Hajj 2019: Millions of Muslims descend upon Mecca for annual pilgrimage

Hajj Kaaba Muslims pilgrims

Hajj pilgrims circumambulate the Kaaba. Photo by Hassan Morowa, courtesy of Pexels

FRIDAY, AUGUST 9: Millions of Muslim pilgrims—including 20,000 Americans—have been pouring into Mecca from across the globe, preparing for a journey most have anticipated their entire lives: Today begins the annual pilgrimage that is Hajj.

To complete one of the five pillars of Islam, Muslims must visit Mecca and fulfill the Hajj rituals that reenact the actions of the Prophet Muhammad in his “farewell pilgrimage,” in 632 AD.

Arriving via every mode of transportation available and from countries that span the globe, this annual Islamic pilgrimage is widely considered the largest annual gathering in the world.

NEWS UPDATES: Soaring temperatures are expected during this year’s Hajj, as experts estimate mid-August temperatures to reach 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit), with humidity getting up to 85% (Arab News reported).

As more than 2 million Muslims from upward of 160 countries visit Mecca for Hajj—and with numbers expected to continue to rise each year—the Saudi Arabian government is continually looking for new ways to better maintain safety and comfort for its annual flood of pilgrims. Its goal? The ability to host 30 million pilgrims annually by the year 2030. (Currently, numbers are restricted; read more at Fortune.com.)

In efforts to increase safety, security and comfort through technology, Saudi Arabia hosted its first “Hajj Hackathon” last year, as coders and entrepreneurs competed over a period of 36 hours in building applicable apps and services (Fortune has the story). The winning team designed a smartphone app to help non-Arabic speakers translate signage without an Internet connection, but the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah is also piloting, this year, a smart-card initiative that is expected to assist in predicting crowd movements and heading off stampedes and crushes.

PILGRIMAGE TO MECCA: AN ANCIENT JOURNEY

The Hajj pilgrimage is regarded as a religious duty that must be undertaken by every adult Muslim at least once in his or her lifetime—if that person has the mental, physical and financial ability to make the long journey. Despite the word “duty,” Muslims regard Hajj as an experience to be treasured. The ritual of a pilgrimage to Mecca actually stretches back centuries before the advent of Islam—to the time of Ibrahim (Abraham)—yet it was the Islamic prophet Muhammad who cemented the rituals of Hajj in the seventh century. The uniform method of performing the rituals of Hajj is meant to demonstrate both the solidarity of the Muslim people and their submission to Allah (God).

Did you know? Before the construction of the abundance of hotels in today’s Mecca, citizens of the city often opened their homes to pilgrims. In this article from The National, a Muslim woman recalls her childhood spent as a resident of Mecca—and the importance of seeing a variety of pilgrims staying in her grandparents’ home.

AMERICANS AND THE HAJJ

The U.S. Consulate General in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, has published a helpful brochure for American pilgrims, including these facts:

  • In 2018, approximately 20,000 Americans performed Hajj, of approximately 2.3 million pilgrims total.
  • The Hajj terminal in Jeddah, completed in 1982, was designed by an American Muslim, Fazlur Rahman Khan, whose designs include Chicago landmarks the Hancock and Willis (Sears) Towers.
  • Approximately 50 Hajj tour providers have offices in the United States and facilitate the participation of Americans in Hajj every year.

THE ORIGINS OF HAJJ: ABRAHAM, HAGAR & ISHMAEL

Muslim travelers Hajj

Travelers during the season of Hajj. Photo by Muritala Yusuf Olanrewaju, courtesy of Needpix.com

Islamic tradition tells that in approximately 2000 BCE, Abraham was ordered by God to leave his wife, Hagar, and his son, Ishmael, in the desert of Mecca while he traveled to Canaan. After Abraham left, food and water quickly ran out; Hagar ran back and forth between the hills of Safa and Marwa seven times. Exhausted, Hagar laid Ishmael on the sand and begged God for help. Miraculously, a well sprang up at the baby’s feet, and that well—the Zamzam Well—continues to provide ample water to Hajj pilgrims today. Later, according to Muslim tradition, Abraham was commanded to build the Kaaba, so that people could perform pilgrimage there. It is believed that the Archangel Gabriel brought the Black Stone from heaven to be attached to the Kaaba, and today, the Black Stone marks the beginning and ending point of each circle a pilgrim makes as he circulates the Kaaba during Hajj.

