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Seeking Holiness: Place and Ritual

Part 2 in the series Notes from a Pilgrim.

Pilgrims circle the Ka'bah, an act known as 'Tawaf'.
An unusually empty Masjid al-Haram - pilgrims circle the Ka'bah, an act known as 'Tawaf'.

We arrived in Makkah in the early hours of the morning. My father had already changed into his ihram clothing on the plane: two unstitched pieces of white cloth worn by all male pilgrims regardless of age, status or wealth. One of the reasons for having this mandatory uniform is that this shows the equality among humans in God’s eyes – there can be no display of wealth or privilege when all are dressed alike. A second reason is that the two sheets of white resemble the customary simplicity of the shroud that Muslims are buried in, encouraging the pilgrim to consider his impending mortality. Women do not have any such mandated dress although during the Hajj period women will also wear white; it is also customary for those who do not usually wear a headscarf to cover it for the duration of their pilgrimage, but women who cover their faces are forbidden from doing so during this time.

The actual series of rituals that amount to having performed Umrah are few but very specific. Entering into the state of Ihram is the first – this includes the wearing of the white sheets, as well as prohibitions including the cutting of one’s hair and nails, or wearing perfume. The pilgrim must also declare their personal intention to perform Umrah, in any language they choose – this is called declaring one’s Niyah. The subsequent stages are performing Tawaf – walking around the perimeter of the Ka’bah seven times – and then doing Sa’ey – running between two hills called Safa and Marwa. Finally, pilgrims perform a short prayer, women clip a lock of their hair and men shave their heads. The umrah is then complete. I was surprised to learn that, depending on one’s fitness, age and general health, it is entirely possible to perform Umrah in just a few hours. I was also struck by some of the aspects to Umrah and how they felt connected to practices found in older religions: the prohibitions against clipping nails or wearing perfume, and circumambulation certain landmarks – or even people – are present in other faiths too. There was something profound in that, a connection through a common thread of how creation tries to connect with its Creator.

We made our way to the special entrance of the Masjid al-Haram – the main mosque in Makkah that surrounds the Ka’bah - to start our Umrah. My mother, father, sister and I entered together, and after offering a short prayer, we proceeded towards the Ka’bah while reciting the ‘talbiyah’ – a declaration of arriving, being present, and ready to offer pilgrimage. As we recited and walked, I thought how rousing it must be to enter as a large group, all chanting the same declaration, and how unifying the effect would be. There is a story about the early Muslims re-entering Makkah after they escaped from there to Medina, following persecution at the hands of the non-Muslim Makkan tribes. As they approached the Ka’bah they recited the words of the talbiya:

Labbayka Allāhumma Labbayk. Labbayk Lā Sharīka Laka Labbayk. Inna l-Ḥamda, Wa n-Niʻmata, Laka wal Mulk, Lā Sharīka Lak.

Here I am O Lord, here I am. Here I am at Your service and You have no partners. All Praise and All Bounty is to You alone, and Yours alone is The Sovereignty. You have no partners.

As we drew nearer, I caught my first glimpse of the Ka’bah. It was smaller than I expected – barely more than the length of three cars on each side – but enrobed in the heavy black cloth, it had an imposing, almost ancient sense of gravity. This was the house said to have been built by Abraham himself with the help of his son Ishmael as a testament of monotheistic faith; it predated all the religions that would find commonality in Abraham’s name. Its importance was so established that over time it became a centre even for the polytheistic religions many Arabs followed before the advent of Islam, the seven circumambulations being a relic from those practices. How could I not be in awe standing before it?

A sea of pilgrims washed against it, white lapping against the black as they circled around. I looked around and realised that we were close – unbelievably close – to being able to touch it. The crowds were relatively sparse at that time in the morning, around two o’clock. My head swam as I lifted my palms to salute the Ka’bah, reciting my proclamation about the greatness of God. Under the dazzling floodlights of the mosque things seemed to move in slow motion. My father led my mother, sister and me closer into the throng, winding our way to the walls of the Ka’bah. I reached out and touched the stone with both hands and then my forehead, and found my face wet with tears.

The Ka’bah has been the centre of Islam for over 1400 years; millions of pilgrims travel from all over the world each year to worship there, many of them not even getting the opportunity to circle the Ka’bah directly (the mosque has multiple floors, and pilgrims are able to circulate the Ka’bah at different heights to be able to accommodate more worshippers). And somehow, out of the billions of Muslims in the world today – and throughout time – I was afforded this privilege, this blessing, of touching something so steeped in ancient worship. Overwhelmed, I thought about those who dream of that moment - and somehow with such ease, it happened for me. I still haven’t concluded that that means for me; I want to feel as though there must have been a reason for that, that it was some form of Divine encouragement or welcome. I also considered that my very birth, upbringing, opportunity, and relative wealth, allowed me to even be in the position to be on Umrah compared to a huge percentage of those 1.6 billion Muslims, and wondered how fair that could be – that I was able to realise a dream of so many, almost by accident. As I walked round it, I offered prayers, duas, thanks to God, requests to bless family members, friends – but for parts of it, I felt numb almost, totally bewildered by this momentous act I was finally carrying out.

