In the Name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful
One fifth of humankind shares a single aspiration: to complete, at least
once in a lifetime, the spiritual journey called the Hajj.
The hajj, or pilgrimage to Makkah, a central duty of Islam whose origins
date back to the Prophet Abraham, brings together Muslims of all races and
tongues for one of life's most moving spiritual experiences.
For 14 centuries, countless millions of Muslims, men and women from the four
corners of the earth, have made the pilgrimage to Makkah, the birthplace of
Islam. In carrying out this obligation, they fulfill one of the five
"pillars" of Islam, or central religious duties of the believer.
Muslims trace the recorded origins of the divinely prescribed pilgrimage to
the Prophet Abraham, or Ibrahim, as he is called in Arabic. According to the
Qur'an, it was Abraham who, together with Ishmael (Isma'il), built the
Ka'bah, "the House of God," the focal point toward which Muslims turn in
their worship five times each day. It was Abraham, too - known as Khalil
Allah, "the friend of God" - who established the rituals of the hajj, which
recall events or practices in his life and that of Hagar (Hajar) and their
In the chapter entitled "The Pilgrimage," the Qur'an speaks of the divine
command to perform the hajj and prophesies the permanence of this
And when We assigned for Abraham the place of the House, saying "Do not
associate Anything with Me, and purify My House for those who go around it
and for those who stand and bow and prostrate themselves in worship. And
proclaim the Pilgrimage among humankind: They will come to you on foot and
on every camel made lean By traveling deep, distant ravines.
By the time the Prophet Muhammad received the divine call, however, pagan
practices had come to muddy some of the original observances of the hajj.
The Prophet, as ordained by God, continued the Abrahamic hajj after
restoring its rituals to their original purity.
Furthermore, Muhammad himself instructed the believers in the rituals of the
hajj. He did this in two ways: by his own practice, or by approving the
practices of his Companions. This added some complexity to the rituals, but
also provided increased flexibility in carrying them out, much to the
benefit of pilgrims ever since. It is lawful, for instance, to have some
variation in the order in which the several rites are carried out, because
the Prophet himself is recorded as having approved such actions. Thus, the
rites of the hajj are elaborate, numerous and varied; aspects of some of
them are highlighted below.
The hajj to Makkah is a once-in-a-lifetime obligation upon male and female
adults whose health and means permit it, or, in the words of the Qur'an,
upon "those who can make their way there." It is not an obligation on
children, though some children do accompany their parents on this journey.
Before setting out, a pilgrim should redress all wrongs, pay all debts, plan
to have enough funds for his own journey and for the maintenance of his
family while he is away, and prepare himself for good conduct throughout the
When pilgrims undertake the hajj journey, they follow in the footsteps of
millions before them. Nowadays hundreds of thousands of believers from over
70 nations arrive in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia by road, sea and air every
year, completing a journey now much shorter and in some ways less arduous
than it often was in the past.
Till the 19th century, traveling the long distance to Makkah usually meant
being part of a caravan. There were three main caravans: the Egyptian one,
which formed in Cairo; the Iraqi one, which set out from Baghdad; and the
Syrian, which, after 1453, started at Istanbul, gathered pilgrims along the
way, and proceeded to Makkah from Damascus.
As the hajj journey took months if all went well, pilgrims carried with them
the provisions they needed to sustain them on their trip. The caravans were
elaborately supplied with amenities and security if the persons traveling
were rich, but the poor often ran out of provisions and had to interrupt
their journey in order to work, save up their earnings, and then go on their
way. This resulted in long journeys which, in some cases, spanned ten years
or more. Travel in earlier days was filled with adventure. The roads were
often unsafe due to bandit raids. The terrain the pilgrims passed through
was also dangerous, and natural hazards and diseases often claimed many
lives along the way. Thus, the successful return of pilgrims to their
families was the occasion of joyous celebration and thanksgiving for their
Lured by the mystique of Makkah and Madinah, many Westerners have visited
these two holy cities, on which the pilgrims converge, since the 15th
century. Some of them disguised themselves as Muslims; others, who had
genuinely converted, came to fulfill their duty. But all seem to have been
moved by their experience, and many recorded their impressions of the
journey and the rituals of the hajj in fascinating accounts. Many hajj
travelogues exist, written in languages as diverse as the pilgrims
The pilgrimage takes place each year between the eighth and the 13th days of
Dhu al-Hijjah, the 12th month of the Muslim lunar calendar. Its first rite
is the donning of the ihram.
