The Unforgettable Experience [Umrah] By Brother Fahad Nisar Rana

Me during the journey.
Umrah - Voluntary pilgrimage to the Masjid Ul Haram (Grand Mosque) in Makkah, Saudi Arabia.

Ihram - The state in which a Muslim enters in order to perform Umrah or Hajj. This also comes with certain obligations.

By Brother Fahad Nisar Rana

The Unforgettable Experience begins here:-

Planning and buzzing had started long before Ramadan that there's opportunity for Umrah this summer. We had some plans for visiting our family in Pakistan, which is where I originate from, however, with Umrah on our minds, the visit to Pakistan was postponed. After all the extremely busy, hectic and sometimes tough days of the academic year, the news of Umrah was simply great. I had done my Umrah several times before, each time it was better and more unique, and gave us something more beautiful to discover and explore, so I was greatly looking forward to it after I was done with my International GCSE exams and had wrapped up the academic year to go on a pure summer free from any usual tensions.

The excitement grew as the plan for Umrah was finalised and we gave our passports in for Umrah visa. After the visas were approved, the only wait was for some of my summer programmes I was attending to be over with.

Eventually, we started packing in the first week of August and Ramadan (as the dates go together this year) and started preparing our car, a Toyota Land Cruiser 100, for Umrah. We folded the back seats, making as much space for two premium bunk beds. We floored the back of the car with comforters and added pillows and all sorts of accessories including mobile chargers and modulators to keep our gadgets alive during the journey.

On the 5th of August, in the afternoon (Asr time), we set off for our grand voyage to Saudi Arabia with my dad driving. We stopped briefly at the Saudi border for customs, checks and usual proceedings. There is usually no waiting at the Qatari border. As we drove into Saudi Arabia, it was sunset (Maghreb) and time to close the 5th fast, for which we briefly stopped, otherwise we drove through the night, only stopping for prayers, Suhoor (dawn, the meal before fasting) etc.

My dad had made the smart decision to travel through the night and early morning hours as we won't be fasting and the low temperature would make it easier for us and the car, with this decision we avoided the extreme desert temperatures of around 50 degrees Celsius, where a vehicle can heat up and break down.This allowed us to cover a lot of distance without any problems and we crossed the city of Hofuf and some small towns through the night. We had our Suhoor at an amazingly delicious Pakistani restaurant. After dawn prayers (Fajr), we set off again through the dark, I couldn't sleep until sunrise and I watched the Arabian sun rise beautifully through the sunroof of our car. I slept most of the time or was busy with discussions with my brother Abdullah, who engages in extremely healthy discussions and adds humourous spices every now and then. We kept on travelling until around 10 am, when my dad took a break to wear off the little fatigue that had overcome him.

We set off again, stopping more this time as the heat was overwhelming and we had to pray etc. I can tell you that fasting and driving in extreme desert heat is a challenge, but my dad took it on and we made it across 600 kilometres into the historic city of Taif with its amazing mountains and beautiful landscape.

At Taif, we refreshed ourselves, and prayed Dhuhr (noon prayers) and made the intention of performing the Umrah by entering into Ihram. After the Ihram, we keep reciting Talbiyah repeatedly (a prayer that declares that the pilgrims intend to perform the pilgrimage only for the glory of Allah). We set off for Makkah, home to the holiest site of the Muslim world on earth, the Masjid Ul Haram Me and my brother Abdullah in Ihram at Taif.
(Grand Mosque) which Abraham built. Me and my brother Abdullah in Ihram at Taif.

We witnessed the breathtaking views from the mountains. The road to Makkah from Taif is in complete descent for a long distance, so we twisted and turned around mountains, crossed some peaks and were impressed by the monkeys that inhabit the less steep mountains. These monkeys even come up to the road to take food from passers-by. My sister Aisha, who is just turned 6, was very delighted with them, she'd often throw them some bread or bananas and then she'd laugh seeing them peel bananas the same way humans do.

Makkah al Mukarramah:-

We reached Makkah al Mukarramah (the Arabic name which translates into "Makkah the honoured"), around Maghreb time on the 7th of August. The city greeted us with its livelihood and mountains. Makkah is located in the province of Makkah, which is in the historic Hejaz region, which was a separate Kingdom during the rule of the Ottoman Empire.

The hotel we got was located in the Al Roadah area, which isn't too far from the Masjid Ul Haram (Grand Mosque). The name was "Al Zahra Flower" and even though it was a Saudi hotel, the majority of its residents were Turkish and Iranian, which was great as I'm greatly interested in diverse cultures. They had a direct bus route to the Grand Mosque.

