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Practical tips when preparing for Umrah

The journey between these two cities is filled with historical significance and you can taste the difference in culture – Mecca’s grandeur and significance (jalal) contrasted with Medina’s community of support embodying the sublime character of the Prophet Muhammad  (jamal) who made it his home and is buried there.

1. Suffice yourself with little – we don’t need much to be happy. Some food to eat, clothes to wear and safety from the elements are more than enough. Looking at my luggage, I realised how much excess there was and ultimately everything you carry slows you down. This load applies physically, mentally and emotionally.

2. Savour the moment. Often, I’m too busy thinking about the next thing to grow, learn, taste and digest the current moment. Walking in the footsteps of earlier generations, whether through mountainous terrain, desert sand or marbled floors, there was time to absorb the sights, smells and sounds without the need for a selfie or an internet search. Noticing the little things with full attention makes every moment precious, and helps to appreciate its fleeting value.

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Be precious about your experiences so you don’t miss the gold for the glitter. Your time is invaluable so don’t waste it heading back to the hotel unnecessarily or shopping for deals.

Focus on your purpose – it’s not to meet friends, get the best selfies or complain about room service. Instead use the time to meet your Lord in a way you have never before. Take time to understand rather than just to go through rote – salaah, quran, salaam, tawaf. Fit the rest of your life (food, shopping, even toilet) into fixed times so that you can maximise your experience with your Lord.

At one point, I took off my glasses during prayer and placed them before me. I remember thinking about how I would react if someone was to step on them and it brought into sharp focus the fact I am meeting someone far more important – my Lord – who deserves far more attention and concern then something as petty as my glasses. Don’t let anything distract your connection with your Lord.

3. Name your beliefs – limiting or empowering, and then persistently work on them. The Medinan society formed a brotherhood previously unheard of, uniting tribes, nomads and other faith communities, who had lived through generations of conflict before the arrival of the Prophet. But to get there, the believers had to live through persecution, social boycott and exile eventually trekking the 200+ miles from Mecca over 8 days avoiding bounty-hunters and vindictive family members.

4. Trust in governance. You really know yourself when tested with potential chaos. With half a million people streaming through the country annually, there are definitely bottlenecks. The government has developed high-end technology, traffic control systems and intuitive design to help facilitate the journey with great effect, especially considering that the majority of visitors do not speak the Arabic language.

The systems, processes and rules have been established based on study of population control, cultural norms, language limitations and refined practise for more than 1500 years. Jumping the queue hurts everyone, often starting with yourself. Everything comes to the one who waits and being considerate of others will always yield better results.

5. Discover yourself without the make up. The rites of the Umrah experience include men donning two white shroud-like garments and shaving their heads. Regardless of whether my companions were from Brazil, Indonesia, Uzbekistan or Mauritius, we are equal in the sight of God and only distinguished by our character and inner sense of accountability to God. Whether others are there or not, God knows us better than we know we our selves, so who else is there to prove ourselves to?

6. Appreciate the symbolic value of these practises. Circling the Ka’ba 7 times in deep conversation with God, helps us reflect on what’s at the centre of our lives. Everyone of us has a pole, which we dedicate our life to, and as coined by Covey, we don’t want to reach the end of our lives and realise the ladder we were climbing was leaning against the wrong building.

Traversing between the mountains in memory of Hajar, reminds us of our dependence and reliance on God, even as we take our next breath. Hajar’s unbridled optimism and hope in God is an inspiration, as is the example of Prophet Abraham in building this house of worship in the midst of a barren desert.

7. And how do you measure impact? Most who return embrace their travellers cough, almost as a reminder to keep talking to God like we were ardently during this amazing experience. The bald head reminds us of our position – empty, without apparent distinction, needy for growth and uniquely moving at our own pace. The increased reading of the Quran and ponderance during dialogue with our Creator is a special gift which helps retain some of the immersive experience we enjoyed away from our usual setting. One of the signs of a meaningful experience is that it changes you – search to see what, if anything, has progressed after this journey, a week, month or more after your return.

The Hajji cough or following travel illness is almost a reminder to keep talking to Him like we were ardently during the experience.

Hajj and umrah are a remembrance of the acts of a righteous family. Hajar (AS) said hasbunAllah wa ni’mal wakeel and Allah SWT so loved their acts, they are the example for us. Herein is the meaning of talbiyah. Qaabiliyah (ability) is not the key to success, Qubool (acceptance) is the key.

PRACTICALITIES RELATED TO UMRAH

Booking a visa

E-visas can be purchased online for Saudi Arabia using the Saudi eVisa website. E-visas are valid for multiple entries over the course of one year and you can stay up to 90 consecutive days, and up to a total of 180 days in a year.

If you decide to go with a Tour group, they can request your visa on your behalf with a copy of your passport and some personal details.