Should politics play a role in the decision to travel to Mecca for Hajj? The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports both sides of the story.

Jahiliyyah: During a time known as jahiliyyah in pre-Islamic Arabia, the Kaaba had become surrounded by pagan idols. To cleanse the Kaaba, the Prophet Muhammad led his followers from Medina to Mecca in what is now regarded as the first Hajj. The pagan idols were destroyed, and Muhammad rededicated the Kaaba to God. At this point, Hajj became one of the five pillars of Islam, and adherents have been making the journey ever since.

PILGRIMAGE RITUALS:
THE GRAND MOSQUE, MOUNT ARAFAT AND THE ZAMZAM WELL

Before the start of Hajj, pilgrims bathe, don special clothing and make a statement of intent at the entry station. The first ritual of Hajj is performed inside the Grand Mosque complex: pilgrims circle the Kaaba structure seven times, counterclockwise, reciting prayers (tawaf). Following tawaf, many drink from the Zamzam well. Next, Muslim pilgrims walk rapidly between the hills of Sara and Marwa seven times, as Hagar did (al-Sai). Another statement of intent is made, after which the faithful travel through Mina, and on to the plains of Mount Arafat.

Intense prayer for forgiveness is offered at Arafat, as Muhammad said, “Far more people are freed from the Hellfire on the Day of Arafat than on any other day.” This portion of the Hajj journey is one of the most important. Small stones are gathered, and the following day, pilgrims perform a symbolic “stoning of the devil” at Mina (rami).

Enjoy Video Clips Courtesy of The National

The National, the daily English-language newspaper based in Abu Dhabi, is providing a number of helpful videos for pilgrims this year. These videos will play full screen, if you wish. Use the “Esc” key when you’re done.

Here is the National’s basic video explaining the Hajj.

Here are a series of practical tips for what to wear—and how to pack—for the Hajj. (Note: This video’s default settings may require you to turn on the audio by clicking in the lower left corner of the video screen.)

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Hajj: Millions of Muslims travel to Mecca for annual pilgrimage, pillar of Islam

Huge crowds of people dressed in white inside open-air mosque

Hajj pilgrims circumambulating the Kaaba in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. The Kaaba is the most sacred site in Islam. Photo courtesy of Max Pixel

More than a billion Muslims around the world look to the Hajj, each year, as more than 2 million pilgrims travel to Mecca for to fulfill one of the five pillars of Islam.

SUNSET MONDAY, AUGUST 20: Eid Al-Adha, also known as the Feast of the Sacrifice, begins and runs through August 21. On the morning of Eid, crowds spill out of mosques, into open fields and in parks around the world, as Muslims celebrate both Ibrahim’s devotion and the miracle that took place on the sacrificial altar. Officially, Eid al-Adha begins after the descent of Mount Arafat by the pilgrims on Hajj in Mecca; Muslims across the globe gather with family and friends and offer prayers in congregation.

Hajj: Hajj is a religious duty that must be undertaken by every adult Muslim at least once in his or her lifetime (if it is manageable physically, mentally and financially); despite the frequently used phrase “religious duty,” Muslims regard Hajj as an experience to be treasured. Muslims believe that the ritual of a pilgrimage to Mecca stretches back centuries before the advent of Islam—to the time of Ibrahim (Abraham)—yet it was the Muslim Prophet Muhammad who cemented the rituals of Hajj, in the seventh century. The uniform method of performing the rituals of Hajj is meant to demonstrate both the solidarity of the Muslim people and their submission to God.

STORIES & TRADITIONS

Islamic tradition tells that in approximately 2000 BCE, Abraham was ordered by God to leave his wife, Hagar, and his son, Ishmael, alone in the desert of Mecca while he traveled to Canaan. After Abraham left, her food and water quickly ran out, so Hagar ran back and forth between the hills of Safa and Marwa seven times. Exhausted, Hagar laid Ishmael down on the sand and begged God for help. Miraculously, a well sprang up at the baby’s feet, and that well—the Zamzam Well—continues to provide ample water to Hajj pilgrims today.

Later, according to Muslim tradition, Abraham was commanded to build the Kaaba, so that people could perform pilgrimage there. It is believed that the Archangel Gabriel brought the Black Stone from heaven to be attached to the Kaaba; today, the Black Stone marks the beginning and ending point of each circle a pilgrim makes as he circulates the Kaaba during Hajj.