The ihram, worn by men, is a white seamless garment made up of two pieces of
cloth or toweling; one covers the body from waist to ankle and the other is
thrown over the shoulder. This garb was worn by both Abraham and Muhammad.
Women generally wear a simple white dress and a headcovering, but not a
veil. Men's heads must be uncovered; both men and women may use an umbrella.
The ihram is a symbol of purity and of the renunciation of evil and mundane
matters. It also indicates the equality of all people in the eyes of God.
When the pilgrim wears his white apparel, he or she enters into a state of
purity that prohibits quarreling, committing violence to man or animal and
having conjugal relations. Once he puts on his hajj clothes the pilgrim
cannot shave, cut his nails or wear any jewelry, and he will keep his unsown
garment on till he completes the pilgrimage.
A pilgrim who is already in Makkah starts his hajj from the moment he puts
on the ihram. Some pilgrims coming from a distance may have entered Makkah
earlier with their ihram on and may still be wearing it. The donning of the
ihram is accompanied by the primary invocation of the hajj, the talbiyah:
Here I am, O God, at Thy Command! Here I am at Thy Command! Thou art without
associate; Here I am at Thy Command! Thine are praise and grace and
dominion! Thou art without associate.
The thunderous, melodious chants of the talbiyah ring out not only in Makkah
but also at other nearby sacred locations connected with the hajj.
On the first day of the hajj, pilgrims sweep out of Makkah toward Mina, a
small uninhabited village east of the city. As their throngs spread through
Mina, the pilgrims generally spend their time meditating and praying, as the
Prophet did on his pilgrimage.
During the second day, the 9th of Dhu al-Hijjah, pilgrims leave Mina for the
plain of 'Arafat for the wuquf, "the standing," the central rite of the
hajj. As they congregate there, the pilgrims' stance and gathering reminds
them of the Day of Judgment. Some of them gather at the Mount of Mercy,
where the Prophet delivered his unforgettable Farewell Sermon, enunciating
far-reaching religious, economic, social and political reforms. These are
emotionally charged hours, which the pilgrims spend in worship and
supplication. Many shed tears as they ask God to forgive them. On this
sacred spot, they reach the culmination of their religious lives as they
feel the presence and closeness of a merciful God.
The first Englishwoman to perform the hajj, Lady Evelyn Cobbold, described
in 1934 the feelings pilgrims experience during the wuquf at 'Arafat. "It
would require a master pen to describe the scene, poignant in its intensity,
of that great concourse of humanity of which I was one small unit,
completely lost to their surroundings in a fervor of religious enthusiasm.
Many of the pilgrims had tears streaming down their cheeks; others raised
their faces to the starlit sky that had witnessed this drama so often in the
past centuries. The shining eyes, the passionate appeals, the pitiful hands
outstretched in prayer moved me in a way that nothing had ever done before,
and I felt caught up in a strong wave of spiritual exaltation. I was one
with the rest of the pilgrims in a sublime act of complete surrender to the
Supreme Will which is Islam."
She goes on to describe the closeness pilgrims feel to the Prophet while
standing in 'Arafat: "...as I stand beside the granite pillar, I feel I am
on Sacred ground. I see with my mind's eye the Prophet delivering that last
address, over thirteen hundred years ago, to the weeping multitudes. I
visualize the many preachers who have spoken to countless millions who have
assembled on the vast plain below; for this is the culminating scene of the
The Prophet is reported to have asked God to pardon the sins of pilgrims who
"stood" at 'Arafat, and was granted his wish. Thus, the hopeful pilgrims
prepare to leave this plain joyfully, feeling reborn without sin and
intending to turn over a new leaf.
