of the six Miqaat points (geographically ‘stated places’). Each run is 350m or a total of 3.15 Km for seven runs.

After the Tawaaf and the Sa'i, Muslims complete the rituals associated with Umrah with halq or taqseer (shaving of the head). Pilgrims then drink water from the well of Zamzam just as the Last Messenger of Allah did over 1,400 years ago.

There are two types of Umrah:
  • Al-Umrat al mufradah refers to Umrah that is performed independently of Hajj.
  • Umrat al-tammatu refers to Umrah that is performed in conjunction with Hajj; the rituals of the Umrah are performed first and then those associated with the Hajj.

Umrah is obligatory

According to the Hadith (Bukhari 1654, Muslim 1253, Tirmidhi 821), the Last Messenger of Allah performed four Umrahs and one Hajj but some scholars insist he performed three Hajjs (two before migration to Medina and the last Farewell Hajj).
Many Muslims end up performing Umrahs for deceased relatives while forgetting that every nafs (ego) is individually responsible for deeds done during a limited earthly life and which effect the ruh (soul).

Contrary to the Christian belief, Islam does not require a believer to carry another person’s cross over the shoulders.

If your deceased spouse, parent(s), children or sibling(s) were unable to perform Umrah, it is better to pray for their forgiveness instead of burdening yourself with their sins or attempting to wash them in Makkah.

Holy business?

Even if it were to be believed that performing four Umrahs was the Sunnah (action) of the Messenger of Allah, under what compulsion do Muslims perform more than that number?

Why are the religious scholars silent on key issue and why has piety become an open display of money and fake religiosity?

Arabia has already declared that their future revenues—upwards of $16 billion each year—will mostly come from Hajj because oil has lost its artificially inflated value. The troika of Arab hotel owners, tour-operators and the mullahs are indulging in getting everyone hooked to performing repeated Umrahs.

As for the Hajj, the Qur’an imposes a simple to understand condition:
(3:97) Hence, pilgrimage unto the Temple is a duty owed to God by all people who are able to undertake it (or able to afford it, or who can find a way to it).
What the verse means is this: suppose a poor Muslim man has daughters or sisters that he must marry off, or care for an ailing family member, or get his sons educated enough to earn a decent living. If he is unable to attend to important matters at home, he is not obliged to spend a small fortune on performing Umrah or Hajj.

Or suppose that he must pass through a war-zone (and risk getting killed) to get to Makkah. What answer will he give to Allah on Judgement Day for endangering his own life and ruining his family's? Islam, therefore, is a practical religion which does not commands believers to burden themselves unnecessarily.
The Prophet's house (birth place) in Makkah
If one is physically straightened or economically unstable, presenting himself at Allah’s House is bound to displease Him. It is best to go for Umrah in good health—physically, emotionally and economically.

Sadly, many performers of multiple Umrahs are unable to wash off their sins in Makkah because upon returning home, their conduct is not purged of lying, cheating and sinning. This clearly indicates that their visits have not be blessed and the Umrahs (or Hajj) rejected.

Basic preparation

A few weeks prior to your departure, start building up your stamina for long brisk walks. If you wish to offer five congregational prayers in the rows nearest to the Prophet’s mausoleum in Medina. This translates into walking for ten 
Kilometres daily.

Our lifestyles at home are such that usually the ladies and the children rely more on chauffeur-driven luxury cars than their feet. Physical stamina is in short supply.

While wheel-chairs and attendants are available for hire at Makkah. Carrying along your own wheel-chair for a disabled person does come handy while moving about for food and shopping.

A spiritual package

Let the travel agent make a small profit for making your life easy. Resist the temptation to arrange for accommodation on your own as that may not be a cheaper proposition. Travel agents can rent hotel rooms in bulk and get better discounts.

The star-ratings of hotels are important if you prefer 5-star luxury or insist on acting like a VIP in Allah’s House. That said, it is not a sin to ask for some comfort especially in hot weather.

