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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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 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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