Doing The Hajj: Pilgrims, Travel Tips, Souvenirs

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Hajj Pilgrim
The Hajj is one of the largest annual gathering of people in the world today. Muslims from the Arab world, black Africa, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, Europe and the Americas and countries like Pakistan, Nigeria, Iran, Iraq, Oman, Turkey, Indonesia, Sudan, Egypt, the Comoros Island, Algeria, India, Bangladesh and France arrive in Mecca by foot, on chartered planes and on buses. Even some blonde, blue-eyed ones from the United States show up. Describing the scene on pilgrim wrote: "Mecca was awash in a sea of people... Black people. brown people, white people. Every kind of people."

During the Hajj, pilgrims perform acts of worship and they renew their sense of purpose in the world. Those who complete the Hajj are described as reborn. The prefix al-hajj or al-hajji is added to their name and they are accorded great respect back in their hometowns. Their sins are washed away and their soul is cleansed. The exile of Adam and Eve are and the sacrifice of the prophets are recalled. Many have saved their entire life for the journey and some have walked all the way from Africa to get there.

Around two million to three million people now show up for the Hajj each year and millions more come to Mecca for Umrah (the mini-Hajj) which Muslims can do year round. The number allowed to to do the Hajj is restricted by teh Saudi government. Some large Hindu Ganges festivals draw over 50 million people but they are held every 12 years and not annual events like the Hajj.

All able-bodied Muslims who can afford it are expected to perform Hajj at least once in their lives, leading people to go to great lengths to make the trip. Some pilgrims sell their cows and jewelry and others save for months or years to pay their own way to Mecca. Muslim philanthropists and politicians typically sponsor some pilgrims annually. Some pilgrims spend their whole lives saving up for the journey or wait years before getting a permit, which Saudi authorities distribute to countries based on a quota system. Travel agents offer packages catering to all income levels, and charities assist needy pilgrims. [Source: Associated Press., June 26, 2023]

Each country is allocated a specific quota of hajj visas according to its population of Muslims, with Indonesia having the largest, close to 221,000. In countries like Egypt, Pakistan and India, securing a slot can require hefty fees, a connection to a local official or simply years of patience. Pakistan, usually sends around 180,000 pilgrims. [Source: Aya Batrawy, Associated Press, June 23, 2020]

Websites and Resources: Islam IslamOnline ; Institute for Social Policy and Understanding; ; Islamic City ; BBC article ; University of Southern California Compendium of Muslim Texts ; Encyclopædia Britannica article on Islam ; Islam at Project Gutenberg ; Muslims: PBS Frontline documentary frontline

High Prices to Do the Hajj in 2023

The pilgrimage is becoming increasingly unaffordable. Sally Nabil of the BBC wrote in 2023: "The number of bookings has significantly dropped this year. It's too costly for many people," says an employee at a private Egyptian tour operator in charge of organising Hajj trips. In Egypt, the most populous Arab country, the cheapest government-sponsored pilgrimage currently costs around $6,000 — double what it was in 2022. The price hike has been fuelled by the sharp devaluation of the Egyptian pound, which has lost more than 50 percent of its value against the US dollar since March 2022. As a result, the cost of living has also skyrocketed, with annual core inflation hitting 40 percent in May. Indonesian authorities decided this year to cut the subsidy for the pilgrimage to 50 percent from 60 percent, meaning that each Indonesian pilgrim had to pay $3,320. In 2022, the package cost $2,660. [Source: Sally Nabil — BBC Arabic, Cairo, June 28, 2023]

Associated Press reported: Global inflation has hiked prices for Hajj dramatically, with costs mounting for airlines, transportation, food and accommodation in and around the holy city of Mecca. On top of that, multiple countries — including some with the world’s biggest Muslim populations — are suffering economic crises, including dizzying plunges in the values of national currencies.With people balking at the costs, a few countries struggled to fill their quota of pilgrims this year, a startling sign when demand usually outstrips the supply of pilgrimage spots many times over. [Source: Jack Jeffery, Associated Press, June 23, 2023].

