For those readers who may be less familiar, or those who enjoy a review and pictures, here is a brief overview of Hajj, and some excellent pictures of last year’s Hajj (December 2008).
Hajj, or the Pilgrimage to Mecca, is the 5th of the 5 Pillars of Islam. All Muslims are to complete the pilgrimage at least once in their lifetime, if they are physically and financially capable. Poorer Muslims may save a lifetime to make the journey, while those who are wealthier and live closer may make the pilgrimage many times.
As the keeper of the Two Holy Mosques it is incumbent on Saudi Arabia to coordinate the logistics of the annual Hajj, which unlike the Umrah, or “lesser pilgrimage”, must be done on the same days in the Islamic calendar each year, from the 7th to 13th day of the 12th month, Dhu al-Hijjah. It does so through the Ministry of Hajj.
Each year quotas are set for Muslims coming from each country including Saudi, and Saudis are not allowed to participate more than once every 5 years. Special Hajj visas are issued, and specially designated tourist agencies coordinate travel and accommodation. Some pilgrims go as a family, some with a group from their workplace, or neighbourhood, or through an organization. Others are essentially there as individuals through a tourist agency.
Challenges, beyond the long distances now traveled, include overcrowding, stampedes, a past unsafe bridge, political and sectarian differences, and now H1N1 flu. Saudi Arabia has taken measures to deal with these challenges, including a comprehensive and admirable public health plan for this year’s Hajj. Modifications of the ritual have occurred to maximize safety while preserving the religious meaning and symbolism. For example, it is not necessary to kiss the Kaaba, one may point; and, stones are no longer thrown at pillars, but at walls with catch basins.
Of course, none of this detracts from the deeply spiritual experience for those who are able to perform Hajj in any year, including this one. The impact is often profound, whether on an individual basis—as for a family member who as a secondary consideration regained faith that she would have a son, and did—or on a broader basis, as Malcolm X’s experience, of the multiple nations and races of the Ummah among those gathered for Hajj, had on his subsequent conversion to Sunni Islam, and what that meant for him and the Nation of Islam.
In April 2008 David Clingingsmith of Case Western Reserve University, Asim Ijaz Khwaja of Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, and Michael Kremer of the Harvard University Department of Economics, the Brookings Institution, the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), and the Center for Global Development published a Faculty Working Paper entitled: “Estimating the Impact of the Hajj: Religion and Tolerance in Islam's Global Gathering”.
From the Abstract:
"We estimate the impact on pilgrims of performing the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. Our method compares successful and unsuccessful applicants in a lottery used by Pakistan to allocate Hajj visas. Pilgrim accounts stress that the Hajj leads to a feeling of unity with fellow Muslims, but outsiders have sometimes feared that this could be accompanied by antipathy toward non-Muslims. We find that participation in the Hajj increases observance of global Islamic practices such as prayer and fasting while decreasing participation in localized practices and beliefs such as the use of amulets and dowry. It increases belief in equality and harmony among ethnic groups and Islamic sects and leads to more favorable attitudes toward women, including greater acceptance of female education and employment. Increased unity within the Islamic world is not accompanied by antipathy toward non-Muslims. Instead, Hajjis show increased belief in peace, and in equality and harmony among adherents of different religions. The evidence suggests that these changes are more a result of exposure to and interaction with Hajjis from around the world, rather than religious instruction or a changed social role of pilgrims upon return."
This is a remarkable finding, in that they were able to analyze what should be logical outcomes, but had not been proven in such a manner. That Hajjis would have a greater sense of oneness with the Ummah is an important finding, but more remarkable in some senses are their greater adherence to Islamic, as opposed to cultural practices, and the greater liberalization of attitudes towards women, as well as toward non-Muslims. That these attitude shifts result from the benefits of exposure to other Hajjis from around the world, rather than religious teaching or increased social status, argues for increased interaction among Muslims globally.
Yet, at the same time, these findings are in keeping with the core beliefs of Islam, and with the purpose of Hajj--to demonstrate solidarity among Muslims and submission to Allah. This is what distinguishes the Hajj from the pre-Islamic pilgrimages to Mecca, which included tribes of the Arabian peninsula of all faiths worshiping multiple gods or idols, and also Christians worshiping Jesus and Mary. Although the pilgrimage is believed to extend back thousands of years to Abraham’s (Ibrahim’s) first journey with Hagar and Ishmael, the current form of the pilgrimage is the one that marked the first time Muslims only, as a group led by the Prophet Mohamed, performed the pilgrimage. Current rituals are based on those which were retained from pre-Islamic ones, and those established by the Prophet and his followers.
After initial purification, and changing into ihram clothing, the pilgrims move from Mecca to Mina where they spend the day. The next day, on the first day of the Hajj, each person returns to Mecca to Al-Masjid al-Ḥarām, The Sacred Mosque, and walks counter-clockwise seven times around the Kaaba; and, on each circumambulation, either kisses or points with the right hand to the Black Stone in its corner, praying each time. Prayers are then offered at the Place of Abraham, a specific site within the mosque near the Kaaba; or, due to space, anywhere within the mosque. On the same day, each pilgrim walks/runs back and forth 7 times between the hills of Al-Safa and Al-Marwah, symbolizing Hagar’s desperate search for water for Ishmael. Each drinks water from the Zamzam Well which was created for Hagar when the Angel sent by Allah struck the ground with his heel (or wing).
On the second day, each pilgrim spends the night in prayer in Mina; and, on the third, goes to the plains of Mount Arafat to stand in vigil and pray. This is the crux of the pilgrimage, which is considered invalid if the pilgrim does not spend the afternoon near the site of the Prophet’s Last Sermon, Mount Arafat, the Mountain of Forgiveness. At sunset the pilgrims leave Arafat and go to Muzdalifah, where they gather stones for the next day.
On the fourth day, each pilgrim throws 7 pebbles as part of a ritual Stoning of the Devil, in defiance of the Devil’s challenges to Abraham when Allah asked him to sacrifice his son Ishmael. Afterward they shave their heads, and sacrifice an animal as a symbol of Allah sparing Ishmael. At the same time, Muslims around the world sacrifice an animal, often a sheep, as the opening of the celebration of Eid al-Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice.
On the 5th day, the pilgrims re-visit the mosque in Mecca to circumambulate the Kaaba again, as a symbol of being in a hurry to respond to, and show love for, Allah. This, too, is an obligatory part of the Hajj. That night is spent back at Mina. The next afternoon, and on the following day, the pilgrims must again throw 7 pebbles at each of the three pillars in Mina. The must leave Mina for Mecca before sunset; or, if they are unable to leave, and stay another night, must again perform the stoning ritual the next day, before returning to Mecca. A farewell circumambulation of the Kaaba is performed before leaving Mecca.
The Hajj is now completed, but many pilgrims also travel to Medina and the holy mosque there, Al-Masjid al-Nabawi. The Mosque of the Prophet contains the Prophet’s tomb, and a very special area, ar-Rawdah an-Nabawiyah, that from the Prophet’s tomb to his pulpit, considered a part of Jannah. Pilgrims also visit the graves of the companions of the Prophet.
More information about Hajj is available online including at this site: Perform Hajj: Muslim’s Pilgrimage to Mecca; and this interactive one, explaining the steps, Mapping faith: The pilgrimage to Mecca. Below are pictorial representations of the rituals, and photos from Hajj 2008 (December 5-10). The captions are in the first comment to the post.
Please feel free to share your personal experiences of Umrah, or Hajj, or those you may be aware of; and, to share any other comments, or thoughts.
*See first comment below for picture captions.