That Muslims should perform the Hajj once in their lifetime is a given. But fulfilling that niyyah (intention) and figuring out the right time to go are among the biggest decisions Muslims will make in their life. And once that intention is declared, preparing for Hajj physically and mentally can be a daunting task. The plethora of books, videos, DVDs, pamphlets, and friendly advice can be overwhelming.

What do you take? What prayers do you say at what time? What is the schedule of rituals? How much does it cost? Who can go? Beliefnet’s starter kit will help you get going--whether you’re a Muslim thinking of going on the Hajj, or a non-Muslim curious to know what it’s all about.

What is The Hajj?
The Hajj is a pilgrimage to the Grand (Haram) Mosque in Mecca and its surrounding lands. It is one of Islam’s five essential pillars, and has been occurring without break for more than 1,400 years. Pilgrims, called Hajjis, complete a series of ancient rites done in the order set down by the Prophet Muhammad when he performed the first Hajj in 630 C.E. Visiting Madinah, the prophet’s city, is not required, but nearly all pilgrims make it a point to go there as well.

When does the Hajj occur?
The Hajj occurs during Zul-Hijjah, the last month on the Islamic lunar calendar. Certain rites are performed in the early days of Zul-Hijjah, but the ninth day is when pilgrims must stand on the Plains of Arafat in prayer. The 10th of Zul-Hijjah is Eid-ul-Adha, the second major Muslim holiday. Rites are also performed on the immediate days after Arafat, which is expected to fall on Dec. 30, 2006.

Who should go?
All Muslims who are financially and physically able should go on Hajj once in their lifetime. (You can go more than once.) A Muslim man must be free of debt for his Hajj to count. A Muslim woman must also be debt-free, and she must be accompanied by a mahram (chaperone). A woman’s mahram can be her husband, OR her brother, son, father, or other males whom she is prohibited to marry. If she has no mahram, a woman may seek a legally approved male companion. Children can go on Hajj, but because the pilgrimage is very difficult to perform, it is not encouraged.

If I want to go, what do I do first?
A Muslim must first make a niyyah (internal intention to God) to do Hajj. You must make sure you have a minimum of two weeks of vacation time (three weeks is the average time for Hajj), and the financial resources to go. You must then join a Hajj travel group, which are led by Hajj scholars who guide you through the pilgrimage. (The Saudi government has strict rules on how many Hajj visas it issues each year to each country.)

In the United States, Muslims must apply for a Hajj travel package with any of the numerous travel groups that are available (a Google search will produce information about hundreds of groups)--the earlier the better. These travel packages fill up fast, especially ones offered by reputable groups like Barakah Hajj and Dar el Eiman.

How much does it cost?
In the U.S., Hajj packages--which typically includes airfare from a major U.S. city to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, accommodations in Madinah, Mecca, Mina and Arafat, transportation between the Hajj destinations, and meals--can cost from between $4,000 to $10,000 a person depending on how comfortable and easy you want your trip to be.

The more money you spend, the better hotel you’ll have (with a private room instead of sharing it with three others in your group) and the closer your accommodations will be to the Grand Mosque. Of course, many Muslims feel the emphasis should be on doing the Hajj, and not paying big money for comfort.


What preparations should I make for the trip?
Before leaving, you must have a meningitis vaccination, which is required by the Saudi government. You’ll be traveling between many locations, so packing light is essential. Each pilgrim should plan on taking one large suitcase and one small bag for the days spent in Mina, Arafat, and Muzdalifa, a small area outside of Mecca where pilgrims spend the night after Arafat and gather stones to throw at the pillars that represent the devil.

Your Hajj travel group should also provide a detailed list of what to take, but here are some basic guidelines:

Clothing: Males will need their ihram (the clothes worn during the Hajj rituals)--two unsewn pieces of white cloth that is wrapped around the waist and put over one shoulder. For women, the ihram usually is a burkha (a robe, white, or light colors preferred) with a loose shirt and pants underneath, and a headscarf. The face and hands must be showing--the niqab (face veil) is not allowed. Two ihram per pilgrim are recommended.

General items: Men and women will want appropriate clothing for the times when they don’t have to wear ihram. Along with the usual toiletries, while a pilgrim is in ihram, they must use unscented products. Keep plenty of tissue packets and hand wipes as well as a well-stocked medicine bag with cough and pain medicine, a few courses of antibiotics, cough drops, bandages, and alcohol wipes. With two million pilgrims jostling together in a small area, nearly everyone falls sick at some point.

Other items: Keep a small sleeping bag or sleeping mat for your night in Muzdalifa. Also keep a pocket-size Qur’an, a small prayer mat, a thasbi (prayer beads), and whatever books and notes you’ll need to help you perform the Hajj properly. Keep your money pinned inside your clothes, as pick-pocketing occurs even here. Lastly, take along some snacks (nuts, granola bars, chips, protein bars) for the days you’ll spend in the tent-city of Mina.

What prayers do I need to know?
There are many prayers to say at specific times. Any Hajj guide book will provide a detailed list. The main prayer to know is the talbiya, or the mantra of the Hajj, which is the pronouncement pilgrims make to Allah:

"Labbaik, labbaik, Allahumma labbaik. La shareeka laka labbaik. Innal hama wa n'imata laka walmulk. La shareeka lak"

(I am totally at Your service, I am totally at Your service, O Allah I am totally at Your service. You have no partner, I am totally at Your service. Truly, the praise and the blessing are Yours, and the dominion. You have no partners.)

What are the rituals of Hajj?
The rituals of Hajj are detailed and keyed to specific times. The pilgrim must put on their ihram at specific locations (called the Miqat) before entering Mecca, then go to the Ka’ba in the Grand Mosque and perform a series of rites there, after which the pilgrim heads to the tent city of Mina for two to three days of worshiping and praying.

After spending about a day in Mina, the pilgrim leaves after praying the dawn prayers for the Plains of Arafat, where the pilgrim must arrive before the noon-time prayers. In Arafat, the pilgrim prays shortened prayers and worships privately until sunset. This is the most important part of the Hajj. From Arafat the pilgrim travels to Muzdalifa for the night and does the dawn prayer there.

In the morning everyone travels back to Mina, where pilgrims then stone the pillars. The men then sacrifice an animal (typically, male pilgrims pay in advance for designated men to do the sacrifice for them, as it’s too difficult for each pilgrim to do his own sacrifice), and cut their hair, and the pilgrims remove their ihram and don regular clothes. By then, it is the day of Eid-ul-Adha. There are more rites to be done at the Grand Mosque, and pilgrims spend up to two more days in Mina, but the intensity of the Hajj begins to wane now.

What happens when the Hajj is over?
Once all the rites are done, pilgrims typically leave to visit Madinah (unless they visited the city before the Hajj) or go to Jeddah. Pilgrims are gently ushered out of Mecca very soon after the Hajj is over to allow the city to get back to normal and to preserve the special feeling of the Hajj.

Once home, pilgrims experience a wide range of emotions. Many feel permanently changed in their approach to life. Some undergo a deep spiritual awakening. Others gradually go back to their normal pre-Hajj routines. The responses vary from Muslim to Muslim, but nearly all agree that doing the Hajj is one of the most intense spiritual experiences of their life.


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