DESTINATION: MECCA

Muslims describe the era of pre-Islamic Arabia as jahiliyyah, a time of what Muslims regard as barbaric practices when the Kaaba had become surrounded by pagan idols. To cleanse the Kaaba, the Prophet Muhammad led his followers from Medina to Mecca in what is now regarded as the first Hajj. The pagan idols were destroyed, and Muhammad rededicated the Kaaba to God. At this point, Hajj became one of the five pillars of Islam, and adherents have been making the journey ever since. While on Hajj, men and women are permitted to perform the rituals side-by-side as a reminder that they will also stand together on Judgment Day.

RITUALS OF HAJJ

Prior to the start of Hajj, pilgrims go to the entry station where they bathe, don special clothing and make a statement of intent. The first ritual of Hajj is performed inside the Grand Mosque complex: pilgrims circle the Kaaba structure seven times, counterclockwise, reciting prayers (tawaf). Following tawaf, many drink from the Zamzam well. Next, Muslims walk rapidly between the hills of Sara and Marwa seven times, as Hagar did. Another statement of intent is made, after which the faithful travel through Mina, and on to the plains of Mount Arafat.

Intense prayer for forgiveness is offered at Arafat, as Muhammad said, “Far more people are freed from the Hellfire on the Day of Arafat than on any other day.” This portion of the Hajj journey is one of the most important. Small stones are gathered, and the following day, pilgrims perform a symbolic “stoning of the devil” at Mina.

Muslims the world over celebrate Eid al-Adha. Pilgrims return to Mecca to repeat Tawaf, crossing Sara and Marwa, performing additional symbolic stonings and circulating the Kaaba one final time, to do a farewell tawaf.

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Eid al-Adha: Joyous Muslim holiday brings visits, vacations

Lots of people in group in front of buildings, Muslim dress

Eid prayers in Bangladesh. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SUNSET THURSDAY, AUGUST 31: Muslims worldwide express joyful appreciation for Ibrahim (Abraham) and his complete willingness to make a sacrifice during Eid al-Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice. (Note: Dates and spellings vary.) On the morning of Eid, crowds spill out of mosques, into open fields and in parks around the world, as Muslims celebrate both Ibrahim’s devotion and the miracle that took place on the sacrificial altar. Officially, Eid al-Adha begins after the descent of Mount Arafat by the pilgrims on Hajj in Mecca; Muslims across the globe gather with family and friends and offer prayers in congregation.

NEWS 2017: Saudi Arabia recently announced that Eid al-Adha 2017 will begin on September 1 (the evening of August 31). This year, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia declared a 16-day holiday for the festival of Eid al-Adha; in Turkey, the holiday period will last 10 days.

IBRAHIM, ISHMAEL AND THE MIRACLE AT THE ALTAR

Two joyous religious holidays are observed by all Muslims each year: Eid al-Fitr, ending the fasting month of Ramadan, and Eid al-Adha.

On the morning of Eid al-Adha, Muslims dress in their finest clothing and offer prayers in congregation. Following prayers, adherents exchange joyous greetings and give gifts (Eidi) to children. Visits are made, and even non-Muslims are invited to take part in the feasts and festivities.

sweets platter of cookies

Cookies prepared for Eid al-Adha in Israel. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

According to Muslim tradition, when Ibrahim lowered his arm to slaughter his son, the Archangel Gabriel placed a ram on the altar in place of Ishmael. In commemoration, Muslims sacrifice an animal on Eid al-Adha, keeping one-third of the share; giving one-third to relatives and neighbors; and donating the remaining one-third to the poor.

THE ‘GREATER EID’                

Sometimes called the Greater Eid (the Lesser Eid, Eid ul-Fitr, occurs at the end of Ramadan), Eid al-Adha calls able Muslims to sacrifice a halal animal. By sharing, it is ensured that even the most impoverished person may celebrate Eid. The animal sacrifice—which must meet specific age and quality requirements—may be performed anytime before sunset on the final day of Eid. Families that do not own an animal to slaughter contribute to a charity that will provide meat for the needy.

It is Islamic custom to exchange joyful greetings, present gifts to children and visit with family and friends during this joyous time. The events of Eid al-Adha last between one and four days, although in some regions, festivities carry on much longer.

EID AL-ADHA 2017

Tourist attractions appeal to millions of travelers: Travel peaks during the Eid al-Adha holiday period, and destinations offering packages are plentiful: a Dubai-based agency has launched five new holiday packages for Eid al-Adha; travel site Skyscanner lists the 10 most popular European cities for Eid travelers; Khaleej Times has listed Eid staycation ideas for those in the UAE.

