Coming home from Mecca.. A young Arab-British woman’s account of the umrah

Sunday 26/02/2017
Muslims pray at the Kaaba as they perform umrah, the lesser pilgrimage, in the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. (AFP)

Mecca - “Sister, your hijab is fall­ing off,” a woman told me loudly with a smile. We were in a swarm circling the Kaaba in Mecca’s Grand Mosque that pushed us ahead so quickly that by the time I thanked her, she was too far ahead of me to hear.
For a second I thought, “So what if my hijab is falling off? Is God re­ally not going to appreciate me travelling all the way from London to Mecca for Him if my hijab fell off and I didn’t fix it?”
I decided to ask people why they were performing umrah. The word “umrah” means to “visit a popu­lated place”. Unlike haj, umrah is a shorter pilgrimage that can be made at any time. It is not compul­sory but it is sunnah and so highly recommended by the Prophet Mo­hammad.
One woman answered me in one word: “Recharge”. I asked what she meant. She said the world is full of problems she faces everyday so she needs to get away and recharge her energy to deal with them. Energy for her only comes from God.
I wondered if the energy she was feeling was really from God or whether it was from people sur­rounding the Kaaba. Some were re­citing the Quran loudly in a group, some were speaking through the Kaaba to God and others were holding the Kaaba itself and cry­ing. It was not just a case of walking around the imposing black-draped cubic building. Energy emitted from people or God lifted our spir­ituality.
The woman was adamant: “The energy was from God and not peo­ple.” She said she at first could not understand why non-Muslims can­not perform umrah, as she thought maybe they might believe in Islam after visiting the Kaaba. She said later she understood why it would be a waste of time for them.
“My Muslim friend visited China and meditated with Buddhists. She came back and told me that she did not feel what they felt and just felt like she had a yoga session and nothing more,” she said. “That is when I knew the importance of believing and understanding the religion fully before performing the rituals, otherwise it will not have an effect on you.”
Another woman said she visited the Kaaba to thank God for every­thing she has. As she aged and quit her job, she became more spiritual and had more time to think about her spirituality since she had fewer distractions.
“I am not really here to please God to reach heaven,” she said. “I do not think people have to come here to reach heaven. I came here for my­self because I felt like it, not because God wants us to. We need God. God does not need us. It just did not feel right that I visited the Vatican and I do not visit the Kaaba.”
The first part of the umrah is to circle the Kaaba seven times. For the second part, pilgrims walk seven times between the hills of Al- Safa and Al-Marwah to re-enact the search for water by Abraham’s wife, Hajar. The final part is for men to shave their hair and women to cut a minimum of 1 inch of their hair.
“It’s amazing that so many Mus­lims re-enact the movements of a woman in history,” another woman said. “A woman who showed pa­tience after God ordered her hus­band to leave her and her baby in scorching heat and was rewarded with Zamzam water.”
“I really do not understand why people say Islam does not appreci­ate women and they are not as im­portant as men. If Hajar was insignif­icant, why is everyone re-enacting what she did?” she asked.
For me, umrah was an easy way to collect points to go to heaven. The worth of your prayers is multiplied if you pray in the house of God and it only takes a few hours to complete the pilgrimage. It is an atypical holi­day. I was staying in the penthouse of the Hilton with a lovely view of the Kaaba. The pilgrimage was not tiring and was just the right amount of exercise.
I particularly liked the commu­nity feeling. Seeing people from all over the world who follow a similar lifestyle gave me a sense of belong­ing in the world, a belonging I was yearning for many years being an Arab Muslim in Britain, living away from Muslim populated areas.
I pray at home, have prayed at mosques and have heard the ad­han in many Muslim countries but the feeling of praying in the house of God was a very different experi­ence.
I think Muslims should perform umrah when they are certain about their belief in God. One has to brave the flows of people, wait 45 min­utes in a queue to merely grab a hamburger and show patience in long queues at Jeddah airport to be checked individually through secu­rity.
However, regardless whether a person’s experience of it is good or bad, they will always return back home with something to say.