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Hajj

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The Oxford Dictionary of Islam What is This? Covers the religious, political, and social spheres of global Islam in the modern world

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    Hajj

    The annual pilgrimage to Mecca during the month of Dhu al-Hijjah. Approximately two million Muslims worldwide participate annually. Performance of the hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam, and all adult Muslims are required to perform it at least once in their lives if they are physically and financially able. Pilgrims dress modestly and simply, proclaiming the equality and humility of all believers before God, regardless of worldly differences in race, nationality, class, age, gender, or culture.

    The hajj consists of the reenactment of a series of events in the lives of Abraham ( Ibrahim ), Hagar , and Ishmael ( Ismail ). It begins with the tawaf, seven circumambulations of the Kaaba, which imitates the angels circumambulating God's throne in heaven. Many pilgrims approach the corner of the Kaaba that holds the Black Stone, saluting, touching, or kissing it as a gesture of their renewed covenant with God and for purification from sin.

    The tawaf is followed by the say, or running back and forth seven times between two small hills near the Kaaba in imitation of Hagar's search for water for Ishmael after being abandoned there by Abraham. The nearby well of Zamzam is believed to have miraculously appeared to save them from death. Pilgrims drink the well's water and wash and relax there.

    The climax is the procession to the plains of Arafat on the ninth of Dhu al-Hijjah. The pilgrims gather in tents, praying and conversing from just after noon until shortly after sunset. Many believe that God's spirit descends closest to earth at this place and time, making prayers more likely to attract His attention.

    Although some pilgrims scale the sides of the Mount of Mercy, where Muhammad delivered his farewell message, most remain in the tent area to exchange international news and ideas about Islam. Promptly after sunset, the pilgrims travel through the mountain pass of Muzdalifa, where they spend the night under the open sky. The complete lack of accommodations at Muzdalifa makes this one of the most ascetic and inspiring phases of the hajj for many pilgrims. At sunrise on the tenth day, the pilgrims proceed to the valley of Mina, where they reenact Abraham's rejection of Satan's temptation to disobey God's command to sacrifice his son, Ishmael, by throwing seven pebbles at a tall stone pillar (jamarah). Afterward, each pilgrim offers an animal sacrifice (qurban), commemorating the sheep that God accepted in place of Ishmael. Muslims throughout the world participate vicariously in this ritual by performing their own sacrifices at home on this day, the feast of Id al-Adha.

    During the following two or three days, the pilgrims shuttle back and forth between Mina and Mecca, performing at least six more stonings in Mina and at least one more tawaf and say in Mecca. National or local dress is gradually resumed, symbolizing the gradual return to the profane world.

    Properly performed, the hajj absolves the pilgrim from all previous sins. However, the hajj is valid only if God accepts it—a judgment that cannot be known with certainty. A valid pilgrimage requires the sincere intention (niyah) of coming closer to God. If the intent is spiritually sound, most breaches of ritual formality can be corrected via additional animal sacrifices in Mecca or special acts of charity and fasting after returning home.

    The hajj often serves as a rite of passage, coinciding with life events such as adulthood, marriage, career change, retirement, illness, or death. It may serve as an initiation for new converts to Islam or as spiritual rejuvenation after a personal crisis or loss.

    The hajj links pilgrims with Muslims around the world symbolically, ritually, and politically. As a celebration of the annual reunion and renewal of the worldwide community of Muslims (ummah), it is the most powerful reminder of Islam's ideal of unity across space, culture, and time.

    The government of Saudi Arabia currently oversees the hajj. Many Muslims have encouraged the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) to establish an international agency to centralize and regulate hajj management so as to avoid favoritism, resentment, and heightened conflict among parties, regions, classes, and ethnic groups.

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