India campaign discourages Eid cow sacrifice: Muslims in Hyderabad have appealed to other Indian Muslims to not sacrifice cows and bulls for Eid al-Adha, in respect for neighboring Hindus. (Read more at One India.) A countrywide campaign was launched for the cause, and according to reports, the Islamic seminary’s fatwa department has ruled that Islam does not sanction hurting the views or opinions of neighbors with other beliefs. In India, Eid al-Adha 2017 will begin in the evening of September 1.

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Hajj 2017: Millions of Muslims enter Mecca for annual pilgrimage

Overview of Grand Mosque, Hajj, millions of pilgrims

The Grand Mosque and its surrounding areas fill with millions of pilgrims during Hajj. Photo by Menj, courtesy of Flickr

WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 30: Mecca is the destination for millions of Muslim pilgrims partaking in the annual pilgrimage: by every mode of transportation available and from countries that span the globe, adherents are arriving for Hajj 2017, the annual Islamic pilgrimage that is widely considered the largest annual gathering in the world. Note: Dates can vary depending on moon sightings.

NEWS UPDATES: Pilgrims began pouring into Mecca in mid-August. Nigeria and Ghana sent some of the first pilgrims to Saudi Arabia, and while some hiccups are causing worry – such as the 2,201 pilgrims from Bauchi who have not yet been able to depart – publications also report the addressing of various issues, such as the conflict between Qatari and Saudi authorities over various Hajj aspects.

Pilgrims and their families and friends worldwide can access Hajj news, live broadcasts, lists of embassies and Hajj service providers via the Hajj App, which was released just days before the official start of Hajj 2017. Launched by Arab News and endorsed by the Muslim World League, the Hajj App is free for users and also will feature a “pilgrim tracker,” through which location can be shared and pilgrims’ family and friends can follow them in real time.

The Hajj is one of the “five pillars of Islam.” In fact, the pilgrimage is regarded as a religious duty that must be undertaken by every adult Muslim at least once in his or her lifetime—if that person has the mental, physical and financial ability to make the long journey. Despite that word “duty,” Muslims regard Hajj as an experience to be treasured. The ritual of a pilgrimage to Mecca stretches back centuries before the advent of Islam—to the time of Ibrahim (Abraham)—yet it was the Islamic prophet Muhammad who cemented the rituals of Hajj in the seventh century. (Learn more, and get news updates, from the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia.) The uniform method of performing the rituals of Hajj is meant to demonstrate both the solidarity of the Muslim people and their submission to Allah (God).

THE ORIGINS OF HAJJ: ABRAHAM, HAGAR & THE BLACK STONE

Islamic tradition tells that in approximately 2000 BCE, Abraham was ordered by God to leave his wife, Hagar, and his son, Ishmael, in the desert of Mecca while he traveled to Canaan. After Abraham left, food and water quickly ran out; Hagar ran back and forth between the hills of Safa and Marwa seven times. Exhausted, Hagar laid Ishmael on the sand and begged God for help. Miraculously, a well sprang up at the baby’s feet, and that well—the Zamzam Well—continues to provide ample water to Hajj pilgrims today. Later, according to Muslim tradition, Abraham was commanded to build the Kaaba, so that people could perform pilgrimage there. It is believed that the Archangel Gabriel brought the Black Stone from heaven to be attached to the Kaaba, and today, the Black Stone marks the beginning and ending point of each circle a pilgrim makes as he circulates the Kaaba during Hajj.

JAHILIYYAH: MUHAMMAD REDEDICATES THE KAABA

During a time known as jahiliyyah in pre-Islamic Arabia, the Kaaba had become surrounded by pagan idols. To cleanse the Kaaba, the Prophet Muhammad led his followers from Medina to Mecca in what is now regarded as the first Hajj. The pagan idols were destroyed, and Muhammad rededicated the Kaaba to God. At this point, Hajj became one of the five pillars of Islam, and adherents have been making the journey ever since.

