Note: This post was written by Ustaz Md Khalid Md Rafi, who is part of the Asatizah Youth Network and is based in Singapore.
Alhamdulillah, you have finally signed up for your first Umrah trip and are completely psyched! Allow me to share certain insights with you from my own journey, but let me start off by saying that every Umrah trip is fulfilling, rewarding, and extremely emotional in its own unique way.
There will be things that you would have learnt before going on this trip - from family and friends, and our good old comrade the world wide web. But one thing’s for sure; no kind of training can ever prepare you for your journey to the Holy Land. You have to live it yourself to believe it!
We will simplify this article into 3 parts: Physical, Mental and Spiritual preparation.
1. Build up your stamina
Umrah requires a great deal of physical exertion and it can be taxing on your body due to the amount of walking you will be doing. (Strap on your Fitbit, this is going to be worth it ?). In Makkah, you will be walking from your respective hotels to Masjidil Haram (Holy Mosque) for every Fardhu (prayer), walking as you do your tawaf, walking when you do our sa’i (ritual walking), when you navigate your way inside the Masjidil Haram and of course, walking again when you're shopping for souvenirs ?
The Tawaf can range from 1.4 km to 4.1 km, depending on the crowd and which floor it is performed on, while the Sa’i between the hills of Safa and Marwah is approximately 2.8 km.
Do note that while you depart Singapore with just one luggage and a hand-carry item, you will inevitably find your luggage “giving birth” to many other bags by the end of your trip. Needless to say, you will be carrying all these extra baggage (get it? ?) around, between Makkah, Madinah and Singapore airports.
You do not have to go get a personal trainer just for your Umrah, but it is best that you develop your stamina and get yourself in shape. Do start on long walks around the neighbourhood while window-shopping. You will work stamina and breathing, and the one paying for your shopping will also practise deep breathing techniques and sabr (patience) ?
P.S. Going Umrah with kids? We got 20 tips you'll need for a smooth-sailing journey!
2. Get the proper vaccines
One of the key preparations before performing your Umrah is getting vaccinated. With a large congregation of about 2 million Muslims in the Holy Land every year, Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Health keeps a close watch on health requirements to prevent infectious diseases. Some vaccines are made mandatory before one can perform the Umrah, such as that against meningococcal disease while others, though not compulsory, are highly recommended. (And no, the BCG that you took during primary school does not count ?)
P.S. Before heading for Umrah, you are required to complete your vaccination (boosted included) with the following accredited vaccines: Moderna, Pfizer/BioNTech Comirnaty, Johnson & Johnson and Oxford/AstraZeneca. You must also submit a negative test result for coronavirus (COVID-19) of a sample collected within 72 hours from departure to the kingdom.
3. Dress according to the weather
Do take note of exactly when you'll be leaving for your Umrah trip. Dress lightly if you’re going during the “summer” season and dress heavier for the “winter” season. Temperatures in summer (May-Oct) range from 28-45 degrees Celsius while temperatures in winter (Dec-Feb) range from 17-33 degrees Celsius. There are even different types of ihram for these two seasons, so do shop around for the right ones.
Invest in good comfortable footwear. It is generally not a good idea to buy a new pair of shoes as it requires time for it to be worn in. If you do not have suitable shoes, buy a pair well in advance and wear those shoes while walking or exercising so that you can accustom yourself to it.
For guys, whilst you are in Ihram, your ankles and the front part of your foot needs to remain exposed. Therefore, a flat, soft pair of sandals or slippers are recommended. These are ideal for going to and from the mosque and will be much easier to carry around in your hands.
4. Essentials to bring
These ensure that your journey is as comfortable and convenient as possible. It’s a good idea to keep general supplies at hand such as unscented soaps, moisturisers and wet tissues. A bottled spray is convenient for taking ablution if you’re too lazy to head back to the ablution area. Where is this ablution area you ask? It is way past the entrance of the mosque, located outside. Good for a stroll but only if you haven’t clocked in your steps for the day ?
For heat management, a portable fan or a manual fan (kipas satay) can do wonders. As for technological management, do bring along a portable phone charger and an international power adapter. Unless your gadgets are powered by solar energy, you'll end up crying with all these high-tech gadgets that cannot be charged. But hey, looking on the brighter side of things, you now have extra paperweights at hand ?
Last but not least, medical preparation should be at the top of any traveller’s list. Illnesses or injuries can lead to enormous amounts of grief and inconvenience during your trip. A basic first aid kit for allergies, pain relief, anti-diarrhoea or digestive problems is a must.
You can purchase common medicines at the local pharmacies, but you might not always find the same type there. At times, these prescriptions are also written in foreign languages which you might not be able to decipher. Google Translate is helpful provided your phone is charged ?
5. Be prepared for a slight language barrier
It's heartening to know that people there do speak a bit of Malay or English. In fact, they speak many other languages as well, due to their exposure to different cultures across the globe.
At the markets you can hear the vendors calling out in Malay, “Harga murah-murah, bagus-bagus semua, beli beli” (cheap prices, good quality, please buy!) repeatedly with huge smiles across their faces.
