From a professional perspective the time for lesser pilgrimage, Umrah starts as soon as the Saudi authorities commence the issuance of visas, and stretches to, very nearly, the beginning of the hajj proper by which time Umrah shall be closed for that year. During this period, within which Umrah is possible, pilgrims keep coming from all over the world; not so Nigeria. To be precise, Nigeria is relatively a new entrant into the Umrah spiritual journey as compared to other parts of the world; even so, the peak of our presence in Umrah is during the last 10 days of Ramadan. We have hitherto been more prominent on the major hajj with the second or so world’s largest contingent of pilgrims yearly.
Why do people go for Umrah annually? Many Umrah pilgrims repeat the journey every year as a spiritual battery charger for their imaan and perseverance in acts of devotion to Allah. The hearts of such people, as those of billions of Muslims around the world, perpetually yearn towards the Ka’bah, desiring the reward of hajj with the Messenger of Allah (SAW) as he said Umrah in Ramadan is like performing hajj with him; they make savings from legitimate earnings spanning the period between this to another Ramadan for the purposes of the annual trip. The savings are according to one’s means – the rich, and the straitened. There is no sin in paying for a five-star hotel if one can afford it, since, as it is now, only the rich can pay for accommodation within a reasonable distance from the two holy mosques; but that should be done without extravagance. I will revert to this later. There are people for whom this seemingly spiritual journey is, to put it mildly, an exercise in futility due to the haraam means with which the Umrah was sponsored or the purpose for undertaking the journey in the first place.
One could rightly describe Ramadan Umrah 2011 as a thank you Umrah; a means by which some politicians rewarded loyalists that helped vote or rig them into office during the April polls. It is like saying – for your effort during the electioneering; for making sure that we returned by all means necessary; for your commitment to our cause, here is a slot for this year’s Umrah. A Saudi hotelier said all the signs were visible for a woeful business this Ramadan, until the Nigerians came to the rescue; they paid for the whole building. He made good profit. Thanks to Nigerian politicians!
The political Umrah sponsorship is in grades; thus, I heard reports of people leaving their places of accommodation, mostly, in the Sitteen/Mansur axis, a no star arrangement without feeding, and flocking to the five-star hotels around Haram, paying homage to their godfathers and sometimes creating commotion in the restaurant during Iftaar. Restaurant officials of many hotels were overwhelmed by the influx of ‘foreigners’; meal ticket checks failed as large numbers of Nigerians flooded the gates. Many legitimate guests could not have their Iftaar. The food was not adequate for the crowd as the hotels did not make provision for the unannounced visitors. How could a Muslim who travelled for Umrah seeking reward from Allah allow himself to break his fast with a pilfered meal? Breaking Ramadan fast with haraam?
Our sisters and mothers have proved themselves to be more dedicated to ibaadah in the Holy Land than some of their male counterparts. You see them never weary in performing Tawaaf, Taraaweeh and Tahajjud. But there are others whom I still cannot understand why they spend money every year to go for Umrah, when they spend the whole day sleeping only to wake up just before the Magrib prayer. They would be at the restaurant at the time of Magrib; would not pray with other Muslims under the pretext of observing Iftaar. The custom is to make the call to prayer heralding the end of the day’s fast, allow people to break their fast for about five minutes before starting the Magrib prayers. This short, five-minute interlude is not a license for people to avoid the salaah completely because they are breaking the fast.
These mothers and sisters would leave the Haram area before the commencement of the Ishaa prayers for Jeddah. They would spend the whole night in Jeddah shopping, return to Makkah in time to make Suhur and go to bed without observing the Subhi prayers. Thus, they would not observe any salaah for the whole day, and the cycle continues. I am not oblivious of the fact that some of them may be on their menses but that cannot last for 10 days for so many of them. If a woman who stays in Shaari’ Sitteen would endeavour to offer her salaah in the Haram, it is indeed shameful for one privileged to stay close to Haram to spend nights on end in shopping in Jeddah and neglect her devotions- the reason why she is on Umrah in the first place. On the flip side is another set of pilgrims; these also miss the congregational prayers because they also spent the night busy- in supererogatory worship (Tahajjud or Qiyaam) this time around.
