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What’s Behind Central Asia’s Umrah Fever?

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What’s Behind Central Asia’s Umrah Fever?

As long as people have limited opportunities in the socioeconomic and political arenas, and adherence to a religious lifestyle is restricted, pilgrimages will remain as an accessible means of self-fulfillment. 

What’s Behind Central Asia’s Umrah Fever?

Tajik Preident Emomali Rahmon during his 2016 umrah to Mecca.

Credit: Facebook

As the holy month of Ramadan drew near, Tajikistan’s president expressed his concern about frequent hajj and umrah pilgrimages performed by Tajik citizens and the amount of money spent on them. “In 2023 alone, 63,000 citizens of the country undertook hajj and umrah ceremonies,” Emomali Rahmon said, altogether spending more than 1,200 billion somoni, or roughly $110 million, on such pilgrimages. He urged people to redirect their financial resources toward their families, building homes, and investing in their children’s education rather than making repeated pilgrimages. 

Islam is the most prevalent religion in Central Asia. The hajj pilgrimage is the fifth pillar of the Muslim faith; it is a journey to Mecca and Medina that Muslims view as a mandatory religious duty to make once in a lifetime if a person is physically and financially capable of doing so. Unlike hajj, which can only be undertaken at a specific point in the Islamic calendar and comes with a bevy of rituals, umrah is a smaller pilgrimage that can take place at any time.

Central Asian Leaders and their Pilgrimages

It was an ironic reprimand, given the fact that Rahmon has performed umrah five times and has been inside the Kaaba in Mecca thrice. He’s not alone. Other Central Asian presidents have made their own pilgrimages.

Such journeys to Mecca serve two purposes: they appeal to the general public, with the presidents portraying themselves as leaders of Muslim-majority nations, and these pilgrimages also are often arranged during state visits to Saudi Arabia. For example, when Serdar Berdimuhammedov took office as president of Turkmenistan, his first foreign visit was to Saudi Arabia and he performed his umrah during that two-day visit. Uzbekistan’s president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, has also been to umrah twice already, in 2022 and 2023, again during state visits. The chairman of the People’s Council of Turkmenistan and the former president of the country, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, remains the only Central Asian leader who performed both umrah (2016) and hajj (2023), although his hajj was only possible after he left the presidency.

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Hajj and Central Asians

There has been a surge in numbers of people from Central Asia undertaking hajj in recent years. In 2017, 7,350 Uzbekistanis visited Mecca to perform hajj. By 2023, this number increased to 15,150. Only 153 citizens of Turkmenistan could go to hajj in 2018, but last year the number was 2,312. A similar trend can be observed in other nations of the region, but on a smaller scale. In the last five years reportedly over 120,000 people from Central Asia went to hajj.

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Sources for 2018: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

Sources for 2023: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

The most hajjis in Central Asia come from Uzbekistan, but two factors play an important role here. Uzbekistan is the most populous country in the region with 36.7 million people as of 2024, and it has one of the highest shares of Muslims among Central Asian nations. 

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Sources for the number of people: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

Sources for the share of Muslims in the country: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

* The numbers are based on the official national census of 2022. However, unofficially, the real population of Turkmenistan is estimated to be less than 3 million.

However, hajj packages in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan come with a hefty price tag. In 2023, it cost more than 68 million Uzbek som (approximately $6,000 at that time and up from $3,946 in 2019) per person for Uzbekistanis and $5,400 for Tajik citizens to go to hajj.

In contrast, Kyrgyz people paid only $3,900 while Kazakh citizens paid between $3,000 – $4,500. One factor to consider regarding prices paid is that in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan governments do not have a monopoly over organizing hajj tours. Private tour companies handle the arrangements – allowing for competition and lower prices. In 2022, for example, 14 travel agencies were authorized to organize hajj through a competitive tender process in Kazakhstan.

Turkmenistan’s case remains unique as the country does not use all of the quota given by Saudi authorities. Whether tour agencies are allowed to organize hajj or umrah is also unknown. 

Hajj and umrah packages usually include everything, such as visas, plane tickets, accommodation and meals, tour guides, and more. 

