3 million Muslim men and women make the pilgrimage to Mecca, known as the Hajj, according to Saudi crowd estimates. For a personal perspective on the Hajj, Read The Spirit invited Imam Steve Elturk—well known in interfaith circles—to describe a pilgrim’s perspective on this epic journey. His Muslim center, based in Warren, MI, is called the Islamic Organization of North America.
By Imam Steve Elturk
Literally Hajj means: “to set out for a place.”
Today, millions of Muslims from across the continents take this very challenging, yet worthwhile, spiritual journey. From as far away as Australia, America, Canada—to Indonesia and Malaysia—pilgrims begin their travel to Mecca, the birth place of Muhammad, in order to fulfill their once-in-a-lifetime religious obligation. They travel using every mean of transportation to be united with Muslims from around the world under the one God—Allah, in Arabic.
Hajj is both a mode of worship and one of the pillars of Islam. This pilgrimage is a duty upon Muslims who have attained the age of puberty, are mentally sound, and are able to afford the journey financially and physically. Since non-Muslims cannot join in this process, let me describe the various stages of this inspiring and transformative journey.
(Note: Remember that English spellings of Arabic words vary widely.)
The Turning (Tawaf)
Pilgrims, dressed uniformly in simple, seamless white sheets, march toward the Ka’bah. This singularity in appearance signifies equality. It removes the notion of discrimination. In this vast gathering, pilgrims see fellow Muslims bearing every shade of skin on earth. Kings and presidents stand beside common citizens. Great scholars and the wealthy stand with the illiterate and impoverished.
A sea of people circles the Ka’bah and moves in a counter-clockwise motion seven times. The Black Stone is the start and end point of the seven rounds.
Muslims believe that the turning around the Ka’bah resembles the angels turning around the Throne of the Most Merciful, God Almighty, in the house in heaven. The Qur’an mentions, Those (angels) who bear the Throne (of God) and those around it glorify the praises of their Lord, and believe in Him, and ask forgiveness for the believers (saying): “Our Lord! Your mercy and Your knowledge encompass all things, so forgive those who repent and follow Your Way, and save them from the torment of the blazing fire.” [40:7]
This is precisely what the pilgrims have come to Mecca to experience. They come to ask forgiveness from their Lord, the Almighty God, the Most Glorified.
Before proceeding to the next ceremony, pilgrims follow the practice of the Prophet Muhammad and offer an optional prayer at the station of Abraham, where he used to stand to observe the construction of the Ka’bah.
The Rapid Walk (al-Sai’)
Before rushing to perform the second rite, the rapid walk (al-Sai’), pilgrims usually refresh themselves by drinking from the well of Zamzam—a real wonder.
We know from Muslim tradition that Hagar—the wife of Abraham—and her infant son, Ishmael, were left alone in the barren valley of Bakka (today Mecca) after Abraham was commanded to leave them. In that is a great lesson of obedience. Once her provisions were gone, Hagar—alone with her son—was in search for water to quench the thirst of her baby boy. She would hastily move from one hillock, called al-Safa, toward another, called al-Marwah. Her determination and trust in God was so great that she never gave up hope. She continued to move in that motion, back and forth, seven times—until she found herself at the place where Ishmael was left. There, God performed a miracle. Water gushed at the feet of Hagar’s infant son by the help of an angel. God was, indeed, well aware of her situation and He indeed looked after her needs. The Qur’an recalls: Verily! Al-Safa and Al-Marwah are of the Symbols of God. [2:158]
Pilgrims trace the footsteps of Hagar during Hajj. They already have performed the circular motion of Tawaf, and now they begin this second rite in a linear direction. The pilgrims rapidly walk nearly a quarter-mile, seven times, back and forth between the hills of al-Safa and al-Marwah—keeping the centuries-old tradition.
Upon concluding these two rituals, pilgrims shave their heads or shorten their hair (women usually cut off a lock of their hair).
