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Hajj

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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

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    Hajj

    The hajj is an annual pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia—the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad and the most sacred site in the Islamic world. The pilgrimage takes place during the second week of Dhu al-Hijjah, the final month of the Islamic lunar calendar. Every adult Muslim with the physical and financial means to travel is required to perform the hajj at least once during his or her lifetime. Each year, about two million Muslims from virtually every nation of the globe gather in Saudi Arabia for this important event. It is the largest and most culturally diverse assembly of humanity to gather in one place at the same time.

    The hajj differs significantly from other pilgrimage traditions, such as those in Christianity and Hinduism. In other religions, the idea of a pilgrimage is important but voluntary, and pilgrims can visit any of several holy sites. The hajj, however, forms an essential part of the Muslim faith as one of the Five Pillars of Islam. Islamic tradition requires that all pilgrims gather at the same place to simultaneously worship together. Although Muslims may choose to visit other shrines and may make a pilgrimage to Mecca at other times of the year, these do not take the place of the hajj.

    Rituals of the Hajj.

    The sequence of the rituals performed during the hajj was set by Muhammad shortly before he died. The rituals are meant to symbolically reenact events from the life of the Prophet Abraham and his family. Before the hajj begins, all male pilgrims put on special clothes called ihram, consisting of two white sheets or towels covering the upper and lower parts of the body. The ihram symbolizes the equality and humility of all Muslims before God, regardless of race or economic class. Women are not required to wear a special garment, but must conform to rules of modesty and good taste. Many pilgrims keep their ihram for several years after making the hajj, and some use it as a burial shroud.

    The hajj begins with the tawaf, a ritual that is performed at least twice—immediately after arriving in Mecca and just before departing the city. To perform the tawaf, pilgrims walk around the Kaaba (House of God) seven times. The Kaaba is the cube-shaped structure believed to have been built by Abraham and his son Ismail. It is now surrounded by the Great Mosque. This ritual imitates the angels circling God's throne in heaven. After the tawaf, pilgrims immediately perform the sa'y by running back and forth seven times between two small hills near the Kaaba. This ritual recalls Hagar's frantic search for water for her son Ismail after they were abandoned in the desert. After the sa'y, most pilgrims bathe and relax at the nearby well of Zamzam, which appeared miraculously to save Hagar and Ismail from death. Many pilgrims drink from the well and sometimes carry home bottles of water for friends unable to make the hajj themselves.

    The culmination of the hajj is the procession on the ninth day of the pilgrimage to the plain of Arafat just outside Mecca. The pilgrims erect tents in the valleys and surrounding mountains. From just after noon until sunset they pray and converse with one another. Many believe that God is most attentive to prayers on this site and during this time. Some pilgrims climb the sides of the Mount of Mercy, where Muhammad delivered a famous sermon, but most remain in their tents to protect themselves from the harsh desert sun. Just after sunset, the pilgrims break camp. As they leave the valley, they converge on the narrow mountain pass of Muzdalifa, where they spend the night in the open. Though Muzdalifa offers no modern comforts, many pilgrims consider this one of the most inspiring parts of the hajj. The next day, the pilgrims continue to the valley of Mina, where they set up another enormous tent city.

    At Mina, two rituals reenact Abraham's test of faith when God demanded the sacrifice of his son Ismail. First, pilgrims hurl seven pebbles at tall stone pillars that represent the devil who tried to tempt Abraham to disobey God. This ritual results in some of the most energetic moments of the hajj, giving the pilgrims a sense of release, but pilgrims must be careful to avoid the flying pebbles. After this, each pilgrim makes an animal sacrifice, or qurban, commemorating the ram that God accepted in Ismail's place. They consume part of the meat in a feast and give the rest to the poor. Muslims worldwide celebrate this day as Eid al-Adha.

    For the next few days, the pilgrims travel back and forth between Mina and Mecca—often via special pedestrian tunnels cut through the mountains. They repeat the stonings, tawaf, and sa'y. The hajj ends on the 12th or 13th day of Dhu al-Hijjah.

    The hajj celebrates the reunion and the renewal of the entire Muslim community. It is the most powerful reminder of Islam's ideals of unity and human equality. Many Muslims choose to make the hajj near an important turning point in their lives, such as marriage, retirement, illness, or approaching death.

    Pilgrims From Around the World.

    In recent years, critics have charged that the organization of the hajj has become too political. In the 1980s, the government of Iran demanded that the pilgrimage be removed from Saudi supervision. The Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), however, defeated this demand and has tried to defuse political tensions surrounding the hajj.

    In order to help manage the large influx of pilgrims, the OIC in 1989 endorsed a quota system limiting the number of pilgrims from each nation outside of Saudi Arabia. No more than 1,000 pilgrims per one million residents of a country are now permitted to go. Exceptions are made for countries with minority Islamic populations, such as South Africa, the United States, and various western European countries. Here higher percentages are allowed in order to help these Muslims strengthen their relationship with the rest of the Muslim community. The quota system, however, had been disadvantageous to the countries of the Arab world, especially Yemen and the states that surround the Persian Gulf. For example, 30 years ago, Muslims from Arab-speaking countries accounted for 60 percent of all hajj pilgrims, whereas today they make up only about 20 percent of the world total.

    In the last ten years, the largest number of hajj pilgrims has come from Indonesia, Pakistan, Turkey, Iran, Egypt, India, Nigeria, and Bangladesh. In countries with minority Islamic populations, the greatest number has been from the United Kingdom, Russia, and the United States. Meanwhile, the percentage of female pilgrims has risen steadily, from 33 percent in the 1970s to nearly 46 percent in the first years of the twenty-first century. Generally speaking, women in modern urban areas are more likely to make the pilgrimage than those in rural and isolated regions. Countries such as Afghanistan, Yemen, and Bangladesh have a low percentage of women making the hajj, all below 20 percent. In several countries, such as Indonesia, Malaysia, and Lebanon, however, women constitute the majority of hajj pilgrims. See also Abraham; Ismail; Kaaba; Mecca; Muhammad ; Pillars of Islam; Saudi Arabia.

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