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: 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 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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