The annual five-day hajj pilgrimage began on Friday, 9 August, with over two million Muslim pilgrims from around the world converging on the holy city of Makkah in Saudi Arabia to perform religious rites.
During hajj, which is one of the five pillars of Islam and mandatory on all physically and financially able adult Muslims at least once in their lifetime, the faithful traverse the path taken by Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) more than 1,400 years ago.
The hajj in Islam is meant to be a great unifier of Muslims worldwide, with pilgrims shedding overt displays of wealth and materialism. All male pilgrims wear simple seamless white garments and women don conservative dress and headscarves, forgoing makeup, nail polish and perfume in an effort to draw closer to God and engage in intense worship for the five-day hajj.
The rites of Hajj are performed over five or six days, beginning on the 8th and ending on the 12th or 13th day of Dhu al-Hijjah, the last month of the Islamic calendar.On the first day of hajj, pilgrims circle the Kaaba counter-clockwise seven times while reciting supplications to God, then walk between the two hills of Safa and Marwah.
On the second day pilgrims head to Mount Arafat, an area about 20 kilometers east of Makkah, where they offer dawn prayers on the Mountain of Mercy located on the Plain of Arafat. Mount Arafat is the site where the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) delivered his final sermon, calling for equality and unity among Muslims. The pilgrims spend an emotional day of repentance and supplication at Mount Arafat, in what is considered the height of hajj pilgrimage.
Pilgrims must leave Arafat after sunset for Muzdalifah, an area between Arafat and Mina, to perform Maghrib and Isha prayers together, and then spend the night praying and sleeping on the ground with open sky, and gather pebbles for the next day’s ritual of the stoning of the Devil.
On the third day, the pilgrims head to Mina, which is about 5km to the east of Mecca and spend the day, from sunrise to sunset performing the symbolic ritual of stoning of the devil, by throwing seven stones from sunrise to sunset at only the largest of the three pillars, known as Jamrat al-Aqabah.The remaining two pillars (jamarah) are not stoned on this day. These pillars are said to represent Satan.
After the casting of stones, animals are slaughtered to commemorate the story of Ibrahim and Ismael. Traditionally the pilgrims slaughtered the animal themselves, or oversaw the slaughtering. Today many pilgrims buy a sacrifice voucher in Mecca before the greater Hajj begins, which allows an animal to be slaughtered in the name of God (Allah) on the 10th, without the pilgrim being physically present. At the same time as the sacrifices occur at Mecca, Muslims worldwide perform similar sacrifices, in a three-day global festival called Eid al-Adha.
Another important rite of Hajj is shaving the head for men and trimming the hair tip for women pilgrims. On the same day or on the following day, pilgrims re-visit the Grand Mosque in Mecca to circumambulate the Kaaba. It symbolizes being in a hurry to respond to God and show love for Him, an obligatory part of the Hajj.
On the fourth day, after having spent the night at Mina, the pilgrims again throw seven pebbles at each of the three pillars in Mina, from noon to sunset.
On the fifth day they repeat the stoning of the Devil and then leave for Mecca before sunset. If unable to leave before sunset, or if they opt to stay of their free will, the pilgrims must perform the stoning ritual again on the sixth day before returning to Mecca.
Finally, before leaving Mecca, pilgrims perform a farewell circumambulation around the Kaaba seven times counter-clockwise, and if they can, attempt to touch or kiss the Kaaba. Though not a part of Hajj, pilgrims may choose to travel to the city of Medina and visit the Mosque of the Prophet, which contains the Prophet Muhammad’s tomb.
To ease the journey of pilgrims, the kingdom recently unveiled the first phase of a new high-speed train connecting the cities of Makkah and Medina. The kingdom also has a new e-visa system in place for pilgrims.