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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