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Walkway | © Al Jazeera English/ Flickr
Walkway | © Al Jazeera English/ Flickr
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The Meaning Behind Hajj, the Muslim Pilgrimage to Mecca

Picture of Amani Sharif
Freelance Writer
Updated: 30 August 2017
Once a year, Muslims around the world join together in Mecca for Hajj. They spend five to six days wholly dedicated to God, prayer and meditation. It is believed that after the journey of Hajj, a person comes back fresh and free of sin, but what is it that makes Hajj special? Here’s your complete guide to what this Islamic pilgrimage is really about.
Embroidered Panel from the Hizam of the Kaaba
Embroidered Panel from the Hizam of the Kaaba | © Hans Splinter/ Flickr

The history of Hajj

The name present in Christianity, Judaism and Islam is Abraham (peace be upon him). The Prophet Abraham (pbuh) was known to be constantly puzzled by the worship of idols and several Gods. His whole life was spent dedicated to divine inspiration and the promotion of Monotheism. As an Abrahamic religion, Islam follows the teachings of the Prophet and one of those is Hajj (pilgrimage).

After the birth of his son the Prophet Ismail (pbuh), God commanded the Prophet Abraham (AS) to migrate with his wife Hagar to the land of Ka’aba in Mecca. The long journey proved troublesome and at some point their son cried out in thirst and it is said that Hagar ran between the Safa and Marwa hills in search of water for him. Upon her return, she found a spring of water emerging by her son’s feet. A spring that was named Zam Zam. Gradually, more people started coming into Mecca to observe the miracle and that, for Muslims, is the birth of birth of Monotheism. The Prophet was then ordered by God to kill his son as a show of belief and dedication. On the 10th day of Dhul Hijja (a month on the Islamic calendar), the two walked towards Mina, resigned to the divine plan. At the last moment before the deed, the Prophet was ordered to cease and sacrifice a sheep instead. The father and son then built the Ka’aba in Mecca and the first structure dedicated to the worship of one God was built.

How has Hajj persist until today?

It is said that gradually the process of Hajj strayed from its origins. Idols were put in the Ka’aba, and the rite became a Pagan ritual. Around 630 CE, with the rise of Islam, the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) re-took Mecca, destroyed the idols and the year after ordered 300 people to go to Mecca, at which point the rites of Hajj were taught. In 632 CE, before his death, the Prophet (pbuh) lead his final pilgrimage and gave his famous “Farewell Sermon”. From then on, the five pillars of Islam were established as: Shahada (the statement that there is only one God and that Muhammad pbuh is his prophet), Prayer, Charity, Fasting and Hajj (pilgrimage). It is worth noting that a Muslim is required to perform the pilgrimage only once in their adult life.

Around the Ka’aba
Around the Ka’aba | © Camera Eye/ Flickr

Hajj today

Today, Hajj is one of the biggest pilgrimages in the world, around two million Muslims gather together in Mecca for the sacred ritual. The same rituals performed by the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in his “Farewell Pilgrimage” are done. The density of people wanting to observe Hajj has made it so applications must be submitted and acceptance is based on age (the older you are, the more immediate your need). If someone is financially or physically incapable of going they are excused and sometimes financial help is provided through charities. Moreover, it is permissible to perform the rites on behalf of someone if they passed away before they were able to attend. Finally, some say if you die with the intention of going, and never got the chance, it is as though you’ve been.

What are the rites of Hajj?

We’ve talked extensively around the subject but what is it that people do on this pilgrimage? What is it that makes it difficult and a show of belief? On the first day, Muslims enter Ihram, the sacred state, when crossing the boundary of Mecca. The pilgrim has to wear simple and plain clothes, two cloths for men and loose fitting, covered clothes for women. If a woman is not veiled usually, she has to wear a veil during Hajj. Muslims then head to Mina on foot or via vehicles to stay in tents and spend the time in prayer until dawn. The second day the pilgrims set off to Arafat, the day the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) gave his final sermon, and spend the day in prayer. Other Muslims around the world may fast on this day as well. After sunset, Muslims move to Muzdalifah, moving in the night and collecting pebbles for the next day. On the third day, known as the “Big Hajj Day”, at which point Eid Al Adha (the more important of the two Eids) is celebrated around the world. This also coincides with the day Abraham set out to sacrifice his son, only to be shown mercy.

During the day, the pilgrims return to Mina and throw seven stones at pillars. An act symbolic of stoning the devil, a tradition derived from the belief that the location is the place where the devil appeared to Abraham and tried to dissuade him from sacrificing his son. After that the pilgrims must sacrifice a goat, sheep or cow (usually they pay to have it done in their name; the meat donated to charity). The story now comes full circle and the pilgrims will have reenacted the historical events of the Prophet Abraham’s story (pbuh). Men after that are required to shave their hair and remove their Ihram clothes (the two cloths), at which point all the pilgrims head to Mecca to perform Tawaf, where they circle the Ka’aba seven times and then walk seven times between the hills of Safa and Marwa. When they’re done they return to the campsite in Mina.

On the last two or three days, the pilgrims will spend their time in Mina and throw seven stones again at each of the three pillars. Afterwards, Muslims will go back to Mecca for a final Tawaf around the Ka’aba. Moreover, it is not part of the pilgrimage, but many will go to visit Medina to see the Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) burial site.

Illustration showing the rites of Hajj
Illustration showing the rites of Hajj | © AsceticRose/ Wikimedia Commons

The trip is a long and tiring one, full of physical and psychological exertion but also a sense of complete and utter peace on the part of believers. Many older people are escorted in wheelchairs. It is one of the milestones of a Muslim’s life and is certainly an awe-inspiring experience.