The Malay Heritage Foundation

Sembang Ilmu Series #11 – Haj & Umrah

The Malay Heritage Foundation‘s (MHF) Sembang Ilmu Series (SIS) concluded the third Asatizah Berwarisan forum in collaboration with Sultan Mosque Singapore and supported by Wisma Geylang Serai, in August 2023, the eleventh in the series. This time, distinguished panellists engaged in thoughtful discussions centred around the ‘Haj and Umrah’ theme. The forum delved into the subject from multiple perspectives, including its historical evolution, socio-cultural dimensions, and religious significance.

Guest Moderator, Mr. Ahmad Ubaidillah Mohamed Khair, setting the context and introducing the panellists. (Credit: MHF)

Saturday, 19 August 2023 – Mohamad Tauhid, emcee and a representative from MHF, opened the event, welcoming the audience and panellists to the Project Studio, Wisma Geylang Serai. Following a brief overview of the newly introduced lecture series Asatizah Berwarisan, which is a part of the Sembang Ilmu Series (SIS), he introduced and welcomed guest moderator for the event, Mr. Ahmad Ubaidillah Mohamed Khair, a Research Analyst from the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA).

Having obtained an Islamic Jurisprudents degree from Yarmouk University, Jordan, Ubaidillah began by sharing a brief background of the theme ‘Haj and Umrah’ to set the context for the session. He highlighted how the application of diverse frameworks offers distinct perspectives on any particular subject matter, a fundamental principle that underpins the essence of the session itself; the session gathers speakers, each contributing their expertise, to offer varying perspectives on the subject of ‘Haj and Umrah’.

Ubaidillah underscored the importance of understanding the significance and role of ‘Haj and Umrah’ in the Islamic tradition, mainly since they constitute the fifth pillar of Islam. He called upon the audience to reflect on the essence of the five pillars of Islam, observing that the first three pillars (Syahada/profession of faith, Solat/prayers, and Sawm/fasting) are more individual-oriented while the Zakat and Haj – the fourth and fifth pillar of Islam respectively – emphasise the Islamic communal and social values. Additionally, Ubaidillah highlighted the dynamic and symbiotic relationship between context and the ibadah (rituals/worship). Having contextualised the discussion, Ubaidillah invited the first speaker, Ustazah Shameem Sultanah, to commence her presentation titled ‘Haj & Umrah – A Reflection’.

Ustazah Shameem Sultanah sharing her thoughts on the positive developments that she observed from her recent Haj. (Credit: MHF)

Ustazah Shameem is a motivational speaker and founder of ILMHUB by Shameem Sultanah, with over a decade of experience engaging with communities from all walks of life, including local inmates and new Muslim reverts. The forum theme holds a familiar place in her heart as she currently teaches about Umrah in her classes and had herself recently performed the Haj.

Ustazah Shameem began her sharing by recollecting her first Umrah experience at the age of 15, which catalysed her Hijrah journey (transformation to enlightenment). At that juncture, she had a secular education background, had limited knowledge of Arabic, and harboured many questions about religion. She then shared a poignant moment from a congregational prayer when the imam leading the prayers cried while reciting a verse from the Qur’an. Unable to understand his recitation, let alone share in the emotional resonance, this instance ignited within her the desire to gain a more profound understanding of the religion.

Ustazah Shameem then delved into her observations on the prevalent societal practices related to Haj and Umrah, where local pilgrims follow the religious teacher (Ustaz) when performing the rituals without truly internalising what is being recited. Expressing her optimism for the future, she envisions a time when all pilgrims can genuinely internalise the recitations, fostering a closer connection to God.

Moving on, Ustazah Shameem enlightened the audience on the literal definitions of “Haj” and “Umrah”; the former meaning “to intend a journey or to set out for a place”, while the latter means “to visit a populated place”. She shared a profound hadith (prophetic tradition) that stirs motivation to perform Umrah and Haj, sometimes repeatedly. This hadith is where the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) articulates, “(The performance of) Umrah is an expiation for the sins committed between it and the previous ‘Umrah; and the reward of Haj Mabrur (i.e., one accepted) is nothing but Jannah.”

Subsequently, Ustazah Shameem extracted several quotations and pictures from a book titled ‘Our Journey: 30 Years of Haj Services in Singapore’ published by the Muslim Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) in 2006. The book painted the experiences of early local pilgrims who navigated months of travel by ship, a stark contrast to contemporary modes of transportation. Additionally, Ustazah Shameem shared a quote by Ustazah Maimunah binti Ahmad featured in the book, highlighting how pilgrims even used to craft their luggage (palka), colouring it red for recognition. These bags contained almost everything, including pots and mortar stones for the journey. Ustazah Shameem concluded from the various extracted quotations that preparations undertaken for Umrah or Haj in the early days were excessive, possibly due to the rarity of opportunities to embark on the pilgrimage.