PILGRIMAGE RITUALS:
THE GRAND MOSQUE, MOUNT ARAFAT AND THE ZAMZAM WELL

Before the start of Hajj, pilgrims bathe, don special clothing and make a statement of intent at the entry station. The first ritual of Hajj is performed inside the Grand Mosque complex: pilgrims circle the Kaaba structure seven times, counterclockwise, reciting prayers (tawaf). Following tawaf, many drink from the Zamzam well. Next, Muslim pilgrims walk rapidly between the hills of Sara and Marwa seven times, as Hagar did (al-Sai). Another statement of intent is made, after which the faithful travel through Mina, and on to the plains of Mount Arafat.

Intense prayer for forgiveness is offered at Arafat, as Muhammad said, “Far more people are freed from the Hellfire on the Day of Arafat than on any other day.” This portion of the Hajj journey is one of the most important. Small stones are gathered, and the following day, pilgrims perform a symbolic “stoning of the devil” at Mina (rami).

Eid al-Adha: Animal sacrifices are performed as Muslims the world over celebrate Eid al-Adha. Male pilgrims on Hajj customarily shave their heads, and all Hajj pilgrims return to Mecca cross Sara and Marwa, perform additional symbolic stonings and circulate the Kaaba one final time, to do a farewell tawaf.

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Hajj: Muslims gather from around the world in Mecca for holy rituals

Crowds gathered around black building with white and gold

Photo by Al Jazeera English, courtesy of Flickr

SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 10: In the wake of last year’s Hajj stampede, Saudi Arabia is taking extra measures to safeguard Hajj 2016, as millions of Muslim pilgrims have been arriving in Mecca. (This 2015 link to the New York Times shows a fascinating overview of how the 2015 tragedy unfolded; but the estimate of fatalities in that Times presentation was far lower than later reports, which placed the death toll at more than 2,000 men and women.)

CHANGING DATES

In Saudi Arabia this year, experts announced no official sighting of a crescent moon was possible. Eventually, the Saudi Arabian courts got involved in determining this year’s schedule for the Hajj. Reports from Al Jazeera and other news services with staff on the ground began reporting on September 1 that the originally planned start date for the Hajj has now been moved from September 9 to 10. As a result, the Internet displays a confusing array of dates. The huge celebration, Eid al-Adha now will fall on September 12 this year.

A BOND WITH PILGRIMS

More than a billion Muslims around the world look to the Hajj, each year, even though only about 2 million pilgrims actually travel to Mecca.

NOTE: As a reporter with ReadTheSpirit, I’m also a member of the International Association of Religion Journalists. Want to follow a Muslim journalist making the Hajj this year? Check out the Twitter feed of Yazeed Kalaldien. Yazeed is providing a fascinating, real-time glimpse into the people and places he encounters.

Why do Muslims around the world feel such a bond to the pilgrims who make this journey each year?

As one of the five pillars of Islam, Hajj is a religious duty that must be undertaken by every adult Muslim at least once in his or her lifetime (if it is manageable physically, mentally and financially); despite the frequently used phrase “religious duty,” Muslims regard Hajj as an experience to be treasured. Muslims believe that the ritual of a pilgrimage to Mecca stretches back centuries before the advent of Islam—to the time of Ibrahim (Abraham)—yet it was the Muslim Prophet Muhammad who cemented the rituals of Hajj, in the seventh century. The uniform method of performing the rituals of Hajj is meant to demonstrate both the solidarity of the Muslim people and their submission to God.

Crowd of people with white architecture in background

Pilgrims attending Hajj. Photo by Bilal Randeree, courtesy of Flickr

STORY BEHIND THE HAJJ

Islamic tradition tells that in approximately 2000 BCE, Abraham was ordered by God to leave his wife, Hagar, and his son, Ishmael, alone in the desert of Mecca while he traveled to Canaan. After Abraham left, her food and water quickly ran out, so Hagar ran back and forth between the hills of Safa and Marwa seven times. Exhausted, Hagar laid Ishmael down on the sand and begged God for help. Miraculously, a well sprang up at the baby’s feet, and that well—the Zamzam Well—continues to provide ample water to Hajj pilgrims today.

Later, according to Muslim tradition, Abraham was commanded to build the Kaaba, so that people could perform pilgrimage there. It is believed that the Archangel Gabriel brought the Black Stone from heaven to be attached to the Kaaba; today, the Black Stone marks the beginning and ending point of each circle a pilgrim makes as he circulates the Kaaba during Hajj.

