Zubair and Aisha Khan wanted to make the spiritual pilgrimage to Mecca, to
circle the black stone shrine in the glistening Saudi desert and become
"hajjis," a title bestowed on Muslims who make the sacred journey to
Islam's holiest city.
So the Chicago couple slapped down roughly $7,000 last year to Barakah Hajj
& Umrah, an Oak Brook-based company that plans every detail of the annual
religious rite, from the airfare to the air-conditioned tents that house
pilgrims during one leg of the journey.
For that lump sum, the Khans got airline seats, stays in four-star hotels
and tents, three meals a day, bus rides, religious seminars and help in
obtaining Hajj visas from the Saudi government.
"It was as if we were going on a trip," Zubair Khan, a 28-year-old lawyer,
said of the package deal that organized the nuts and bolts of a
life-changing religious experience. "For me, the price was very competitive."
The trek to Mecca, which every able-bodied Muslim is expected to do once in
a lifetime if he or she can afford it, has typically been a group affair.
For decades, a local official called a mutawwif, or helper, assigned to the
group has facilitated a perilous journey that often exposed travelers to
bandits and disease.
But as more and more American Muslims seek the experience, they are quietly
helping to transform the sojourn into a multimillion-dollar industry,
fueled by a desire to commune with God without giving up modern amenities.
As Islam and the wealth of the Muslim community in America grows, so does
demand for Hajj tour services.
Dozens of companies now cater to an estimated 10,000 pilgrims from U.S.
cities who trek to Mecca annually during the Hajj, including roughly 600
from Chicago for this year's pilgrimage, which ends with the three-day
feast that began Thursday