At first it looks like a good thing to spend the night in devotion to Allah; only a closer look at the practice exposes the irony of gaining Allah’s Wrath by trying to attain His Pleasure. There is a subtle misplacement of priority here- a servant of Allah cannot come closer to Allah with anything greater than what He has made obligatory, thus, no one can claim to be attaining His Pleasure by neglecting the obligatory and emphasizing the optional and supererogatory. Indeed ash-Shaytaan, the accursed is good at what he does. He makes the servant work hard at the less important at the expense of the most important! This error is the product of ignorance and in some cases, arrogance. Some pilgrims delight in regaling the spiritually less privileged with tales of their spiritual prowess; from their never ending naafilah until dawn to the number of times they were able to perform tawaaf daily. Clearly this is boastful and ruinous. The right approach would be to let the soul do some ibaadah and allow the body do some recovering by resting and sleeping in moderation. As the hadeeth says: ‘…indeed your eyes have a right over you’
To some, it is embarrassing not to go for Ramadan Umrah; what will people say if they could not go this year when they have been going for the past two, three or four decades? So, their aim is not to attain Allah’s pleasure but to save face by maintaining an all-is-well attitude. This set of people will do anything, borrow money, beg or sell their property to travel; see, we are still rich; we can afford to go for Umrah. Actions are by intention and every man shall have but that which he intended. Thus he whose migration was for Allah and His Messenger, his migration was for Allah and His Messenger; and he whose migration was to achieve some worldly benefit or to take some woman in marriage, his migration was for that for which he migrated. (Hadeeth)
There is another angle of notice-me and show off among Nigerian Umrah pilgrims in Ramadan; you can call it display of affluence in the Holy Land. In Madinah for example, the bigman would stay alone in a suite. Well, it is understandable, to pay for a suite, where one travels with a large family. That family may even save a lot in a suite as some of its members can request for extra bed, use the living room, dining area, etc. for additional rooming arrangement. But what economic sense does a suite serve to a small family or a single man who could comfortably do with one or two double rooms? A suite costs SR10, 000 (N450, 000) per night; the package for the stay in Madinah for most hotels is four nights, that, by 4, will be One Million Eight Hundred Thousand Naira (N1, 800, 000); when that family could have made do with two double rooms at SR2000 per room, per night, and covering both Iftaar and Suhur. No, the bigman wants to be noticed and prove to his peers that he has arrived!
This sheer waste is more pronounced in Makkah where the rates are exorbitant at peak periods like the last 10 days of Ramadan, usually sold as one package. A two bedroom suite goes for about SR280, 000 or (N12, 600, 000) for the last 10 days Ramadan. Of all the suites in the five-star hotels around the Ka’bah, more than half were taken by Nigerians! There is a penthouse special suite at the zenith of Hilton Hotel in Makkah exclusively reserved for, among other dignitaries from the Gulf region, Nigerian excellencies at about SR400, 000 or N18, 000, 000. Don’t ask me concerning a Nigerian businessman that took a whole floor with more than 50 rooms in the most prestigious hotel in Makkah, the Intercontinental Daral Tawhid, for his family and friends alone; each room was SR75, 000. Only a small fraction of this money would have improved the lot of many people in his village. Wastage!
Let me state that this is not mere speculation; when I write about hajj or Umrah I do so as a VIP Hajj? Organiser, a professional and an insider. I know exactly what I’m saying on these matters. The question remains, where is this money coming from? Most of these people are politicians and top government officials. Is this their money or, will it be that, they betrayed our trust? The latter seems to be the case because the person you see today in Intercontinental Daral Tawhid, for instance, is very often seen in a less expensive hotel, may be Hilton, etc. the very year he is removed from office. I’ve met former ministers and governors in a four star hotel on Ajyad Street during this year’s Ramadan. Why are they not in their usual places of abode, five-star, expensive hotels, very close to the Haram? The same people will come home to roost, and soon be spotted in pilgrim apartments around Mansur Street in two years or so.
There is a chance some readers, who know I am in the VIP Hajj business that thrives on the patronage of the rich, will ask whether there is no contradiction in terms here. To answer this and similar questions fecundating the minds of my readers, we have to understand a principle in Islamic business law: You do not ask about the source of a customer’s livelihood in order to determine whether to accept or reject his patronage. Also, a Muslim is not allowed to base his judgement on mere speculation, as such, I am not at liberty to query my clients about the source of their money. The truth is that there will always be people rich enough to afford any hotel and some insist on a particular room arrangement, despite advice to the contrary.
What I have been explaining so far is that our rich could make the Umrah or Hajj in comfort for far less if they would not insist on rooms that add little or no value to the comfort they could procure in the same hotel if they chose a different room arrangement.
In addition, I have tried to awaken the urge to please only Allah in our acts of worship and to be moderate in all things that have to do with our relationship with Allah. I have mentioned that using most hours of the night to shop and all day to sleep is antithetical to the core purpose of the pilgrimage just as sleeping all day and worshipping all night is inimical to the attainment of Allah’s pleasure; stealing funds to please Allah will likewise not work.
Allah will not accept such Umrah as was sponsored by stolen funds!