DESTINATION: MECCA

Muslims describe the era of pre-Islamic Arabia as jahiliyyah, a time of what Muslims regard as barbaric practices when the Kaaba had become surrounded by pagan idols. To cleanse the Kaaba, the Prophet Muhammad led his followers from Medina to Mecca in what is now regarded as the first Hajj. The pagan idols were destroyed, and Muhammad rededicated the Kaaba to God. At this point, Hajj became one of the five pillars of Islam, and adherents have been making the journey ever since. While on Hajj, men and women are permitted to perform the rituals side-by-side as a reminder that they will also stand together on Judgment Day.

RITUALS OF HAJJ

Prior to the start of Hajj, pilgrims go to the entry station where they bathe, don special clothing and make a statement of intent. The first ritual of Hajj is performed inside the Grand Mosque complex: pilgrims circle the Kaaba structure seven times, counterclockwise, reciting prayers (tawaf). Following tawaf, many drink from the Zamzam well. Next, Muslims walk rapidly between the hills of Sara and Marwa seven times, as Hagar did. Another statement of intent is made, after which the faithful travel through Mina, and on to the plains of Mount Arafat.

Intense prayer for forgiveness is offered at Arafat, as Muhammad said, “Far more people are freed from the Hellfire on the Day of Arafat than on any other day.” This portion of the Hajj journey is one of the most important. Small stones are gathered, and the following day, pilgrims perform a symbolic “stoning of the devil” at Mina.

Muslims the world over celebrate Eid al-Adha. Pilgrims return to Mecca to repeat Tawaf, crossing Sara and Marwa, performing additional symbolic stonings and circulating the Kaaba one final time, to do a farewell tawaf.

HAJJ 2016: NEWS UPDATES

Pilgrims wear digital ID bracelets: Saudi Arabia has declared that pilgrims traveling to Mecca for Hajj 2016 should wear electronic identification bracelets the entire time they are in the country, to assist authorities in identifying crowd locations and accessing medical information. The British security firm G4S was commissioned to make the bracelets and, according to a Saudi newspaper, the bracelets are water-resistant and connected to a GPS location system. (Read more from PressTV.) In addition, Saudi authorities have installed more than 800 surveillance cameras at the Grand Mosque in Mecca.

Last wish granted: Each year, inspiring and emotional individual stories arise out of Hajj, and this year, among them is the story of Abdiaziz Aden—a 23-year-old Kenyan who is in advanced stages of bone cancer and has received his final wish: to attend Hajj. After having released a video online from his hospital bed, asking his countrymen to help his wish to come true, Kenyans on social media and others raised the funds for Aden’s pilgrimage. (Read the story here—and find a link to his video, too.) Aden departs for Hajj 2016 on September 5.

No Hajj for Iranian pilgrims: In light of last year’s Hajj stampede, Iran has declared that its citizens will not take part in Hajj until Saudi Arabia can better guaranteed the safety of pilgrims, reports CNN and other news sources. According to some reports, more than half of the pilgrims killed in last year’s stampede were Iranian.

 

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Hajj 2015: 2 million Muslims gather for world’s largest annual pilgrimage

Very large crowd in mosque, in multiple layers, circling black Kaaba box

Muslim pilgrims in the Grand Mosque, during Hajj. Photo by Al Jazeera English, courtesy of Flickr

MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 21: Despite the recent tragic crane collapse at Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mosque, Mecca has steadily been welcoming more than 2 million Muslims from approximately 200 countries worldwide for Hajj 2015. One of the five Pillars of Islam and the largest annual pilgrimage to a specific spot on earth, Hajj must be undertaken by every able Muslim at least once during his or her lifetime.

Did you know? The Indian festival of Kumbh Mela is a larger gathering, but it does not occur every year. Some scholars of world religion argue that the annual homecoming for Chinese New Year in China may be an even larger spiritual migration of people, each year, but it does not focus on a single destination.

Looking for a first-hand perspective of Hajj? Read Muslim Victor Begg’s open letter, “From the Hajj: One Pilgrim’s Story of a Journey for Millions.”

The crane that recently collapsed was a part of the massive ongoing construction project at the Grand Mosque, which was undertaken to allow the building to accommodate 2.2 million people. Improvements in travel have allowed larger numbers of pilgrims to arrive, in recent years. Attendance swelled so much that the Grand Mosque could no longer safely hold all of the pilgrims, and temporary limits were placed on the population of pilgrims. In some regions of Indonesia—a country with a large Muslim population—the current waiting list for Hajj is up to 17 years.

