I completed Umrah – a religious pilgrimage to the holy site of Mecca – a week before Saudi Arabi stopped accepting visas into the country due to the coronavirus outbreak.
While Umrah is the baby version of Hajj – the main and compulsory (if you are able) pilgrimage – it is an immersive insight into what you can expect on the laborious but fulfilling journey.
While I’m thankful for the opportunity to experience Mecca, many of my Muslim peers were set to embark on Hajj this week but had to cancel in response to the pandemic.
The current cancellation has been a huge blow to those who had booked a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Pilgrimage doesn’t come cheap – package deals can range anywhere from £6,000 to £16,000, depending on who you’re travelling with and your itinerary.
Coupled with the fact that, for once, the dates for Hajj this year align with the end of the school term, making it easier for families with school children to travel, this feels like a missed opportunity for many.
Though it may be the first Hajj that has been cancelled for foreign visitors due to a pandemic in modern memory, it’s not the first time the holy site has had to stop pilgrims coming in.
Plagues, battles, and previous pandemics have halted the sacred event 40 times throughout history.
Though the occasion may not be unprecedented, the blow isn’t cushioned for young Muslims hoping to complete an obligatory part of their religion.
What is Hajj?
Hajj occurs during Dhul Hijjah – one of the most sacred months, and the final, in the Islamic calendar.
Just as the end of Ramadan signals the best nights of the year in which Muslims can reap plenty of rewards for their worship, Dhul Hijjah brings forth the best days of the year.
Muslims endeavour to bring the same zeal and determination to worship in these final few days before the month ends and Eid is celebrated at its culmination.
Any righteous deeds committed on these few days are considered more beloved to Allah than on a regular day.
So you can imagine the importance Muslims place on these days and being able to perform them at the holiest site.
Muslims who had the important trip lined up now have to console themselves and either get a refund or try again next year.
Though it might be easy for non-Muslims to brush this off as no big deal, it’s important to note that pilgrimage isn’t just a regular holiday.
Many Muslims wait their whole lives to stand in front of the Ka’aba (black cube) and prostrate towards God. And not all may be able to return in following years.
A lot of Muslims also see the chance to do pilgrimage as an invitation from God, who has willed it for them.
So now they have to grapple with this not being written for them right now, which can cause existential dread.
We spoke to some people to see how they’re feeling about the whole situation and what they plan to do.
Here’s what they had to say.
Hanna and Mohammed
‘I don’t know how to explain how I’m feeling,’ says Hanna. ‘Disappointment really doesn’t even begin to cover it. We prioritised Hajj over a new car, looking for a house, going on holidays.
‘We really thought that it was the perfect time and would be the best thing to do at this point in our life as we’re fairly young, have our health and are without any real responsibilities.
‘I went from feeling so blessed and excited to have had the means to make the journey, to feeling so heartbroken.
‘It just felt so unfair and I was shocked at my reaction. Before booking, we kept considering if we were even “ready” to go so it felt very special to think that we can and are able to go.
‘For so long after we booked our tickets, I couldn’t even believe that we would be going. And then I really struggled to accept that it wasn’t willed for us to go after all.
‘Obviously, that was the reminder and test of faith in itself. That we plan, but Allah has already written what is meant for us.
‘We spent just under £16,000 and we are yet to decide if we want to carry over our seats for next year or get a refund.’
Mohammed adds: ‘Of course I was looking forward to it but it’s just another test so inshaAllah (God willing) we will be invited next year and if not, then we just keep making dua (prayer).
‘Obviously I’m sad, we had things planned for our life.’
‘I was meant to be going with my husband and mum. My mum is a single parent and this year would have been the first year she was able to go. She was the most excited out of all of us and was the saddest when it didn’t work out. Not that we weren’t sad but she has been thinking and waiting for this for years.
‘For myself, this year would have seemingly been pretty perfect as we don’t have children, have enough savings, and my project is in a good place so I could leave for a few weeks. Who knows what life will be like next year?
‘At the time I was so upset as it seemed like everything was perfect and I was ready. But now I feel like it’s been a lesson in planning and how Allah is ultimately the best of planners. So I’ve left it up to Him. When it’s best for me, then inshAllah I’ll be able to go.
‘In terms of refund, our agency did offer us two options: They could refund us or they can keep the deposit and we will be on the priority for Hajj next year.
‘Hopefully the prices will the same price as this year as the cost always goes up.
‘We opted for option two. This was also with the agreement that we could change our minds should we no longer be able to go, up until Ramadan next year. It’s hard to know what life will be like a whole year later!’
‘My husband and I got married in Feb 2019 and we always said before having kids we wanted to do Hajj, so summer 2020 was a perfect time. We also wanted to take both of our parents. We paid our deposit back in January and I was really happy that both our parents also agreed to join us. It was going to be quite the journey for all of us.
‘For my parents, my husband, and me, it was going to be the first time doing Hajj. I had gone Umrah back when I was 10 but this was going to be the first time going back as an adult who felt more connected to her religion.
‘We paid £1,000 each as a deposit, the total cost was £5,000. I sorted out my annual leave and we were all good until lockdown was about to begin.
‘I remember when we got the email at work to take home our laptop as we will be working from home for good for a bit. I remember going to the prayer room before leaving the office and breaking down on the prayer mat. That was the moment it hit me that Hajj might not happen for us this year.
‘During lockdown, my work was quite busy as I work for the government so I was heavily distracted when Ramadan hit, I had the best Ramadan ever working from home and prayed that a miracle would happen.
‘As time went on, the more demotivated I became. I started questioning my intentions; maybe I wasn’t ready? Maybe deep in my heart, I didn’t want it? But over time, I had accepted it wasn’t going to happen.
‘Still, until we got the official notice from Saudi it was cancelled for international pilgrims, we kept putting our other plans off, such as family planning and getting a house, that was originally planned for after Hajj.
‘Now it’s off, all those plans have moved forward. My work, career, and side projects has been busy.
‘I pray and hope we can go next year. We asked the travel company to give us a credit note instead as it makes no difference if the deposit sits with them or the bank and this way we will get access first for next year’s packages. But we don’t know what our personal situation will be next year. But one thing I have made intention for is if we can’t do Hajj next year then we will definitely at least go for Umrah inshAllah. Allah knows best.’
‘I feel a little disappointed as I felt like I needed this trip, this year especially, for a fresh start. I’ve done Umrah before but this would be my first time doing Hajj.
‘It’s quite sad to know that I would have been there exactly now but I’ve learned to accept it as God’s will.
‘I would rather not risk our health to go during a pandemic. It cost about £7,000 per ticket but we’ll be getting our money back.
‘We’d like to go next year, however Hajj falls at the same time as my brother’s graduation so I am unsure as to whether we will be able.’
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