Mina, Saudi Arabia _ – Mohammed Abdel-Salam Ali, a 60-year-old Egyptian farmer, spent years scraping together nearly $11,000 to bring his wife and son here to perform Islam’s hajj pilgrimage.
Once here, they have slept for days in tiny one-person tents on the side of the road at the hajj’s sacred sites, walking for miles with their belongings from ritual to ritual – despite his wife’s bad knees – as they carry out the annual pilgrimage that every able-bodied Muslim is supposed to do at least once in their lifetime – if they can afford it.
They’re not going to let the hardship ruin their journey to answer God’s calling.
“It’s hard, but it’s also beautiful,” Ali said Thursday, sitting in his small plastic tent on the roadside at Mina, the ancient spot in the deserts outside Mecca where for the second day more than 3 million pilgrims stoned symbols of the devil called the Jamarat.
For many Muslims, performing hajj is a lifelong dream, a chance to fulfill a requirement of their faith and win forgiveness of their sins.
The rituals at Mina commemorate Abraham’s stoning of Satan, who is said to have appeared three times to the prophet to tempt him. The Jamarat are three “pillars” – actually long stone walls – that the pilgrims pelt with pebbles.
On Wednesday, the ritual’s first day, they threw seven stones at the largest one. On Thursday and the following day, they pelt all three with seven stones each.
Millions filed past the walls along a gigantic platform built so that pilgrims on the ground floor and above can perform the ritual at once. They vigorously hurled their pebbles at the pillars, chanting “God is Great” with each throw – sometimes hitting the back of pilgrims in front of them.
Afterward, many walked away peacefully and with poise, a far cry from their aggressive approach to the pillars. They had the look of conquest, having crushed the devil and his temptations with the pebbles, the size of chickpea.
Nizar Mohammed, an Afghan bent with age and wearing a turban and shelwar kamiz – loose pants and a tunic – rested on the side of the ramp after he finished his stoning.
“I feel very good. I am in good hands,” he said.
The ritual has been one of the most dangerous of the hajj, with stampedes that have killed scores of pilgrims. A crush of pilgrims in 2004 killed 244 people, and the following year more than 360 were killed when several tripped over baggage while others behind them kept pushing ahead. Saudi authorities then tore down the platform around the Jamarat and built a new one with more entrances and exits, and they plan to expand it to a total of five levels in coming years.
Saudi King Abdallah on Thursday also held his traditional banquet reception for Muslim leaders performing the hajj, including Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iran’s foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki.
“If we strive in this direction, our differences will diminish, the distances between us will shrink and together we will make a world full of understanding and peace, where progress will be a fruit for all of us to enjoy,” he said.
Friday is the last day of the Eid al-Adha, ending the five days of hajj rituals.
Pilgrims return to Mecca to perform the “farewell’ circling of the Kaaba – a cube-shaped stone structure draped in black cloth that Muslims around the world face during the five daily prayers – bringing the hajj to a close. Tradition says the Kaaba, known as God’s House, was built by Adam and rebuilt by Abraham and the descendants of Noah.
The pilgrims also walk back and forth seven times between the hills of Safa and Marwa, re-enacting the search by Abraham’s wife Hagar for water for her infant son Ishmael in the desert. After her seventh run, the spring known as Zamzam sprang miraculously under Ishmael’s feet.
At the rituals, the majority of pilgrims – coming to hajj on organized tours – stay in large, relatively well-kept tent compounds organized by the Saudi government.
But hundreds of thousands of poorer pilgrims, like Ali and their families, come on their own, sleeping outside or in their own makeshift tents on the roadside.
Having saved every penny to make the journey, they are intent to fight all odds to complete the rituals. Ali, a farmer from Egypt’s impoverished Fayoum province, said he saved for four years to make the trip.
His wife, Nada, 50, suffers from bad knees, so she gave her son, 30-year-old Ashraf, her pebbles to throw at the Jamarat in her place.
But despite her knees, she didn’t want to pass up the seven-time circling of the Kaaba and running to and from Safa and Marwa. She also walked the three-mile journey between Mina and Mecca.
“Look how are sitting here in the heat of the sun. But we are happy,” she said, rubbing her knees.
“The hardship is worth it because we are carrying out a duty toward God,” Ashraf said.
His father said that, once back in Egypt, he will have to start from scratch because he has no money left. But it is worth it.
“Hajj’s reward is Heaven,” he said. “God is generous,” he said.
He added with a smile: “God gave us kids to take care of us.”
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