Pilgrimage and social change by Abdul Aziz Ahmed

As we are about to launch our new book Umra Diaries: A journey on the path to inclusion, we have an opportunity to reflect on earlier travelogues to Makka and how they influenced social attitudes and were used to spread the message of Islam.

Umra Diaries Front Cover



The first of several ‘launch’ events will take place in Scotland on 1st May 2012. It has special significance for me, as Scotland is the place where Kitaba started in the small basement flat of the late Imran Sabir. It was in that flat that I made a model of the Ka’ba for my Blind friend and talked about my experiences on earlier journeys to Makka. We shared dreams about making pilgrimage together and the day when being Blind or in a wheelchair would not be a hindrance or impediment on the path to the Holy House. We didn’t manage to realise that dream but his spirit and direction is clear in this new book. Scotland is also the place from where the first British lady on record to have performed the Hajj. Lady Evelyn Cobbold was a Scottish aristocrat and landowner who spent her teenage summers in North Africa where, in her words, she became ‘a little Muslim at heart’. As an adult, she travelled extensively through the Arab world while maintaining her social status in Scotland and keeping up her households and estates in Suffolk and the Highlands. In 1933, aged 66, she performed the Hajj and recorded her thoughts in a diary published a year later entitled Pilgrimage to Mecca. Like our Umra Diaries, it is about her own spiritual journey told through daily reflections in Makka, Madina and Jeddah. The Umra Diaries was written by Balal Hussain, Ricardo Lemus and I seventy years later. Ricardo, like Lady Cobbald, embraced Islam and found solace and peace in his new found faith. He described his youth:

I was born in Chile. I moved to Argentina when I was a baby and came to Denmark when I was nine years old. I have been here ever since. I was born with Gorham’s disease which eats away at my bones. My pelvic bones are virtually non-existent and I require painkillers to manage my pain. Although I use a wheelchair, I manage to drive, play rugby, and go to the mosque and college.

Like Lady Cobbald, Ricardo describes his incredible journey to Islam and how the search for Allah drew him to the Holy House. That experience of standing before the Sacred House of Allah in Makkah is something that runs through all pilgrimage diaries. Harry St John Philby, a contemporary of Lady Cobbald described his experience at the Ka’ba:

The scene around this, the most sacred spot in the Islamic world, was one of amazing confusion, which suggested to a European mind thoughts of traffic regulation, barriers and turnstiles. But a little thought was enough to convince me that nothing of the kind was either feasible (though practicable enough if desired) or desirable. It would go against the basic principles of Islam which, though essentially a democratic and socialist creed, does prescribe and inculcate one element of individualism, which at certain moments – and only at those moments – makes the human ego all important above the claims of society, race, and even family. Each Muslim, man, woman or child, is personally responsible for the achievements of his own salvation at all costs.

Umra Diaries On Route


This was the second time I had taken Blind pilgrims to Makka. On each trip, I was keen to find out how a Blind person ‘witnesses’ the Sacred House. Balal, who has been Blind since birth, had a very different experience of ‘seeing the Ka’ba’ to those on the first trip. On my earlier trip, I could see the emotion on the faces of the Blind pilgrims whose witnessing the ka’ba for the first time was at exactly the same time that they would have ‘seen’ it had they been sighted. Balal’s experience was less of a massive spiritual blast but a gentle unfolding of a spiritual experience that started with entering the Sacred Precinct and culminated in a tearful supplication as he sat facing the Ka’ba on completion of the circumambulation. He wrote:

As we entered the Precinct of the Sacred Mosque, known as the Masjid al-Haram, we performed the prayer of greeting the Mosque not far from the large gate known as the King Abdul Aziz Gate. Then we moved further in to the Mosque approaching the Sacred House. We stopped to drink the holy water known as Zam Zam which is available in large coolers along either side of the approach to the Sacred House. It was cool and refreshing. The taste was sweet and it felt a little thicker as if it had more body than normal water. I could hear the buzz of fans and I could sense movement all around me. At this point, we all looked towards the Ka’ba and supplicated. As I wasn’t able to see the Ka’ba, I looked upwards in the direction of it and made my prayers. It was an amazing feeling to know that this was the direction we face every time we pray. People turn their hearts and faces towards it from every part of the world. I felt like I was at the centre of the universe. To be standing in front of it was an amazing and overwhelming feeling. I made lots of duas, prayers, whilst looking in the direction of the Ka’ba as it is said supplications are definitely accepted when you look at the Ka’ba for the first time.

Umra Diarries at the Sacred Mosque


It was standing at the Holy House that transformed Malcolm X. He said, ‘in my thirty years on this earth, the Holy City of Mecca had been the first time had ever stood before the Creator of All and felt like a complete human being.’ It is appropriate that our first launch event will be based around the amazing spiritual and political transformation that turned Malcolm X away from the racially motivated Nation of Islam into a man who had found the essence of Islam and the equality of humankind. He described that moment he stood before the Ka’ba for the first time:

Then I saw the Ka’ba, a huge black stone house in the middle of the Great Mosque. It was being circumambulated by thousands upon thousands of praying pilgrims, both sexes and every size, shape, color and race in the world …

My feeling there in the House of God was numbness. My Mutawaf led me in the crowd of praying, chanting pilgrims, moving seven times around the Ka’ba. Some were bent wizened with age; it was a sight that stamped itself on the brain. I saw incapacitated pilgrims being carried by others. Faces were enraptured in their faith.

The experiences of the likes of Lady Cobbald, Muhammad Asad and Malcolm X changed many people’s perception of Islam. Because of the individual transformations they went through, their writings were able to transform others and change society. This is the intention of the Umra Diaries. It describes the beginning of a path to social inclusion and it is appropriate that the first launch event concentrates on the pilgrimage of Malcolm X. The evening will include a talk by Jamal Hysaw and some readings from the book and an explanation of its intention – to set out a few steps towards social inclusion. May Allah make the book a success and bless all that helped with its production. Amen.

Date Posted: 16/04/2012

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