In a few hours I am going to be leaving from New York City with a group of 85 people from the Islamic Center at NYU and NYPD's Muslim Officers' Society. Our intention is to perform a pilgrimage, known as the Umrah, to the city of Mecca along the way we will also be visiting the city of Medina. My hope is to share my reflections with you daily once I get on the ground in Saudi Arabia.
The beauty of this journey is immense and I could sit for hours and hours writing about what I am feeling in anticipation of it. Mostly though my thoughts right now are geared toward being away from distraction and instead finding myself immersed in calmness. There is not a city that I have visited in the entire world that is more tranquil than Medina. The serenity that surrounds one from the moment he or she enters is unlike anything else. And there is not a city that I have visited that hosts a more diverse gathering of people than in Mecca. Any culture, language and skin color that you can think of is found there. It presents a great opportunity for reflection.
The Umrah itself is a fairly simple process and consists mostly of rituals traced back to the prophet Abraham and his wife Hagar. It begins with the pilgrim entering into a state of ihram. This is signified through clothing worn (for men this consists usually of two unstitched, white sheets covering the lower and upper body and for women a simple outfit that is allowed to be stitched) and through refraining from actions that are in other circumstances permissible, such as applying any scents or perfumes, cutting of hair and nails, arguing and cursing, and engaging in sexual activity. One is allowed to eat, drink, sleep and engage in most regular activities while in ihram, but the restrictions apply until the pilgrimage is completed. The entire Umrah would usually take a few hours to finish, as opposed to the Hajj, which takes days.
Similar to most spiritual journeys in other religious traditions, the Umrah consists of a lot walking and physical movement. After entering into a state of Ihram, the pilgrim travels to the city of Mecca and goes to the Sacred Mosque, which houses the Kaaba, a large cube-shaped structure that is said to have been built by the Prophet Abraham and his son. It becomes the focal point for the direction of prayer for Muslims throughout the world. It is recommended that when one sees the Kaaba for the first time, they should pray to God as it is a time that prayers are answered.
The first Umrah ritual consists of walking around the Kaaba counter-clockwise seven times. During this time, one can recite verses from the Quran, say prayers and invocations, and should avoid any kind of futile or idle talk. After completing seven circumambulations, the pilgrim will peform two cycles of prayer behind an area known as the Station of Abraham, Maqam Ibrahim, supplicate for whatever they wish, and then drink water from the well of ZamZam, a well that is said to have been created at the feet of Ismail, the son of Abraham, as he kicked at the desert while his mother Hagar ran between the hills of Safa and Marwa looking for food drink for him. After drinking the zamzam water it is recommended to supplicate again. After that, the running of Hagar is imitated by the pilgrim as they walk between the two hills of Safa and Marwa seven times as she did, taking moments in between at the summits respectively to reflect and pray to God. This running is called sa'ey. Once the sa'ey is complete, the male pilgrim will either cut a part of his hair or shave his head completely, and the female pilgrim will only cut a part of her hair. This signifies the completion of the pilgrimage and ends the state of ihram as well.
I personally have had the opportunity of going several times and each is a great experience. I am excited to go again this year and grateful to be with the people that I am traveling with. I can only imagine what it will be like in the coming weeks.