We were stopped at the beginning and we had to park our car at a massive car parking just for pilgrims and visitors which was in the beginning of the Makkah. This was to prevent traffic jams and accidents in the city. The Saudi Government had already announced that around 5 million pilgrims were expected this Ramadan, so plans had to be made and imposed.

After reaching our hotel, we closed our fast and prayed Maghreb, then we rested for a while and then set off for the Haram (Masjid Ul Haram). In around 10 minutes, we were walking towards its gates. The breathtaking view of the Mosque's minarets and the Royal Makkah Clock Tower (on it rests the highest & biggest clock in the world) certainly caught our breath. We were in Ihram so we were reciting the Talbiyah repeatedly:-
لَبَّيْكَ اللَّهُمَّ لَبَّيْكَ، لاَ شَرِيْكَ لَكَ لَبَّيْكَ، إِنَّ الْحَمْدَ وَالنِّعْمَةَ لَكَ وَالْمُلْكَ لاَشَرِيْكَ لَكَ
Here I am at Thy service O Lord, here I am. Here I am at Thy service and Thou hast no partners. Thine alone is All Praise and All Bounty, and Thine alone is The Sovereignty. Thou hast no partners.

As we entered the Masjid Ul Haram, we could see that the mosque was packed with people, after all, what a blessing it is to be there in the Holy Month of Ramadan ! We kept going on and crossed the pathway leading into the central courtyard of the Haram, which houses the Ka'aba, the direction of prayer for the Muslim world and also the place around which, the pilgrims performing Hajj or Umrah circulate.

Upon looking at the Ka'aba, my heart melted and I felt the glory of faith, the glory of God, Allah. Prayers poured out of the lips and hands rose up in prayer to Allah. It truly was the best spot to be on earth. It was a gifted sight, looking at the Ka'aba which Adam, the first human marked out before the beginning of human race, and Abraham (Ibrahim), with the help of his son Ishmael (Ismail) built for Muslims from all of the world so that they may come and praise their Lord, the one and only, the Lord of the Heavens and of the Earth, Allah.

We prayed Isha (nightfall prayers) and then started our Umrah as the Imam lead the Taraweeh prayer. The 1st step is to circulate the Ka'aba 7 times, known as Tawaaf. It is Sunnah (the way of the Prophet PBUH) to jog slightly in the first three rounds if possible. The Tawaaf begins at the point where the Black Stone (Hajr al Aswad) is placed. Any sort of supplication or prayers can be recited while circulating the Ka'aba as long as they are allowed. We completed our Tawaaf with one final Du'a (prayer or supplication to Allah) and with the offering of two Raka'hs (cycles of prayer) and then headed to the Massa, which is the area which hosts the Safa and Marwah mountains. It was amazing seeing the mountains, even though they are now covered and are seperated.

Near them, it said in Arabic :-

Behold! Safa and Marwah are among the Symbols of Allah. So if those who visit the House in the Season or at other times, should compass them round, it is no sin in them. And if any one obeyeth his own impulse to good - be sure that Allah is He Who recogniseth and knoweth.
—Quran 2:158.

This is where Ibrahim (Abraham) was commanded by God to leave his wife Hagar (Hajar) and their infant son Ishmael (Ismael) alone in the desert, with only basic resources, to test their faith.

The place was between Al-Safa and Al-Marwah. When they ran out of resources, Hagar went in search of help or water. To make her search quicker, she went alone, leaving Ishmael on the ground. She first climbed the nearest hill, Al-Safa, to look over the surrounding area but saw nothing, she then went to the other hill, Al-Marwah, to look around. While Hagar was on either hillside, she was able to see Ismael and know he was safe.

However, when she was in the valley between the hills she was unable to see her son. Thus she'd run while in the valley between the hills and walk at a normal pace on the hillsides.

Hagar travelled back and forth between the hills seven times in the scorching heat before she returned to Ismael. When she arrived, she found that water had sprouted from the place where Ishmael had been kicking at the sand with his feet. This spring is now known as the Zam Zam Well. It was granted from God to reward Hagar.

Performing the Sa'ee is the 2nd step, and it serves to commemorate Hagar's search for water and Allah's mercy in answering prayers. After we were done with the Sa'ee, it was time for the last step, which is to shave or shorten the hair (for men) or to cut a part of it (for women). This discharges the pilgrim from any obligations during the Ihram and we can now say that the Umrah is complete.

I chose to shave my head whereas my brother went for trimming and my dad went for shortening. My mom simply cut a portion off her hair. Some people often do it in the Massa itself, mostly women, whereas the men go to the piazza outside to barbers who charge around 10-15 SAR (Saudi Arabian Riyals) for a shave of the head.