On the eighth of Dhul Hijjah, the 12th lunar month of the Islamic calendar, the pilgrims take a bath, resume their ihram garb, make their intention for the greater pilgrimage (the Hajj) and begin their journey to Mina. That day is called Yaum al-Tarwiyah (day of Tarwiyah, meaning to quench one’s thirst, to drink). Early pilgrims used to drink water in abundance in Mecca because, at that time, there was no water in Mina. Pilgrims are required to be there before the sun reaches its zenith. This day marks the very beginning of the rites of Hajj. While on their way from the sacred city of Mecca to Mina, approximately three miles away, the pilgrims repeat the chant that begins: Here I am O Lord—responding to Your call.
The 10-mile-long Valley of Mina is quite a sight! Usually empty, the valley is filled with this sea of pilgrims during the Hajj. Several hundred thousand tents are erected to accommodate the multitude. Pilgrims on that day focus on the aim of the journey, preparing themselves spiritually.
The Journey to Arafat
On the ninth of Dhul Hijjah, the pilgrims—while reciting their chant—proceed toward Arafat, some five miles from Mina. This ceremony is the most important of all the rites of Hajj. Arafat is the climax of Hajj. A pilgrim’s Hajj is not accepted if he or she misses this part of the journey. The Prophet once said: “The Hajj is Arafat. Whoever stays there until before the rising of dawn indeed one’s Hajj is valid.”
As one of the most significant stations, pilgrims are required to stretch their hands out before their Lord in supplication, while they are in the presence of God. This is the height of God consciousness. Arafat is the perfect place for one to show his or her remorse and regret for sins committed. It is the time for the confession of the sorrowful soul.
Aside from the combined daily prayers (noon and afternoon), while some pilgrims read the Qur’an, others may engage in deep contemplation and meditation, reflecting on the past and the course of the future. Pilgrims submit themselves to the Ever-living, the Eternal and the Absolute, praying for forgiveness and begging for God’s mercy. It is a time for repentance and renewal of covenant. Pilgrims believe that God will accept their sincere repentance and forgive their sins after renewing their covenant. In return, the pilgrims are expected to worship none but God, abide by God’s instructions and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, and do their very best to abstain from sins and bad actions.
Group leaders often echo the words of the Prophet Muhammad in his last farewell sermon delivered on a small mound on the Plain of Arafat called Jabal al-Rahmah, or the Mount of Mercy. It is believed that it was there when Adam and Eve supplicated, after realizing that they had disobeyed God. In their repentance, they said: Our Lord! We have wronged our own souls: If thou forgive us not and bestow not upon us Thy Mercy, we shall certainly be lost. [7:23]
The pilgrims are reminded of the Prophet Muhammad making history. A single man transformed the lives of people in every aspect. He purified their souls, shaped their thoughts and constructed a society based on justice, where every member of the community is equal in the sight of God. His 23 years of labor were summed up in his Farewell Sermon.
The Prophet preached a message of brotherhood, love and compassion, and the importance of being kind to one another. He addressed commerce and trade issues and warned against indulging in usury and interest practices. Muhammad spoke of the equality of human beings before God and the Law. He asserted, “All mankind is from Adam and Eve: an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor does a non-Arab have superiority over an Arab; a white has no superiority over a black nor does a black has any superiority over a white, except in righteousness.” He appealed to his community to uphold the modes of worship and to follow the right path, as he reminded them of the Day of Judgment: “Remember that you will indeed meet your Lord, and that He will indeed reckon your deeds.”
With this message, pilgrims become quite emotional. As the sun is about to set, their supplications and prayers become more intense. Not knowing whether they will ever make it back to this place, pilgrims shed tears of regret and sorrow, hopeful that after this moment, God will forgive them.
The Prophet once said: “Far more people are freed from the Hellfire on the Day of Arafat than on any other day.”
Immediately after sunset, millions of pilgrims leave Arafat and rush toward another field between Arafat and Mina, called Muzdalifah. Tracing the footsteps of Muhammad, pilgrims spend the night there, offering their combined sundown and night prayers. Older men and women, among others, may proceed to their tents in Mina after midnight. The rest spend the entire night in the open until dawn, sleeping on the ground.