HAJJ: THE JOURNEY

Planning for each year’s Hajj begins at the finish of the previous one, as officials reexamine programs, facilities management, cleanup and more. When a Muslim has decided to embark on Hajj, he or she performs rituals of the same manner and in the same place that the Prophet Muhammad did, centuries before. Millions of adherents gather in Ihram, to change into simple white garments—two seamless pieces of white cotton for men, and white clothing for women. Once in these garments, pilgrims can no longer differentiate social classes, economic statuses or even national origin, among the masses.

Men in white stand in prayer amid crowd, outdoors

Muslim pilgrims pray at Mount Arafat. Photo by Al Jazeera English, courtesy of Flickr

Did you know? Hajj numbers peaked in 2013, when more than 3.1 million pilgrims took part in the rituals. Following the surge, officials placed limits on the number of pilgrims permitted.

Upon arrival in Mecca, pilgrims begin with Tawaf, or circumambulating the Kaaba in the Grand Mosque, seven times. Prayers follow, and pilgrims perform sa’ay, running or walking between the hills of Safa and Marwah. Muslims on Hajj travel through Mina to the plains of Arafat; sleep in tents; mimic Abraham’s throwing stones at the devil by casting pebbles at the pillars at Mina; and drink from the Zamzam Well, a well believed to have sprung up at baby Ishmael’s feet when Hagar pleaded with God for water. (Wikipedia has details.) Before concluding, pilgrims return to the Grand Mosque to perform a final tawaf, and use this sacred time for confession and asking forgiveness.

Did you know? The Grand Mosque is the largest in the world and surrounds Islam’s holiest site—the Kaaba.

Today, Hajj rituals are completed in a much more accessible—and large-scale—manner than ever before. On the way to Mecca, pilgrims board one of a fleet of 15,000 buses, and when camping at Mina, the thousands of tents are air-conditioned. Hundreds of kitchens at Mina are responsible for feeding the pilgrims, and hundreds of medical clinics ensure the safety of the pilgrims. In Arafat, thousands of sprinklers atop 30-foot poles cool the pilgrims on their walk, and millions of containers of cold water are distributed from refrigerated trucks. When performing sa’ay, enclosed and air-conditioned structures provide relief from the sun and heat of Saudi Arabia. (Learn more from the Saudi Embassy.) When animals are sacrificed for Eid, most pilgrims pay to have their meat slaughtered and distributed to the poor.

NEWS: APOLOGIES, A CAMEL BAN & A GAY MUSLIM FILM

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman offered condolences to the families and friends of the 107 killed and over 200 injured in the Grand Mosque crane collapse, which was the first major Hajj-related tragedy since a stampede in 2006. (The Guardian reported.)

The slaughter of camels as part of Hajj rituals has been banned in Saudi Arabia this year, due to the MERS virus associated with the animals. In addition, no camels will be permitted within the holy sites of Mecca and Medina. (NewVision has the story.)

Haram Films has recently released a film shot by a gay Muslim on his pilgrimage to Mecca—an extremely dangerous undertaking, as being openly gay is a crime punishable by death in Saudi Arabia. The film, which premiered in New York City on Sept. 4, showed Parvez Sharma’s struggle to accept Islam amid its view of gay followers. (Read more at HuffingtonPost.com.) Parvez told reporters that he hopes his film will “broaden the conversation” within Islam and among its critics.

Are Hajj selfies disrespectful? Huffington Post poses the question.

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Hajj 2014: Muslims travel to Mecca for ancient journey

Millions of people around big black box inside mosque building

Pilgrims circle the Kaaba during Hajj 2012. Photo by Adeel Anwer, courtesy of Flickr

THURSDAY, OCTOBER 2: Millions of Muslim pilgrims have been flowing into Mecca in recent weeks, by every mode of transportation available and from countries that span the globe: it’s Hajj 2014, the annual Islamic pilgrimage that is widely considered the largest annual gathering in the world.

Note: Dates can vary depending on moon sightings.

As one of the five pillars of Islam, Hajj is a religious duty that must be undertaken by every adult Muslim at least once in his or her lifetime (given that it is manageable physically, mentally and financially); despite the term ‘religious duty’, Muslims regard Hajj as an experience to be treasured. The ritual of a pilgrimage to Mecca stretches back centuries before the advent of Islam—to the time of Ibrahim (Abraham)—yet it was the Islamic prophet Muhammad who cemented the rituals of Hajj, in the seventh century. (Learn more, and get news updates, from the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia.) The uniform method of performing the rituals of Hajj is meant to demonstrate both the solidarity of the Muslim people and their submission to Allah (God).