Go for a travel 'package' as it normally includes everything: 
 visa processing fees, return tickets by air, hotel accommodation (with a sumptuous breakfast), and travel between the airports and the hotels (but not ziarah of historical sites).

Group-travel with your extended family or strangers is cheaper and provides greater support.

Taking women, children and aged folks along will drain you of energy. 
The truth is: family matters distract from praying properly, lessen focus, and waste precious time and energy. If you insist on taking along difficult-to-handle family members along, nobody can stop you from earning extra sawaab (Allah’s reward points).

Although hotel rooms can accommodate anywhere from two to six people in each, it is best to keep the maximum number of persons per room down. Sleeping with crying infants or snoring aged folks will cause sleep deprivation which must be avoided to gain maximum benefit from the pilgrimage.

Trips range from 4 nights to as many as 30.  Avoid religious overkill. Staying longer means unnecessary expenses, crowding inside hotels, pushing and shoving at the Holy sites, and feelings of claustrophobia. 
A longer stay may not make you more pious. Do not be a selfish hoarder of sawaab by assuming that the longer you stay in Arabia, the more spiritually dry-cleaned you will emerge.

What to look for in a travel agent

Get an authorised travel agent with links to a reputable Arabian agent. His good reputation will result in fewer headaches in a foreign land. Prior to Ramadan, the visa fees start shooting up from Rs 14,000 to 25,000 and reach up to Rs 35,000.

These days, many rich Muslims feel the urge to spend the entire month of Ramadan in the cities of Medina and Makkah. May Allah have mercy on the poor who imitate the rich and the starved who go hungry because the rich waste food.

Charity and prayers go hand in hand but it seems that many Muslims these days are fixating only on prayers.

Any decent package will take care of travel between the airports and the hotels.

A good travel agent will provide a luxurious American GMC vehicle able to comfortably transport 6-8 passengers. Anything less will mean reduced comfort level during the 5-hours long journey between Medina and Makkah.

If the GMC’s driver can speak your language—or at least English—it will reduce stress. An alternative is to enquire from your hotel’s concierge; he will present a much cheaper solution as taxis of all sizes are readily available at the doorstep.

If you wish to go for ziarah (visits) of important historical sites in Medina and Makkah, the travel agent will invariably quote you a higher price.

Be mindful of the fact that many sites of historical importance have been demolished by the House of Saud to make room for ugly commercial sky-scrappers.

The documents you require

The documents required for travel may vary but the following are essential:
  1. Two coloured passport-sized photographs with light blue background. Women’s heads must be covered in the photographs
  2. Valid passport (with not less than six months remaining to expiry)
  3. Leave certificate from your employer
  4. Air travel tickets with confirmed two-way booking
  5. Original CNIC (computerised national identity card)
After the travel agent has confirmed your hotel booking, filled out relevant forms and obtained visas, he will issue his agency’s ID card which is required for identifying yourself at various points during the trip.

The agent should provide you with a detailed printed plan with names and cell-phone numbers or relevant persons. Once you pay the full charges of the tour; do obtain a receipt for your record.

The passport

This document must not have less than six months remaining for expiry.

Estimated expenses person (does not include the cost of air travel)
  1. Tickets: 79,000 (self-financed economy class tickets Rs 55,000-110,000 each)
  2. Package (3 nights in Medina, 3 nights in Makkah): 456,000 (hotels, transportation, visas)
  3. Expenses: Rs 35,000 (food for six persons twice a day), Rs 45,000 (shopping etc.)
  4. Total: 620,000 (103,000/person with my free tickets)
  5. It is best to carry a reasonable amount of foreign currency, say SR 600-1200 per person. The legal limit for Riyals allowed into Arabia is 60,000.
  6. While leaving Pakistan the limit is Rs 3,000 of Pakistani currency or $10,000. It is best to avoid using credit cards abroad unless you wish to make the banks rich through charging of double conversion rates (Rupees to Dollars to Riyals).

To avoid fatigue, it might be best to land at Jeddah, perform the Umrah and then proceed to Medina.

