The Hajj: Pilgrimage to Mecca
Beliefnet blogger Reed Hall explains the ins and outs of the Hajj.
As the birthplace and hometown of Muhammad, Mecca is Islam’s holiest city – so holy, in fact, that non-Muslims are not even permitted to enter. On the other hand, millions of Muslims from around the globe enter and crowd the city annually, temporarily tripling its population during the days of the Hajj.
This year, during the 8th to the 12th days of Dhu al-Hijjah, Muslim pilgrims (referred to as Hajjis) will arrive in Mecca and proceed to the Grand Mosque (the Masjid al-Haram, the largest and most sacred mosque in the world), which is large enough to accommodate up to four million pilgrims during the 2012 Hajj.
After preliminary purifications, and with men dressed only in sandals and two sheets of seamless white cloth (symbolizing equality before God), vast crowds of pilgrims will enter the immense central courtyard of the Grand Mosque. There, this vast sea of humanity will circle seven times around the Kaaba, the 43-foot-tall cube-shaped building that is the holiest site in Islam.
Built of granite, standing upon a marble base, and covered by a black silk curtain trimmed with gold, the Kaaba is the center of the Islamic universe. When Muslims around the world pray five times each day, every day, the direction they face during those ritual prayers is not just the direction of Mecca; it is the Kaaba itself to which they turn and face.
Muslims believe that Abraham (Ibrahim in the Quran) constructed the original Kaaba, around 2130 BCE; it has been frequently reconstructed over the centuries. Set in the eastern corner of the Kaaba is the Black Stone, an ancient stone (possibly meteoric) said to have fallen from heaven at the time of Adam and Eve, and installed in the Kaaba’s eastern corner by Abraham.
Crowds permitting, pilgrims today still attempt to kiss the Black Stone as they circumambulate counterclockwise seven times around the Kaaba (a procedure that, given the crowded conditions, can take several hours to complete).
After circumambulating the Kaaba seven times, pilgrims offer special prayers and then hurry back and forth seven times between two sacred hills, recalling Hagar’s desperate search for water for her son Ishmael (through whom Muslims trace their ancestral lineage back to Abraham). Pilgrims then drink water drawn a well an angel is said to have opened for Hagar.
About twelve miles outside of Mecca, pilgrims visit Mount Arafat for an afternoon of prayer, pious contemplation, and Quran recitation, near the site of Muhammad’s final sermon. This deeply reflective period is, in fact, regarded as the summit of the entire pilgrimage; no Hajj is considered complete without it.