Hajj 2014: Muslims travel to Mecca for ancient journey

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).


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.


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.


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.

Hajj: Millions of Muslims worship in Mecca amid Grand Mosque expansions

SUNSET SUNDAY, OCTOBER 13: The world’s largest annual religious gathering commences in Mecca today, with more than 3 million Muslims having traveled by land, sea and air to perform one of the five Pillars of Islam: Hajj. (Note: The Hindu Kumbh Mela is a larger gathering, but it only occurs every three years.)

Calculating the Dates: Muslims follow a lunar calendar and religious observances are marked by moon sightings. Saudi astronomical experts have announced Oct. 14 as the official date that Hajj pilgrims will gather at Mount Arafat (thus meaning that Hajj begins at sunset on Oct. 13, and Eid Al-Adha will begin at sunset on Oct. 14—and the day of Oct. 15. Read more from Al Arabiya. An earlier story in Al Arabiya also includes a helpful info-graphic of the Ka’aba. (Note: English spellings of Arabic words vary widely across news sources and websites.)

Health, safety and the MERS Coronavirus: The Saudi Minister of Health recently announced the 2013 safety plan for this year’s Hajj pilgrims. Along with the increased number of healthcare workers at all facilities in Mecca, Medina and other holy sites, preparations have been made for the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV), which appeared in Saudi Arabia last year and has since been reported in several countries in Europe and Africa. While working in coordination with the World Health Organization and health organizations from each country that sends pilgrims, the Saudi government has asked that the elderly, children and the chronically ill avoid Hajj this year in light of the dangers of MERS-CoV.

Grand Mosque construction: With the number of Hajj pilgrims growing every year, expansion projects have been underway in the Grand Mosque—the holiest site in Islam and the home of the Ka’aba—for almost 90 years. Yet the current expansion project, worth $21.3 billion and dubbed the “project of the century, has been underway since 2011. The first portions of the project will be open to accommodate this year’s Hajj pilgrims. (Al Arabiya reported.) The temporary mataf bridge that was installed during Ramadan also will service crowds performing the tawaf (circumambulation of the Ka’aba) this Hajj. Along with better accommodations for handicapped pilgrims, two floors of the new annex will also accommodate this year’s pilgrims, reported the Saudi Gazette.

Did you know? The number of pilgrims attending Hajj has increased by 1 million during the past decade. In 2003, just over 2 million pilgrims performed Hajj; in 2013, more than 3 million are expected.

The entire Grand Mosque expansion project, which will take several years to complete, will expand the mosque in three main areas: the expansion of the Al-Haram, to accommodate 2 million worshipers; the development of exterior areas, such as rest rooms and tunnels; and a support services area, which will include a district cooling plant, electricity station and water stations. Once completed, the Grand Mosque’s capacity will almost double.


Each year for 14 centuries, Muslims have journeyed to Mecca for Hajj. Warring nations, drought and dangerous terrain have not stopped pilgrims from completing the final Pillar of Islam and following in the footsteps of the Prophet Muhammad. Though today’s pilgrims experience far fewer obstacles on the way to Hajj than their ancestors did—who, in years past, often took a year or more to travel to Mecca by foot and claimed countless casualties along the way—the holiness of the Hajj remains unchanged.

The massive crowds in recent years present new problems: catering to both the medical and basic needs of 3 million people has proven no easy feat. With such masses, cases of trampling, heat exhaustion and contagious viruses are not uncommon. Still, in a city designed to host the Hajj, surrounding infrastructure has been tailored specifically to this once-a-year event. “It is truly amazing,” commented Rajeeb Razul, a journalist from the Philippines. “To organize a gathering of humans this large, for housing them, for feeding them and for meeting their every need year after year must be a monumental task.”

As crowds of Muslims begin arriving in Mecca, most often by airplane but also by sea and foot, Hajj begins aboard one of 15,000 buses that delivers pilgrims to their destination. During the duration of Hajj, pilgrims will visit the Grand Mosque, the Plain of Arafat, the Valley of Mina and the stone pillars at Jamarat. (In 2004, the stone pillars were replaced by long walls with catch basins, to accommodate the growing number of Hajj participants.) From Mecca, this year’s crowd of 3 million will walk eight miles to the Plain of Arafat, which now houses a sea of misting sprinklers to cool the colossal crowd. Chilled water and food is available for pilgrims, who will spend the day at Arafat, performing set rituals and pleading for God’s forgiveness at the Mount of Mercy.

Most rituals of Hajj commemorate the life of Abraham, who is believed to have built the Ka’aba.

The joyful Eid Al-Adha will begin at sunset on Monday, October 14. (Due to differences in moon sightings, it is expected to occur in North America one day later, though the date varies worldwide by region.)


Read The Spirit invited Imam Steve Elturk, a noted figure in interfaith circles, to write a detailed overview of this epic pilgrimage—so non-Muslims can get a sense of the personal story of a pilgrim moving through these sacred sites.