Every year millions of Muslims from around the globe converge towards the holy sites of Haram Sharif at Makkah and Masjid-e-Nabawi at Madina in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, to perform Umrah and Hajj.

Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam. It teaches us about equality, forgiveness, endurance, strength, and the ever-present guidance of Allah. It is a profound spiritual journey that leaves a lasting impact on the hearts of those who undertake it.

Over the years, the Custodian of the two holy mosques have endeavoured to make the pilgrimage easier and have brought in numerous changes, besides expanding the two holy sites to accommodate the rising number of pilgrims.

This scribe performed his first Umrah fifty years ago in 1974. At that time, the area surrounding the Holy Kaaba comprised fine gravel.

Performing Tawaf bare feet used to be a tough ordeal. Gradually, on subsequent visits, I saw the area for Tawaf being paved with white marble stone and later with cooling treatment to make it easy to tread even under the scorching sun.

Physically challenged pilgrims would be carried by porters on a makeshift cot. Soon wheel chairs became available and as the number of pilgrims multiplied, a second storey was built to enable the plying of wheel chairs, without disturbing the pilgrims walking. During my posting as Naval and Air Attaché to Saudi Arabia from 1991-1995, I witnessed massive renovations but successive visits in later years left me in awe at the scale of the upgrade.

In a recent Umrah visit in April 2024, the form of changes observed were unprecedented.

Jeddah airport has undergone tremendous renovations, adding to the comfort of the passengers but what took me aback was the process of immigration. On a previous visit, my wife, our daughter-in-law and I stood for hours in the immigration line, dressed in Ihram waiting for our passports to be stamped. A nonchalant immigration officer would stamp four passports and then take a break.

This time, scores of immigration counters with young females donning Abbayah and some with their face covered – only their eyes visible – cheerfully greeted us and stamped our passports in a matter of minutes.

This was not the only remarkable change. Airport ground staff mostly comprising young females were eager to help out, provide information and receive the passengers. High speed shuttle trains at the airport have been added to convey the pilgrims from Jeddah airport to Makkah as well as Madina charging affordable fares and at convenient intervals.

At the Haram Sharif at Makkah, besides the facility of wheelchairs, a new initiative started in Ramazan 2024 is the introduction of smart golf carts for the elderly and physically challenged pilgrims to perform Tawaf on the roof of the Grand Mosque for a nominal rental of Saudi Riyals 25 only.

Umrah slots can be accessed for a two-hour window through the Nusuk app, especially designed to assist pilgrims during Hajj and Umrah. The same app is very helpful in enabling the pilgrims to gain access into the Rawdah, or Riazul Jannah. It holds incredible spiritual and historical significance, and as such, it is visited by millions each year.

In yesteryears, there used to be a scramble by both male and female pilgrims to gain access and pray in the Rawdah, at times leading to stampedes and unruly pushing and jostling. The Nusuk app enables the pilgrim to book a half-an-hour slot for the Rawdah and make the entry into the sacred area and pray in an orderly fashion. People have to queue up for their allotted slot and to provide a chance for maximum pilgrims, only one visit to the Rawdah is permissible during a single visit to Madinah.

Drinking holy water from the well of Zamzam located within the Masjid al-Haram in Makkah is an important ritual.

Millions of pilgrims visit Makkah and Medina each year to perform the Hajj or Umrah and drink water from the Zamzam well.

In earlier years, it used to be a difficult task to reach the Zamzam well so enterprising Arabs – carrying the holy water in small goat skin bags – used to sell a bowl of Zamzam. Now Zamzam water is provided in abundance in water coolers placed not only in the Haram Sharif but also transported to the Masjid-e-Nabawi for free distribution.

Most pilgrims used to struggle to carry Zamzam water on their return home. Now five litre bottles of the Zamzam water are available at Jeddah airport for a nominal cost and transported free of cost by the airlines.

A downside of the digital age is that during the holy and solemn ritual of performing Tawaf many pilgrims use their cell phones indulging in facetime, loudly conversing with their loved ones far away or shooting documentaries along with a commentary, disturbing other pilgrims, breaking their concentration by distracting them.

One aspect of good conduct is the bad habit of forcing their way through the crowds jostling and pushing others, even women, children and senior citizens.

In the early nineteen nineties, when I was serving as Naval and Air Attaché at the Pakistan Embassy at Riyadh, it was part of my duty to receive Hajj contingents of our Army, Navy and Air Force and send them to their Maktab in Makkah to commence their pilgrimage.

Since the contingents would arrive on varying dates, I had to spend a number of days at the Hajj Terminal at Jeddah Airport.

It gave me the opportunity to observe pilgrims from various countries and observe their behaviour.

The most organised, and disciplined were the Hajis (pilgrims) from Indonesia and Malaysia. They were mostly young, although attired in the Ihram, they had distinctive coloured scarves or badges to identify them.

The Iranians too would demonstrate patience, waiting silently for guidance. The Turks too were marked for their disciplined conduct. The most disorderly used to be Pakistani pilgrims.

In conclusion, religious leaders must teach and inculcate the true spirit of pilgrimage. The essence of Umrah and Hajj is the cleansing of the soul. One may fast, give Zakat (giving alms) or pray for individual salvation but Umrah and Hajj are social activities, which must be performed in the correct attitude i.e. being mindful of the comfort of others.

Spiritual teachers need to emphasise on teaching the faithful how to coexist. The cleansing of the heart and soul starts with shunning selfish deeds and praying collectively.

Islamic studies, which start at a young age, must lay emphasis on group behaviour that they have to be patient, give space to others, especially women, children and elders.

This will make us better human beings who would have absorbed the message of “to live and let live.”

May Allah accept the Hajj and Umrah of all pilgrims and grant them spiritual growth and blessings. 

The article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Business Recorder or its owners

S. M. Hali

The writer is a retired Group Captain of PAF, and now a security analyst

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