I followed the travel agent’s advice, landed in Medina and then proceeded for Umrah to Makkah 'because the Messenger of Allah went from Medina to Makkah as well'.

As you leave Pakistan, the health department’s officials will make you drink anti-Polio drops and issue certificates that have no value in Arabia.

Upon arrival at Medina, the officials will again make you drink more of that ineffective anti-Polio concoction. Only pregnant ladies are exempt from drinking these drops.

I strongly advise you to take written prescriptions from your doctors and carry sufficient medicines for the entire trip. Carry along a small medical kit will take care of aches, cough and fever because medicines are expensive in Arabia.

I was advised by a friend; "In case something goes wrong abroad, visit a government hospital instead of a private clinic."

As for poor health, I recall seeing a man with his aged father offering prayers inside Masjid-e-Nabwi. The poor son had to repeatedly gather in a plastic bag the saliva of a father who coughed frequently. This not only disturbed others, it felt repulsive in that Holy environment.

My own mother fell sick during the last days of the Umrah. This kept her away from congregational prayers, hence less sawaab for her. Perhaps I got extra sawaab for caring for her, but then if Islam is turned into a sawaab-machine for scoring spiritual reward points, selfishness and self-centeredness tend to creep in.

Rituals and prayers

VERILY, God does not forgive the ascribing of divinity to aught beside Him, although He forgives any lesser sin unto whomever He wills: for he who ascribes divinity to aught beside God has indeed contrived an awesome sin. Qur'an 4:48

Outlining the finer points of rituals and Umrah prayers is beyond the scope of this article. It is best to conduct research on the internet or ask a Haji friend. Be mindful of one thing: unintentional slips will occur during the journey no matter how well-prepared you go.

The rituals and supplications will vary somewhat for Muslims belonging to:
  1. Sunni madhhab (Hanbali, Maliki, Shafi’i or Hanaffi school of thought)
  2. Sub-sect (Barelvi, Deobandi etc.)
  3. Shi’a fiqh (jurisprudence) schools of Ismaili, Bohra, or Khoja varieties
  4. You are strongly advised to rid yourself of the poisonous ideology of takfir (labelling others as unbelievers worth killing). Imagine other fellow beings as travellers on different roads headed for the same destination.
  5. Ensure that the rituals and prayers do not make you commit shirk (associating partners with Allah) as this is the only sin that is unpardonable according to the Qur’an:
Be careful about what you ask for in your prayers. Cherish the simplicity and purity of Islam as it was practised long ago.

Be humble and sincere in your intentions. Seek much forgiveness and Divine guidance, and happily tolerate whatever hardships come your way during the Umrah.


Pilgrimage has become quite dangerous because of official corruption and deaths that occur yearly due to stampedes and accidents at Makkah. There is no guarantee that the government of Arabia will send back the bodies of publicly-executed criminals or victims of yearly stampedes at Makkah.

Unfortunately, performing Umrah has become a religious VIP tour that brings varying levels of happiness and peace to the pilgrims. Long trips are expensive; do consider the depressed economies and political turmoils plaguing your home country.

Minor irritants might overwhelm you on this sacred journey if you habitually leave everything to Allah. As they say in Arabia: first tie your camel and then place your trust in God. 

If you find that this article has helped you in some way, please pray for me. If you feel it can be improved, kindly post suggestions. May Allah accept your repentance and Umrah.

©Tahir Gul Hasan, 2017

Some pictures courtesy of Native Pakistan
Bahraini man who performed tawaaf around the Kaaba during 1941 floods is dead
Destruction of early Islamic heritage sites in Saudi Arabia
Video of door opening of Kaaba
Tawaaf on a hoverboard
Women with periods
Grand view of Kaaba from high point

I have used the word Arabia instead of KSA (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) throughout this article as this was the original name of the land whose king the Messenger of Allah never claimed to be. Had he wished, he could have renamed it after his own tribe's name. With this in mind, I sincerely hope that KSA’a authorities will not mind my pious choice.