In the week of the Haj the W&Y gives a brief overview of the world’s largest gathering of people.
WHAT? The word Hajj means ‘to intend a journey’ but the meaning is of a journey which is both physical and spiritual. Making the Haj is a mandatory religious duty for Muslims to be carried out at least once in their lifetime if they are fit and financially able to get there. It is one of the 5 pillars of Islam.
WHY? It is a mandatory religious duty for Muslims to be carried out at least once in their lifetime if they are fit and financially able to get there.
WHEN? The timing of the Haj changes each year as it is dictated by the Islamic lunar calendar which is 11 days shorter than the Gregorian. This year it is from September 23rd to 27th.
WHERE? The Saudi Arabian cities of Mecca and Medina. It is not obligatory to visit Medina, but many pilgrims do as that is where the tomb of the Prophet Muhammed is housed. Once a pilgrim is within about 6 miles of Mecca they enter a state of holiness symbolised for men by wearing two white seamless cloths. The uniformity of dress shows there is equality before God.
WHO? More than 2 million Muslims each year attend the Haj. Numbers have to be restricted and every country is allotted a quota based on its Muslim population. Non-Muslims are not allowed within the city limits of Mecca at any time.
SECURITY: More than 100,000 security personal are on duty in Mecca alone. CCTV is everywhere, and monitored 24/7 in a giant control room near the Great Mosque. Due to the war in neighbouring Yemen (in which Saudi Arabia is fighting) this year the numbers of pilgrims coming from Yemen have been restricted. In previous years there have been mass casualties from stampedes and fires. The Kingdom has invested in fire proof tents and better crowd control. 25 field hospitals have been set up.
RITUAL: Pilgrims walk seven times, counterclockwise, around the black square structure at the center of the Grand Mosque of Al-Masjid al-Haram, called the Kaaba. They also go back and forth between the hills of Al-Safa and Al-Marwah, drink from the Zamzam Well, go to the plains of Mount Arafat, spend one night in the plain of Muzdalifa, and take part in the symbolic stoning of the devil by throwing stones at three pillars. The pilgrims then shave their heads. An animal is then slaughtered. Traditionally the pilgrim would do this themselves, but now they can buy a voucher and the animal is slaughtered in their name in an abattoir. The meat is sold for charity.
Upon completion of the rituals, when a pilgrim returns home, (often with a heightened sense of spirituality) they may be known as a Haji – one who has made the Haj.