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‘Spiritually Stimulating’: Harvard Students Embark on First Umrah Trip in Four Years

Muslim undergraduates embarked on a trip to Mecca, Saudi Arabia over winter break for the University's second Umrah pilgrimage.
Muslim undergraduates embarked on a trip to Mecca, Saudi Arabia over winter break for the University's second Umrah pilgrimage. By Courtesy of Khalil Abdur-Rashid
By Tyler J.H. Ory, Crimson Staff Writer

Thirty-two Muslim Harvard undergraduates embarked on the University’s second Umrah pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, over winter break — one of two religious pilgrimages within the Muslim faith.

Umrah is an optional pilgrimage that can be performed at any time of the year and involves a series of rituals in Mecca. The other — known as the “grand pilgrimage” or Hajj — is obligatory for Muslims to complete at least once in their lifetime, if they are able, and takes place on specific calendar days over the course of five to six days.

After Harvard organized its first Umrah trip in 2019, more than a dozen students who heard about the trip were eager to join in 2020. Due to the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, however, the trip was canceled.

When the trip was rescheduled for January of this year, many students who intended to attend in 2020 quickly registered again.

Apart from three first-year students, the majority of undergraduates who attended the trip were juniors and seniors. Other Harvard affiliates joined the group for a total of 67 participants, including graduate students and family members of undergraduates.

Harvard Muslim Chaplains Khalil Abdur-Rashid and Samia Omar co-planned and co-led the pilgrimage.

A generous donation from a graduate of Harvard Business School and a parent of two current Harvard undergraduates allowed the University to offer the trip at no cost to first generation, low-income Muslim students. The donation for this year’s trip reportedly totaled approximately $100,000, according to Abdur-Rashid.

Omar said the significance of the Umrah in the Islamic faith makes the trip particularly meaningful for students.

“The journey is the dream of so many Muslims all over,” she said. “For the young students to be able to do so without really paying a lot of money, as they get supported from Harvard, this is something that changed their life.”

The group visited the city of Medina first and toured various historical sites in the city where the prophet Muhammad is buried, according to Omar. The group then took a train to Mecca, where they performed the actual rites and pilgrimage of the Umrah, she added.

Yousuf A. Bakshi ’23 described the trip as one of “the most memorable parts of my college experience so far.”

Thanks to Harvard’s global reputation, he added, the group gained access to several experiences that are normally closed off to the public. These included meeting with a member of the Saudi royal family, as well as the minister of Hajj and Umrah, and learning about how the world’s largest pilgrimage cities operate.

“Obviously, the Harvard name can get you some cool perks all around the world,” Bakshi said.

“I’m a low-income student, so for Harvard paying for me to go, basically, as part of financial aid, was just a really incredible opportunity,” he added. “I will always remember this the rest of my life.”

Tabish Soleman ’25 said the trip was a “very spiritually stimulating” experience and praised chaplain Abdur-Rashid for sharing his extensive knowledge of Islam.

“I was just honestly blown away by how much I learned solely just from sitting on the bus and listening to Chaplain Khalil Abdur-Rashid just talk to us,” he said.

Abdur-Rashid lauded Harvard’s support of faith and religion on campus.

“The University has come leaps and bounds in the direction of more and more and more support for religious life in general for all faith traditions on campus, and I think that is a major change,” he said. “It’s a new Harvard.”

Clarification: January 29, 2023

This article has been updated to clarify that Khalil Abdur-Rashid and Samia Omar co-led and co-planned the University’s second Umrah pilgrimage.

—Staff writer Tyler Ory can be reached at tyler.ory@thecrimson.com.

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