In line with this, Ustazah Shameem then noted how the titles of “haji” for males and “hajah” for females who had completed Haj were once prestigious titles for only a small minority of villagers who had the opportunity to undertake the pilgrimage. Thus, when one can complete Haj, they are celebrated and respected by the community.

Before concluding her presentation, Ustazah Shameem deliberated upon changes that time has ushered in regarding Haj and Umrah. For one, in the early days marked by limited transport and technology, pilgrims often perceived their journey to the sacred sites as potentially their sole visit. In contrast, today’s technological advancements have offered individuals the possibility of multiple returns. Further, she remarked on the enhanced orderliness and organization of her recent Haj experience, accompanied by improved welfare provisions. She viewed these developments as a positive change that allowed pilgrims to focus more on their rituals, thus fostering a deeper spiritual connection to God. Ultimately, Ustazah Shameem reminded the audience that the Haj and Umrah is a personal journey that serves as a poignant reminder to all pilgrims of their true life purpose and priorities.

Mr. Zinnurain Nasir describing the multifunctional Haj songkok stand from the 20th century. (Credit: MHF)

As a curator with the Malay Heritage Centre (MHC), the next speaker, Mr. Zinnurain Nasir, delved into the multifaceted roles undertaken by the MHC in its pursuit to collect artefacts that contribute to discourses surrounding Haj and Umrah. Entitled ‘Haj as Heritage’, his presentation was structured into three subsections: first, explore various definitions and interpretations of “heritage”, before sharing exhibitions that featured collections related to Haj, and finally, delving into preserving heritage.

Zinnurain began by reflecting on the motivation behind his chosen topic. Despite not having personally performed Haj or Umrah, he understood from the experiences shared by family members that Haj and Umrah are truly personal and emotional journeys. That said, he emphasised that heritage, as a discourse, enables individuals to explore this personal journey through multiple layers and perspectives.

Zinnurain then shifted to the definition of “heritage”, proposing that, for his sharing, it can be understood as “when society selects an inheritance from an imagined past for current use and decides what should be passed on to an imagined future” (Turnbridge & Ashworth, 1996). To illustrate this, he presented a picture of a 20th-century batik bersurat and related how such objects are preserved for their aesthetic appeal and used to study any particular era. In relation to the preservation and conservation of objects, Zinnurain underscored the pivotal role of the Heritage Conservation Centre, where artefacts are meticulously preserved, conserved, and treated.

His discourse then shifted to the exhibitions that included elements of Haj and Umrah as he shared pictures of various artefacts formerly displayed in MHC’s permanent gallery. These included the suitcases carried by early pilgrims that Ustazah Shameem also touched upon in her sharing. One particularly fascinating artefact he highlighted was a 4-metre-long kain ihram, almost double the length of that being brought today. Zinnurain elucidated how this cloth was not just to be worn for the pilgrimage itself but also functions as a shroud (kafan) should the pilgrim pass away on the journey. Additionally, he briefly outlined how the artefacts and pictures in the gallery depicted the businesses intricately linked to the Haj industry, reinforcing the extensive scope of the Haj discourse beyond religious rituals alone.

Other artefacts shared by Zinnurain included the Haj passport, the multifunctional Haj songkok stand, the Haj medallion awarded to those who completed Haj, and even the Haj license of late Hajah Maimunah, Singapore’s first female pilgrim. In light of Hajah Maimunah’s Haj license, Zinnurain revealed that today’s renowned Hajah Maimunah restaurant originated as a caterer for Haj pilgrims. Another notable story with regard to Haj-related artefacts was concerning the tali pinggang (belt), which once witnessed the diverse entrepreneurial journeys of two makers, Haji Yusof and V.S.S Varusai, both claiming ownership of the original design of the belt.

Zinnurain’s sharing shed light on the continuous nature of heritage as an ongoing discourse. On that note, today’s generation possesses the authority to determine what can and should be preserved for future generations to study. He encouraged the audience to constantly share stories, especially those encompassing family history, and legacy, recognising that these valuable stories could become a heritage for future generations to explore and understand.

