Hajj pilgrims often remain so wrapped up in the rituals of the pilgrimage that they do not have time to explore the suburbs of the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah. But with a little effort, anyone can easily make time to create the scope to do so, and try to walk Islam's history in person. When people make the intention for offering the hajj or umrah pilgrimage, they start to feel a change within themselves. And then, when they see the Kaaba in front of their eyes, and the resting place of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), they feel that all their wishes have been granted. A believer has very little to ask for after this.
And yet, if a pilgrim, during their hajj or umrah, can visit some of the places in Makkah and Madinah, it will be an added blessing. It is a truly different kind of emotional experience when the places that we as children read about in the biography of the Prophet (pbuh) come alive in front of our eyes. Besides, it is also a chance to observe the society and communities at Makkah, Madinah, and Taif, as well as the tourist spots.
WEARING AND MANAGING THE IHRAM
Men of all ages must wear the ihram for both umrah and hajj. I had a very funny experience on the flight for umrah. Two 11-12 year old brothers sitting beside me were wearing the ihram. After some time, I saw them streaking about naked while their father repeatedly tried to fix their ihram. Finally, I saw they had wrapped the upper part of the ihram around their tummy, and the lower piece was held around their waists with belts. Of course, both brothers remained happily half-naked.
The ihram made a similar spectacle out of my brother too. The cloth kept coming off again and again. He took out his pants' belt and used it to hold the lower piece around his waist. It looked like wearing a belt over the lungi. But this piece of cloth is usually much heavier than a lungi. Also, the lungi is stitched, which this cloth is not. Hence, the belt wasn't exactly working as expected.
My suggestion for the ihram is that if you make the intention for performing the hajj or umrah, practice tying the ihram and walking about in it, as most city people are not accustomed to wearing the lungi.
Landing in Jeddah, I found many Bangladeshis working at the airport, so it was no problem getting a SIM or any other assistance. Even though I did not see much of greenery, there were plenty of fancy high-rises. Many of these are hotels, and house pilgrims all year round, our driver told us.
When we finally reached Makkah's centre, right near the Kaaba, it was about 10am in the morning. It was still about two and a half hours to Jummah time. On reaching, I saw hundreds of thousands of people walking towards the Kaaba. The driver said all the nearby roads are shut down after 10am on Fridays. Seeing the crowds I wondered if this was just during the umrahs, how the situation must be during hajj times! Coming here, I realised that people who have the elderly with them or have difficulty walking should stay some place nearby, otherwise the long walk in the scorching sun could become very difficult.
During the hajj, and even umrahs, many people get lost or separated from their groups. So everyone in the group should keep some token, phone number, or an address with them at all times. If someone passes away after coming here, the group has to follow through many rituals and regulations, so it is better to know of these beforehand.
SEEING THE KAABA
Even while doing the umrah in April, the Kaaba was chockfull of people. All you can see are people and people everywhere, from elderly octogenarians to toddlers in their parents' laps, there is no difference, no system of purdah between anyone. While some offer namaz, others prostrate or supplicate, while yet others do the tawaf, or even others who just cry or simply stare at the Kaaba. But everybody prays in some manner-- that is all you can see around the Kaaba. Every few yards, there are drinking fountains supplying Zamzam water for all, as well as wheel chairs and sitting arrangements for rest. Even the nearby hotel-rooms offer wheelchairs.
Those who come with the intention of staying the entire day at the Kaaba, come prepared with food and necessities. They eat, pray, rest a while, offer prayers, read the Quran, and chat among themselves. Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Afghani and Burmese are engaged here in all sort of services, along with some Indian Muslims. Many Bengalis came forward to help, hearing us speak Bangla.There were so many migrant Bangladeshi workers around the Kaaba that we did not need either Arabic or English, Bangla was enough. Makkah truly is a city of pilgrims.
PRAYING IN JAMAAT
In Makkah and Madinah, I saw women praying in the Jamaat side by side of the men. Some even started on the market's steps, or the footpath. Jamaat here begins right after the Azan, so most people grab a spot beforehand. The Imam only led the farz part of the namaz, and everyone offers the rest on their own. Almost every jamaat time, 'gayebana janazas' are held. Also, nothing comes in the way of people taking pictures, even selfies.
GOING NEAR THE KAABA
It is quite difficult to go near the Kaaba or enter its exact premises, for the sheer number of people. So we picked midnight to be a more likely time, assuming there would be fewer people. But no, even then, there was a massive crowd. It is advisable to always remember by which gate you are entering the premises, which can help you avoid getting lost.