Pakistan didn't reach its Hajj quota in 2023 after being hit by mounting inflation and a currency dropping in value. Abdul Majid, a government employee in Rawalpindi, said he had been saving money for Hajj, “but now I have quit my plan. I cannot meet the wide gap between my savings and the cost.” The price for a government-run trip was initially set at 1.175 million rupees, a jump of 69 percent over 2022's rate in rupees, though at the last minute authorities lowered the cost somewhat, saying they found cheaper deals on accommodation in Mecca.

Private tour companies managed to fill their quota, about half of Pakistan's total 179,000 pilgrimage slots. But applications for the government-run slots fell short, despite a program encouraging Pakistanis abroad to deposit dollars in Pakistani bank accounts to sponsor a pilgrim at home. In the end, Pakistan took the unprecedented step of returning 7,000 unused Hajj slots to Saudi Arabia.

Hejaz train took pilgrims from Damascus to Medina

Some countries have the opposite problem: a backlog of people eager to go on Hajj because of the pandemic disruptions of the past three years. Indonesia received an additional 8,000 Hajj slots from Saudi Arabia this year for a total of 229,000 and easily filled them. Wait times for Indonesians to go on Hajj can drag out for more than a decade. Malaysia also asked for 10,000 more spots on top of its quota of 31,600, though there has been no public confirmation whether Saudi Arabia granted it.

India, where Muslims make up 14 percent of the population of 1.4 billion people, also lowered the cost of the state-organized Hajj packages, which most of its pilgrims use, by the equivalent of about $606, effectively giving a subsidy. India is sending its full contingent of more than 175,000 pilgrims. Still, costs had an impact. Private tour operators in India said the number of people seeking to go was down from pre-pandemic years. “Naturally some people delay their plans, hoping it will get cheaper next year,” said Mohammad Mukaram, a Hajj agent in New Delhi.

Nigeria, which has one of the world’s biggest Muslim populations, was able to fill its quota of 95,000 pilgrims at the last minute after many states extended their deadlines for people to pay, authorities said. Despite higher costs, would-be pilgrims delayed by the pandemic were enough to fill demand. “Even if it reaches 10 million naira ($21,630), Nigerians will go, especially those committed to it,” said Adamu Yusuf, who has been to Mecca on numerous occasions.

Traveling to the Hajj

About 1 million pilgrims arrive by land, with about two thirds of these coming from within Saudi Arabia. More than 1.5 million people arrive by plane on 5,000 or so flights that arrive mostly at King Abdul Aziz International Airport in Jeddah. During the Hajj regular flights are suspended while special pilgrim flights operate around the clock. Saudi Arabian Airlines alone carries about 555,000 passengers from around the world. The Saudi government sets a deadline for pilgrims arriving by air to maintain some order. Even so clearing customs can take 16 hours or more.

Many pilgrims fly to Jeddah, and then travel to Mecca by bus. EgyptAir, the main carrier for Egypt, took around 40,000 Egyptian pilgrims to Saudi Arabia in 2023, down from around 70,000 in 2019 before the coronavirus pandemic.. Another 4,000 went by land, according to state media reports. [Source: Jack Jeffery, Associated Press, June 23, 2023].

Some airplanes go to and from Mecca almost 24 hours a day. My sister in law worked as a stewardess for Saudi Airlines, and said around the time of Hajj she barely had time to sleep while the planes ferried pilgrims to Jeddah airport nearly non-stop. I was once on a plane that stopped for refueling in Jeddah during the Hajj. It was very strange watching hundreds of toga-clad pilgrims climb off of 747's and step into ultra-modern buses at the mega-modern airport. Some Muslims argue that charter flights have had devalued the pilgrimage by making it too easy. They advocate a return to the more arduous and challenging overland journey which they say is more spiritually enriching.