Just after sunset, the mass of pilgrims proceeds to Muzdalifah, an open
plain about halfway between 'Arafat and Mina. There they first pray and then
collect a fixed number of chickpea-sized pebbles to use on the following
Before daybreak on the third day, pilgrims move en masse from Muzdalifah to
Mina. There they cast at white pillars the pebbles they have previously
collected. According to some traditions, this practice is associated with
the Prophet Abraham. As pilgrims throw seven pebbles at each of these
pillars, they remember the story of Satan's attempt to persuade Abraham to
disregard God's command to sacrifice his son.
Throwing the pebbles is symbolic of humans' attempt to cast away evil and
vice, not once but seven times - the number seven symbolizing infinity.
Following the casting of the pebbles, most pilgrims sacrifice a goat, sheep
or some other animal. They give the meat to the poor after, in some cases,
keeping a small portion for themselves.
This rite is associated with Abraham's readiness to sacrifice his son in
accordance with God's wish. It symbolizes the Muslim's willingness to part
with what is precious to him, and reminds us of the spirit of Islam, in
which submission to God's will plays a leading role. This act also reminds
the pilgrim to share worldly goods with those who are less fortunate, and
serves as an offer of thanksgiving to God.
As the pilgrims have, at this stage, finished a major part of the hajj, they
are now allowed to shed their ihram and put on everyday clothes. On this day
Muslims around the world share the happiness the pilgrims feel and join them
by performing identical, individual sacrifices in a worldwide celebration of
'Id al-Adha, "the Festival of Sacrifice." Men either shave their heads or
clip their hair, and women cut off a symbolic lock, to mark their partial
deconsecration. This is done as a symbol of humility. All proscriptions,
save the one of conjugal relations, are now lifted.
Still sojourning in Mina, pilgrims visit Makkah to perform another essential
rite of the hajj: the tawaf, the seven-fold circling of the Ka'bah, with a
prayer recited during each circuit. Their circumambulation of the Ka'bah,
the symbol of God's oneness, implies that all human activity must have God
at its center. It also symbolizes the unity of God and man.
Thomas Abercrombie, a convert to Islam and a writer and photographer for
National Geographic Magazine, performed the hajj in the 1970's and described
the sense of unity and harmony pilgrims feel during the circling: "Seven
times we circled the shrine," he wrote, "repeating the ritual devotions in
Arabic: 'Lord God, from such a distant land I have come unto Thee.... Grant
me shelter under Thy throne.' Caught up in the whirling scene, lifted by the
poetry of the prayers, we orbited God's house in accord with the atoms, in
harmony with the planets."
While making their circuits pilgrims may kiss or touch the Black Stone. This
oval stone, first mounted in a silver frame late in the seventh century, has
a special place in the hearts of Muslims as, according to some traditions,
it is the sole remnant of the original structure built by Abraham and
Ishmael. But perhaps the single most important reason for kissing the stone
is that the Prophet did so.
No devotional significance whatsoever is attached to the stone, for it is
not, nor has ever been, an object of worship. The second caliph, 'Umar ibn
al-Khattab, made this crystal clear when, on kissing the stone himself in
emulation of the Prophet, he proclaimed: "I know that you are but a stone,
incapable of doing good or harm. Had I not seen the Messenger of God kiss
you - may God's blessing and peace be upon him - I would not kiss you."
After completing the tawaf, pilgrims pray, preferably at the Station of
Abraham, the site where Abraham stood while he built the Ka'bah. Then they
drink of the water of Zamzam.
Another, and sometimes final, rite is the sa'y, or "the running." This is a
reenactment of a memorable episode in the life of Hagar, who was taken into
what the Qur'an calls the "uncultivable valley" of Makkah, with her infant
son Ishmael, to settle there.
