Hajj Chronicles Part 12: Umrah

Previous posts in this series: Parts 1 to 11

Tawaaf at the Kabah

Tawaaf at the Kabah

Round and round

After our first sight of the Kabah, it was time for our very first umrah. We followed our group leader and approached the Kabah – starting the first of the seven rounds we’d need to make walking around the building. These rounds – called tawaaf – brought us so close to the Kabah that we could touch it; and the experience brought moments of awe to my heart.

But those were exceptions, because much of my focus at this stage was on not getting separated from the group (which can happen very easily in the crowd).

The other focus – which was to be a constant for subsequent tawaafs – was trying to shield my wife from getting pushed and shoved in the sea of humanity that surrounded us. With so many people doing the same thing in that limited space, and men and women (plus hazardous, heel-smacking wheelchair-riders) all mixed together, I would go so far as to say that it’s the duty of every husband to try to protect his wife from being pushed up against other men – a feat which is difficult, but not totally impossible.

According to the sunnah, there are 2 corners of the Kabah that you should touch if possible during tawaaf: the Black Stone (which is the starting point – but pretty much impossible to get to), and the Yemeni corner.

If you can’t touch the Black Stone, you make istilam to it – which is a sort of gesture from afar, which substitutes for touching it. Our group leader that night was showing us what to do by his own example, and he was also making istilam to the Yemeni corner. By extension, we followed him – since this was our first umrah and we weren’t really sure of what to do.

I felt uneasy about this latter istilam, so after the first few rounds, I refrained – remembering another teacher’s great general advice: ‘If you doubt, leave it out’. It was only later that I learned my doubt was correct – if you can’t get to the Yemeni corner, you’re not supposed to make istilam to it.

Correctness aside, it exposed flaws in my preparation: because I didn’t study the rituals properly before I got there, I didn’t know what was right and what was wrong, so it was easy to just follow someone else that was making a mistake.

The Maqam Ibrahim (Station of Abraham)

The Maqam Ibrahim (Station of Abraham)

Close to the Kabah is the Maqam Ibrahim – an area of land that now contains a golden case in which lies the actual footprints of Prophet Ibrahim a.s. In the tawaaf, we got so close to it that we could nearly touch it and look in. But the group was moving, so we moved with it. We could probably have gotten to touch the Kabah too – since the crowd wasn’t that heavy on this night. But again, we stuck with the group – as directed by the leader.

This was a direct lesson from the Battle of Uhud: follow the ameer (leader); don’t disobey – even though you feel it would be better for you personally. Alhamdullilah – that sacrifice, I think, was one that Allah recognised, because the next night when we went alone, we got to experience these places up close and personal.

Beyond that, my honest feeling for this first tawaaf was disappointment – huge disappointment. When you tawaaf with a group, the leader recites duas and dhikrs and everyone repeats after him. And because the leader’s recitations are all in Arabic, if you don’t speak the language, whatever you don’t already recognise of what he’s saying, you simply repeat without understanding.

This was fine for some, but personally I hated it – because again, this was a personal act to me, not a group one. I wanted this umrah to be about my personal act of worship – my relationship with my Creator; and not a group exercise. This was especially so because I knew that during tawaaf, there are no prescribed duas or dhikrs to recite (except for one dua on the fourth side of the Kabah).

I followed some of the leader’s duas and dhikrs, but I tried to do my own. It was frustrating, though, because on the one hand, I needed to stay with my group so that I wouldn’t get lost – but on the other, they were so loud with the collective recitations that I couldn’t focus on my own. Other groups – doing the same thing – were also loud, so our group wasn’t unique in that.

So history repeated itself for me: just like my first time in Masjid an-Nabawi in Madinah, it was the ‘group’ aspect that hampered the experience for me.


I was saddened by the fact that my very first tawaaf wasn’t a spiritual experience, but I made dua asking Allah to give me a connection to Him later on – that element which I so craved. I asked for this initial part of the umrah to not ruin the rest for me.

After we finished 7 rounds in the group, we moved to the next action – making 2 rakaats of salaah behind the Maqam Ibrahim. Our group leader encouraged us to make deep, personal duas – especially in sujood (which is the time when you’re closest to Allah) – and that’s when things finally fell into place for me. That’s when I felt the connection – my spiritual bond with Allah; being alone with Him, being able to speak to Him in dua without anyone or anything else distracting me. Alhamdullilah.

Either before or after those 2 rakaats, our group leader made a collective dua with us – and it was only then that his efforts actually made a profound impact on me. His dua really touched me, probably because part of it was in English (so I actually understood it), but also because of its major focus on parents.

The home stretch

Sa'ee in Makkah

Sa’ee in Makkah

The umrah concluded with sa’ee  – which is the act of walking between Mounts Safa and Marwah in imitation of Hajar a.s., who frantically ran between these two hills searching for food and water for her baby son Isma’il a.s. In total,  she walked seven times between these mounts before Allah finally opened up the well of Zam Zam – at the feet of Isma’il a.s. You probably already know the story, and the essential lesson that’s drawn from it is that when you want or need something, Allah is the One that will provide for you – but you should make your own efforts too, and not just expect things to happen while you sit around waiting.