According to Associated Press: In the Middle Ages, Muslim rulers organized massive caravans with armed escorts that would depart from Cairo, Damascus and other cities. It was an arduous journey through deserts where Bedouin tribes carried out raids and demanded tribute. A notorious Bedouin raid in 1757 wiped out an entire Hajj caravan, killing thousands of pilgrims. [Source: Associated Press., June 26, 2023]

Hajj Package Tours

Typically pilgrims go to the Hajj in large groups organized by specialty travel agencies sort of like those that arrange package tours for the Olympics or the World Cup soccer tournament. For some the Hajj is quite profitable. A typical Hajj package tour costs around $5,000. Cheap ones go for around $2,000 but require pilgrims to stay in same sex dormitories with strangers. People living in Saudi Arabia can sometimes do it more cheaply. Rich pilgrims like those from oil-rich United Arab Emirates spend around $7000 per each for luxurious accommodation. Many pilgrims are led by professional guides. Some pilgrims bring things like carpets and jewelry to sell and use they money to cover their expenses.

A fourteen-day 2024 Hajj Package Tour from Hajar Travel went for $12,250 based on double occupancy. It included: 1) Mecca: accommodation at the Al Shohoda or VOCO by IHG or similar at walking distance from the Masjid Al Haram (Grand Mosque) to June 20 to June 26, Breakfast and Dinner. 2) Mina: North American Tents from June 26 to July 1 in upgraded solid sheetrock and split AC Mina Tents, with 24 hour Tea and Coffee and Juices and foldable sofa beds. 3) Arafat: AC tents with meals. 4) Muzaldpha: overnight sleepover under the open sky, on sleeping mats, with boxed meals provided. 5) Return to Mina: Tents, walk to Jamarat to throw stones (45 to 60 minutes walk) and repeat. 6) Return to Mecca: Accommodation from July 1st to July 4th at the Al Mektan steps away and across from Masjid Al Haram. Breakfast and Dinner included. (One Night in Jeddah hotel in case of moon sighting or Hajj date mismatch with flight date.) Departure back to U.S. July 4. A religious scholar accompanies the group. All pricing options Leave from New York (JFK) or Washington D.C. (IAD). Other airports may cost extra.

Jamarat Bridge

The price of going to the Hajj from Australia increased between 40 and 50 percent between 2009 and 2016 from about US$7,500 in 2009 to US$13,000 in 2016. According to British Haj Travel the prices in those years increased by more than 30 percent, and in some cases, almost doubled. In 2009, the average price for 1 person in a 2-shared room (for the higher-end packages) with breakfast and dinner, was = US$7,600. In 2016, a similar package costed US$12,000. The lower-end packages (breakfast only, 4 per room, 4 star hotels etc.) costed US$5,000 in 2009, yet the 2016 equivalent was priced at $8,000-$9,000 per person. In Saudi Arabia itself, if you were in Jeddah and signed up with a local Hajj operator; in 2004, it would have cost you +-SR2000 (US$500) per person for the 5 days. In 2011, the cost was about SR8500 (US$2,225); and in 2016, +-SR14500 (US$3,000). And that is for 5 days only! [Source: British Haj Travel]

Pilgrims are supposed to prepare for the Hajj before they arrive. They are expected to attend Hajj training seminars or watch webinars before and during the Hajj trip. At Hajj training centers in Karachi and Lahore, Pakistan, pilgrims learn how to wear 'Ihram,'" the unstitched terrycloth attire worn by pilgrims during Hajj, buy money belts and prayer beads at discount rates and gets quadrivalent influenza vaccines. [Source: Jack Jeffery, Associated Press, June 23, 2023].