Umrah, Smaller Hajj

Because hajj is performed once a year at a specific time and specific quotas are set for each country by Saudi Arabia, many ordinary people opt for a small pilgrimage – umrah, undertaken any time of the year. Umrah is a voluntary pilgrimage, but also holds a high value among the followers of Islam.

It has become even more accessible for Central Asians since August 2023 when Saudi Arabia extended the list of nationalities eligible for an e-visa to eight more countries, including Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Currently, Turkmenistan is the only country in the region whose citizens cannot apply for an e-visa. One cannot live, work, or perform hajj with an e-visa in Saudi Arabia but can make an umrah with it. 

Rahmon’s claim that 63,000 people from Tajikistan visited Saudi Arabia in one year is unsubstantiated. The Committee on Religious Affairs of Tajikistan reported around 10,000 Tajik citizens completing umrah in 2023. This is a huge spike compared to the pre-pandemic annual numbers of 2,000-3,000 people. It is also worth taking into account that many Tajiks perform umrah through Uzbek tour agencies since it is cheaper to do so. Uzbekistan partially allowed private tour companies to organize umrah tours in 2022 and in August 2023, the state monopoly over umrah tours was completely abolished. Healthy competition among private tour companies facilitated the pilgrimages becoming increasingly accessible in Uzbekistan and 43,000 people performed umrah in 2023. While on average in Uzbekistan one umrah package can cost around  $1,200-$1,500 for 14 days, the discounted prices go down as low as $750 per person on occasion. Meanwhile in Tajikistan it costs around $1,550-1,730.

To better cater to the growing demand for umrah tours, last December Uzbekistan negotiated with Saudi Arabia to arrange 70 regular flights a week between the two countries.

Post-Pilgrimage Show-offs

While the private sector umrah tours with cheaper prices have made pilgrimages more obtainable for the general public, another factor is fueling the growing popularity of umrah tours – umrah flaunts. 

Following the socially and culturally disruptive Central Asian conquest by Tsarist Russia and then the Soviet Union, hajj was legalized only in 1945, but only a handful of Muslims could go to Mecca and Medina annually until the early 1990s. Since then, observing religious rites has become trendy as people of the region have been re-embracing Islam after the seven decades of Soviet mandated atheism.

While daily prayers and fasting during the month of Ramadan are easily available to everyone, pilgrimages are for those who have a disposable income. This elevates the status of hajji in the eyes of common people. In Uzbekistan, for example, those who perform hajj or umrah often organize a small post-pilgrimage celebration, sometimes a lavish one – hojji to’y (a pilgrim’s feast) – for family and friends. 

Rahmon is not the only public figure who is worried about Central Asians spending excessive amounts of money on repeated visits to Mecca and post-umrah feasts just to flaunt. Religious leaders of Uzbekistan also frequently criticize these as unnecessary celebrations.  

“There are more and more cases of meeting people (coming from umrah) in expensive cars (at airports), laying long carpets from the entrance of a neighborhood, spending a lot of money and turning ceremonies into wedding feasts, and sometimes, God forgive us, into shows,” said Mufti Nuriddin Khaliqnazarov, chairman of the Office of Muslims of Uzbekistan, disapproving of post-umrah show-offs.

Head of the Department of International Relations and Hajj Organization of the Committee on Religion Abdugaffor Yusufov also voiced his concern about cases where labor migrants from Tajikistan work hard and send money back home just for their parents to spend that money on pilgrimages and related expenses. Instead of repeated umrahs, he urged people to engage in charitable activities such as building “irrigation structures, road repairs, building bridges and other social facilities.” 

What Central Asian political and religious leaders are missing in the discussion is that pilgrimages and post-pilgrimage feasts have become one of the very few resorts for ordinary people to self-realize and feel important. The fact that not all religious rites can be freely observed in some Central Asian countries only elevates the status of pilgrims.

As long as people are trapped in poverty with limited opportunities in socioeconomic and political arenas and adherence to religious lifestyle is still restricted, pilgrimages will remain as a means of self-fulfillment. Post-umrah celebrations have a potential of becoming Central Asia’s next wedding fever, a space for ostentatious celebration for lack of other avenues to show off.