ABRAHAM, HAGAR AND THE STORY BEHIND HAJJ

Islamic tradition tells that in approximately 2000 BCE, Abraham was ordered by God to leave his wife, Hagar, and his son, Ishmael, alone in the desert of Mecca while he traveled to Canaan. After Abraham left, her food and water quickly ran out, so Hagar ran back and forth between the hills of Safa and Marwa seven times. Exhausted, Hagar laid Ishmael down on the sand and begged God for help. Miraculously, a well sprang up at the baby’s feet, and that well—the Zamzam Well—continues to provide ample water to Hajj pilgrims today. Later, according to Muslim tradition, Abraham was commanded to build the Kaaba, so that people could perform pilgrimage there. It is believed that the Archangel Gabriel brought the Black Stone from heaven to be attached to the Kaaba; today, the Black Stone marks the beginning and ending point of each circle a pilgrim makes as he circulates the Kaaba during Hajj. (Wikipedia has details.)

DESTINATION: MECCA

During a time known as jahiliyyah in pre-Islamic Arabia, the Kaaba had become surrounded by pagan idols. To cleanse the Kaaba, the Prophet Muhammad led his followers from Medina to Mecca in what is now regarded as the first Hajj. The pagan idols were destroyed, and Muhammad rededicated the Kaaba to God. At this point, Hajj became one of the five pillars of Islam, and adherents have been making the journey ever since. While on Hajj, men and women are permitted to perform the rituals side-by-side as a reminder that they will also stand together on Judgment Day.

Crowd gathers at large, circular stone wall

Pilgrims participate in the ritual stoning of the devil at Hajj 2006. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

THE RITUALS OF HAJJ:
THE KAABA, MOUNT ARAFAT AND THE ZAMZAM WELL

Prior to the start of Hajj, pilgrims go to the entry station where they bathe, don special clothing and make a statement of intent. The first ritual of Hajj is performed inside the Grand Mosque complex: pilgrims circle the Kaaba structure seven times, counterclockwise, reciting prayers (tawaf). Following tawaf, many drink from the Zamzam well. Next, Muslims walk rapidly between the hills of Sara and Marwa seven times, as Hagar did (al-Sai). Another statement of intent is made, after which the faithful travel through Mina, and on to the plains of Mount Arafat.

Intense prayer for forgiveness is offered at Arafat, as Muhammad said, “Far more people are freed from the Hellfire on the Day of Arafat than on any other day.” This portion of the Hajj journey is one of the most important. Small stones are gathered, and the following day, pilgrims perform a symbolic “stoning of the devil” at Mina (rami).

Animal sacrifices are performed as Muslims the world over celebrate Eid al-Adha, and male pilgrims on Hajj customarily shave their heads. Pilgrims return to Mecca to repeat Tawaf, crossing Sara and Marwa, performing additional symbolic stonings and circulating the Kaaba one final time, to do a farewell tawaf.

HAJJ 2014: NEWS UPDATES

This year, Kenya will have the highest number of pilgrims traveling to Mecca for Hajj in the history of the country, with a record-breaking 4,500 pilgrims—up from 3,000 last year, in 2013. (Read more in the Standard Digital.) Not all numbers are increasing, though: This year, visas have been banned by the Saudi Ministry of Health for Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, for fear of pilgrims from those countries spreading the incurable Ebola virus that is currently most prevalent in the nations. Overall, numbers of attendees at Hajj have been steadily increasing in recent years, although last year’s attendance of approximately 2 million—an astonishing drop from the previous year’s approximately 3 million—shocked many.

Interested to read more on the Ebola virus—and what is being done to prevent a Hajj outbreak? Learn more in this article, which also discusses the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS) and how pilgrims can take proactive measures to protect themselves. The BBC also published a story on the subject.

Bollywood icon to perform Hajj: India is buzzing with headlines about Bollywood icon Kadir Khan, a 78-year-old celebrity who has received several film awards and will perform Hajj at Mecca this year.

Grand Mosque expansion continues: Construction on the fourth extension project of the Grand Mosque—which is expected to be complete in 2020—continues, but this year, more than 2 million pilgrims can use the newly expanded mosque and courtyard areas for prayers. The extension projects began in response to growing annual numbers of Hajj pilgrims. Check this out! The Huffington Post published a series of photographs of the Grand Mosque complex, expanding through the years.

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