It will be enough to get the basic message across but if you’re going to ask for directions, I recommend asking a few people so you won’t literally get lost in translation.
There will also be a lot of opportunities to see the “chicken conversing with the duck” phenomena taking place. Just get in the mood of things and don't forget to smile and wave at the end of it ?
6. Embrace cultural differences
Be prepared to learn more about the Arab lifestyle there. They usually nap in the afternoon, and they more active at night, especially during winter. This is the reason why many shops are not open in the afternoon. The shops also operate longer hours during the weekend, which falls on every Friday and Saturday.
Though we are accustomed to queuing up, this concept may not gain much traction there. Expect to stand in long lines, be shoved and pushed around during your stay. Do not lose your head; just respond graciously while reminding yourself of your purpose there. Allah sees all and He rewards our grace and kindness.
P.S. Heading to Jerusalem after Umrah? Read about one of our writer's spiritual journey to Jerusalem!
7. Trying out Arabic cuisine
When you are there, expand your horizons and palette and try the different varieties of food and drinks. The Arabic coffee is of different variety and is usually served with sweet dates to even the taste out. Tea would be served afterwards with different varieties too, depending on the season as well. Don’t be surprised that it is usually served in a small cup. This is not a sign of miserliness. They believe that it is an honour to serve their guest, multiple times so that they could always enjoy a hot cup of drink with every sip. So the faster you gulp down that drink, the faster they will fill it up. Its like a “magic cup” that doesn’t dry up!
For food, do try out their “Ruz Mandi” or Mandi Rice. (Mandi might mean "bathe" in Malay but nope, eating this will not excuse you from taking a bath ?) It is usually served with meat or chicken from various cooking methods. Also, be aware that the servings there are quite large. One serving may be sufficient for two people. All the better to share the blessings, don’t you think?
8. Be prepared to be exposed to different madhabs
Over there, people of different school of thoughts or madhabs comes together. Open your heart and mind when you see people practise Islam in a different manner - one which you might not be accustomed to. For example, the imams in Masjidil Haram don’t read the Qunut during Subuh prayers. No biggie, you can make your own du'a afterwards while facing the best view; yes, the one and only Kaa’bah ❤️
9. Do your homework
With knowledge, comes appreciation; which is why, a month before heading for Umrah, you'd want to attend preparatory classes offered by Islamic centres or travel groups that specialise in Umrah trips. The questions that linger in your head might finally be answered.
Why should we wear the ihram? Who built the Ka'bah and what was its original shape? What is the history of the black stone? What is that golden thing near the Ka'bah?
If you’re hungry for more information, going through the stories of the previous Prophets would also be handy. You’ll be able to put the pieces together and understand why things happened the way they did there. Even if you are not the reading type, don’t worry! There are always online lectures for you to listen to.
10. Listen to soothing melodies
No, not through rappers and opera singers. I’m referring to the voices of the imams of Masjidil Haram. Prayers in Makkah were the most solemn and touching I’ve ever experienced. The imams of Makkah hold an esteemed position, with such great responsibility. Their Quran recitation must be accurate and inviting since these imams have a highly visible role. Who knows, you might even have the chance to salam them afterwards?
My all-time favourite imam would be Syeikh Maher Al-Muaiqly. As a student who studied there for 6 years, I had the opportunity to interact with many of them and I am always amazed at the way they carry themselves. Humility is a common currency among them.
11. Get ready for a spiritual experience
Preparing for Umrah is a spiritual experience with a period of self-reflection and a lesson in piety and humility.
Even before Umrah, you may wish to resolve any existing conflicts and differences between you and others, seeking forgiveness from them, so that you can go on your trip with a joyful and peaceful heart. You'll be glad to know that seeking forgiveness is not just a “hari raya trend”?
Also remember that your main intention (nope, not shopping) of going on this trip is to perform the Umrah, solely for the pleasure of Allah and in accordance with the Prophetic traditions.
Do journal a personalised du'a of your own, in any language that you are comfortable with. Write down your heartfelt du'a and ask of Him earnestly as you perform your worship. And don’t forget to du'a for our parents and fellow brothers and sisters (And don’t forget me too, ok? ?)
Open up to Allah. Remember that you are now Allah’s guest, and like any good host, He will not turn down a guest’s request. We come to Allah as we are, towards Islam as it is.
12. Learn to be patient by having Taqwa
Last but not least, learn to be patient. Take one bag/luggage of provisions and 10 bags/luggage of Taqwa (being conscious of God). You will find many situations that would frustrate you or bring you to the edge of your nerves, but patience would be the best luggage you can carry with you on this epic journey. Carry your “Taqwa Luggage” and don’t check it in, hand-carry it wherever you may be. And the best part is, there is no weight limit for your “Taqwa Luggage”.
No matter how tough you think you are or how much you prepare yourself physically, mentally and spiritually, I can assure you that you will succumb to being a crybaby with the majestic ambience of the Ka’bah towering before you and again, and when you visit the Prophet’s mosque.
You will remember that moment in time for the rest of your life and you will long to go back to do it all over again. Just like I did.
May Allah make your hearts inclined to visit His Holy Land at least once in this lifetime. Ameen.