Ustaz Dr. Muhammad Mubarak emphasising the importance of spiritual preparation for the journeys of Haj and Umrah. (Credit: MHF)

The final speaker for the session, Ustaz Dr. Muhammad Mubarak, holds a Doctor of Philosophy Degree in Islamic Civilisation and Contemporary Issues from the University of Brunei Darussalam. His presentation, titled ‘Haj & Umrah: Historical-Spiritual Journey of a Muslim’, delves into the imperative of both physical and spiritual preparations for the sacred journey of Haj and Umrah. He highlights that Haj and Umrah are not solely physical undertakings; they are also transformative experiences of the heart wherein pilgrims are reminded of their roles as servants and trustees of Allah. He seeks to unravel how pilgrims move from ilm al-yaqin (certainty of knowing through learning) to ‘ayn al-yaqin (certainty of knowing through witnessing) and ultimately to haq al-yaqin (certainty that is firmly established in the heart) during the days spent in the sacred sanctuaries.

To kick off, Ustaz Dr. Mubarak reiterated the widely acknowledged fact that Haj and Umrah constitute physical journeys. In doing so, he revisited the insights shared by prior presenters in exploring how the journey’s evolution parallels technological advancement, specifically in transportation. Acknowledging the necessity of physical preparations, he also cited a Quranic verse to underscore that this emphasis on physical readiness should not overshadow the equally, if not more crucial spiritual preparation for the journeys of Haj and Umrah. To further reinforce this, Ustaz Dr. Mubarak shared the first verse of Surah Al-Haj, which intriguingly discusses the Day of Judgement, thereby invoking contemplation on the preparations required for Haj and Umrah, much akin to the necessity of preparations for the Day of Judgement.

Moving on, Ustaz Dr. Mubarak looked into specific sites with significant historical meanings where internalisation of its history can usher spiritual transformation. He detailed how the Ka’abah, among other things, was the first house Allah created for mankind to perform worship. At this site, the Hajr al-Aswad (Black Stone) was descended from heaven and where Prophet Ibrahim left his wife and son in an unknown barren land as commanded by Allah, only to return to a site of worship known to many. The compounds of the Ka’abah were also the same site where Prophet Muhammad was tormented so greatly when he began preaching Islam more openly. Yet, it was also here that he returned with compassion, mercy, and forgiveness during Fath Al-Makkah (Opening of Makkah) when the Quraisy were no longer able to stop the coming of Islam into Makkah, forgiving all those who once had caused him much hurt. Today, the Ka’abah serves as the unified direction of prayer (qibla) for over two billion Muslims, exemplifying unity in their worship.                                                                                                                       

Ustaz Dr. Mubarak then proposed the translation of these significant historical events into the spiritual understanding of tawaf (circumambulation), in which he conveyed that tawaf symbolises the realignment of individuals with the gravitational pull of what their inner self needs to be orbiting: true presence and connection with Allah – a focused consciousness that often eludes us in the whirlwind of our busy daily life. Essentially, one should connect with Allah and feel His presence when doing the tawaf.

Continuing his presentation, Ustaz Dr. Mubarak shared other sites that witnessed pivotal historical moments. This included Jabal Nur, where the Quran was revealed, and an angel’s presence was witnessed; Jabal Thur, where the companion Abu Bakar’s sacrifice transpired; Arafah, which connects the past (meeting point of Prophet Adam and Hawa), present (obligatory place to visit for Haj) and future (plains of Mahsyar on the Day of Reckoning); and Masjid An-Nabawi which reflects the Prophet’s simple lifestyle, underscoring the principle that humans are ghuraba’ (strangers) that should consume only what is necessary in this temporary world.

Concluding, Ustaz Dr. Mubarak urged the audience to continue striving to ascend the levels of certainty. While the level of ‘Ilm al-yaqin, where one receives religious knowledge from trusted authorities, is foundational, one cannot be content with just that. Instead, he encouraged the audience to visit such historical sites that hold significant value to Islam, for this allows them to attain ‘ayn al-yaqīn (certainty of knowing through witnessing) before ultimately achieving the desired haqq al-yaqīn (certainty that is firmly established in the heart).

Panellists addressing questions from the audience during the Q&A segment. (Credit: MHF)
Group photo with MHF Chairman, Dr. Norshahril Saat, and Mosque Religious Officer of Sultan Mosque, Ustaz Ulul Azmi (second and fourth from left respectively) together with moderator Mr. Ubaidillah and the panel. (Credit: MHF)

The forum concluded with a Q&A segment where the panellists were invited to respond to several questions from the on-site audience. One final SIS Asatizah Berwarisan session is planned for this season. SIS is a discursive platform for our youths and young professionals to deliberate and discusses issues relating to the socio-cultural development of the Malays in Singapore from a contemporary perspective. SIS supports and provides a platform for youths to discuss these issues and topics with MHF and its partners.

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  1. Full Video: Part 1 | Part 2

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