Commemorating the women in Islam

The next ritual of Umrah – doing Sa’ey – involves running between what the points that remain marking the hills of Safa and Marwa. It commemorates the plight of Abraham’s handmaid Hajar who was cast out by Abraham’s first wife Sarah into the desert to deliver her baby. Her newborn son, Ishmael, needed water so desperately Hajar ran between the hills in search of something to save her child. But a miracle occurred: Ishmael kicked the sand and where his foot struck the ground a fountain gushed forth, and they were both saved. The fountain remains today and the holy water from it – known as zamzam water – is still provided throughout Makkah and Medina to pilgrims, and believed to have healing and restorative properties. One of the staples of performing hajj or Umrah is that pilgrims would fill as many bottles as they could of this holy water and take it back with them to their home countries. I remember as a child seeing old coca-cola bottles filled with water in my Nanu’s house and being told that this was ‘zam zam water’ that so-and-so had brought back for them. It was a sign of connectivity between pilgrim and their people back home – that they had not forgotten their community, and brought something holy and tangible back for them. Now the Saudi Arabian government has streamlined the process so that returning pilgrims can collect a set amount of water from the airport that is then flown back with them.

Another innovation by the Saudi Arabian government has been to streamline the performing of Sa’ey. Where my grandfather had run between two actual visible hills – Safa and Marwa – for his pilgrimage, we were shown to an underground covered area with two huge aisles and a middle aisle that was reserved for those in wheelchairs – sort of like an airport travellator. In one aisle people were walking from Safa to Marwa, in the second aisle people were walking from Marwa to Safa. The mountains were marked by huge signs denoting the name. At each end of the huge marble floored room, a small corner had been preserved so you could see and touch the stones of the original mountain. It felt more like walking through a huge airport than it did running between mountains – and yet, I still felt moved by it. This was one of the only aspects to pilgrimage – perhaps even in Islam – that was centred around the lived experience of a woman. The ritual commemorates and acknowledges the fear and anxiety and sacrifice of Hajar, a new mother, left alone in the desert by her husband and reliant only on herself and her faith in God. I found myself saying a dua (a short prayer) that seemed to just come into my mind:

Allah, if you grant me children, let me protect them as Hajar protected Ishmael. And if you don’t grant me children, allow me to protect other people’s children as Hajar protected her own son.

I felt so strongly in the maintaining of this ritual and the connection between women across all generations, mothers or not, who could resonate with what Hajar must have felt in those moments. But as with so many things, not just within religion but in all spheres of life, there is an erasing out of the woman-centred nature of this ritual. Signs in the hallway remind pilgrims that men are encouraged to run between the two hills but women have to walk. The absurdity of this injunction seems to be lost on the Saudi authorities who issued it – that they are taking what a woman did – running between two hills to find a way to save her son – and then restricting that same thing for other women, reserving it for men. As I would later come to learn, this was a symptom of Saudi’s obsession with separating and distinguishing between men and women at every possible juncture.

What makes a place holy?

The final parts of Umrah were simple: we offered a short prayer and then my father found a barber to shave his head while my sister, mother and I returned to the hotel and clipped a lock of each other’s hair, while relishing in the pleasurable ache of our pilgrim feet. Again, there felt to be something so ancient about this act of ritually removing hair, almost as a marker that one had returned from the state of ihram to one’s usual state. Once that was done, our rituals were complete. Our Umrah was performed.

Over the course of the following days, I thought a lot about the interplay between place and ritual. In some ways, performing the rituals had been integral to finding the very place – Makkah – special in any way. On the other hand, it was the Ka’bah itself – that iconic black cube that made the rituals seem holy. I could not have remembered Hajar the same way had I run between any other two hills. Or could I? On the one hand, technically I had travelled between the two exact places she had run – but that was a matter of coordinates: the landscape looked totally different, there was nothing save a gradual slope at each end of the corridor to indicate that these were hills. By contrast, had I been out in the Yorkshire Dales and thinking of Hajar’s sacrifice as I ran between two actual hills – would that have felt more or less resonant?

The centrality of Makkah in Islam exists for a reason. It is to unify people from across the world, to have them meet in one place and to know each other as Muslims, as people, as family. It also connects people across time, from Abraham to the polytheists of pre-Islamic Arabia, to the advent of Islam, to now. But that is not to say that this place will always feel holy, or that one cannot feel just as much – if not more – of a spiritual connection elsewhere. But the performing of rituals – steeped in ancient faith and shared by so many – gave a sense of meaning to being in that place. I found it more difficult once the rituals had been performed and our Umrah complete. The rest of our two weeks were spent simply in prayer, or optional tawaf (circumambulation), or reflection, as well as visiting some other important Islamic historical and holy sites. But all of those things required a structure or framework that had to come from me, rather than following a pre-mandated list of actions. In a way, in the absence of ritual the onus was on me to seek and derive meaning from the place I was. As I will explore in my following posts, this was far more of a challenge in Makkah than I ever thought it would be.

Pilgrims visit the site of the Battle of Uhud
Pilgrims visit the site of the Battle of Uhud, where early Muslims were defeated by the Makkan army, and pay their respects to the martyrs. Signs exist all around to remind pilgrims that this is not a place of worship, but it is still considered to be of historical - and for some, spiritual - significance.

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