What is Ḥajj and ʿUmrah
By: Shaykh Mustafa Umar
Ḥajj is a journey to Makkah commemorating the spirit of devotion to Allah performed by Prophet Ibrāhīm [Abraham] and his family. It entails visiting Makkah and some other nearby regions. Ḥajj occurs only once a year from the 8th-12th in the month of Dhul Ḥijjah. It is attended by about four to five million Muslims and is the largest annual gathering of people in the world.
ʿUmrah is a shortened version of Ḥajj which can take place at any time of the year in Makkah and only takes about an hour or two to complete. It is highly recommended to perform it at least once in a lifetime. Those who go for Ḥajj usually perform an ʿUmrah as well during the same journey.
Makkah is an ancient city in Western Arabia which was founded by Hājar [Hagar], the wife of Prophet Ibrāhīm. It is a narrow valley about 900 feet above sea level and 50 miles from the Red Sea. Prophet Ibrāhīm was instructed by Allah to leave his wife Ḥājar and son Ismāʿīl [Ishamel] in this barren valley as a test to see whether he and his wife were willing to overlook the principle of causality and put their trust in Allah. They both passed their tests with flying colors, so Allah made the region of Makkah a special place.
Ibrāhīm and his son built the Kaʿbah, which was the first building entirely dedicated to the worship of one God alone. He instituted the Ḥajj Pilgrimage where people have been visiting the once-empty valley for thousands of years. Makkah now has a population of 2 million people  and the word Mecca in English is now used to refer to a place which attracts a lot of people. The city has been mentioned several times in the Qur’an and is known as Umm al-Qurā [the mother of all settlements] because of the prominent position it occupies in Arabia. The region has also been mentioned in the Bible as the wilderness of Parān in Genesis 21:21, although some Christians insist on giving another meaning to that verse.
Makkah’s religious merit lies primarily in the fact that it contains the Kaʿbah, which all Muslims around the world face towards during prayer. However, the city also has immense historical value because the Prophet Muhammad lived there for most of his life and the first thirteen years of the revelation of the Qur’an occurred there.
Virtues of Ḥajj
Ḥajj has the potential of being one of the most rewarding acts of worship a Muslim can ever perform. The Prophet said, “Whoever performs Ḥajj [sincerely] for Allah and avoids obscenity and sins will return [from the journey] like the day his mother gave him birth [i.e. with no sins].” It is important to remember that the aforementioned benefits are conditional upon the Ḥajj being fulfilled properly. No one should assume that just by doing the motions of Ḥajj they will automatically receive a get-out-of-hell-free ticket. It is important to keep in mind the warning of the Prophet, “It might be that a person who fasts gains nothing from it except hunger and a person who prays gains nothing from it except fatigue.” If this principle applies to prayer and fasting, the same would potentially apply to Ḥajj.
Ḥajj has far reaching social dimensions as well. A Persian intellectual explained it thus: “Everyone encircles the Kaʿbah collectively. The movement is as one unit, one group of people. There is no individual identification, that is, of being a man or woman, nor black or white. It is the transformation of one person into the totality of a ‘people’. Every ‘I’ joins together and becomes a ‘We’, establishing the ‘ummah’ [community] with the aim of approaching Allah.”
The American revolutionary Malcolm X described his experience in these words: “There were tens of thousands of pilgrims, from all over the world. They were of all colors, from blue-eyed blondes to black-skinned Africans. But we were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to believe never could exist between the white and the non-white. America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem. You may be shocked by these words coming from me. But on this pilgrimage, what I have seen, and experienced, has forced me to rearrange much of my thought patterns previously held.”
Who Must Perform Ḥajj
Ḥajj is an obligation at least once in a lifetime for Muslims who are able to go. It is one of the five pillars upon which Islam stands and should never be neglected or even delayed. As soon as a person is able, they must immediately go.
Only the following Muslims are exempted from performing Ḥajj:
- Children: A person is only held responsible for their actions in the sight of Allah after he has attained maturity and the intellect has developed. This occurs during when a child reaches puberty. A boy is considered to be a mature adult when he has his first wet dream [or equivalent]. A girl is considered to be mature when she either has her first wet dream [or equivalent] or begins her menstrual period. If neither of these occur before the age of fifteen they are considered to be mature at that age.
- Young children who cannot fully understand what they are doing may still be taken on the Ḥajj and their parents will get the reward for allowing them to experience this Islamic phenomenon.
- Children old enough to understand what they are doing will benefit from performing the Ḥajj. They should try to perform it the best they can, but it will not lift the obligation from them. Therefore, when they reach the age of maturity, they will have to perform it again as soon as they are able.
- Mentally handicapped: Those people who are afflicted with an illness or defect that impairs their intellect are not considered responsible adults. They are treated like children in that they are not responsible for their actions in this world or the next. However, they may still perform Ḥajj and go through the motions, just like children do.
- Financially unable: Someone who is unable to afford the expenses of traveling to Makkah and back, paying for the stay there, and having their family taken care of while they are gone, is not required to perform Ḥajj. Nowadays, Ḥajj can be quite costly. A person should try to find the most economical travel package they can and go if they can afford that.
- It is important to note that a person should not borrow money in order to perform the Ḥajj. Also, paying off [currently due] debts takes priority over going for Ḥajj, since that money actually belongs to someone else. However, having long-term debt like a loan on your house has no impact on your ability to go for Ḥajj since you make monthly payments and it is not expected of you to pay off the loan immediately. Therefore, your entire housing debt is not ‘currently due’, rather, only your monthly payment is, and that can be subtracted from your assets.
- Physically unable: A person who is physically unable to undertake the journey due to severe discomfort or other reasons is exempted from performing Ḥajj. However, there are many facilitations for disabled people such as wheelchairs and escorts for those who can afford them, which would not lift the obligation from those people.
- Relative danger of the journey: If there is a highly probable likelihood of danger when traveling to Ḥajj, then a person is exempted. In the past, people faced desert bandits or sea pirates when traveling long distances and sometimes had to go in armed groups to protect themselves.
- It is a requirement for women to have a male relative [maḥram] such as her brother or uncle accompany her on the Ḥajj to ensure her safety. However, if she is unable to have a male escort and there is probable certainty that her journey will be relatively safe, this requirement is overlooked. Nonetheless, the current government of Saudi Arabia has placed specific visa restrictions concerning women in accordance with their understanding of Islamic Law on this issue so check with your local embassy.
The Standard Ḥajj Schedule
There is much more to learn about Ḥajj which is beyond the scope of this article. To find out more, see the book Hajj & Umrah: A Practical and Spiritual Guide to the Journey. Below is a table describing approximately what happens on each day of Ḥajj.
|Before Makkah||Assume Iḥrām|
|Arriving in Makkah||Ṭawāf & Saʿy*|
|8th of Dhul Ḥijjah||Stay at Minā|
|9th of Dhul Ḥijjah||Stay at ʿArafah
Sleep in Muzdalifah
|10th of Dhul Ḥijjah||Stone one Marker at Minā
Offer a sacrifice
Exit Iḥrām [partially]
|11th of Dhul Ḥijjah||Stone the three Markers at Minā|
|12th of Dhul Ḥijjah||Stone the three Markers at Minā|
|13th of Dhul Ḥijjah [Optional]||Stone the three Markers at Minā*|
|Before Leaving Makkah||Farewell Ṭawāf|
If you have not gone on the journey, ask God to facilitate the journey for you.
 See Qur’ān 2:127-128, 3:96-97, 22:27-30