You don’t need to present any vaccination details although you should be up to date, so do check in with your GP beforehand. 

PRIORITY: Book your slots for Umrah and visits to the the Rawda (Prophets masjid in Madinah)

In order to better manage crowds at the Prophets Masjid and around the Ka’bah, you now need to book specific timeslots to visit each of these locations using the Nusuk app, developed by the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah. Apple / Google app 

As soon as you have your travel dates and a schedule for your journey, book your slots as they are managed based on real-time demand and can sometimes be a week or so before you get a slot.

You need to register on the app using your eVisa and passport details. Once set up, its quite straightforward to book a session for Umrah and a visit to the Rawdah. The Rawdah visits within the app are limited to one every 30 days so its important you stick  to your times. They do try to check every individual on entry so that everybody gets an opportunity. There are sometimes quiet times late at night when groups have been known to be allowed access but this is depending on demand and does not follow a fixed schedule. 

If you are struggling with the app, there is a supporting website – https://www.nusuk.sa/

The Rawdah visiting time for males is:

  • Morning 1 am to Fajr prayer 
  • Duhr to Isha Prayer (except on Fridays, when it opens from Asar salaah)

The Rawdah visiting time for females is

  •  Morning 6am to 11.00 am
  • 9.30 pm to midnight

If you are going with a group, do speak to them about coordinating times so that you can go with other members of your group.

Remember, the rules of Allah, the Almighty require us to accept the way things should be done. Being refused entry to something is fine if you followed the rules, and cheating the rules means you were denied entry anyway as the test was following, not any means necessary to achieve your goal. We experienced others pushing to get into the rawdah which felt like we were being delayed, but alhamdulillah, when our turn came, we managed to stay longer as it aligned with the time of prayer as well – everything comes to those who wait.

Ironically, some who had rushed to get in also rushed to get out crossing the path of others who prayed, leaving their dirty slippers on the carpet and spending time taking videos/FaceTime. The goal is to gain entry to Jannah which requires focus on Allah SWT, compassion towards others and considerate good manners.

Read up about Umrah beforehand

The practises of Umrah can be quite detailed so it’s important you learn about the rites before going. You may find the following useful:

  1. How To Perform Umrah by Shaykh Saleem Dhorat – available online as a pdf
  2. Hajj and Umrah made easy – spiral-bound book with colourful and clear guidance – available on Amazon 
  3. The Sealed Nectar (Ar-Raheeq Al-Makhtum) – the latest edition includes some excellent maps and photos

Don’t rely on winging it with the group and just following the crowd. This a personal journey and return to Allah(SWT), so take the time to prepare personally and build your relationship with your Lord.

What to take with you

There is a very comprehensive, visual list at Hajjumrah planner.com but based on practical experience, its best to travel light – the more you carry, the harder the journey becomes and you can purchase most items in Saudi. So our minimalist list would include:

  1. Passports. Tickets booked electronically and available at the airport on presentation of your passport.
  2. Visas: on the phone is OK in most instances but printed copies are needed for presentation at some hotels/collecting Zamzam
  3. Proof of Vaccination
  4. Saudi Riyals (if you have any from the past – 450 riyals (£100) should suffice for immediate expenses
  5. Money: take a sufficient amount of money to cover your expenditure – exchange places are readily available but some close on Fridays. You can use the Chase account to transfer money pre travel and there is no charge when using it out there.
  6. Debit / Credit Card: Can be used to withdraw money from an ATM machine if your money runs out.
  7. Emergency Contact Numbers
  8. Prayer mat (although there are some carpeted areas in Makkah and Madinah, in the rush and during prayer times, you may find yourself praying on marble so a prayer mat does cushion the impact on the knees and prostration)
  9. Dua Book: any pocket-sized book of your preference which contains supplications from the Quran and Sunnah, with translation so you can spend time reflecting on the meaning. A favourite is I Am Near available from “Life With Allah”
  10. Dua List: your personal collection of supplications which you repeat and complement the Propetic and Qur’anic duas
  11. Tasbeeh or Digital Dhikr Counter: essential for remembering your Tawaaf rounds and enable you to focus on your conversation with Allah(SWT), rather than the counting
  12. Umrah Guide Book. If you decide to go with a group, seek in a guide deep Islamic knowledge, good manners and proficient experience in conducting the rites with the latest knowledge (timing, routes, catering etc).
  13. Suitcase (hard-shell case with built-in locking system recommended)
  14. Lightweight travelling bag (can be used for your hand luggage)
  15. Neck cushion (useful while travelling and if you want to rest in the Haram rather than returning to the hotel)
  16. Eye mask cover and ear plugs (for the plane)
  17. Snacks – nuts, biscuits, juice packets etc. while travelling
  18. Clothing, accessories and flip-flop style sandals (open which dont the ankle bone or upper part of your foot). Crocs do some great quality sandals and run seasonal sales. Some cushioned socks can be useful for Tawaf as its difficult walking on the tiled surface (a typical tawaf of 7 circuits takes over an hour on the first floor). 
  19. Ihram x 2 (safety Pins can be used)
  20. Waist Pouch (while in your Ihram, keep your money, phones and keys)
  21. Bathroom Slippers
  22. String Bag to put your shoes in when you go to the Haram
  23. Toiletries (Toothbrush, toilet roll/pocket Tissues, Itr when not in ihram)
  24. Small Scissors and Sellotape
  25. Medication (Vaseline, Talcum powder, Day Nurse, throat lozenges, paracetamol, diarrhoea and any personal medication you have been prescribed)
  26. Plasters / Blister Plasters 
  27. Energy tablets can give you a boost in the heat and while in ihram when you may not be eating as much
  28. Mobile Phone and charger. Most hotel rooms now have 3 pin plugs although you may want to pack an adaptor.
  29. Notebook and pen – keep your own journal with your personal reflections

