Five basic tenets, or “pillars,” form the foundation of traditional Muslim life. They are, in the words of Islam101.com,
— Iman: Faith or belief in the Oneness of God and the finality of the prophethood of Muhammad
— Salah: Establishment of the daily prayers
— Zakah: Concern for and alms giving to the needy
— Sawm: Self-purification through fasting, and
— Hajj: The pilgrimage to Makkah for those who are able.
Making the Hajj, the pilgrimage, to Meeca, is an essential religious duty for Muslims and a task that a Muslim is supposed to accomplish once in his or her life. The Hajj occurs from the 8th the 12th day of the last month of the Islamic calendar which, as a lunar calendar that’s shorter than the standard Gregorian calendar, occurs at different times during the non-Islamic calendar year.
The Hajj is based on a pilgrimage that was actually a custom in the region well before the birth of Mohammad. Each year, religious devotees would journey to Mecca where they would pray around a cube-shaped shrine made of gray stone and marble, known as the Kabah. According to Islam, Adam, upon his expulsion from the Garden of Eden, first build a Kabah on that spot to worship God. Abraham and his son Ibrahim rebuilt it, but over
centuries it fell into disrepair and became a place for idolatry. Mohammed made only one
pilgrimage to Mecca in his life, during which he transformed the Kabah from a space for idol worship into a center of monotheism. Today the Kabah is located at the heart of the massive Masjid al-Haram. All Muslims orient their prayer rugs to face the Kabah, praying in its direction every day, and are eager to fulfill the fifth pillar of Islam by making a pilgrimage to Mecca to pray in is presence. (Learn more about the Kabah.) During the Hajj male pilgrims wear just the ihram, which consists of two sheets of white unhemmed fabric, and sandals. Woman are required to remain modestly dressed and wear their traditional head covering, the hijab. This emphasis on modest dress enforces the point that there are no wealth or class differences in the eyes of Allah. So wrap yourself in that ihram,
cover your head withyour most stylin’ hijab, and let’s take off for Mecca!
As mentioned in the travel section above, the trip to one of the most distant and hottest deserts on the planet would be hard enough in the best of all situations, let alone when you and almost two million people are trying to be at the same place at the same time. Still, as a pilgrim you may well look at the ordeal differently. The fact that the Hajj is not easy is an essential part of the obligation. The expense, the physical preparation, the making of arrangements at home to maintain the family while you’re in Mecca…all are part of the spiritual accomplishment of the experience.
But getting there is much less than half the fun. Once in Mecca, there are a number of rituals every pilgrim must complete or else his/her pilgrimage is not considered valid. Thanks to the Wikipedia page on the Hajj and the description of the Hajj on Islam.com, “a site worthy of its name,” for an introduction to these practices:
On the first day of the Hajj, pilgrims are required to perform their first “Tawaf,” the act of walking seven times counter-clockwise around the Kabah. Pilgrims pray specific prayers and are supposed to kiss the Kabah on each revolution, but because of the massive crowds they may point to it with the right hand. [Watch a video of thousands of pilgrims circling the Kabah.] After Tawaf on the same day, pilgrims perform “sa’i,” which is the symbolic walking or running between the hills of Safa and Marwah, referring to the frantic search for water by Hagar, Abraham’s wife, for their son Ishmael, forefather of the
Arabs. Today, as a means of crowd safety (after hundreds of thousands of pilgrims performing the ritual resulted in too many deadly stampedes), pilgrims use an underground, air-conditioned path between the hills with a special lane for those who have a hard time walking. Pilgrims are advised to walk the path and only run a small, carefully
delineated section. [Watch a video of the sa’i.] Because tradition dictates that Hagar’s search for water proved successful when an angel revealed the well of Zamzam, pilgrims drink water from the well, which is available in coolers throughout the mosque. [Learn a bit
about the well of Zamzam.] At this point many pilgrims shave their heads, though they may also fulfill the obligation by cutting a lock of hair.
On the next morning pilgrims go to Mina where they pray all day and night. On the next day, they go to Arafat, a place where Muslims believe Adam and Eve found each other after exile from the Garden of Eden, where they contemplate their lives and recite verses from the Qu’ran near a hill from which Mohammed delivered his last sermon. This ritual, known as “Wuquf,” is an essential part of the Hajj; if pilgrims don’t spend the afternoon on Arafat their Hajj is not considered valid. [Watch pilgrims en route to Arafat.]
At sunset pilgrims go to Muzdalifah, an area between Mina and Arafat, where they sleep for the night under the desert sky.
— Ramy al-Jamarat:
The next day pilgrims perform the ritual of “Ramy al-Jumarat,” which is the throwing of stones to mark one’s defiance of the Devil. This symbolically references the struggles of Abraham during the Biblical story in which God/Allah had instructed him to sacrifice his son. (Jews claim Isaac was the son Abraham was instructed to sacrifice to prove his faith, while Muslims believe it was Ishmael.) According to Islamic tradition the Devil challenged Abraham three times during the ordeal and each of the three times Abraham denied him. Three pillars, “jamarat,” symbolize the three challenges, and pilgrims throw seven pebbles at them to show their virtue and spiritual strength. [Watch the ritual throwing of pebbles.]
— Eid al-Adha:
Next, pilgrims are supposed to perform an animal sacrifice to symbolize Allah’s mercy by replacing his to-be-sacrificed son with a lamb. Today most pilgrims don’t perform the sacrifice themselves, but rather buy a sacrifice voucher in Mecca. Butchers perform the “sacrifice” in the pilgrim’s honor and send the meat abroad to feed the poor. They then celebrate for three days. Muslims around the world join them in this festival, called “Eid al-Adha.”
— Tawaf az-Ziyarah:
The next day the pilgrims return to the Masjid al-Haram mosque for a second tawaf then spend the night back at Mina. The next day and the day after the pilgrims again throw seven pebbles at the three pillars.
— Tawaf al-Wida:
As the last act of the Hajj, before leaving Mecca, pilgrims perform one last tawaf, the “Tawaf al-Wida.” (The meaning of “Wida” is, “to bid farewell.”)
— Journey to Medina:
Some pilgrims end their Hajj by traveling to Medina where they visit the Al-Masjid al-Nabawi (Mosque of the Prophet), home of Mohammad’s tomb.
Fulfilling the Hajj is a highlight of the life of many Muslims. Certainly surviving the difficult and expensive travel and all the travails around it are an accomplishment, but Muslims who have finished the pilgrimage refer less to the hardships of the journey and more to the sense of spiritual fulfillment and unity with Muslims around the world one feels having made it.
More about the Hajj:
National Geographic goes to Mecca for the Hajj | The Saudi Embassy’s description of the Hajj and the Saudi Arabian government’s investment in helping pilgrims survive it | Malcolm X had a personal powerful pilgrimage experience during the Hajj: a dramatic
reading of a letter he sent while in Mecca, Malcolm X interviewed right after his return.