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.)
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.
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.
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.