Food is readily available in most shopping malls and in Madinah is located alongside the hotel blocks facing the Haram. You should not need to travel more than 5 minutes for food (although desi Asian food can be a bit further away). A meal for 3 can cost 60-90 Riyal from most fast food outlets.

Make  your wishlist

You are returning to the Most Generous, Most Compassionate and Most Able – use this opportunity to seek forgiveness for your life and prepare your personal list of everything you would like support with. The whole Umrah experience and unique tawaf experience gives you plenty of time to talk to Your Beloved Creator in your own language, and there are many opportunities for accepted dua (such as viewing the Ka’ba for the first time, drinking Zamzam etc.) so have your list at the ready on your phone/in your journal.

Communication and finding your hotel

Once you arrive at your hotel, be sure to take a business card in case you get lost and need to find your way back to the hotel. 

For communication with family members or your group lead, you can purchase a local sim cards (STC, Mobily and Zain are the major telecommunication operators) from a booth around the Haram. They provide packages for a fortnight or month with 150 minutes + mobile data for about 35 Riyals. To find your mobile number, once you have switched your SIM, enter *114# on your keypad and dial to receive an on-screen notification of your number. 

Transportation

You can now book your transport from Makkah to Madina on the new ‘Bullet Train’ which takes approximately 2 hours and can be booked online at https://www.hhr.sa/home#.

You can now book an Uber or Bolt taxi in Saudi Arabia so do have your mobile app at hand so that you get the best value rides.

Make the most of your time

Maximise your time in the masjid – that is the main purpose of you going. Fix time for shopping (ideally towards the end of your stay, so it does not become a daily practise). The Messenger of Allaah (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) said: “One prayer in my mosque is better than 1,000 prayers elsewhere, except al-Masjid al-Haraam, and one prayer in al-Masjid al-Haraam is better than 100,000  elsewhere.” [Ahmad and Ibn Majaah (1406)] 

Use your time in the masjid to read Qur’an, remember Allah(SWT), pray additional prayers and read about the Prophets life (Seerah) and narrations. Set goals for things you would like to achieve e.g. the number of salaam to the Prophet(SAW), how many khatms of the Qur’an you would like to complete, how many sunnah and nawaafil prayers and tahajjud you can pray etc.

Do attend all reminder and ziyaarah sessions organised by your group and use the opportunity to ask all your questions – this is a rare opportunity with specific practises so there will always be learning. You will benefit from seeing the significant locations on your ziyaarah tour, even if you have seen them before – remember you are not the same person you were last time you visited and each location will evoke unique emotions for you.

Tawaf is an act of worship which can only be done in this blessed location. The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “Whoever circles the Ka’bah seven times and prays two cycles will be rewarded as if he has freed a slave. A man does not raise his foot and bring it back down but that ten good deeds will be written for him, ten bad deeds will be erased, and he will be raised by ten degrees.” [Musnad Aḥmad 27862] Remember, tawaf uses different muscles to running, and you may feel strain in your calves as you overstretch and pull forward. I saw a man with accentuated hip motion, like he was riding a cycle and realised this helped put the buttocks into use rather than straining the usual muscles. Listen to your body and rest it so you don’t burnout – the key is to be in the masjid for all of the prayers and as much time as possible, so exhausting yourself will not help this cause.

Don’t spend too much time shopping. Abu Huraira reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “The most beloved of places to Allah are the mosques, and the most hated of places to Allah are the markets.” [Muslim 671] Apart from dates and zamzam, you can purchase most things in the UK on your return (even gifts for family members/friends). Regarding dates, our guide mentioned some specific hadith narrations about:

  • Ajwa dates – “Whoever eats seven Ajwa dates in the morning, nothing can harm him that day, neither poison nor witchcraft”
  • Barni dates – “The best of your dates is the Barni. It dispels evil and contains no evil.“
  • and Anbara dates

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