Hajj: Millions of Muslims travel to Mecca for annual pilgrimage, pillar of Islam

Huge crowds of people dressed in white inside open-air mosque

Hajj pilgrims circumambulating the Kaaba in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. The Kaaba is the most sacred site in Islam. Photo courtesy of Max Pixel

More than a billion Muslims around the world look to the Hajj, each year, as more than 2 million pilgrims travel to Mecca for to fulfill one of the five pillars of Islam.

SUNSET MONDAY, AUGUST 20: Eid Al-Adha, also known as the Feast of the Sacrifice, begins and runs through August 21. On the morning of Eid, crowds spill out of mosques, into open fields and in parks around the world, as Muslims celebrate both Ibrahim’s devotion and the miracle that took place on the sacrificial altar. Officially, Eid al-Adha begins after the descent of Mount Arafat by the pilgrims on Hajj in Mecca; Muslims across the globe gather with family and friends and offer prayers in congregation.

Hajj: 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.


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.


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 2015: 2 million Muslims gather for world’s largest annual pilgrimage

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.


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.

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.


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.