Hajj Travel Tips

According to the BBC: “It's best to travel light, so only take essentials. Once you get to Mecca, there are two rituals which you can perform; the lesser pilgrimage or Umrah, and the main pilgrimage or Hajj. The Umrah is an extra, optional pilgrimage and does not count as the once-in-a-lifetime Hajj. Although it includes some of the rituals of the Hajj, they are shortened and there are fewer of them. Most pilgrims who come for the Hajj arrive a few days before it actually starts and perform Umrah first. Combining the Hajj with the Umrah is called a Hajji-Tamattu. [Source: BBC, September 8, 2009 |::|]

“Being pure: To carry out the pilgrimage rituals you need to be in a state of Ihram, which is a special state of ritual purity. You do this by making a statement of intention, wearing special white clothes (which are also called ihram) and obeying the regulations below. The person on the Hajj may not; 1) Engage in marital relations; 2) Shave or cut their nails; 3) Use cologne or scented oils; 4) Kill or hunt anything; 5) Fight or argue. 6) Women must not cover their faces, even if they would do so in their home country. 7) Men may not wear clothes with stitching. 8) Bathing is allowed but scented soaps are frowned upon. |::|

There are ways to save money. One Egyptian woman told the BBC she has already been to Mecca four times before to perform the lesser Umrah pilgrimage. This time, she used a loophole in the system so that she could perform the Hajj. "Instead of the Hajj visa, I got a three-month-tourist visa and arrived in Mecca a month before the Hajj season kicks off," she tells me from Saudi Arabia while waiting to start the pilgrimage. "This is the only option I have got." Farida's whole trip to Mecca works out 80 percent cheaper than the government-sponsored Hajj package.

Ihram — Hajj Clothes

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Pilgrims on Arafat
The Hajjis or pilgrims wear simple white clothes called Ihram to signify equality. The idea behind dressing simply is to mask any differences in wealth and status. During the hajj, pilgrims are expected to shed symbols of materialism, though the trip itself can be quite expensive for most. Male pilgrims are required to wear seamless, white terrycloth garments for the entirety of the hajj. Women wear loose clothing, cover their hair and forgo makeup and nail polish to achieve a state of humility and spiritual purity.

After the rituals in Mina, many men shed their traditional white robes in favor of Western clothing. Many have their heads shaved heads on the first day of the stoning as a symbol of renewal.

According to the British Museum: “On arrival at the miqat, pilgrims must enter into ihram. It is recommended that they have a full body wash and perfume themselves, and men must change into the Ihram clothing, consisting of two pieces of seamless white cloth (such as towels), one fixed round the waist and the other covering the top of the body. These can be secured with pins or a belt. Footwear should also be simple and not sewn. Women’s clothing for Hajj is normal and can be any colour, although usually they choose white, but they should not cover their faces...Entering into ihram is a high spiritual moment, one the pilgrims have long anticipated.

Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad wrote: “In Hajj the pilgrims do not wear any sewn garments; rather, they dress in two loose sheets. This is further indicative of the tradition being most ancient. It indicates that the institution of Hajj began when man had not learnt to wear sewn clothes. They had only started to cover themselves. As such it seems that it is in memory of those ancient people who used to circuit the first house built for the worship of God in that preliminary dress that the pilgrims are required to do the same. [Source: Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad, Khalifatul Masih IV, Ahmadiyya Muslim Community]

Hajj Pilgrim Requirements and Restrictions

The Hajj imposes a number of requirements and restrictions on pilgrims. Once the pilgrims are in ihram they must not use colognes, or scented soaps, shave, cut their hair or nails, or have sexual intercourse. ” No living thing can be killed, and behaviors such as fighting or arguing are strictly forbidden. One ritual that men go through is to cut their hair off, signifying a rebirth into the true faith. Women symbolically cut off just a lock of their hair. [Source:]

According to the British Museum: An obligatory ritual is the "taqsir" or "halq" (cutting or shaving) of the hair, which occurs twice during Hajj; at the beginning and near the end. Male pilgrims shave their hair and women cut a lock of hair yo symbolize the shedding of worldly attachments and as a sign of renewal for completing the hajj. After Eid al-Adha (festival of sacrifice) pilgrims shave or cut their hair to mark the end of the consecrated state (ihram) and are allowed everything except sexual intercourse The shaving is done with simple scissors and razor. The Saudi Arabian government provides licensed barbers with a new razor blade for each male pilgrim, while women snip only a lock of hair.

Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad wrote: “The shaving of the head is an important feature which is also universally found as a symbol of dedication among monks, priests, hermits and vishnus. This further adds to the universality of its character. Women are exempt from shaving, but they have to symbolically cut their hair as a token. Also, in the places where Hadrat Abraham(as) is known to have remembered God in the style of an intoxicated lover and extolled his glory with loud chanting, the pilgrims are required to do the same in the same places. [Source: Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad, Khalifatul Masih IV, Ahmadiyya Muslim Community]

Hajj Pilgrim Daily Life

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Hajj trash
Despite all the people and all the hassles, pilgrims say there is no crime or ill tempers. People are helpful and call everyone brother and sister. Food that is brought is offered to everyone. People help each other carry their bags. Shop owners are so unworried about theft they place piles of money on the ounter instead of in their registers.

Bazaars sell everything from prayer rugs to cell phones. Local merchants often do more business in the Hajj season than they do the rest of the year. The most plentiful kind of food is dates, which are offered in hundreds of varities in shops, souks and from vendors. During prayer time, faithful with prayers rugs turn them sideways and share them with faithful who don’t have them. Many pilgrims line up to get a haircut after circling the Kaaba for the final time to mark the end of the Hajj.

Pilgrims often move from place to place in the middle of the night to avoid traffic jams, which are caused by hundreds of thousands of people doing the same thing at the same time and having to go to the same place to do it. Fearless of getting lost or separated individuals often stay close to their tour group. Often members of the groups become very close and stay in contact after the Hajj is over.

The sun is very bright and direct. Many women carry umbrellas. Men and women are jammed side by by side — a shock for some pilgrims who come from societies where women and men are strictly segregated. Many pilgrims say they experience a sense of freedom that they don’t find in their home countries. They feel freer to express their feelings, voice opinion and discuss controversial subjects openly.

Prices at the Hajj

Rich Muslims stay in hotels that charge hundreds and even thousands dollars a night for a room. The super-luxurious Mecca Inter-Continental Hotel has its own mosque, and each balcony has markings that indicate where guests should stand during the five daily prayers. Sometimes it is necessary to book these rooms years in advance. Most pilgrims obviously can't afford to stay at these hotels. The poorer ones sleep in tents pitched in the hills or lay out their prayers rugs and sleep on the dusty streets and sidewalks. Small hotels can be so packed that some guests have to sleep on the roofs.

In 2016, Dahlia Nehme of Reuters wrote: “Despite the smaller crowds, merchants in Mecca do not seem to be lowering their prices. The high cost of basic goods, especially near the Grand Mosque, is a perennial complaint for pilgrims. Senior Saudi cleric Sheikh Abdullah Bin Sulaiman al-Manea told Okaz newspaper businesses should not gouge customers, and criticized the spread of billboards in the city: “The duty of Hajj should not become a venue for trade, profit and gain.” [Source: Dahlia Nehme, Reuters, September 12, 2016]

“Fatima al-Murabit, a Moroccan who together with her husband was visiting for the second year in a row, said prices had gone up since last year. “Even dates are expensive, and bad manners are a general feature of traders and workers in the markets,” she lamented. “There is exploitation of the ignorant. I hope that gets changed in the future. People come for the Prophet’s Mosque and the Kaaba, but there’s some exploitation and a lack of oversight.”“

