By Ashna Butani
The journey of the Hajj, one of the most practised pilgrimages in the world, commenced on the 30th of August and will continue until the 4th of September this year. The Hajj was first performed at around 2000 BC, but its importance in the Muslim world is unparalleled even 4000 years later.
Two million Muslims gather in Mecca every year to begin their endeavour. The mighty Hajj pilgrimage that would help them start anew, erase past sins and lets God guide and forgive them. Around 1,400 years ago, Prophet Muhammad delivered his final sermon on Mount Arafat. The same mountain, surrounded by a desert, sees two million devotees gather to pay reverence to Prophet Muhammad while seeking a better path in life. The pilgrims visit Mecca and the nearby holy sites of Arafat, Mina and Muzdalifah to perform their rites.
Tracing the roots of Hajj
The word Hajj literally means ‘to set out for a place,’ and the holy pilgrimage encapsulates every element of its literal meaning. The Hajj was first ordained by Allah, during the period of Prophet Ibrahim. The Prophet was instructed to build the house of the Kaaba (the House of Allah) at Mecca. After building the holy site, the Prophet would make a pilgrimage to the site every year. After his death, the tradition was carried forward by his son. However, with the spread of idolatry throughout Arabia, the Kaaba lost its purity. Contrary to Allah’s teachings, idols were placed inside and sacrifice made in the name of God.
The overturning of Prophet Ibrahim’s teachings called for a reform. However, unruly acts of adultery, singing and drinking were rife among the pilgrims. This sad state of affairs continued for around two thousand years until Prophet Muhammad’s birth, which was a reform in itself. The Messenger of Allah spent 23 years spreading the belief of monotheism. He made every effort to trace the Hajj back to its roots, and rid the Kaaba of all its impurities. He re-established the rites of the Hajj, turning it into a model of piety and austerity. He also reinstated the teachings of Prophet Ibrahim by saying, ‘The reward for an accepted Hajj is nothing less than paradise’.
The rituals performed during the Hajj
The ultimate ritual is circling the Kaaba, located in the centre of the Masjid-al-Haram, in Mecca. They circle the Kaaba seven times since the number seven has to do with the motion of celestial bodies. The pilgrims also practice the ritual of throwing small pebbles at three large stone walls known as Jamarat, which symbolizes the stoning of the devil. In order to honour Prophet Ibrahim’s ‘zibin azheem,’ or his ‘great sacrifice’, the pilgrims carry out animal sacrifice. This meat is given to the poor and the needy.
In order to pay reverence to Prophet Muhammad’s last sermon, the pilgrims walk a short distance to Mount Arafat on the second day of Hajj. The day is spent there in peace and quiet. Muslims take pride in completing the given set of rituals. The millions of people that complete the rituals every year earn the title of ‘Hajji’, meaning the one who has completed the pilgrimage. The title is one that is coveted and revered by Muslims all over the world.
The holy pilgrimage is one of the five pillars of Islam, the other four being prayer (five times a day), faith, fasting and concern for the needy. These principles are the basis of Islam. Every financially capable Muslim is expected to complete the pilgrimage once in their lifetime. Women are allowed and expected to perform the Hajj. Parents can bring their children along, but this does not mean that the child has fulfilled his duty to God, unless he is of age to do so, spiritually and mentally.
In all religions, pilgrimages are performed for similar reasons. The Kumbh Mela, practised in Hinduism, attracts tens of millions of people in India. In Chiang Mai, Thai monks gather to meditate, attracting thousands of people. The Hajj, one among many religious gatherings, is considered to be one of the world’s largest and the most significant.
Why undertake the journey?
The reason for the large number of people embarking on pilgrimages is spiritual rather than religious. The physically demanding journey tests the pilgrim’s patience and willpower, as he or she embarks upon a journey of repentance. The Hajj gathers rich and poor Muslims alike. Identical white garments are worn by the pilgrims of the Hajj to represent equality. It is practised amongst Muslims from not only the Arab world but the Western nations as well.
When faith gets entangled with politics
The Saudi Government has banned all non-Muslims from entering the holy city of Mecca and perform the Hajj. A Western Muslim must present documentation from an Imam-a leader who states that the person is a true convert. Even after having to go through tons of paperwork, American Muslims are threatened by the decisions of their recently elected President. The President’s executive order, that was declared earlier this year, banned entry from several major cities, including Jiddah. This left many American-Muslims unsure of their travelling rights.
“We do find the anxiety level rising at this current time. It is a reality with the heightened scrutiny,” said Sulaimaan Hamed, an operator of Hajj Pros, an Atlanta-based company organising Hajj trips. However, only 2-3 people are believed to have cancelled their pilgrimage due to this situation. Approximately 16,000 Americans are visiting Saudi Arabia to perform the Hajj this year.
Despite political threats, the Hajj began successfully on the 30th of August 2017.
Featured Image Source: Wikimedia Commons