After having done the Umrah, we headed back to the hotel and slept till the fatigue wore off. Then we woke up the next day to spend most of our time in the Haram. In the next days that we stayed in Makkah, we spent the majority of our time in the Grand Mosque, only coming out to sleep at the hotel at night or for meals at the piazza.

The atmosphere inside the Masjid Ul Haram was amazing. You don't take any meals inside, you simply take up a good place after Asr (noon) prayers and recite the Quran, often available with multilingual translations, or you can take a short nap comfortably in the mosque itself. You just wake up around Maghreb (sunset) and prepare for closing the fast. You make prayers and Du'a, while tea, honey, bread, dates, Zam Zam water, juice etc. is served for you to Iftar with ! Even though there are millions at one place, everyone is cooperative and will willingly help others. People there often seem to sacrifice their needs for others, which is a brilliant sense of unity and brotherhood.

Another great thing about the Grand Mosque is the Zam Zam water, which comes from the Zam Zam well, it is pumped to a side of the Mosque and is available for pilgrims and visitors to drink throughout the Mosque by water dispensers. Zam Zam is miraculous, especially by the fact that it comes from a well which has never exhausted over the span of centuries, despite its water being used by millions.

On the 3rd day, I even managed to kiss the Black Stone, which is Sunnah. Despite the rush and usually immense pushing at the Black Stone, I did it. Otherwise I simply prayed all I had in mind, all my desires and for all those in problems and for everyone in general. I often went up to the door of the Ka'aba and with my hands on it, I cried as I prayed to Allah, for there's no place better than praying on the Ka'aba in the Grand Mosque. Each time I did this, I felt more peaceful, more empowered, strengthened and confident.

I met people of so many cultures, from Britons to Malays, from Pakistanis to Australians, from Africans to Arabs and people from all sorts of cultures, diversities and backgrounds. There was always a lot to learn in such an atmosphere. I discovered cultural similarities with Iranians and Turks, discussed my culture with Saudis and Omanis and learnt about the Yemeni tribes, there was a lot of other stuff which I discovered and was impressed by it.

We toured around the city, often going to piazzas and malls. The Makkah Hilton Towers, which are just outside the Grand Mosque were our main venue for meals and shopping. Before departing from Makkah, we also managed to take a taste of the very famous Al Baik. It's famous for its chicken, which in my opinion, tastes better than any other crispy chicken eaterie out there.

Makkah is cosmopolitan and is one of the most diverse cities in the world.

I also prayed the Jumu'ah (Friday prayers) in the Masjid Ul Haram, we had to go inside the mosque at around 10 am and wait. This was due to the massive number of people that come to Makkah on weekends which increases the rush in the mosque.

We set off for Madinah after staying for a week in Makkah. There were tears and soft feelings as we had established a strong spiritual bond with Makkah by then. Despite the crowd and everything, I'd say the stay in Makkah was the best thing that happened to me this year. I felt better than ever before, I had prayed sincerely with my heart, which was the best satisfaction.

Madinah is around 339 kilometres North of Makkah. We set off after Asr prayers and travelled through the night.

Madinah al Munawwarah:-

We reached Madinah al Munawwarah (the Arabic name which translates into "The Radiant City") around 9 am in the morning. The hotel we stayed in was pretty good again. It was named "Wasel Al Reem". It was at a 5 minute walking distance from the Mosque. We slept for some hours and then went into the Masjid Ul Nabawi (the Prophet's Mosque).

Upon entering the Mosque, we prayed to Allah to send His peace and blessings on the Prophet Muhammad PBUH. Let me tell you something about the hospitality that we received in both the Holy Cities. We had just entered the gates, when a man came up to my dad and shook his hand, now the first thing I thought was that he's security or something, but he simply took my dad's hand, smiled back to us and took us all to a place in the mosque where preparations for closing the fast were going on. We simply took our place and thanked him. They were offering such warm smiles and generosity to everyone in the Mosque which was amazing.

Upon the Maghreb call to prayer, we closed our fast, taking in French bread, yoghurt, Zam Zam water, juice and dates etc. Believe me, both in Makkah and Madinah, what you eat in the Mosques at the time of closing the fast fills you up, its like you had supreme dinner !