Hajj Items

For centuries Mecca was an important commercial as well as a religious centre. Pilgrims would bring goods for sale to help finance their Hajj. Many of these objects then found their way around the world. Today, many shops surround the sanctuaries at Mecca and Medina and the rituals of Hajj are combined with the purchase of souvenirs to take home to recall this momentous experience. [Source: British Museum =]

plaque for printing a pilgrimage certificate

Objects displayed at to a British Museum exhibition at the British Museum included: a mahmal, which would have travelled on top of a camel on the route to Mecca; 15th and 17th century Hajj certificates; an ivory sundial and Qibla pointer, made by Bayram b. Ilyas. Turkey, 1582-3; a 19th century water bottle made of Chinese porcelain containing Zamzam water; a late 19th century silk vest from the Malay Peninsula century made from the internal kiswa of the Ka’ba; a copy of the Anis ul-Hujjaj, a 17th century guide to pilgrimage from Mughal India;

The Thomas Cook Indian Hajj archives contains a pilgrim report, pilgrim booklet, and a pilgrim ticket (1886, Peterborough, UK). The pilgrim report is by one of the agents sent by Thomas Cook to Jedda to advise on how shipping and transportation arrangements could be improved for Indian pilgrims. On learning of his father’s appointment to the post of agent, Thomas Cook’s son commented: ‘I know this business is surrounded with more difficulties and prejudices than anything I have hitherto undertaken.’ The pilgrim booklet gives a detailed description of Thomas Cook’s involvement with the Hajj. Thomas Cook tickets were issued to the thousands of pilgrims who travelled from India to the Hijaz for Hajj. [Source: British Museum =]

Pilgrim receipts were introduced in 1953. As currency exchange throughout the world became more competitive, the monetary options available to pilgrims increased. Pilgrim receipts, used like travellers cheques, were purchased by pilgrims at banks in their home countries and exchanged in Saudi Arabia for Saudi riyals. This meant that pilgrims were no longer disadvantaged by poor exchange rates on their arrival in Saudi Arabia. A typical receipt was for 1 riyal. =

The Sanctuary at Mecca drawn in Aceh (c. 1850 – 1870, Indonesia) is a plan of the sanctuary at Mecca was probably made as a guide for hajjis or pilgrims. Each location is marked in Malay and Arabic, showing which rite should be performed at each place. The decorative features, shape of the arches and other details show an Indonesian influence. A text on the back states that it was made for Teungku Imam Beutong. It was brought back from Aceh by a Dutch seaman stationed there during the 1870s. [Source: British Museum =]

The Diary of the King of Boné (c. 1780) is the personal diary of Arumpone (king of Boné) Ahmed al-Salih (ruled 1775 – 1812), written in the Bugis language with occasional words in Arabic. Pilgrims wishing to go on Hajj needed to obtain the permission of both the Arumpone and the Dutch. The Arumpone notes that on 18 May 1780 he gave a prospective pilgrim, La Panuq, a sealed permit, and on 22 May La Panuq departed for Mecca.

Hajj Souvenirs

It is part of the Hajj experience that pilgrims spare time to purchase gifts for friends and family. Even today, pilgrimage is combined with shopping for mementos and souvenirs. As part of the Hajj experience, most pilgrims buy gifts for friends and family from the many bazaars and shops of Mecca and Medina. These objects often take pride of place in the recipients’ homes. Souvenirs from Mecca are among the most precious objects that a Muslim owns. These items include Zamzam bottles, prayer beads, white head caps, prayer matts, miswak, camel bone writing implements, and teeth cleaning twigs made from the Salvadora persica tree. [Source: British Museum =]

Hajj chocolates

Abdella Hammoudi, who performed Hajj in 1999, wrote: “We went deeper into the markets… everywhere were carpets, caps, sheets, turbans, belts, watches, compasses, radios, tea sets…After the initial surprise, it was clear that for centuries pilgrims had divided their time between mosque and commerce. =

Tim Insoll wrote in 2010: “Pilgrims are requested by their families and friends to bring back something as a blessing, such as sealed containers of Zamzam water. They will also bring back head caps, prayer beads, scarves and representations of the holy places and the famous sweet dates of Medina. Many pilgrims will keep their ihram robes, sprinkled with Zamzam water, to use as shrouds when they die.” =

A colourful and vast array of souvenirs can be bought on the site of Mount Uhud in Medina. They can be also be bought from stalls adjacent to the Grand Mosque in Bamako, Mali and from ones in Timbuktu which were originally bought in Mecca. They include kohl, incense, perfumes, prayer rugs, Zamzam water and prayer beads.

