Hajj is the fifth pillar of Islam, and the most significant manifestation of Islamic faith and unity. Undertaking the Hajj at least once is a duty for Muslims who are physically and financially able to make the journey to Makkah. The emphasis on financial ability is meant to ensure that a Muslim takes care of their family first. The requirement that a Muslim be healthy and physically capable of undertaking the pilgrimage is intended to exempt those who cannot endure the rigors of extended travel.
The pilgrimage is the religious high point of a Muslim's life and a journey that every Muslim dreams of making. Umrah, the lesser pilgrimage, can be undertaken at any time of the year. Hajj, however, is performed during a five-day period from the ninth through the thirteenth of Dhu Al-Hijjah, the twelfth month of the Muslim lunar calendar.
In the past, and as late as the early decades of last century, very few people were able to "make their way" to Makkah for the pilgrimage. This was because of the hardships encountered, the amount of time the journey took and the expenses associated with it. Pilgrims coming from the far corners of the Islamic world sometimes dedicated a year or more to the journey, and many perished during it, due in part to the lack of facilities on the routes to Makkah and also in the city itself.
The circumstances of the Hajj began to improve during the time of King Abdul Aziz Ibn Abdul Rahman Al-Saud, the founder of the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Major programs were introduced to ensure the security and safety of the pilgrims, as well as their well-being and comfort. Steps were also taken to establish facilities and services aimed at improving housing, health care, sanitation and transportation.
Today, though the rituals at the holy sites in and near Makkah have remained unchanged from the time of the Prophet, the setting for the pilgrimage and the facilities available to the pilgrims are a vastly different from those that existed at any time in history. Hardship was once expected and endured as part of the pilgrimage, and Muslims who undertook this endeavour traditionally assigned a relative or trusted member of the community as the executor of their wills in case they did not return from the journey.
Muslims today undertake the pilgrimage in ease, receive a warm welcome on their arrival in Saudi Arabia, and are provided with the most modern facilities and efficient services possible. Without the distractions that their forebears had to contend with, today's pilgrims are free to focus solely on the spiritual aspect of the Hajj.
The Rites of Pilgrimage
After sunrise on the ninth of the Islamic month of Dhu Al-Hajjah, this vast crowd of nearly two million begins to walk some eight miles to the Plain of Arafat, passing Muzdalifah on the way. Many perform the noon and afternoon prayers at the Nimerah Mosque, a tradition set by the Prophet.
Approaching Arafat by midmorning, the pilgrims are amazed to find the vast plain covered by what appears to be a thick fog, even though the temperature hovers around 90 degrees Fahrenheit. This optical illusion is created by thousands of sprinklers placed atop 30-foot poles and spaced some 50 feet apart, which spread a fine mist of water to provide coolness. Millions of containers of chilled water are distributed from refrigerated trucks located along the pilgrim route.
Despite these precautions, the wail of sirens is ever present as hundreds of ambulances pick up pilgrims suffering from heat exhaustion and transport them to special clinics for treatment. The more serious cases are evacuated by helicopter to hospitals.
Pilgrims are required to spend the day in the plain, performing what is called the Standing at Arafat. Here they also visit the Mount of Mercy and ask for God's forgiveness for any sins committed and for blessings. Facilities have also been set up here to feed the pilgrims and meet any requirement they may have.
After the sun has set this river of pilgrims retraces its steps back toward Makkah, but stops at Muzdalifah until the brightness of day appears on the eastern horizon. Here, the pilgrims collect seven pebbles and carry them to Mina. As they arrive in the valley, they trek along a 100 yard-wide, two-level pedestrian walkway toward the three stone pillars called the Jamarat, which are meant to represent Satan. The pilgrims are required to cast the pebbles they have collected at the Stone Pillar of Aqabah while praising God, in a symbolic rejection of Satan. As the pilgrims make their way along the walkway, they join those already at the pillar and, after hurling their pebbles, circle toward the exit ramp in the direction of Makkah. Signs in various major languages direct the crowds along the route.
The pilgrims then walk almost four miles along pedestrian walkways to reach Makkah, where they perform the tawaf, the circumambulation of the Ka'abah, in the Holy Mosque seven times counterclockwise. They then perform sa'ay, the running between Safa and Marwa in an enclosed, air-conditioned structure. Male pilgrims are then required to shave their heads, although cutting a lock of hair is acceptable for both men and women. At this point the pilgrims sacrifice an animal, donating its meat to the needy. Each year, over 600,000 animals are sacrificed, in modern abattoirs that complete the processing of the meat over the three days of the Eid. Distribution of this sacrificial meat goes to those in need in some 30 countries.
The rites of the pilgrimage are now completed. Pilgrims come out of Ihram and wear their normal clothes, but remain at Mina for the Eid Al-Adha, the festival that signals the culmination of the Hajj. Over the next two days, they stone the three pillars in the Jamarat, before performing the Tawaf Al-Wida', the Farewell Circumambulation of the Ka'abah, before their departure from the city.
While not required as part of the Hajj, most pilgrims visit the Prophet's Mosque in Madinah during their visit to the Kingdom.
A Spiritual Journey
Throughout the Hajj, the largest annual gathering of people on Earth, the pilgrimage is marked by a total absence of any disagreements or altercations among the pilgrims. Courtesy and helping others are the norm. Peace, serenity and piety pervade the entire pilgrimage and the pilgrims.
At the conclusion of the Hajj, the pilgrim has a profound feeling of having gone through a life-transforming spiritual experience. They come back with pride in having successfully performed a ritual dedicated to God and in belonging to a huge family of people that shares the same religious beliefs. And they have acquired a sense of humility, inner calm, community and strength that lasts a lifetime.