Editor's Note: This is the second in a four-part series following Hadi and his family's Ramadan experiences in a Muslim country, comparing it to their Ramadan experiences in the U.S. Read part one here. Read part two here.
These past few weeks I've spent in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia with my family during Ramadan have yielded many memorable experiences, one of the most being the opportunity to perform Umrah (a pilgrimage similar to Hajj, only done during none-Hajj times). Last Friday, I stood on top of Jabl-e-Noor (The Mountain of Light, where the Prophet Muhammad [saw] gave his last sermon) with approximately twenty other pilgrims and offered the fajr prayer. The most visible structures in the dark of night were the minarets of Masjid Al-Haram and the world's tallest clock tower in Mecca. The sound of Quran being recited from mosques all around the Makkan valley filled the air.
To understand the significance of this particular Umrah, and why I decided to perform it in the manner in which I did, I need to explain my spiritual baseline. You could say that I was on the backside of rock bottom. Looking back, it was simply a convergence of events in the past year that brought me to this particular point. My spiritual state was like a colander full of holes, and I hoped Ramadan would be the plaster that would plug those holes. Unfortunately, by the end of the third week of Ramadan, I realized that whatever I was doing was not working. Therefore, I decided that I was willing to perform Umrah by myself and to go on a bus (instead of flying from Riyadh to Mecca).
And, when on Wednesday at 3 p.m. I stepped onto the bus, I realized that this Umrah trip was going to be a memorable one if, in fact, I survived the bus trip. This trip was going to take me from Riyadh to Medina (723 km/449 miles), Medinah to Mecca (338 km/210 miles) and Mecca to Riyadh (795 km/494 miles) in a span of sixty-two hours. When I got on the bus, I started to question the rationality of undertaking travel like this, as the bus had no air conditioning and no bathroom, and was in terrible condition.
It then occurred to me that this was exactly the type of Umrah experience that I had always wanted. Along with all kinds of other smells, I smelled adventure in the air.
Charitable Gestures in Medina
Our first stop was the holy city of Medina. There is a distinct difference between the intensity of Mecca and Medina. Medina has an air of tranquility, no matter how many worshipers are swarming around. I initially took a trip inside the Prophet's mosque only to be greeted with massive crowds of worshipers who were scrambling for the smallest inch of prayer space. And in what first seemed like chaos, I witnessed the spirit of Ramadan and brotherhood firsthand.
I was thirsty and I wanted to get one last cup of water, which was a dangerous proposition as there were close to a thousand people moving in front of and behind me. Had I stopped, I would have created a situation in which people would have gotten trampled. I continued to squeeze through the people and as I looked down toward the water coolers wishing for the smallest sip, one of the pilgrims handed me a full cup of water. Then a second pilgrim handed me another full cup. These pilgrims decided to sit next to the water coolers and hand water to the people passing by as a simple act of charity.
Charitable Gestures Continue in Mecca
From Medina I went to Mecca to perform the rites of the Umrah. Although Mecca is full of hustle and bustle and the markings of a heavily commercial/merchant district, the charitable gestures were no different here. In Mecca, I witnessed the same act of kindness and goodness as the pilgrims were preparing for iftar, the time at which the fast is broken. Random pilgrims with water jugs in hand would weave in and out of the maze of people and give everyone water from the Well of Zamzam.
Another group of pilgrims brought boxes of tissue paper and would hand them out to those who were making tawaf, the act of circumambulating the Kaaba in a counterclockwise manner, which is one of the rites of Umrah. No one asked these helpers to pour water, bring extra coffee, hand out dates or extra tissues. They decided to do this of their own accord.
Visiting the Holy Sites around Mecca
The Cave of Hirah (Gaar-e-Hirah) is situated at the top of the Mountain of Light (Jable-e-Noor) outside of Mecca. It is the cave that the Prophet Mohammed (saw) visited regularly to meditate. Later in his life, he received the first revelation from Allah in this cave. I was determined to visit The Cave of Hirah because I too was on a spiritual quest. Something in my heart was telling me that if I did not get to visit the Cave of Hirah that my Umrah experience would be incomplete.