Ka`be ki raunaq, Ka`be ka manzar

September 19, 2007

My Mother-in-Law just ‘returned’ from her first `umra. In spite of her brothers living in KSA for more than 30 years and her son for more than a decade, she had never been able to visit until this month, when for various reasons it became ‘the time.’ She went first to my Brother-in-Law’s place, then to the Haramain, and just returned to her brother’s place. Insha’ Allah they’re going to make one more trip at the end of Ramadan and spend Eid there, before she returns to India. May Allah accept it from her, and from her children and relatives who helped her get there.

There are two categories of Hajj story which are far more moving than the others. The first is that of the `ushshaq from amongst the `ulama. The second is that of the `awwam for whom there entire lives have been building up to that moment when there eyes first fall on the Holy Ka`ba. The former can be captured in the written word, and live on for centuries. The latter has to be experienced directly. All of the meaning is in the feeling.

Inevitably hearing about her experiences has my wife and I plotting an `umra or hajj. “Milad Sharif is corresponding with spring break this year.” “Are any of our ulama going for hajj?” And so on.

For a few years I’ve wondered about the Hajj and `Umra travel industry here in the US and worldwide. I’m surprised at how backwards and underdeveloped it seems. There seem to be so many little improvements which the travel agencies could make which would – could – transform their business.

I’m also surprised at how little practical information is available to the public. Generally there are people in every community who are in the know – I know some who go from here, others from India, and others from within the Gulf. If you manage to collect your own thoughts before hand, you get the inside information from people like this while getting the fiqh details from your local ulama. The vast majority of people do neither, and at some point I think most of them regret it. Most masjids and organizations offer some sort of training classes – as do the hajj groups, for better or worse. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen an organized effort to share the practical side of hajj or `umra with those who’ve never been before. I’m also surprised that in spite of the existence of a large and growing body of young Muslims with hajj experience, there is hardly any of this discussion on the web. Nor has anyone – to the best of my knowledge – ever bothered to put out a travel book.

Of course, I could just try to start an online community. Maybe one does exist and I don’t know about it. Or maybe it’s just that Muslims – even younger, Western-born ones – travel differently. Maybe it’s not inevitable that Muslim travel would take on the trappings of Western travel – you know, like informed travelers and all.

What I’m really drawing on here, though, is two old fantasies of mine. One of leading a round-the-world educational tour of the mazarat of the awlia, and the other of getting to write a Lonely Planet guide for hajj and `umra (the current Gulf one is pretty useless.)

As the Rihla and other programs have ventured out, they seem to be coming closer and closer to the first of these. (Which makes it all the less likely tat I’ll ever lead one – not that I could anyway.) I fully expect that LP has teams working on my book as we speak. Or maybe a pair of Muslim Harvard students pitched it to Let’s Go.

So, I see three basic open markets. One is for general practical advice on how to successfully perform the pilgrimages. The next is for a place to present, and possibly swap, detailed information and recommendations. And the last is for improved marketing and information sharing nation-wide on the part of tour operators. The last two could be served by a well-targeted online community. I’d start it tomorrow on almost no budget if I had a few partners to keep up with maintenance. The first is something that I wish local masajid would do and which I think SunniPath could also do really well. Maybe they have in the past and I just missed it. They could do a whole series on the practical aspects of Muslim travel, with the fiqh woven in.

Just some ideas…
What really matters is:
Mera dil tarap raha hai
mera jal raha hai sina
ke dawa wahin milegi
mujhe le chalo Madina!

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