Textiles embroidered with verses from the Qur’an are often brought back by pilgrims as gifts. They often include the words ‘Allah, may His glory be magnified’ or ‘Muhammad, Messenger of God’ on the green roundels. Around the sides is the "Throne verse" (ayat al-kursi ) Qur’an 2 - al-Baqara:255-6.

A Malay waistcoat (c. 19th-20th century) was fashioned from a piece of the internal kiswa of the Ka‘ba. It was probably acquired by a Malay pilgrim while on Hajj and then made into a garment once he had returned home. As the textiles of Mecca and Medina had been in contact with Islam’s holiest buildings, they were believed to be infused with baraka (divine blessings). Waistcoats like this were worn on important occasions to ward off misfortune =

The Qibla compass enabled the user to find the qibla (the direction of Mecca) from wherever they were. The first step was to locate north–south by placing the instrument on a flat surface and allowing the needle to find magnetic north. The board was then rotated. The inscriptions on the wood form a rough map. Standing in Baghdad, for example, a line towards Mecca could be drawn and this was the direction in which to pray.

Female Hajj Pilgrims Held for Not Traveling with Male Relatives

In 2012, Saudi authorities held 908 Nigerian women in poor conditions "with some needing urgent medical attention" at King Abdulaziz Airport in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia's busiest airport, and threatened to deport them, over a rule requiring them to travel with a husband or male relative is threatening to bring a diplomatic dispute between the two nations. the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria said. [Source: Bashir Adigun, Associated Press, September 26, 2012]

Bashir Adigun of Associated Press wrote: “The report said female pilgrims who had landed in a smaller airport in Medina had been unaffected. However, Fuwaiba Muhammad, a pilgrim, told an Associated Press reporter at Mallam Aminu Kano International Airport in the northern Nigerian city of Kano that she had been deported from the Saudi Arabian city of Medina, along with dozens of others.

Uba Mana, a spokesman for the National Hajj Commission, said no pilgrim had been deported by Saudi authorities yet, but that the commission had asked for female pilgrims who did not meet the Saudi immigration officials' requirements to temporarily be brought back to Nigeria to avoid deportations. "Medina is a small airport," Mana said, "and if we allow people to get deported from there, the pilgrims won't be able to return to Saudi Arabia for another five years, and by no fault of their own," he said.

This is the first time pilgrims have faced the possibility of mass deportation over the male escort issue, the commission has said. According to the report, an agreement between Saudi Arabia and Nigeria exempts female pilgrims from requiring a male relative to escort them for the mandatory Hajj pilgrimage, which costs about $4,000 per person.

Mana had said that the escort situation had been resolved through diplomatic channels, but the commission's report said Saudi authorities have "remained adamant." The report said top Nigerian officials had held meetings with Saudi officials in Nigeria and in Saudi Arabia in a bid to come to reach a compromise. Nigeria's Foreign Ministry sent a letter of undertaking guaranteeing the return of the female pilgrims after Hajj, it added, but Saudi authorities still did not release them. Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan put together a high-profile delegation late Wednesday to travel to Saudi Arabia "as soon as an appointment is finalized with the appropriate authority," a government statement said.

