FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 4: Millions of Muslim pilgrims from San Francisco to Africa, Miami to Indonesia, Chicago to Pakistan—are in Mecca (at right) for Hajj 2011. The world’s largest religious gatherings are the Hindu Kumbh Mela, held every few years along the Ganges. However, Islam holds the world’s record for the largest annual religious gathering in the Hajj.
Each Hajj takes a full year to plan and facilities in Saudi Arabia were officially declared ready for pilgrims earlier this week. Hajj rituals begin today, and peak tomorrow. (Get an inside perspective from Victor Begg, a Muslim who wrote about the pilgrimage in “A Letter from Hajj.”)
The Hajj is one of Islam’s famous five pillars. Every able Muslim must perform Hajj at least once in his lifetime. Each year, 2-to-3 million Muslims make the journey—just as their ancestors have for more than 1,000 years. Although modes of transportation have changed, Muslims are proud that the meaning and rituals associated with the Hajj are unchanged. (Get updates on this year’s Hajj from Pakistan Today.)
WHAT IS HAJJ?
The Hajj is a pilgrimage made to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, to experience the unity of the Muslim people and submission to God. The Hadith (a collection of teachings from the Prophet Muhammad) teaches that Hajj began after Abraham was told by God to leave his servant, Hagar, and his son, Ishmael, in the desert sometime around 2000 BCE. Stranded, Hagar ran back and forth between the hills of Safa and Marwa seven times, and she finally cried out to God for help. Suddenly, baby Ishmael’s foot hit the ground and the Zamzam Well sprang up.
Muhammad established Hajj traditions when he led his followers to Mecca in 631 CE. On that pilgrimage, Muhammad cleansed the Kaaba (a building Muslims believe was built by Abraham himself) and destroyed all idols. (Wikipedia has details. Or check out the Saudi embassy website.) During Hajj, pilgrims perform specific rituals such as walking around the Kaaba counter-clockwise seven times, running between the hills of Safa and Marwa, drinking from the Zamzam Well and holding vigil on the plains of Mount Arafat. It’s believed that after Hajj, a pilgrim is cleansed.
PROBLEMS IN AFRICA AND CHICAGO
Libyan Muslims awaited a Saudi plane that may never arrive, according to news reports, as 120 Hajj pilgrims waited almost 18 hours at the Benghazi city airport earlier this week. (News24 has the story.) These pilgrims had relatives involved in recent battles during Libya’s revolution and reportedly many of the pilgrims believe they are now being treated unjustly.
Across the world in Chicago, hundreds of Muslims anticipating their own Hajj were left stranded when a travel agency known as VIP Travel Services failed to deliver proper visas. Saudi officials remind pilgrims to take care in booking their pilgrimages, as even the most credible-looking websites may not be officially accredited by the Saudi embassy in Washington. (Read more from ABC News.) The pilgrims still await the return of the thousands of dollars they sent to the agency.
CHILDREN PRACTICE IN FLORIDA
Students at the American Youth Academy in Florida gathered in excitement Monday, as they awaited their own Hajj experience. Participating elementary students were asked to wear white clothing—just as adult male pilgrims do—and began their “journey” at the school’s mosque, followed by exhibits created and planned by a committee. (More is at Patch.com.) As 20 percent of the Temple Terrace, Fla., population is Muslim, the school prepared its young devotees for a journey many of them hope to make in the future. Many Muslim schools hold special Hajj programs this week, some as elaborate as the Florida school.
PREPARATION AND TECHNOLOGY
Approximately 2.5 million pilgrims gathered early in Mecca to spend time praying and meditating on their faith; still, Hajj preparations begin much earlier than that. According to Islam, pilgrims should pay debts and seek forgiveness from those caused harm prior to arriving in Mecca. In addition, pilgrims should strictly observe Ramadan and the five daily prayers in the year prior to Hajj.
Those still in search of assistance during Hajj don’t have to look any further than their phone: a new Blackberry application has tools that assist pilgrims in understanding and performing Hajj rituals. The app supports six languages, including Arabic and English.