I went to Saudi Arabia to perform Umrah. It is the small pilgrimage as a preparation for the big pilgrimage, the Hajj, which is obligatory for every Muslim. I’m told that if I had not experienced the things I have, my attachment to the holy places in Mecca and Medina would not have been as strong.
I disagree. I have always wanted to go for Umrah. Whenever I saw the Kaaba on television I would wish in my heart that one day the Almighty would invite me to his house. One day my wish came true. Compared to this experience, all the other so-called highlights of my life seem to fade. This is definitely the major highlight so far.
Nevertheless, after performing Umrah, I do believe the end of the world is nigh and I sincerely hope I get to perform my Hajj before it all ends. The signs are all there. It is said in the Holy Quran that near the Day of Judgement, the Hajr-e Aswad, the Black Stone will disappear. It is rapidly decreasing. I didn’t get to see it because there was a huge fighting crowd surrounding it, but it’s illuminating light was hard to miss. There will be high rise buildings over towering the Kaaba. The world’s largest clock tower, a copy of the Big Ben in London, is right next to it. To make the clock tower less diabolical, they have put verses from the Quran and an Allah sign as part of its decoration. Moreover, there are high rise five star hotels built just outside the Grand Mosque. I was horrified and quite frankly shocked. What is supposed to be a place for reverence is turned into a tourist spot. Talk about commercializing religion! What is supposed to be a spiritual journey to get closer to the Almighty does not need to be updated to suit modern needs and conveniences for the jet-setting and high flying elites and rulers of the world.
Pilgrimage is supposed to make you ask question about your relationship to the Almighty. It is supposed to renew your faith and such personal rummages demand traditional methods, ways and mores of doing things. Most importantly, it requires control and quotas on visas. Today, each and every travel agents who is Muslim is also Hajj and Umrah agent. Clearly there is overbooking. With so many people wanting to fulfill their religious obligation, there will be overcrowding and tension and people getting killed in the rush. Then again if you die by the Kaaba or the mosque in Medina you go straight to heaven and there will be no accountability on the Day of Judgment.
In the Holy places you are not allowed to push or fight to get ahead while performing Tawaaf, Saai, or any of the other rites of pilgrimage, but people behave violently because they want to get it over and done with and they want to feel blessed. But blessings can never be gained through harming others just to get what you want, especially not during a pilgrimage.
Umrah was a very exciting experience for me, I could imagine what Rabia Addawwiya must have felt like with her religious fervor and all the other sufi women of Islam. This is because, for the spiritually inclined, religion is a drug like no other. It gives you strength, faith, and purpose. It becomes your guiding light. I performed Tawaf, which is 7 rounds of the Kaaba, I touched the cover of the Kaaba. Then I performed Saai, to experience to pain and desperation of Hajra when she needed water for the newborn Prophet Ibrahim. The Saai consists of 7 round trips between the Safa and Marwa hills. My legs were sore after performing such a simple walk and I wasn’t even running. By the time I was done, I was barely able to lift my feet. I drank water of the Prophets, Ab-e- Zam Zam, which is holy water.
For the first time in my life I finally understood what a halo is. The Kaaba glows in it. It is as if there is a shimmering cloud of gold dust surrounding it, drawing its energy from the crowds of people walking around it. The Kaaba is the heart, the people are its blood; a heart pumping blood to keep an organism alive. The Muslim community is that organism. We both need each other, but the blood can’t flow through the structure without the heart, so we need the heart more than it needs us. Similarly, we, the believers, need the Almighty Allah more than he needs us. It’s an irrevocable patron-client relationship, but of a divine and more generous nature than the one you find in the world of flimsy human beings.
I went to Medina, to the Masjid-e- Nabwi, the Prophet’s Mosque. It is a grand mosque, much less crowded, but a very peaceful place. This is where the Muslim community comes together as a family of believers. I went to the areas where the Prophet Muhammad used to offer his prayers, Riyad-e Jannat, but I had to literally fight to get there. Female guides in the women area take you there from inside the mosque. The guides are different according to language. Arabic speakers, Urdu/Hindi speakers, Indonesian/ Malay speakers and the group goes according to slots. Usually the Arabic speaking group will get to go first, then the Urdu/Hindi speaking. And boy do the guides talk. They lecture about the dos and don’t and tell you to be patient. As you get to the section to enter the Riyad-e Jannat area of the Prophet’s mosque we had to wait for our turn. Even though we had been waiting there for quite some time, the Arabic speaking group were always allowed in before us. Many Arabs were even jumping the queue and none of the “tour guides” stopped them, but if anyone from the Urdu/Hindi speaking group tried to jump the qeue, they were shouted at and stopped and told their impatience was haram with a wagging, raised index finger.
Eventually I got to the Riyad-e-Jannat area of the mosque. It was worth the fight, but the discrimination really got to me. This is a holy place of worship, discrimination against any caste or creed is haraam. How come no one is educating the guides on that? They are the ones who are obscene. I was just grateful I got to offer a nawafil prayer in the area. I fought so hard to get to this part of the mosque to see the shrine of my beloved Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and Abu Bakar saddiq. The area was cordoned off for women, because apparently some new hadith had been discovered that women were not allowed near the shrines. This made my blood boil because that’s not true. Islam is the only religion as far as I have understood, which gives equal access to its holy places of worship. This is one of its main attractions. It is the open access to religion which encourages women to develop a closer relationship with the teachings of Islam. This is discrimination, it is misogyny, it is hypocrisy. It is as Saudis love to say, biddah! And they call foolish things biddah, they say everything is biddah. Heck what they are doing is biddah, turning religious obligation into a money minting machine. They should be honoured to be the custodians of these sites. It is an honourable responsibility, not a liability.
Finally, it should be added that after sharing my story about the lack of access to the Prophet Muhammad’s grave site, I came to know that it is only covered up in the during Hajj and the month of Ramadan. if you go to Medina Munawwara at other times during the year, then women can go to the Prophet’s gravesite.