10th – 4th August
Hajj is an annual religious pilgrimage to Makkah (Mecca) undertaken each year by 2-3 million people. All Muslims are required to make this pilgrimage once in their lifetime (although there is no prohibition on making the pilgrimage more than once). Those who cannot afford to do so, or are prevented through ill-health may be excused. A series of ritual acts are performed by the pilgrims during the first two days of Hajj, followed by the three day long festival of Eid al-Adha which is celebrated in Makkah. Umrah is a separate and smaller pilgrimage involving the events of the first two days of hajj that can be completed at any time of the year, but can be preceded or followed by the rest of hajj if pilgrims so wish.
The origins of hajj date back to the Prophet Ibrahim, and it brings together Muslims of all schools, races and tongues for one of life’s most moving spiritual experiences. According to the Qur’an, it was Ibrahim who, together with his son Isma’il (Ishmael), built the Ka’bah, ‘the House of God,’ the focal point toward which Muslims turn in their worship five times each day. Later, the Prophet Muhammad instructed believers in the rituals of the hajj, partly through his own example, but also with the support of his Companions. It is the fifth of the five ‘pillars’ of Islam, the central religious duties of the believer.
The Ka’bah, a large rectangular cube shaped building, covered in a black mantle which is decorated with elaborate gold calligraphy, is the focal point of all Muslims’ prayers. It stands in the courtyard of Makkah’s Sacred Mosque, where at the season of the hajj, the faithful gather for rituals that precede and end their pilgrimage.
For hajj men wear ihram, white seamless garments consisting of two pieces of cloth or towelling; one covers the body from waist to ankle and the other is thrown over the shoulder(s). This garb was worn by both Abraham and Muhammad. For ihram women generally wear a simple white dress that covers their bodies apart from their face and hands, and a head covering (but not a face veil – the face must be uncovered during hajj). Men’s heads must be uncovered, but both men and women may use an umbrella to ward off the sun’s rays.
When they arrive in Makkah, pilgrims perform the first essential rite of the hajj: the tawaf, the seven-fold anticlockwise circling of the Ka’bah, with a prayer recited during each circuit. While making their circuits, pilgrims may kiss or touch the famous Black Stone. This oval stone, some 11 by 15 inches in size, was damaged over the years and broken into several pieces, but is now held together inside a silver frame. It has a special place in the hearts of Muslims as, according to some traditions, it is the sole remnant of the original structure built by Ibrahim and Isma’il. But perhaps the single most important reason for kissing the stone is that the Prophet did so. After completing the tawaf, pilgrims pray, preferably at the Station of Ibrahim, the site where Ibrahim stood while he built the Ka’bah. Then they drink of the water of Zamzam.
Another ritual, sometimes performed later, after the feast of Eil al-Adha, is the sa’i, or ‘the running.’ This commemorates Hagar’s frantic search for water to quench Isma’il’s thirst. She ran back and forth seven times between two rocky hillocks, al-Safa and al-Marwah, until she found the sacred water known as Zamzam. This water, which sprang forth miraculously under Ishma’il’s tiny feet, is now enclosed in a marble chamber adjacent to the Ka’bah.
On the first day of the hajj, pilgrims leave Makkah and progress towards Mina, a small uninhabited village east of the city. Here they spend hours meditating and praying, as the Prophet did on his pilgrimages.
On the second day they leave Mina and travel to the plain of Arafat for the wuquf, ‘the standing’ which lasts throughout the rest of the day. This is the central rite of the hajj. Some gather at the Mount of Mercy, where the Prophet delivered his Farewell Sermon, announcing religious, economic, social and political reforms. Here the pilgrims spend hours in worship and supplication.
Just after sunset, they proceed en masse to Muzdalifah, an open plain about halfway between Arafat and Mina. First they pray and then they collect a fixed number of chickpea-sized pebbles to use on the following days.
Early on the third day they move from Muzdalifah to Mina, where they hurl seven of the pebbles they have previously collected at each of three white pillars that symbolise Satan. They recall the story of Satan’s attempt to persuade Ibrahim to disregard God’s command to sacrifice his son.
Next each family sacrifices a goat, sheep or some other animal. They give the meat to the poor while, in some cases, they keep a small portion for themselves. This is the start of the celebration of Eid ul-Adha, and is also associated with Ibrahim’s readiness to sacrifice his son in accordance with God’s wish, and Isma’ils willingness to accept his fate as the will of God. This act reminds the pilgrim to share worldly goods with those who are less fortunate, and serves as an act of thanksgiving to God. They are now allowed to shed their ihram and put on everyday clothes.
While they remain in Mina, pilgrims revisit Makkah to perform another essential rite of the hajj: the farewell tawaf, the seven-fold anticlockwise circling of the Ka’bah, with a prayer recited during each circuit. If they have not already done so, they now perform the ritual known as the sa’i, ‘the running.’
Once these rites are performed, the pilgrims may resume all normal activities. They can, from now on, proudly claim the title of al-Hajj or Hajji or, in the case of women, Hajjah.
Hajj Fact Sheet
Islamic City: Hajj – The Journey of a Lifetime
Why do Millions Gather in Mecca Every Year?
Hajj in Photos
The Guardian: World News – Hajj