The Hajj or Haj is the Pilgrimage to Mecca (or, "Makkah") and is the fifth of the "Five Pillars of Islam". Every able-bodied Muslim who can afford to do so is obliged to make the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a lifetime. The government of Saudi Arabia issues special visas to foreigners for the purpose of the pilgrimage, which takes place during the Islamic month of Dhu Al-Hijjah. However, entrance to the city itself is forbidden to non-Muslims, as the entire city is considered a holy site to Islam.
Before the journey to Mecca, the pilgrim is required to dress only in an ihram, a garment consisting of two sheets of white unhemmed cloth draped over the body; plus a pair of sandals. The ihram is intended to show the equality of all pilgrims in the eyes of Allah, as there is no difference between a prince and a pauper when everyone is dressed equally.
Performing the Hajj
Upon arrival in Mecca, the pilgrim ('Hajji') performs a series of ritual acts symbolic of the life of the prophet Muhammad, and of solidarity with Muslims worldwide. These acts of faith are:
- Perform a tawaf, which consists of circling the Kaaba seven times, in a counterclockwise direction.
- Walk seven times back and forth between the hills of Safa and Marwa. This is a re-enactment of Hagar's frantic search for water, before the spring of Zamzam was revealed to her by Allah.
These rituals complete the umrah, or "lesser hajj." After this point, the pilgrim can shed the ihram and put on regular clothes. Although not a part of the ritual, most pilgrims drink water from the Well of Zamzam when the umrah is completed.
Though it is not required as part of the Hajj, after the umrah pilgrims often travel to visit the city of Medina and the Mosque of the Prophet, wherein he is buried beside Abu Bakr and 'Umar. After spending a night or more in Medina, the Hajj continues. The pilgrim dons the ihram once again and performs the final three acts of faith. This is known as the Al Hajjul Akbar, or "greater hajj." The duties of the greater hajj are:
- Journey to the hill of Arafat and spend an afternoon there. The journey usually takes three to five days for the full round trip. At the plain of Arafat, the pilgrim stays from the afternoon until sundown. No specific rituals or prayers are required during the stay at Arafat, though many pilgrims spend the time praying, talking to Allah, and thinking about the course of their lives.
- Upon returning from Arafat, travel to the city of Mina just outside of Mecca, and participate in the stoning of the devil. This requires collecting a number of pebbles from the ground on the plain of Muzdalifah (various Hajj accounts list the number of pebbles as between 49 and 70), and throw the pebbles at the three pillars at Mina, which represent the devil. All three pillars represent the devil: the first and largest is where he tempted Abraham against sacrificing Ishmael, the second is where he tempted Abraham's wife Hagar to induce her to stop him, and the third is where he tempted Ishmael to avoid being sacrificed. He was rebuked each time, and the throwing of the stones symbolizes those rebukes.
- Perform a second tawaf around the Kaaba. This completes the requirements of the Hajj.
After stoning the devil, many pilgrims will then shave their head (women cut off a lock of their hair) as a symbol of rebirth, to show that their sins have been cleansed by completing the Hajj.
The "lesser hajj" can be performed at any time of the year, but the "greater hajj" must take place during the month of Dhu Al-Hijjah. Most pilgrims perform both stages of the hajj during the time of the "greater hajj" because of the difficulty and expense of traveling to the city of Mecca. For many pilgrims (especially ones who had difficulty travelling due to health or finances), the journey to Mecca is a once in a lifetime event.
Spiritual aspects of the Hajj
The Pilgrimage structures the entire life of the Muslim. He is required to make the Pilgrimage at least once in his life time, but only when he has settled his worldly affairs. Therefore, he arranges his whole life to achieve this goal. The goal of life becomes a spiritual one, and itself becomes a pilgrimage. The Pilgrim, the Haji, is honoured in his community and, therefore, provides a constant incentive for others in the community to achieve the same result. However, this produces, in many a false goal, not to reinforce their devotion to God, but to gain honour in their community. Needless to say they gain no psychological benefits from this, though there may still be social benefits. Here, as elsewhere, the individual must be self-aware and confront himself with the clear intention to perform the pilgrimage. This involves purification of motives and constant striving for self-improvement.
The rites and ceremonies performed during the Hajj have a psychological significance. It is usually a very profound experience for those who participate in it. When life is lived according to the precepts of the religion and the mind is in a suitable condition, the Pilgrimage can transform the individual. It acts like an initiation or precipitating factor. This may be compared to water which is heated over a long period until, at boiling point, it is suddenly transformed into steam.
Muslim thelogians believe an elaborate description of the rituals of the Hajj is probably valueless since its main value is confined to the experience of those who participate, and then only when the mind has been suitably prepared over many years. The purpose of the rituals is to create a certain state of mind within which the effects of the pilgrimage can be realised. The Pilgrimage symbolises the journey of man towards death and the return to Allah, a journey he is usually unconscious of, and turns the whole of life consciously into such a Pilgrimage.
Millions of pilgrims
With 1.3 billion Muslims living in the world today, modern pilgrimages have seen huge crowds in the city. During the month of the Hajj, the city of Mecca receives as many as four million pilgrims. This enormous flow of visitors has burdened the city, which has trouble preventing overcrowding and giving shelter and accommodations to everyone who wants to arrive during the holy month. This situation has resulted in a number of tragic deaths among pilgrims, largely due to the overcrowding conditions. Various organizations dedicated to organizing and managing the Hajj, such as the Hajj Commission of Saudi Arabia, have been forced to reluctantly institute a system of registrations, passports, and travel visas to control the flow of the great numbers of pilgrims. This system is designed to encourage and accommodate first-time visitors to Mecca, while imposing restrictions upon those who embark upon the trip multiple times. The registration system has prompted outcries of protest among some pilgrims who have the wherewithal to make the Hajj on multiple occasions, but the Hajj Commission has stated that they have no alternative to prevent accidents and tragedies.
Nevertheless, in spite of the physical hardships, pilgrims who complete the Hajj consider it one of the greatest spiritual experiences of their lives. The Hajj is seen in many cultures as one of the great achievements of civilization, because it brings together people from one-fifth of the population of the entire world and focuses them upon a single goal: completing the Hajj. This is an achievement unparalleled in human history, and philosophers have said that only war can compare to the Hajj in terms of scale.
Islamic law dictates that only Muslims may enter the city of Mecca, and the penalty for a non-Muslim entering the limits of the city is death.
The mystery and appeal of the Hajj have drawn a number of visitors over the years, pilgrims who entered the city in secret and risked their lives to see the Kaaba and experience the Hajj for themselves. The most famous account of a foreigner's journey to Mecca is A Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Mecca and Al-Madina, written by Sir Richard Francis Burton. Burton pretended to be a Qadiri sufi and a Muslim; his name, as he signed it in Arabic below his frontispiece portrait for "The Jew, The Gypsy and al-Islam," was al-Hajj 'Abdullah.
- Hajj (http://www.al-islam.org/hajj/shariati/)
- A Hajj Diary (http://www.soundvision.com/info/hajj/diary.asp)
- Protect Your Health during Hajj and Ziarat (http://www.world-federation.org/MAB/Articles/Health_+Hajj_Ziarat_2003.htm)
- The Hajj - Al Hajj - Haji (http://www.asinah.org/travel-guides/saudiarabiahajj.html)