In the past, maybe Safa and Marwah used to be mountains or hills, but they aren’t anymore. There still is a bit of a slope on each side, but it isn’t that steep, and the area is inside the masjid nowadays. It’s a long, straight strip divided into two sides – one for people walking in either direction. The original strip of land where this historical event occurred is on the ground floor of the masjid, but you can also do the sa’ee in the upstairs areas – directly above.

The ground floor section wasn’t that busy when we arrived, so we did ours there. It was much less crowded than tawwaf, but it took longer and was more disjointed. Like tawaaf, there isn’t much prescribed in terms of recitations or dhikrs, but because there’s not much chance of getting lost in this area, my wife and I could break away from the group a lot – thereby escaping the collective recitations that so hampered the tawaaf for me.

Many times, though, we did also with an older couple who was with us for our entire Hajj journey. They were full of character and would later entertain us with their charisma and ‘heroic’ (or just crazy) actions. What struck me was that the uncle – who must’ve been past 60 years old – was just so enthusiastic and happy about everything. To see such passion at that age highlights the special nature of this journey, and should remind us that you’re never too old to find joy in life.

After completing sa’ee, the umrah was complete. To be released from the state of ihram, the men had small pieces of their hair cut, while the women would do that later at the hotel (though some did it in the haram).

There was a sense of euphoria in the group, with people embracing each other – sharing a feeling of achievement and wishing that Allah accept this great act of worship from us. It was a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood which you often witness in Cape Town (for example on Eid days), and it opened my eyes to how all these people felt it collectively – like this was a group achievement. People thoroughly enjoyed it, and it was an emotional high to finally be done after all the hours of anxiety on the way there and during the umrah. May Allah accept that umrah from us all – despite our mistakes and shortcomings.

By now, it was already well past midnight, but the night wasn’t over yet. Though you could officially be released from ihram by cutting just 3 hairs, one of our group leaders – a very nice Arab man that would accompany us throughout the rest of the trip – insisted we do it the proper sunnah way, which was to shave the hair. I agreed with him, but I wasn’t keen on going totally bald at that point, so I took a number 3 cut – keeping some hair for future umrahs and of course the Hajj (in which I’d again have to get my hair cut or shaved).

There are numerous barber shops outside the haram in Makkah, and I went with a number of the guys from my group. With so many of us there, it was a rather long wait – but again it reinforced the need for sabr on the journey. It also gave me an opportunity to talk to a relatively newly-married brother who told me of his stressful job back home – reminding me of the nature of the working world (in case I’d forgotten it in this seemingly different universe we’d been in for these few weeks so far).

I finally got back to the hotel room – probably past 2AM – and showered.

With Madinah now firmly in the past, and our first umrah complete, it was now time to see what Makkah held for us. But first, it was time for a well-deserved rest – though it would be relatively short. We had only a few hours before Fajr, and after Fajr, we’d again have only a  little time to rest – as we’d need to get to the haram early for that day’s Jumuah – our first at the Kabah.

Next up, insha-Allah: Early experiences in Makkah

Related lessons:

  • In the tawaaf, if you’re a male with your wife, try to shield her from getting pushed and shoved in the crowd. Ask others for advice on how to do that, and find a way that works for you. Also, beware of people in wheelchairs – who can easily smack your heels and hurt you. If it happens, bear patience and try not to react angrily or violently.
  • Study the rituals properly before you get there – because without knowledge, it’s easy to just follow practices that might actually be incorrect.
  • When it comes to acts of worship, if you favour being alone rather than with the group, bear patience during your first tawaaf. There aren’t many prescribed duas and dhikrs for tawaaf, but you may be subjected to group recitations. If so, bear patience with this, ask Allah to grant you the best from the situation, and remember that insha-Allah you’ll get your own private times to do tawaaf in future – so try not to view this experience in a negative light.
  • Sujood is one of the best times to make dua, because – as per hadith – it’s when you’re closest to Allah. There are differences of opinion regarding dua in sujood, so find out from your ulama about the rulings related to sujood in dua (e.g. must it be in Arabic only? Is it in any salaah?). Personally, the option which I’m comfortable with is to make my own personal duas in English only in nafl salaahs – not the fardh.
  • When doing sa’ee, try to remember the history behind the act. Also try to remember the essential lesson: when you want or need something, Allah is the One that will provide for you – but you should make your own efforts too, and not just expect things to happen while you sit around waiting.
  • For cutting of the hair when you complete umrah, men should aim for the sunnah of shaving the head (either completely bald or cutting it very short) – rather than just the minimum cutting of 3 hairs. You’ve just completed a great act of worship, and vanity about your hair should no longer be a concern. For women, if you want to cut your hair while still inside / outside the masjid (i.e. rather than waiting to get back to the hotel), please ensure that you do it in a setting where no men can see your hair. Seems like obvious advice, but in the moment, you may forget.

What happened next?

Update: The entire series (30 parts) is available at this link – post by post. Alternatively, you can download the complete series as an e-book in PDF format. Feel free to share with anyone you think may benefit.

Image sources: Opening shot of Kabah – unknown; Maqam Ibrahim; Sa’ee.


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