Fearing the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19), Saudi Arabia’s government prohibited foreign pilgrims from entering the country to go on Umrah or visit the holy city of Madinah.
Although there is only one confirmed case in the kingdom, according to the Wall Street Journal, patients in Bahrain, Kuwait, the UAE, Iraq, and Lebanon have been quarantined. The decision leaves millions of Muslims across the globe planning for Umrah stuck.
“This move by Saudi Arabia is unprecedented,” Ghanem Nuseibeh, the founder of the London-based risk consultancy Cornerstone Global Associates, told Agence France-Presse.
“The concern for Saudi authorities would be Ramadan, which starts at the end of April, and Hajj afterwards, should the coronavirus become a pandemic.”
The decision اhas left millions of Muslims across the globe planning for Umrah in limbo with their plans now in jeopardy.
An Umrah group, escorted by Embrace (an ICNA project) and the 3 Puerto Rican Imams, returned from Umrah the day before the Saudi government closed the holy cities.
“Some of us landed on Tuesday and the shutdown began Wednesday evening,” Embrace Co-Founder, Nahela Morales told AboutIslam. “By Thursday, the shutdown was in full effect.”
The group included Muslims new to the faith and those who have been Muslim for years. Morales told AboutIslam the aim of the convert Umrah program.
“As part of our mission and vision, we are dedicated to support, empower, and care for the spiritual growth of our revert community,” said Morales. Therefore, we believe it was important to offer Umrah (the journey of a lifetime) to solidify, enrich, and strengthen our converts’ lifetime journeys [in Islam].
A Special Journey
Unlike the greater pilgrimage, Hajj, Islamic teachings don’t require Muslims to perform Umrah (also known as the lesser pilgrimage). However, the journey is a Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad (saws) and holds significance in the lives of Muslims, offering a chance to gain spiritual development and forgiveness. The Prophet (saws) said:
“As Muslims, we worship five times a day towards the direction to the Ka`bah, a symbolic and historical place that was built by Prophet Abraham,” explained Morales. “It is substantial for every Muslim, especially reverts, to go at least once in their lifetime to feel a spiritual bond to their Creator and His Messenger (PBUH).
Worship and Community Building
Muslim converts may encounter challenges in their respective communities, including bias and stigmatization by their “born Muslim” coreligionists despite the Sahabah (the first Muslims and best generation) having been converts.
Reverts often connect through the common experience of entering Islam as a new way of life. Morales explained the importance of an Umrah group for converts to AboutIslam.
“New Muslims come from all walks of life and have specific needs that often times are neglected within their communities such as genuine brotherhood and sisterhood. Being able to go to Umrah with [their fellow] converts [offers the opportunity for] them to bond, learn and grow spiritually together. Inshaallah, it will allow them to understand their faith from a different and wider angle.”
“Converts often don’t have access to Umrah trips, or Hajj trips, where you are surrounded by people of the same ilk, who have the same experiences and are there not to just build spiritual aspects but to build community [and] people who have the shared experience of conversion,” said Umrah group member, Malik Shaw (TN).
“Conversion is a very powerful thing. If you’re not around people who went through the same thing, you begin to feel left out. If you’re around people who have been born and raised Muslims for generations, often, your conversations are just different, and the experience is different.”
Morales mentioned the importance of Umrah to longtime converts. “Many of the reverts have been Muslim a significant amount of years and are beyond excited to finally receive Allah’s invitation to His house.”
“I’m just able to experience this,” said Shaw, a Muslim for twenty years. “My experience isn’t unique. For many converts, Umrah seems [like] something out of reach. Hopefully, we can see everyone next year. We can have more people join. It is a very memorable trip.”