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.)
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.
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.