After walking straight into the Masjid al Haram from the road, and just following the crowd towards the Kaaba, I was a bit surprised to see that the Kaaba was not exactly on the same plane, as we had to climb a flight of stairs to reach its depth, about a floor's height. We did not know this before.
People were doing tawaf then, some were offering prayers, others supplicating or doing zikr, whichever way they could. There was no difference of age, gender, nationality or race. Someone is praying, and someone else walks right in front of them while doing a tawaf. Women are required to wear an abaya to cover their heads and hair, but the abaya can be of any colour.
AN AUDACIOUS SIGHT
Even in front of the Kaaba, there are people who are busy cheating others! There is no reason to assume that everyone is telling the truth here. Scammers from different countries roam around, and undoubtedly their audacity is unimaginable—lying right in front of the Kaaba! There is no scope to jump in to help someone in trouble here.
THE FIRST NEGATIVE EXPERIENCE IN ARABIA
We wanted to taste the local cuisine —roti, curry and chutney—and so, we entered a local Arab shop. But the moment we entered, the shopkeeper turned around and left, loudly saying “no women, no women.” So we walked out annoyed, and took ourselves to a non-Arab food shop, and ate roti, lentils, and kebabs.
DIFFERENT KINDS OF FOOD
Here, roti is usually free with the curry. Hotels are operated by people from different countries, but most of the food is quite oily, and the price varies. There are also the common chain restaurants like KFC, Pizza Hut, McDonald's, Shawarma House, Baskin Robbins and Movenpick. A variety of fruits and yoghurt are also available. Once the principal food of the nomadic Bedouins of this region was camel's milk. Low-calorie camel milk is also available at the camel farms around Makkah. If you can find some connection through a local and visit one such farm, it would be an amazing experience. Here, almost everyone wants to taste the Ajwa date at least once, as it the most expensive and tasty type of date in the world. And why would it not be? The Prophet (pbuh) himself planted this tree.
ABU BAKR'S HOUSE
You can rent a car to visit the various sites historically significant to Islam. The Makkah Tower Hotel is right beside the Kaaba, and it houses the Abu Bakr Mosque on the 4th or 5th floor. It is said that Islam's first caliph Abu Bakr's home used to be here, and from here, the Prophet (pbuh) and his best friend set out to migrate to Madinah.
THE GRAVEYARD OF VILE IGNORANCE
The Shabeka graveyard is right near the Kaaba. This 1400 year old graveyard is representative of the dark times that prevailed in Arabia before the advent of Islam. Makkah's Arabs then used to bury their daughters alive here, as they were thought to be a mark of shame and disgrace.
Despite being close to the Masjid-ul-Haram, no hotels or homes ever developed here. It is said that labourers would hear different kinds of otherworldly noises while working here and would stop the work out of fear, and so it remained unchanged. The grave of Hazrat Sumaiya (R), the first martyr of Islam, is also here.
Thaur is a rocky mountain, and it houses the cave that sheltered Muhammad (pbuh) for three days, as he and Abu Bakr (R) hid for three days, hiding from their enemies. Abu Bakr's (R) son Abdullah (R) stayed close by during the night and returned home before daybreak. He also brought the duo news of what the Quraish were up to. Even this steep hill is no barrier to the thousands who climb it to see that cave.
THE CAVE OF HERA
This is the cave where the Quran was revealed to the Prophet (pbuh) in 610AD. He was just 40 years old and used to meditate here. This isolated cave in the Jabal-al-Nur (the mountain of light) faces the Kaaba, and at an elevation of 2100 feet, was a very isolated spot. This is a place of interest to almost all Muslims, which is why Hajj and Umrah pilgrims take a couple of hours and visit the spot, despite it not being a part of the Hajj requirements.
This is the spot where Hazrat Ibrahim threw stones at Satan to drive him away, and that is what pilgrims do as well. There are three pillars to denote three devils here. In truth, the ritual helps to drive away the devil in people's hearts. We also visited Bibi Khadija's (R) grave, and the field of Arafat.
If time permits, the museum is a good opportunity to take a look at how the Arabs used to be, with artefacts related to culture, clothing, furniture, music, and even the evolution of the Arabic alphabet being preserved here. There is also a water-well in a corner, and the mechanism to draw water from it. There is also a copy of the Quran from the time of Hazrat Usman (R), and the complete genealogy of Hazrat Muhammad (pbuh), as well as the family history of Quraish and other famous tribes of Arabia.
Translated By Sania Aiman
Photo: Shahana Huda