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Mixing Haj and Holiday
Mecca is the new break for affluent Muslims who are combining a vacation with the Umrah.
Earlier this month, Mumbai realtor Tabrez Rubberwala put a number of building projects on hold and left for Mecca to perform Umrah (mini-Haj ). Rubberwala is just one of the thousands of Indian Muslims who are Mecca-bound this Ramzan.
It has now become fashionable among a section of affluent Muslims to spend their holidays in Mecca and Medina on the pretext of performing Umrah. While Haj, one of the mandatory obligations in Islam, is an annual event, Umrah can be performed through the year. But an Umrah during Ramzan promises more blessings than the ritual performed in any other month. So, instead of exotic destinations like Bali or Bangkok, some Muslims visit holy shrines in Saudi Arabia, especially the Kaba Mecca. "I can afford to spend my annual holiday almost anywhere on the planet, but I prefer Mecca and Medina in Ramzan, " admits a Mumbai businessman, Iqbal Memon Officer, just back from his 10-day break. He has been visiting Mecca during Ramzan for the past 10 years. "My non-Muslim friends fly to Malaysia or Singapore to spend their holidays. But Mecca beckons me like no other city and I save my holidays to go there, " adds Officer who brings back gifts like Ajwa khujoor (dates) and voiles of zamzam water for his friends, both Muslims and non-Muslims.
Cashing in on this craze are the dozens of Umrah tour operators. From ticketing to accommodation to food and travels in Saudi Arabia, the tour operators cater to every need. "For Rs 90, 000 per person, we provide Mumbai-Jeddah-Mumbai economy class tickets, good accommodation in Mecca and Medina, travels in Saudi Arabia and all meals for a month-long tour, " says V S Abdul Karim of Creative Tours and Travels, one of the big Umrah tour operators in India. "The rush is increasing by the year, " adds Karim who has sent around 500 pilgrims during Ramzan this year.
Zakaullah Siddiqui, managing director of the sales department of Saudi Arabian Airlines, says over one lakh pilgrims from Mumbai alone will have performed Umrah by the end of Ramzan (August 31 or September 1) this year.
So why is so much importance attached to Umrah during Ramzan? Belief has it that when the Prophet performed his only Haj in the seventh century, he said it would be his last as he didn't think he would return to Mecca again. Some of his companions rued that they would be denied the opportunity and blessed privilege to perform Haj with the Prophet. "To allay their fears, the Prophet said an Umrah during Ramzan would mean as if a faithful peformed Haj with Mohammed, " says Jeddah-based Indian journalist Siraj Wahab who has covered many Umrah and Haj pilgrimages for the daily Arab News. Also, adds Wahab, since any good deed done during Ramzan gets 70 times more rewards than in other months, rich Muslims try to notch up more rewards by being in Mecca and Medina.
Unlike Haj which entails travels to the tent city of Meena and the plains of Arafat away from the mountain town of Mecca, the Umrah ritual is confined to the premises of holy mosque in Mecca which also houses the cubic Kaba enshrined in black cloth. Clad in two white unstitched pieces of cloth (for men) and a head-to-toe loose cover with face opened (for women), the pilgrims complete Umrah in two hours. Men and women perform the ritual together. It includes anti-clockwise circumambulation of the Kaba seven times, brief prayer at a spot a few feet away from the Kaba, seven brisk walks between two ancient hills called Safa and Marwah, drinking water from the zamzam spring and tonsuring of head (only for men). After performing Umrah in Mecca, the pilgrims travel to Medina to pay homage to the Prophet buried at the sacred mosque called Masjid-e-Nabwi (Prophet's Mosque) there. But visiting Medina is neither part of Umrah nor Haj.
There are many Indian Muslims who travel to Mecca and Medina several times in a year, apart from their mandatory Umrah pilgrimage in Ramzan. And once they are in Mecca, Umrah is mandatory. "I have stopped counting the number of Umrahs I have performed since I have been visiting Mecca and Medina almost thrice a year for the last decade or so, " says a businessman requesting anonymity.
Rich Indian Muslims have no reservations about spending almost a lakh per trip. But these habitual Umrah performers have also drawn flak from a section of clerics who believe the money could have been better spent on uplift of the community. Senior cleric Maulana Shoeb Koti, warns against turning the sacred Umrah ritual into a fad: "Umrah should not be used as an occasion to holiday. The money could be spent on charity instead, " says Koti.
Many Muslims take the Umrah route to cleanse their "sins", say some insiders. "I know several former gangsters, black marketers and wheeler-dealers who perform Umrah. Only Allah knows how clean they are after Umrah, " quips Mustaqeem Makki, a tour operator who spent almost two decades in Mecca before moving to India a few years ago.
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