After praying Maghreb we headed to the heart of the mosque which houses a very special but small area named ar-Riaz-ul-Jannah, which extends from the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)'s tomb (Ar Rawdah) to his pulpit. Pilgrims attempt to visit and pray in Riaz-ul-Jannah, for there is a tradition that supplications and prayers uttered here are never rejected. Entrance into Riaz-ul-Jannah is not always possible as only a few hundred people can be accommodated . Ar-Rawdah has two small gateways manned by Saudi security. The current marble pulpit was constructed by the Ottomans. The original pulpit was much smaller than the current one, and constructed of palm tree wood, not marble. Ar-Riaz-ul-Jannah is considered part of Jannah (Heaven or Paradise) and is marked with green carpets, which separate the area from the rest of the mosque which is carpeted in red.

We also saw the place where the Muezzin (deliverer of the call to prayer) gives the Adhan (Call to prayer). This is also the place where Bilal al Habshi (R.A) used to deliver the Adhan. It was beautiful seeing it. Bilal al Habshi (R.A) also gave the Adhan when he climbed on the Ka'aba in Makkah upon the peaceful conquest of Makkah.

So we entered the Rawdah to visit the grave of the Prophet (known as Ziyarah) and increased the recitation of supplications. The graves of the Prophet Muhammad PBUH, Abu Bakr (R.A) and Umar (R.A) are right on the left side. The men can look through to the graves whereas the women can't as they have a different passage.

The graves are where the Prophet's house used to be, so we can say that he is buried in his house along with Abu Bakr (R.A) and Umar (R.A), the first Caliphs of Islam after the Prophet.

We looked to the left and there it marked the place where the Prophet Muhammad PBUH was buried, we could look inside and see the grave, covered in green. Pictures however, weren't allowed. A problem that people pose there is that they pray to the Prophet to ask on Allah to grant them their wishes, which is Haraam (forbidden) and is Bid'ah (innovation) in Islam. All sorts of Bi'dah and innovation in Islam should be rejected, so the Saudi security there often stop people from raising their hands in prayer. I greeted the Prophet, then moving slightly to the right, greeted Abu Bakr (R.A) and then moving further to the right, greeted Umar (R.A) and passed out of the mosque, this completes the Ziyarah (visiting the Prophet).

During our days in Medinah I explored more of the Masjid Ul Nabawi, its libraries and its rooftops, prayed Taraweeh and daily prayers and recited the Quran. Medinah was amazing, after all it was where Islam flourished in its early years. Medinah is historically and culturally important for the Muslim world.

I tried not to go to the malls, but I still ended up passing through the massive "Anwar Al Madinah" mall outside the mosque. The marketplace around the mosque is amazingly cosmopolitan, with all sorts of restaurants and clothing shops from all over the world.
We also visited the Al Baqi' cemetery where the graves of the family members of the Prophet and his companions including Uthman ibn Affan (R.A) are buried. We prayed for them and then we moved out. There are no names or marks on the graves which makes it hard to figure out who is where, however this is important as it prevents any Bid'ah from arising and also from people doing all sorts of weird things.
May Allah accept our Umrah, all our Du'as and prayers, Ameen.

There's a myth very popular these days about the Wadi Jinn (Valley of the Ghosts) which is originally named the Baydah Valley. It is said that it is inhabited by spirits from ancient times, it is also said that vehicles and water move towards Medinah. I was very skeptical so we went to the valley and though there wasn't much of the "ghostly effect", I was surprised to see the mountains with peculiar peaks and some with holes in them. Perhaps, this could be a place which ghosts inhabit, however you don't physically feel any such thing. Our car did move towards Medinah despite the engine being switched off and the transmission being on neutral, however on asking the locals, it's a magnetic effect due to the geography of the valley.

We packed up for the journey back home to Qatar on the 15th of August. This was it, we were leaving the Holy Cities, there was sadness of the departure but then there was the happiness and satisfaction of having experienced the pleasure of performing Umrah, praying in the Holy Mosques and visiting the Prophet PBUH along with exploring and discovering the historical spots in both the cities.

It was an amazing experience, one that will be remembered, one that has humbled me and has made me better than I was. Thinking of it softens me, and the desire to go there inhabits me. I hope I'll be more successful in practicing Islam, the most beautiful faith in the world and I'm sure I'm better than before.

I'm a new Fahad, one who longs to go back there every single day, one who wishes to see the livelihood again, one who wishes to pray on the Ka'aba again with tears flowing from his eyes. I hope I get the opportunity and the chance soon again.

May Allah accept our Umrah, all our Du'as and prayers, Ameen.

I'm all thankful to Allah for granting me the wonderful opportunity and I pray to him to grant you all reading this and to all the Muslims over the world the opportunity to visit the Holy Cities and praise your Lord, Allah, the Most Gracious, The Most Merciful, Ameen.

Now back home in Doha, Qatar since the 17th of August.