Umrah — the Mini-Hajj

For those who can not make the Hajj, a visit to the major sites of Hajj at a different time is considered the next best thing. Umrah (also spelled Umra), the lesser Hajj, can be performed any time of the year and entails fewer requirements than the Hajj. People that do it take seven trips around the Kaaba and receive forgiveness for some of their past sins. When umrah pilgrims enter the Great Mosque in Mecca, they pray "O, Lord Allah we have come from distant lands...Open the door of Thy mercy and Thy forgiveness." Around 10 million people do the Umrah every years. The cost of an Umrah tourist package can be around $3,000,

‘Umrah involves rituals which take place in the sanctuary at Mecca itself: circumambulation of the Ka‘ba (tawaf) and the passing between the hills of Safa and Marwa (sa‘i). Pilgrims also pray behind the Station or Maqam of Abraham and drink Zamzam water. All of these rituals can be completed in a matter of hours. The Hajj begins with the same rituals as those of Umrah, on day one, and continues with visits to the holy sites of Arafat, Muzdalifa and Mina on subsequent days. [Source: British Museum]

According to the BBC: “You begin at a place just outside Mecca called the Miqat, or entry station to the Hajj. There you bathe, put on the Ihram (the special white clothes), make the intention for Umrah and begin reciting the Talbiya Du'a (prayer). “Here I am at Your service, O Allah, here I am at your service! You have no partner. Here I am at your service. All praise and blessings belong to you. All dominion is yours and You have no partner.” Talbiya Du'a [Source: BBC, September 8, 2009 |::|]

“Then you go to the Masjid al Haram and walk around the Ka'ba seven times repeating du'as and prayers. This is called the Tawaf. Afterwards you should sip some Zam Zam water. Zam Zam water is water from the Zam Zam well, the sacred well which opened in the desert to save Hajira and Is'mail from dying of thirst. Next you go to the walkway between the hills of Safa and Marwa and walk back and forth between them seven times. This completes the Umrah portion of the Hajj rituals and some of the Ihram restrictions are relaxed. |::|

Hajj Virtual Reality and Video Games

British-based company Labbaik VR has created a virtual-reality simulation of the hajj and the umrah, a shorter, optional version of the hajj. Nabih Bulos wrote in the Los Angeles Times: Labbaik VR technology, which took eight years to make, uses tens of thousands of high-resolution images that are then painstakingly placed on a detailed 3-D model of Mecca. People experience the site using virtual-reality headsets such as the Oculus Rift. They can walk around the Kaaba, the black stone structure that is Islam's holiest shrine, among pilgrims dressed in the simple, terry-cloth clothing traditionally used for the pilgrimage. “We’re normally very distracted — that’s just part of life these days with smartphones. But once you put on the headset, you’re completely removed from everything else. That’s critical to feeling anything of a spiritual nature,” says Shehriar Ashraf, Labbaik VR's chief executive. “We've also re-created Mecca in the time of Abraham. It's fascinating, and we've done it exactly to scale from historical records," Ashraf adds.“The company has offered its product as a tool for prospective pilgrims to train for the various stages of the hajj, a sort of dry run before they experience the real thing. [Source:Nabih Bulos, Los Angeles Times, August 1, 2020]

“Another hajj rehearsal tool finding new relevance is Muslim 3D, an edutainment video game developed by the German company Bigitec. The demo version of the app, according to Bigitec’s managing director In the app, users control a 3-D avatar, exploring the history behind important Islamic figures. They can also interact with characters in a game-like setting and learn how various Islamic rites came to be. The genesis for the project came almost a decade before wen st creator saw that most video games featured Muslim characters as cannon fodder or, at best, villains.

Kenyan entrepreneur Ahmed Haddad created iUmrah.World, a platform connecting worshipers to people in Saudi Arabia willing to do the “little pilgrimage” on their behalf. “Before the corona era, people didn’t pay much attention to it. He added that the company was now waiting for the rollout of 5G technology to launch iHajj, which would follow a similar model to iUmrah.World but allow for continuous streaming for the five days of rituals.

Image Sources: Al Jazeera English, Wikimedia Commons except chocolates, The Favor Gallery, Pinterest

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: ; Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History” by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art,, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Library of Congress and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2024

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