Ramadan, and particularly the last 10 days of Ramadan, leading into Eid Al-Fitr, is a time for Muslims from around the world to make the lesser (minor) pilgrimage to Makkah, or Umrah. This year a record number of Ramadan visas have been issued to international Muslims for that purpose. As of September 4, according to the Saudi Ministry of Hajj more than 3.8 million Umrah pilgrims had arrived in the Kingdom, since February 2010, as was also reported by Arab News.
Hajj is the major pilgrimage that is the 5th pillar of the Islamic faith, obligatory for those Muslims who are able to do so. Ability includes physical health and financial resources, according to Islam. However, from a practical standpoint, one might add time, and the ability to obtain one of the Hajj visas for a given year. As Umrah visas were halted this year during Ramadan due to potential problems of overcrowding, it seems that the Umrah pilgrimage during Ramadan will also be a challenge in that regard.
Umrah may be performed at any time of the year, and is a valuable spiritual experience for those who have the opportunity. Umrah is a less complex and physically demanding pilgrimage, and in that sense may be better for those who are too physically challenged for Hajj. While not compulsory (fard), Umrah is highly recommended.
Umrah entails a series of rituals which commemorate the lives of the Prophet Ibrahim and his wife Hajar, and show solidarity with the Ummah, or worldwide community of Muslims. To perform Umrah, a pilgrim must first prepare him or her self by observing cleansing rituals (ghusl), and dressing in Ihram: for men two pieces of unhemmed white cloth, the Rida' over the upper body, and the Izar covering the lower part of the body; and, for women, white or black unhemmed robes from head to toe, but leaving the face exposed. These Ihram garments make all pilgrims equal.
After cleansing (ghusl) and dressing in Ihram, the pilgrim verbally declares the intention to make Umrah, and recites the Talbiyah, or affirmation that the pilgrimage is undertaken only for the glory of Allah:
Labbaik Allahumma Labbaik. Labbaik, La Shareek Laka, Labbaik. Innal Hamdah, Wan Nematah, Laka wal Mulk, La Shareek Laka
"Here I am at Thy service, O Allah! Here I am at Thy service. There is no partner with Thee. Here I am at Thy service. All praise and all blessings and favours belong to Thee, and all sovereignty is Thine. Thou hast no partner."
Ihram also implies a number of restrictions or prohibitions. It is forbidden to: wear sewn clothes; cut or pluck hair; clip nails; cover the head (men); wear perfume (or use perfumed soap); engage in sexual intercourse; enter into a marriage contract (nikkah); hunt; or cut local trees. It is the combination of these ablutions, attire, and behaviours which allows the pilgrim to enter and maintain a state of Ihram (the name of both the attire and the state), before and until the end of the Umrah.
Ihram must be adopted from well outside Makkah or Madinah at hillside stations created for the purpose, called miqat. A number were established by the Prophet Mohamed for the ease of pilgrims arriving from different directions, with others added later: Zu 'l-Hulafa (from Madinah), Juhfa (from Syria), Qarnu 'l-Manāzil (from Najd), Yalamlam (from Yemen), Zāt-i-'Irq (from Iraq), Thaneim (from Makkah), and Ibrahīm Mursīa (from India and points east).
There are 3 primary rituals of Umrah while the pilgrim is in a state of Ihram:
1) Tawaf: circum-ambulate the Kaabah 7 times, counter-clockwise
2) Sa'i: rapidly walk back and forth between the 2 hills of Safa and Marwah, as a re-enactment of Hajar's frantic search for water for Ishmael and herself. This is now done in a covered corridor seen in the photo below to the right of the Masjid Al-Haram.
3) Halq or Taqsir: cut the hair, by either shortening (taqsir) or shaving (halq) it.
Though not a formal ritual, most pilgrims drink Zamzam water; that is, water from the Well of Zamzam, which is the well created when the baby Ishmael's heel hit the ground. The Ministry of Hajj site gives more detailed advice and suggestions about how the rituals are to be performed, and the prayers and blessings to accompany them.
Umrah performed during Ramadan has special value, making it equivalent to Hajj, and as if one is accompanying the Prophet. The Prophet said that performing Umrah is a way to expiate accumulated sins. Other peak times for performing Umrah are before, during, and after Hajj. However, Umrah performed at any time does not replace Hajj, which remains obligatory for those who are physically and financially able.
In my own extended family there are some who have done both the Hajj and Umrah (Hajj first chronologically). In the case of one couple, they perform Umrah annually, usually during Ramadan. This is of such importance that they missed their daughter's birthing her first child. She had other family supports, and thought this was an appropriate decision.
The Umrah photos here are from this year's Ramadan, and show the workings of the Makkah clock which was set in motion at the beginning of Ramadan. As the water marks show, they are courtesy of Al Riyadh, and more photos may be viewed here.
If you or someone you know has performed Umrah, please share your/their experiences.
What is your impression of the Makkah clock as shown in these images (and those on the Al Riyadh site)?
Any other comments, thoughts, impressions, experiences?
Lailat al Qadr, The Night of Power: Quranic Revelation, Prayer, Forgiveness, and The Final 10 Days of Ramadan
Saudi Arabia and Hajj
Hajj and Eid Al-Adha 2009: The Unforeseen--A Deluge of Rain and Flooding
*My sincere thanks to commentator Medina for suggesting this topic. :)