Every year around three million Muslims congregate in the plains near Makkah, Saudi Arabia, for what is known as the world’s largest organised religious pilgrimage. Being the fifth fundamental institution of Islam, it is an obligation that must be performed by every able-bodied Muslim in their lifetime who can afford to do so. The five-day long pilgrimage takes place from 8th to 12th of Dhil Hajjah, the last month of the lunar-based Islamic calendar. Muslims trace the rituals performed in this pilgrimage to the time of Prophet Abraham and Ishmael, prominent figures in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The rituals are a solemn mix of physical, material and spiritual activities in which people from all over the world regardless of class, sex, race or language engage themselves and mark it as a lifetime experience.
Makkah, often spelled as Mecca, is the most holiest city in Islam. According to the Islamic history, Prophet Abraham was asked by God to go to the desert along with his wife Hagar and son Ishmael in around 2000 BC. He re-built the Kaaba, considered to be the oldest standing building on earth with his son, Ishmael. As the central house of worship for Muslims, Hajj rites take place in Kaaba as well as in other sacred places around Makkah.
Masjid-al-Haram, translated as The Sacred Mosque, is the largest mosque in the world. Located in Makkah, the complex surrounds Kaaba, the direction for all Muslims across the globe to face while praying. The current grand complex covers an area of 356,800 sq. meters and can accommodate up more than 3.5 million worshippers at any given time.
DAY 1 OF HAJJ
After their arrival in Makkah, the pilgrims called ‘Hajis’ congregate on the 8th of Dhil Hajjah. On their first day, the pilgrims circumambulate seven times counter-clockwise around the Kaaba while reading hymns. The act of circumambulation called ‘Tawaf’ continues non-stop day and night every single day of the year. According to Islamic traditions, the ‘Tawaf’ has never stopped since the last 1,400 years apart from extreme conditions like rains or flooding.
Male pilgrims dress only in two sheets of white unstitched cloth called ‘Ehram’ during the Hajj. The uniform dressing symbolises equality among the pilgrims who come from a range of backgrounds. After donning the ‘Ehram’, the Hajjis are prohibited to shave, clip their nails, hunting or killing any living being, wear perfume or stitched clothing, engage in any kind of sexual activity, and cover their face or head in any way.
Men and women perform the ‘Tawaf’ (circumambulation) of Kaaba. During Hajj, there can be around 3 million pilgrims at any given time performing the ritual circumambulation of Kaaba and offering prayers.
Hajr al-Aswad or the Black Stone is a revered stone for Muslims. According to the tradition, the stone fell from the Heaven to show Adam and Eve where to build an altar and offer the sacrifice for God’s forgiveness. Prophet Muhammad reportedly kissed the stone during the pilgrimage. Since then, kissing the stone or pointing the finger towards it has become part of the ritual.
This brass enclosure known as ‘Maqam al-Ibrahim’ or ‘Station of Abraham’ houses the footprints of Prophet Abraham. The stone, according to traditions, acted as a ladder during the Abrahamic construction of Kaabah and helped reach the heights by towering itself. Today, the ‘Station of Abraham’ enclosure, with the stone within, is located in front of the door of the Kaabah. The boulder is about 2 x 3 feet. Prophet Ibrahim is said to have offered his prayers to God at the place where it stands today.
After the completion of ‘tawaf’, the pilgrims then converge in the hillocks of Safa and Marwah, now part of the Grand Mosque Complex. The pilgrims re-enact Hagar’s (Prophet Abraham’s wife) frantic search for water when her son (Ishmael) cried thirstily. According to the tradition, the little baby’s heels rubbing the ground initiated a spring. A surprised Hagar started yelling “Zam Zam” which means ‘stop stop’ hence naming the spring.
The pilgrims return to their accommodation in Mina, a plain five kilometres east of Makkah, after the completion of Day 1 rituals of the pilgrimage. Hajis sleep here on the first night of Hajj i.e. of 8th Dhil Hajjah.
On the morning of ninth of Dhil Hajjah, the pilgrims assemble on the Arafat Plain where Prophet Muhammad delivered his final sermon. The pilgrims listen to the sermon delivered by the leader of the Hajj. They stay there till the evening engaging themselves in prayers and meditation. Muslims reckon the whole of humanity will be assembled in this plain on the Day of Judgment.
After sunset on 9th Dhil Hajjah, the pilgrims then move to an area between Mina and Arafat valley called ‘Muzdalifah’. Here they gather pebbles for the next morning’s symbolic rite of stoning the devil that takes place on the 10th of Dhil Hajjah. According to the tradition, Prophet Abraham was thrice challenged by Satan when he decided to go ahead with plans to sacrifice his son Ishmael in the way of God. Thousands of pilgrims have lost their lives while performing the ritual due to stampedes during the last couple of decades.
After the stoning of the devil, male pilgrims perform ‘taqseer’ or get their hair clipped or shaved. A woman clips her hair the length of a finger tip.
The pilgrims also perform animal sacrifices in the name of God. According to the tradition, Prophet Abraham was performing the act of sacrifice when an angel sent by God replaced his son Ishmael with a ram. During the recent years, the live sacrifice ritual in Makkah is replaced by another scheme where a pilgrim buys a voucher before the beginning of Hajj, allowing the sacrifice to take place in his/her name. The meat is then packed and sent to charities around the world.
After making the sacrifice, the pilgrims revisit Masjid Al-Haram in Makkah for more circumambulations and prayers. The return to Makkah symbolises the pilgrims’ devotion and remembrance to God.
Some unofficial rituals of Hajj include the visit of the Cave of Hira. It is believed by Muslims that Prophet Muhammad received his first revelation through the angel Gabriel here in this cave. The cave itself is about 4 metres in length and 1.75 metres in width.
After the completion of Hajj, most of the pilgrims visit Islam’s second holy city of Madinah. The city houses the tombs of Prophet Muhammad and several of his family members and companions.
Elsewhere, Muslims celebrate Eid Al-Adha by offering congregational prayers in open spaces soon after the sunrise on the 10th of Dhil Hajjah. Separate congregations are also held for women.
People flock to the markets to buy sacrificial animals including sheep, ram, goats, cows, bulls and camels. It is incumbent upon every well-off Muslim man and woman to offer the sacrifice in the name of God and distribute a part of it among the poor and needy. The practice of visiting the animal market before the feast day is very popular among young men and children who vie to buy the most healthy and good looking animal available in the market. The animal is properly looked after till the day of the sacrifice.
The slaughtering of the sacrificial animals starts right after the Eid prayers in the morning. Some people slaughter the animal themselves with the help of family and friends whereas others hire the services of a butcher to get the job done. The hide of the animal is usually given away to a charity which then sells it to a tannery and uses the proceeds for its charitable activities. The meat is also divided into portions viz. for the poor, neighbours and the family. The offals are buried into the land and the animal waste is used as organic fertiliser.
Hajj and Eid Al-Adha are observed in the last month of the Islamic lunar calendar every year. The celebration of the Eid or Feast of Sacrifice is the way Muslims commemorate and remember Prophet Abraham’s trials, by themselves slaughtering an animal such as a sheep, camel, or goat. The act is ordained by God on His followers to check the strength of heart, purity of faith, and willingness to submit their desires for the sake of the Almighty’s blessings.
While some people boast about the sacrificial animal and take pride in their offerings, God Himself says in His Holy Book: “It is not their meat nor their blood that reaches God; it is your piety that reaches Him.” (Al-Qur’an 22:37)