The sa'y commemorates Hagar's frantic search for water to quench Ishmael's
thirst. She ran back and forth seven times between two rocky hillocks,
al-Safa and al-Marwah, until she found the sacred water known as Zamzam.
This water, which sprang forth miraculously under Ishmael's tiny feet, is
now enclosed in a marble chamber the Ka'bah.
These rites performed, the pilgrims are completely deconsecrated: They may
resume all normal activities. According to the social customs of some
countries, pilgrims can henceforth proudly claim the title of al-Hajj or
They now return to Mina, where they stay up to the 12th or 13th day of Dhu
al-Hijjah. There they throw their remaining pebbles at each of the pillars
in the manner either practiced or approved by the Prophet. They then take
leave of the friends they have made during the Hajj. Before leaving Makkah,
however, pilgrims usually make a final tawaf round the Ka'bah to bid
farewell to the Holy City.
Usually pilgrims either precede or follow the hajj, "the greater
pilgrimage," with the 'umrah, "the lesser pilgrimage," which is sanctioned
by the Qur'an and was performed by the Prophet. The 'umrah, unlike the hajj,
takes place only in Makkah itself and can be performed at any time of the
year. The ihram, talbiyah and the restrictions required by the state of
consecration are equally essential in the 'umrah, which also shares three
other rituals with the hajj: the tawaf, sa'y and shaving or clipping the
hair. The observance of the 'umrah by pilgrims and visitors symbolizes
veneration for the unique sanctity of Makkah.
Before or after going to Makkah, pilgrims also avail themselves of the
opportunity provided by the hajj or the 'umrah to visit the Prophet's Mosque
in Madinah, the second holiest city in Islam. Here, the Prophet lies buried
in a simple grave under the green dome of the mosque. The visit to Madinah
is not obligatory, as it is not part of the hajj or 'umrah, but the city -
which welcomed Muhammad when he migrated there from Makkah - is rich in
moving memories and historical sites that are evocative of him as a prophet
In this city, loved by Muslims for centuries, people still feel the presence
of the Prophet's spirit. Muhammad Asad, an Austrian Jew who converted to
Islam in 1926 and made five pilgrimages between 1927 and 1932, comments on
this aspect of the city: "Even after thirteen centuries [the Prophet's]
spiritual presence is almost as alive here as it was then. It was only
because of him that the scattered group of villages once called Yathrib
became a city and has been loved by all Muslims down to this day as no city
anywhere else in the world has ever been loved. It has not even a name of
its own: for more than thirteen hundred years it has been called Madinat
an-Nabi, 'the City of the Prophet.' For more than thirteen hundred years, so
much love has converged here that all shapes and movements have acquired a
kind of family resemblance, and all differences of appearance find a tonal
transition into a common harmony."
As pilgrims of diverse races and tongues return to their homes, they carry
with them cherished memories of Abraham, Ishmael, Hagar, and Muhammad. They
will always remember that universal concourse, where poor and rich, black
and white, young and old, met on equal footing.
They return with a sense of awe and serenity: awe for their experience at
'Arafat, when they felt closest to God as they stood on the site where the
Prophet delivered his sermon during his first and last pilgrimage; serenity
for having shed their sins on that plain, and being thus relieved of such a
heavy burden. They also return with a better understanding of the conditions
of their brothers in Islam. Thus is born a spirit of caring for others and
an understanding of their own rich heritage that will last throughout their
The pilgrims go back radiant with hope and joy, for they have fulfilled
God's ancient injunction to humankind to undertake the pilgrimage. Above
all, they return with a prayer on their lips: May it please God, they pray,
to find their hajj acceptable, and may what the Prophet said be true of
their own individual journey: "There is no reward for a pious pilgrimage but
This page was incorporated from an article in ARAMCO World, July-August
1992. The author, Ni'mah Isma'il Nawwab, writes on Arabian history, customs
and crafts from Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.
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