The scene in Muzdalifah reminds the pilgrims of the day of resurrection and Judgment Day. Pilgrims prepare for departure upon concluding the dawn prayer, heading back to Mina—toward the largest pillar representing Satan, the devil. In preparation for the next rite, pilgrims—before leaving Muzdalifah—usually collect pebbles slightly bigger than the size of a chick pea.
Stoning the Devil (Rami)
At this point, Muslims recall an ancient story about Abraham in which—at a crucial moment in his life—Abraham was repeatedly tempted by Satan. In response to the devil, Abraham would pelt him with pebbles. Three times, Abraham pelted Satan with seven stones to avoid these temptations.
Pilgrims commemorate this ritual on the 10th of Dhul Hijjah, when they throw small stones at pillars representing the devil. This ritual of stoning the devil continues for the next three days—the 11th, 12th and 13th. Each pillar (small, medium and large) is pelted with seven stones. This symbolic ritual is an act that reminds Muslims to reject the temptation of the devil in their own lives.
The Day of Sacrifice (Yaum al-Nahr)
On the same day, the 10th of Dhul Hijjah, pilgrims sacrifice sheep and camels in honor of Abraham and his first son, Ishmael—who, in an act of submission to God’s command, were willing to sacrifice and be sacrificed, respectively. Because of their supreme obedience to God, God replaced Ishmael with a lamb to be sacrificed instead.
Some pilgrims slaughter their animal themselves, but most Muslims purchase a sacrifice coupon ahead of time, which allows animals to be slaughtered on that day in their name without their having to be present. Each pilgrim may sacrifice a sheep or a lamb, and seven people may share the sacrifice of a camel or a cow. Factories are set up to do the slaughtering on behalf of the pilgrims. The meat is then processed, packed and distributed to poor people. Containers of meat are shipped to poor people around the world. Muslims in every corner of the world—not just those on Hajj—perform similar sacrifices themselves, or pay charitable organizations to slaughter on their behalf and distribute the meat to the poor. Muslims around the world celebrate this day, known as Eid al-Adha, or the Feast of the Sacrifice. The celebration is continued for the next three days. Schools, governments, and some businesses in Muslim majority countries close for four days.
Shaving the head (Halq)
After stoning the pillar representing the devil, pilgrims are required to perform a halq or taqsir. It is more meritorious for men to shave the entire head (halq). Men may, however, shorten the hair (taqsir) by cutting a length at least the size of a fingertip. Women simply trim or cut off a lock of hair. The rite of shaving of the head is a symbol of rebirth. All sins are cleansed.
Tawaf al-Ifadah is an essential rite of the Hajj. Pilgrims return to the sacred mosque in Mecca to circle the Ka’bah seven times, offer a prayer at the station of Abraham, and perform the walk (sai’) between the Safa and the Marwah in the same fashion in which they performed the lesser pilgrimage, umrah. Tawaf al-Ifadhah may be delayed until the days spent at Mina are over. Upon concluding this rite, the state of ihram ends and all restrictions are lifted.
Farewell Tawaf, also called Tawaf al-Wida, is the final rite of Hajj. For the last time before leaving Mecca, pilgrims circle the Ka’bah seven more times, concluding the Hajj ceremony. If they have not visited the Prophet’s mosque in Medina prior to arriving to Mecca, pilgrims usually travel to the Prophet’s mosque, where He is buried. There, they pay their tribute and send salutations of peace and blessings upon Him, His family and the righteous companions.
The Hajj rituals have a very emotional and psychological effect on pilgrims. After having spent several days in Mecca and Medina, pilgrims return home spiritually transformed and with a renewed commitment. In spite of the physical hardships, many pilgrims describe the Hajj as the greatest spiritual experience of their lives. With the image of the Ka’bah engraved in their minds, the circling of the Ka’bah reminds the pilgrims to keep God in the center of their lives.
The Hajj is all about Repentance, Revitalization of Faith and Renewal of Covenant.