Pilgrimage to Mecca: Hajj

Festival Issue 54 Jul, 2010
Text by Shakir Mohammad

There are five pillars of Islam and performing pilgrimage (Hajj) is the fifth pillar, the most significant manifestation of Islamic faith and unity. For those who believe in Islam without doubt, the first home of God which was constructed on earth for the worship of God is called 'Ka’ba'. The witness to this statement is the Quran

Four thousand years ago, the valley of Mecca was believed to be a dry and uninhabited place. The angels who were commanded by God had first built the Ka’ba.Muslims believe that it was Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) who was instructed by Allah to re-construct the Ka’ba, which was to be the gathering place for all who wished to strengthen their faith in Allah. As the years passed by, Is’mail son of Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) who was also blessed with Prophet Hood gave the nomads of the desert the message of surrender to Allah.
After many centuries, Mecca became a thriving city, due to its reliable water source, the well of Zam Zam. People from all over the world were passing through this city. The message of one god was gaining ground and continued to spread to all corners of the world. It was Prophet Muhammad  who restored the Ka’ba many years later to worship only Allah, since people had begun to adopt polytheistic ideas, and were worshipping spirits and many different gods and idols.

In the year 628, the Prophet Muhammad set out on a journey with 1,400 of his followers. This was the first pilgrimage in Islam, and would re-establish the religious traditions of the Prophet Ibrahim. Since then some 2.5 million people for the past 14 centuries have visited Mecca, Saudi Arabia for the annual Pilgrimage, or Hajj. The largest gathering of humanity in any one time or place. Hajj is literally the journey of a lifetime, a dream for which a person spends an entire lifetime saving up his funds. The trip itself used to be an arduous one, which often took months or even years on horseback, camel or on foot through mountainous terrain and the vast deserts. Today, with the advances made in science and technology over the years, the vast majority of pilgrims arrive by air (through the gateway city of Jeddah) from all corners of the earth. A very small percentage of pilgrims today arrive by land or sea compared to earlier times.  Pilgrims are organized in groups and are met by air-conditioned buses, travel with experienced guides, and stay in the many 5-star hotels around Mecca.  Even the rites of the pilgrimage are more comfortable, with courtyards sheltered from the sun, air-conditioned walkways, escalators to the roof of the mosque, and cool marble floors on which to pray.

“And proclaim the Pilgrimage among men.  They will come to thee on foot and (mounted) on every kind of camel, lean on account of journeys through deep and distant mountain highways...” (Qur’an 22:27)

Hajj means visiting the House of Allah, Ka’ba, and performing worshipful acts which have been ordered to be performed there. It is obligatory for a Muslim who can afford to bear the expenses of going to Mecca for Hajj at least once in his lifetime, provided that he fulfils certain conditions of pilgrimage. A pilgrim should be healthy and strong enough to go to Mecca, without suffering extreme difficulties. He  should be sane and free, ie. he should not be insane and should not be a slave. He should be capable of performing Hajj; he should possess provisions and means for transportation. He should possess sufficient money to meet the expenses of his dependents whose maintenance is obligatory on him, like, his wife and children, as well as the expenses of those who have to be paid, such as servants, maids, etc.

Hajj has four pillars, the omission of any one of  them  will nullify the pilgrimage ( Hajj), and has seven associated compulsory acts, omission of any one of which will not only nullify the pilgrimage, but will necessitate expiation. The pilgrim has to articulate ones intention before assuming “Ihraam” (clean white spotless cloth worn during the entire course of the pilgrimage).At the time when the pilgrim wears the Ihraam there are certain things which are forbidden to him till the date of completion of Hajj for example, the pilgrim should refrain from all sexual contact with his spouse. The pilgrim performs Tawaf after entering  Mecca, the circumambulation of the Ka’ba seven times on foot with speed, reciting the prayer “Here I am O god, Oh Allah, here I am. I am very thankful to you. Surely all praise, grace and dominion is yours, and you have no partner”. Then there is Sa’yi the pilgrims walk between the two mountains called As-Safaa and Al-Marwah. The pilgrims then head to Medina where they perform their congregational prayers in the open field of Arafaat and stay there until sunset. After this, the pilgrims head to the place called Muzdalifah where they stone the three pillars of Satan, which is also called the stoning of Satan with seven consecutive pebbles and is called 'Jamrah'. After this the pilgrims return to the Ka’ba and sacrifice animals, eat some of it, and give some to the poor. The pilgrims later have to clip their hair completely. Lastly when the pilgrim is ready to return to his country, he makes Tawaf Al-Wadaa circumambulation of the Ka’ba seven times once again and this ends the Holy pilgrimage or Hajj.

Some people cannot perform Hajj due to physical disability. Each case has its exclusive verdict. If someone has the financial ability to perform Hajj but is unable to perform it due to sickness or old age, there is consensus among scholars that he must arrange for someone else to perform obligatory Hajj on his behalf.

According to the Saudi Press Agency, as recently as 1950, the number of pilgrims during Hajj was less than 100,000.  That number doubled by 1955, and in 1972 it had reached 645,000.In 1983, the number of pilgrims coming from abroad exceeded one million for the first time.  Due to the rapidly increasing numbers, in 1988 the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) passed a resolution to specify a pilgrims’ quota for each country according to its population. Nepal is currently allowed to send 200 pilgrims.

One might wonder if modernity has changed the Hajj experience, and made it less spiritual.  Of course, those who travel today do not have the benefit of knowing what things were like before.  Perhaps one type of hardship (traveling by foot in the desert heat) has been replaced by another (keeping safe and patient in the mass of people).  But unanimously, those who have gone for Hajj come back speechless, unable to find the words to describe their experience.  “You just have to be there to understand” is the common response to questions.  While the facilities and terrain may have changed in modern times, the rites of pilgrimage and the bonds of brotherhood among the pilgrims have remained the same throughout history.  Where else on earth can you find millions of people, different in language, race, color, gender, culture - but united in faith and purpose, acting with complete goodwill, discipline, generosity and brotherhood.  That is the unique Hajj experience.